9 Novelty Dances You Probably Never Heard Of

It wasn’t all that long ago that we were all being educated on The Dougie, and it seemed that as soon as that class ended, we were catching up with all of our pop culture heroes and their versions of the “Harlem Shake.” Even more quickly came the inevitable embarrassment of ever getting caught up in such an obviously ephemeral thing in the first place, multiplied one million times over if a version of yours was plastered on the unforgivingly permanent internet.

Novelty dance crazes have been around for over a century, and while they aren't lighting up music halls anymore, they certainly haven't been completely forgotten.

1. THE GRIZZLY BEAR

Said by some to be introduced in Chicago in 1909 by John Jarrott and Louise Gruenning, "The Grizzly Bear" began a trend of dances named after animals. This trendsetting dance did its best to document an entire grizzly/human encounter. Participants would take a very heavy lateral step while bending the upper part of the body from side-to-side with their hands in front of their chest. They'd then literally yell out, “It’s a Bear!”

Broadway audiences first saw the dance in 1910’s Over the River during the song “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now.” To capitalize on the trend, music publisher Ted Snyder hired his staff lyricist Irving Berlin to write lyrics to George Botsford’s “The Grizzly Bear Rag” piano solo, resulting in “The Dance Of The Grizzly Bear,” which in itself expanded its popularity.

In 1912, newspaper reports claimed that New York put the dance under a “social ban.” Allegedly, one of the reasons why former President Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural ball was cancelled in 1913 was because of his disapproval of The Grizzly Bear, The Turkey Trot, and The Bunny Hug. The official reason given was that Wilson felt the ball was “too expensive and unnecessary for the solemn occasion.”

More recently, Downton Abbey had Thomas and Daisy perform it in its second episode, but there were plenty of dissenters like Mrs. Patmore. 

2. THE TURKEY TROT

Jarrott and Gruenning were also responsible for The Turkey Trot, although references to a Turkey Trot dance go back as far as 1895 in the song "Pas Ma La.” The Trot was essentially a face-to-face dance with some innocent swaying, “pumping or flapping” and, most scandalously, tight holding of the waist, known in the late '00s-early '10s as “hugging.”

It was an excuse for “lingering close contact,” which was credited as a reason for the dance’s popularity. That was also the driving force behind some of the more unbelievable claims of punishment doled out to those who performed it. Fifteen women were fired from an unnamed magazine for performing the dance during their lunch break. A New Jersey court allegedly imposed a 50-day prison sentence on young women for doing the Turkey Trot. Sylvia Dannett and Frank Rachel’s book Down Memory Lane: The Arthur Murray Picture Book of Dancing also claimed that the Vatican issued an “official disapproval.”

3. THE PEABODY

The Peabody, named after William Frank Peabody, was a popular dance in the 1930s and '40s. People cannot seem to agree on William Frank Peabody’s occupation: he was either an early 20th century New York police lieutenant or a New York City fireman. What everybody does agree on is that he was fat.

Peabody’s corpulence is relevant because the foxtrot-type ballroom dance had the woman stand to the right of the man and not directly in front of him so people like Lt. Peabody (or Jackie Gleason) could be free to dance without disturbing his partner’s movements.

4. THE STROLL

After successfully inventing The Bunny Hop, regulars on American Bandstand tried to create dances for every single song, which is how The Stroll came about. The dance is slow, simple, and network television friendly—boys on one side, girls on the other, and one boy and one girl meet in the middle and shuffle.

The Stroll was invented as a dance to Chuck Willis’ song “C.C. Rider,” giving Willis the moniker “King of the Stroll.” In 1957, Dick Clark advised the group The Diamonds to keep the fad going by creating a song about the dance itself, resulting in “The Stroll,” which hit number one on the Cashbox charts.

5. THE FREDDIE

Freddie Garrity and his band The Dreamers were the court jesters of early British pop in the 1960s. They hit the top ten in the United Kingdom in 1963 with “You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody” and promoted the single on American television with lead singer Freddie doing his silly dances. Asked by a host what the dance was called, Garrity was supposedly caught off guard before saying it was called “The Freddie.”

Despite Chubby Checker recording his own version of the song “Let’s Do the Freddie,” the dance didn’t catch on, and “Do the Freddie” peaked at #18 in 1965. A different generation may only be familiar with the song and the dance from a scene with Shelley Long in the eighties cult classic Troop Beverly Hills.

6. THE OSTRICH

Tasked with coming up with a new song for the Pickwick music label in 1964, staff songwriter Lou Reed wrote “The Ostrich.” The song was played with Reed-invented “Ostrich Tuning” (where every guitar string was tuned to the same note) and the dance moves sounded difficult (“Hey, put your head, oh, upside your knees/now, do the ostrich, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/Yeah, you take a step forward, you step on your head").

7. THE FLY

Chubby Checker was a millionaire by the age of 22, thanks to a string of successful singles that bridged the dance music gap between teenagers and adults. Everybody remembers “The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again,” but some of Checker’s work during his most popular years isn't remembered now, like “The Fly,” which peaked as high as #7 on the charts in the U.S.

8. THE PONY

“Pony Time” was actually Chubby Checker’s second #1 single, but it never matched the ubiquitous popularity of “The Twist.” Outside of Cindy Wilson of The B-52’s performing The Pony in both the 1980 music video and Saturday Night Live performance of “Give Me Back My Man,” the dance faded away with the '60s.

In a Rolling Stone interview conducted two months ago, Chubby Checker said, “The Robot is just the Pony.” In regards to breakdancing, Checker said, "That's the Pony, too. You can get so much out of [music] once they slowed it down. The Robot came from it, breakdancing came from it, the spinning dancing on the street. All that is part of the Pony."

9. THE HULLY GULLY

A fun conspiracy theory about The Hully Gully claims that it was promoted to slow down the popularity of the uninhibited Twist. The Hully Gully wouldn’t stop The Twist from its destiny, but it did get the thumbs up from the very popular Ed Sullivan.

The dance was started by Frank Rocco in Miami Beach in either 1959 or 1960, and it's believed to be the first line dance to turn one quarter before repeating the steps while facing a different wall. Disco dance The Hot Chocolate was a simplified version of The Hully Gully, and “The Electric Slide” is virtually identical to “The Hot Chocolate,” which means you have been forced to do a version of The Hully Gully by an inebriated relative at a wedding.

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Phil Walter, Getty Images
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How Michael Jackson's Dancing Defied the Laws of Biomechanics
Phil Walter, Getty Images
Phil Walter, Getty Images

From the time he debuted the moonwalk on broadcast television in 1983, Michael Jackson transcended the label of "dancer." His moves seemed to defy gravity as well as the normal limits of human flexibility and endurance.

Now we have some scientific evidence for that. Three neurosurgeons from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, recently published a short paper in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine that examines just how remarkable one of Jackson's signature moves really was.

In the 1988 video for "Smooth Criminal" and subsequent live performances, Jackson is seen taking a break from his constant motion to stand in place and lean 45 degrees forward. Both he and his dancers keep their backs straight. Biomechanically, it's not really possible for a human to do. And even though he had a little help, the neurosurgeons found it to be a pretty impressive feat.

An illustration of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' dance move.
Courtesy of 'Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.' Copyright Manjul Tripathi, MCh.

Study co-author Manjul Tripathi told CNN that humans can't lean forward much more than 25 or 30 degrees before they risk landing on their faces. (He knows, because he tried it.) Normally, bending involves using the hip as a fulcrum, and erector spinae muscles to support our trunk. When Jackson leaned over, he transferred the fulcrum to the ankle, with the calf and Achilles tendon under strain. Since that part of the body is not equipped to support leaning that far forward without bending, the "Smooth Criminal" move was really a biomechanical illusion. The act was made possible by Jackson's patented shoe, which had a "catch" built under the heel that allowed him to grasp a protruding support on the stage. Secured to the floor, he was able to achieve a 45-degree lean without falling over.

But the neurosurgeons are quick to point out that the shoes are only part of the equation. To achieve the full 45-degree lean, Jackson would have had to have significant core strength as well as a strong Achilles tendon. An average person equipped with the shoe would be unable to do the move.

How does this apply to spinal biomechanics research? The authors point out that many dancers inspired by Jackson are continuing to push the limits of what's possible, leading to injury. In one 2010 paper, researchers surveyed 312 hip-hop dancers and found that 232 of them—almost 75 percent of the cohort—reported a total of 738 injuries over a six-month period. That prevalence could mean neurosurgeons are facing increasingly complex or unique spinal issues. The surgeons hope that awareness of potential risks could help mitigate problems down the road.

[h/t CNN]

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Michael Jackson's Moonwalk Turns 35

“What the hell was that?” For a moment, members of the production staff monitoring the stage at California's Pasadena Civic Auditorium forgot about the control panels in front of them and exchanged puzzled looks with one another. As the team charged with overseeing the ABC special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a celebration of the famed record label’s silver anniversary, they were typically too focused on their jobs to become starstruck. But what they were witnessing was something else entirely.

Onetime Jackson 5 bandmate Michael Jackson had taken the stage solo to perform “Billie Jean,” which was already the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 chart. In between all the twisting, contorting, and spinning, Jackson took a fleeting moment to glide backwards on his feet. It had the smooth kinetic energy of someone skating on ice. It lasted barely a second. The crowd erupted.

Jackson had not used the dance move in rehearsals for the show. It was a surprise to everyone, including the live audience and the 33.9 million people who would watch the tape-delayed event on television on May 16, 1983. Jackson was already a superstar, but his moonwalk would take him to another stratosphere of fame. And although many assumed Jackson invented the gliding step himself, he was simply following in the footsteps of dance giants from the past.

Usually referred to as the back slide or the back float, the seemingly weightless backward slide had touched down across a number of decades and performers before Jackson's interpretation debuted on March 25, 1983. Famed French mime Marcel Marceau performed an act he titled “Walking in the Wind,” in which he seemed to be bracing against imaginary gale forces, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. Jazz singer Cab Calloway pulled it off in performances; so did tap dancer Bill Bailey (as seen above) in the 1950s. James Brown incorporated the move into his stage shows, as did Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. David Bowie performed a more economical version of it during the 1973 tour for his Aladdin Sane album.

While Jackson credited Brown and Marcel as being particular influences on his performance style, he first learned of what he came to call the "moonwalk" after seeing two break-dancers appear on a 1979 episode of Soul Train. During the show, Geron "Caszper" Canidate and Cooley Jaxson performed a routine set to Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night.” The singer remembered the performance and asked his staff to arrange a meeting between him and both men in Los Angeles while he was preparing for the Motown special in early 1983. Jackson asked them to teach him the back slide, which he practiced until he was satisfied he had it down. (Cooley would later express disappointment that Jackson never credited the duo directly. The singer wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker, that the move was a “break-dance” step created on street corners. While that could be true, it was Cooley and Jaxson who gave Jackson a tutorial.)

Although it may look like an optical illusion, the step is the result of weight-shifting. Dancers begin on their right foot, heel raised, and weight bearing on the right. As they lower the right heel, the left foot moves backward until the toes are aligned with the heel of the right. The left heel is then raised, weight is shifted to the left, and the process repeats itself. For those who are not particularly agile, it can look clumsy. For Jackson, who had been dancing practically his entire life, it was seamless.

For the Motown special, Jackson reportedly agreed to appear with his brothers, the Jackson 5, only if Motown owner and show producer Berry Gordy allowed him a solo performance. Jackson’s Thriller album had been released in November 1982 and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful releases of all time. It’s likely Jackson didn’t feel like he needed the appearance, and some accounts relate that Jackson was initially reluctant to do it because he feared being overexposed. Gordy’s producer, Suzanne de Passe, convinced him the show wouldn’t be the same without the Jackson 5.

Whatever got Jackson on stage that evening, he was clearly prepared for the moment. Short pants and white socks drew attention to his feet; he insisted a stage manager rehearse the placement of his hat following the Jackson 5 performance so that it would be within reach when he segued into his solo performance.

“I have to say, those were the good old days,” Jackson told the crowd after finishing with his brothers. “Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot … but, especially, I like the new songs.” It may have sounded off the cuff, but Jackson’s mid-performance speech was actually written by Motown 25 scriptwriter Buz Kohan.

With that, Jackson got down to business. “Billie Jean” was the only non-Motown song performed during the special, and it felt like a jolt of energy in a sea of nostalgia. Jackson, who was 24 years old at the time, moved effortlessly. Tossing his hat to the side and mouthing lyrics into the microphone, the contrast between Jackson in the middle of a medley with his brothers and then alone on stage was striking. Though he was two solo albums deep by this point, the performance helped cement that he was out on his own.

Jackson spent nearly three and a half minutes singing before debuting the moonwalk. It lasted barely a second but seemed to send the crowd into a mania. With 20 seconds to go, he took another few brief steps backward. After the song played out, Jackson received a standing ovation.

When the performance aired several weeks later on ABC, Motown 25 was a ratings hit. Jackson’s reputation as a live entertainer benefited from a broadcast network audience, and the moonwalk became linked to his routine. Fred Astaire called to congratulate him, a gesture that Jackson—a huge Astaire fan—could never quite believe.

Jackson’s fame led to an untold number of people trying to perfect the moonwalk, with varying degrees of success. Anyone who thought it included some camera or visual trickery may have been dismayed to find it simply required some lower-limb dexterity. Those who got the hang of it were able to impress friends. Those who didn't probably felt a little disappointed at their lack of coordination, especially when they heard that Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, learned to do a variation of it.

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