Strictly shocking: the dances that shook the world

With Strictly Come Dancing returning to BBC One this weekend, we asked Felicity Day to show us the moves behind the dance crazes – many of which are now ballroom staples – that had the power to challenge the status quo

Courtiers dancing La Volta in a scene from 1953 film The Sword And The Rose

La volta

You only have to hear about the intimate signature move of la volta (above) – ‘the turn’ in Italian, a nod to its origin – to understand why the dance scandalised Elizabethan England.

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To perform the ‘caper’, a man clasped his female partner tightly around the waist with his left hand, took hold of the busk (the rigid point on the corset below her bosom) with his right, and lifted her high into the air so that his thigh was under her bottom.

The combination of a close embrace and athletic manoeuvre was deemed shockingly suggestive, and, it was claimed, could result in a miscarriage. Yet the greatest risk was actually to a lady’s modesty. Any woman dancing la volta was advised to clamp her free hand on her skirts “lest the swirling air should catch them” and reveal a flash of petticoat, or worse, a bare thigh.

Along with the caper, there were hops, skips and turns galore. Ladies clothed in heavy, embroidered dresses apparently got so hot and sweaty that they were forced to change their under-linen during court festivities, incensing the moralists even more.

Charleston

Hollywood actors Frank Farnum and Pauline Starke twist to the charleston
Hollywood actors Frank Farnum and Pauline Starke twist to the charleston (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

“The man who invented the charleston was a fit candidate for the lunatic asylum,” pronounced a London councillor. And while the jazzy dance was a hit with young people when it kicked and swivelled its way into 1920s dance halls, this was a sentiment shared by many across the world.

The wild kicking, flailing arms, and opening and closing of the knees was undignified at best, and inappropriately suggestive at worst. Doctors wrote ominously of the ill effects too, such as organ displacement, distortion of the ankles and an epidemic of flat feet. Yet arguably the most scandalous thing about it was that, for the first time, women danced on their own, away from the embrace of a male partner.

The dance halls that didn’t ban the charleston often put up ‘PCQ’ notices – ‘Please Charleston Quietly!’ – or asked their orchestra to play only music that made dancing it impossible. The energy and freedoms of the charleston have come to symbolise the Roaring Twenties, especially in the US, but the craze was actually all over within a couple of years.

Tango

A couple dance the tango
Argentinian upper classes initially looked down on tango as it came from poor areas (Photo by Getty)

European society in the early 20th century didn’t know what to make of the tango. “Is one supposed to dance it standing up?” commented one French comtesse upon witnessing a performance in a Parisian ballroom. Born in the brothels and bars of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the dance was all racy moves, close embraces and the possibility of improvisation – with the whole thing set to exotic-sounding Latin music – which intrigued a generation enjoying greater social freedoms.

It appalled their elders, though, who observed with flagrant disapproval that for the first time in years the tango was “bringing more young men to parties than are needed”. They hated its air of exaggerated machismo and sensual, fluid movements best carried out by women in skirts slit to the knee.

Condemnation was strongest in mainland Europe. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II forbade his officers from dancing the tango, effectively killing it in court circles, and the French Catholic Church denounced the dance as “wanton and offensive to morals”.

Jitterbug

A sailor and woman dance the jitterbug
The jitterbug was seen as the dance of ‘oversexed, overpaid and over here’ American troops. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

As the name evokes, the jitterbug had a frenzied and feverish energy – far more than its predecessor, the charleston – and needed quick feet and a lot of contact.

In Britain, its popularity was boosted by the influx of American GIs during World War II. To the horror of many, the jitterbug encouraged exhibitionists, or a complete “lack of self-consciousness” as it was decried. Dancers flaunted their lithe bodies and acrobatic skills by twisting their hips, kicking their legs out wildly and swinging away from each other.

Much worse, the women would be thrown into the air or somersaulted over their partners – running the risk of exposing their underwear. Dance teachers hated the improvisation and swing music, with one critic describing it as “adolescent madness which masquerades under the title of dancing”. A tamer and ultimately more popular version was preferred: the jive.

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These weren’t the only routines that caused uproar and outrage when they first emerged in Britain’s dance halls – far from it. Read the full list of dances that shook the world in the October issue of BBC History Revealed, on sale now