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Shake It Up With A Little Jive

by Sandi & Dan Finch

You either love it, or you wish the teacher would just ignore this rhythm, called Jive. It is fast. It comes with a bunch of figure names that aren’t used in any other rhythm. And while the timing sounds a lot like Cha Cha, it doesn’t move a bit like Cha Cha.

But here we are just through Christmas, and you can’t ignore it. Among all the two step and foxtrot dances written to Christmas music, at some point, you will hear the Jives--A Jivey Little Christmas if you dance advanced. Or Jingle Bell Rock, Phase IV, or one of the versions of Winter Wonderland written at the Phase III level.

Not to worry. Jive is fun and not at all like those crazed Jitterbug or Lindy demos you see on YouTube. Some terminology should be clarified up front. Jive is a form of swing dancing. Swing is an umbrella category also including East Coast Swing which is very similar to Jive but different. In both, the basic step consists of two triple steps and a rock recover – but they have major differences that distinguish them from each other. Swing also includes West Coast Swing, which has no rock recover. You may also see Single Swing in round dancing, which does not have any triple steps.

All swings are decidedly American in origin. Danced by our GIs during World War II, the swing went to all places the soldiers traveled and became popular with the young set. Their rowdy form was toned down by the British and made one of the five rhythms in International Latin competitions. American dance professionals adopted their own version for American rhythm competition that is called swing. Other variations continue as “street dances,” with varying standards depending on the part of the country where it is done, such as the Carolina Shag or the Texas Push. Lindy retains the exuberance, flings and acrobatics of the old GI dance form.

True Jive is done to fast music that will make you naturally want to do an “up” bounce on the triples. It is generally a non-progressive dance that accentuates up and down action, rather than travel. The same steps done in East Coast Swing will be done with a “down” feeling, into the floor. The other difference between the two is where the rock recover occurs – at the start of Jive figures and at the end of East Coast figures. That said, in round dancing, choreographers are likely to put the rock recover wherever. The music will tell you to dance with a bouncy, buoyant feel or a slinky down beat.

Jive and East Coast Swing are danced in circular patterns around partner. West Coast Swing is danced in a slot.

The biggest fault in dancing Jive is working too hard. Steps have to be small; taking too wide a step requires the body to work harder to be in balance and to stay on time with the music. Steps are taken on the ball of the foot with the knees flexed.

Aim to keep the shoulders level and body straight. On the rock recover that begins most steps, step back under the body with instep behind heel, thinking of opening the hip like a door swinging open. Recover, like closing the door. Don’t take a big step back. This is part of not working so hard, and it maintains better contact with the partner.

The Jive basic rock is counted 123a4. Like Cha Cha, you are to dance five steps in four beats of music. In each rhythm, you do this by dancing two steps on beat 3. It is an even split in Cha Cha, counted as 123&4. Jive splits beat 3 unevenly, giving 3/4 of beat 3 to one step and only 1/4 to the second step, with the count of 123a4. This is designed to create the up bounce characteristic of Jive.

If you aren’t tired of hearing Christmas music in the malls by now, you can get a good dose of them while round dancing.

Neil Koozer wrote Little Saint Nick, phase III Jive with a phase IV link rock added, to the Beach Boys classic. It has lots of swivel walks, point steps, jive walks and chasse L & R. The Dois in Japan wrote a Phase III with pretzel turn to the classic Winter Wonderland. Bill Bingham write a Phase V Jive (with foxtrot in Part D) called Rockin’ In A Winter Wonderland to the Rockapella version of Winter Wonderland.

Susie & Gert-Jan Rotscheid wrote one of the Jingle Bell Rock dances to the Brenda Lee song, theirs at phase IV + 2. It adds Spanish arms, chasse rolls and American spin. It came out in the era where some choreographers only listed the figure and said “see Roundalab Standard.” Hopefully, you’d get a teach on the figures when you’re taught the dance.

We regularly play Bill & Carol Goss’s Cool Yule, written to the Bette Midler song, during the holidays for advanced dancers.

For an unusual musical arrangement of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, try A Jivey Little Christmas by Annette & Frank Woodruff of Belgium. It uses the Bobby Zee interpretation of the holiday classic. At Phase V, it has the usual assortment of Jive figures and throws in a thru vine 8 and single and double Cubans for variety.

The name “jive” comes from bandleader Cab Calloway’s 1938 “Hepster’s Dictionary: A Guide To the Language of Jive.” Jive essentially means slang talk. The dictionary codified what Calloway called “Harlemese speech,” the slang that arose from African slaves. With the dictionary, he said, “you could get hep to the jive.”

It’s come a long way from Harlem, but our Jive is still a language of its own, and it swings right in with Christmas.

From a club newsletter, December 2021, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, January, 2023. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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