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The All-American Dance

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Jive may be one of those rhythms that the English got excited about and took and standardized for what has become the International style, but it is all American at heart.

It was the dance of the GIs, exuberant and free, a way of dancing off those worries about war and the stress of military regimentation. It had been the unofficial youth dance of the jazz-crazed ‘20s and ‘30s, and when war came, the youth, now in khakis and combat boots, took it with them all over the world. During the ‘50s, it took rock and roll to heart.

Not everyone liked it at first. The exuberance interfered with the other dancers on the floor, and eventually anyone doing Jive had to dance in the center of the ballrooms. The English ballroom guru Alex Moore is quoted as saying he had “never seen anything uglier.” Not sure he ever changed his mind but the dance form was groomed by dance professionals to become Jive, first standardized in England and, in 1968, adopted as the fifth rhythm danced in International Latin competition. It was brought into the Roundalab (RAL) manual of standards in 1979, at the third RAL convention. It starts at phase III.

We dance Jive today at a variety of speeds—very fast in competition, somewhere between 40 and 46 measures a minute, but a bit slower for pure enjoyment. By comparison, west coast swing dances comfortably at 26 to 30 measures a minute. Because of the speed, steps need to be compact, taken under the hip. The emphasis should be on the up and down bounce of the knees rather than progression. (Photo of Yulia and Riccardo, world Latin champions who teach in Irvine, shows the knee lift and freedom of expression to aim for.)

Jive was one of the focus rhythms at ICBDA’s convention this summer, and Jive dances were shown in all halls—phase III through phase V+1. Typically, an education seminar in “how to” was presented in the phase III-IV hall. It should have been attended by everyone at the convention. (Phase VI dancers would have learned something.) Tom Hicks, now of Milwaukee, did it, working only with the basic chasse, link rock, and fallaway rock for over an hour and no one there was bored.

He started everyone off with a simple exercise of stepping in place and lifting the knees, then added the triple action to the side keeping the knees pumping up and down. What most dancers misunderstand is the sideways movement—small step to the side, then close, then a slightly larger step to the side, not a shuffling of equal size steps.

Jive figures are based on that triple step, called a chasse, counted 1a2. Jive has four beats in a measure the chasse left (1a2) and chasse right (3a4) together fill one measure of music. The “1” and “2” refer to full beats of music, but to get in the “a”, you need to steal some time from the first beat. Step 1 thus uses 3/4 of a beat, step 2 (the “a”) is done on the remaining 1/4 of that beat, and step 3 gets a full beat.

Many jive figures take up more than one measure. These usually have a rock, recover, followed by two triples, with the timing 123a4 5a6. Because they occur over 1 1/2 measures, it is called split measures.

The biggest fault in dancing Jive is working too hard. To avoid being tired at the end of such a peppy dance, you have to keep your steps compact. Taking too wide a step requires the body to work harder at balance and wastes time on movement. To get that bounce of jive, take a deep breath and that will lift your torso (and your center of gravity) so your legs can move freer and your steps become lighter.

Steps are taken on the ball of the foot with the knees flexed. Aim to keep the shoulders level and the body straight. On the rock, recover that begins most figures, step back under the body with instep behind heel, thinking of opening the hip like a door swinging open. Recover like closing the door. This is part of not working so hard, and it maintains better contact with partner. In open position, put a rock recover in front of the chasse and you have a basic rock.

A link is a figure used to bring you from open facing to closed position, heard as “link to...”(whip turn, for example). You rock, recover, then triple together to closed position. A link rock is much the same, to bring you to closed position with a rock, recover, forward triple to closed position, then side triple. It is sometimes used to turn.

Fallaway as part of a figure name means to blend to semi-closed position and add a rock, recover. Fallaway rock thus is a rock, recover, followed by chasse left and right. A throwaway, sending partner out to face from semi-closed position, consists of two triples, no rock recover. Precede with a rock, recover, and it becomes a fallaway throwaway.

Dancing With The Stars, capitalizing on its TV popularity, has published a book called “your way into the best shape of your life” using jive, samba, paso doble, and tango exercises. Half of the book contains pictures of past celebrities in TV competition with their DWTS pros and some back stories about what went on during rehearsals. The other half contains exercises related to each rhythm. As the authors say in the introduction: “If there any doubt about the potential and effectiveness of ballroom dancing as a body-shaping form of exercise, look at those celebrity contestants whose overall physical appearance and strength have gone from “OK” and “so-so” to wow, wow.”

Dancing improves body strength through dynamic use of muscle groups, flexibility through improved range of motion in the joints, and weight loss through cardio exercise, according to the book. Their exercises are geared to improving the look of paso doble arms and shoulders, dancer abs and core, and leg and ankle strength for jive. Now, if they could only make us look like Julianne Hough or any of the pro winners.


From a club newsletter, July 2019, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, November 2019.


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