Ask someone about dance in the 1970s and most people will mention northern soul, Saturday Night Fever, and possibly the Studio 54 nightclub. given what we know about the rich history of partner dancing so far, was there more to the dance floors of the 1970s than first meets the eye?
Be it on the dance floor or on the street, it’s the 1970s and the hustle is on. Given many names and seen in several permutations, the hustle was a staple on dance floors across the US. Just as east coast swing had been a codified, somewhat ‘watered down’ version of lindy hop in order to convert more people, so hustle had various versions with varying degrees of difficulty. There was the street hustle (aka Disco Merengue), the Latin (aka New York hustle), the continental (aka American hustle) and a tango hustle! It’s said that the tango hustle was created for – you guessed it – Saturday Night Fever!
Richard Powers, a Stanford University professor, and Hollywood choreographer writes about this era with fondness, having lived through it: “Both partnered and solo dancing were done throughout the disco era, but the proportions changed through the decade. During the first eight years, disco dancing was primarily partnered dancing, the living tradition of swing. That changed in 1978.”
He continues, “To quote Maria Torres, a disco dancer from NYC, “The thing which really killed partner dancing was Saturday Night Fever”. It is said that John Travolta himself pushed to include more solo dancing in the film, to ensure the prowess of his character’s dancing was not lost in a sea of talented dancers. It’s certainly the case that Travolta steals the entire show in several scenes!
One way to showcase one’s own dancing and include lots of dancers at once is a ‘soul train’. Still a current favourite at many dance nights that play blues, funk and soul music, this is a great ritual. More accurately a ‘strut your stuff’ train, it goes like this: two rows of people line up in a (dis)orderly fashion and pairs head down the middle of the line ‘doing their thang’ on a one-way catwalk. Great fun and a sure-fire confidence boost, even to wallflowers!
A partner dance that came to prominence during the late 60s and 70s, and which has remained consistently popular since, is west coast swing. As the name suggests, it was born on the west coast of the USA, in southern California, or SoCal as it’s referred to by locals. This dancing hotbed had already brought us balboa, swing dancing (a relative of lindy hop) and bal-swing (a fusion of the two), and now west coast swing was to prove just as popular.
Still termed ‘western swing’ in written materials on dancing at the time, west coast was growing in popularity due to its versatility. Though the footwork is syncopated (it borrows triple steps from lindy hop) it also fits well to most 4-to-the-floor rhythms. Generally, west coast is danced in a slot; originally this was done to aid filming of dancers in Hollywood, at the direction of Dean Collins, who we heard about earlier in this series. Today it makes for efficient and predictable use of space.
Northern soul requires a brief mention as we discuss dancing in the 1970s, as it was a staple in the clubs across the midlands and north in the UK during this time. Epitomised by packed clubs of people grooving out on their own to predominantly non-mainstream US Motown and soul artists, northern soul was uniquely ‘northern’. It was gritty, underground and all about the music. The more obscure the better.
This couldn’t have been in starker contrast to Studio 54. Glitzy, glamorous and full of super stars, the New York club gained infamy as many stars and their entourages partied hard under the spotlights. A centre for hedonistic nights out, the 1000-strong crowds got up to a lot more than dancing. And we shall leave that there!
The male clientele at dance nights would be seen in tight fitting suits across the torso down to the knees, often with bell bottom flares. Long, flowing yet manicured locks, off the shoulder dresses and striking fabrics were the order of the day for women.
There will always be those that are committed to partner dancing – investing in technically challenging dances such as Argentine tango and west coast swing – and there will also be those that are attracted to the proclamations of confidence and self-expression found in solo dancing.
Whether you danced disco swing, a 1950s-style swing step done with disco style and attitude, the Electric Slide line dance, the hustle or northern soul, one thing was certain – dance wasn’t going out of fashion any time soon!