Do you like to dance? Whether it’s swaying to your favorite song on the radio or jumping around with your friends at school during recess, dancing has been a popular pastime for centuries. It’s also a form of art that has changed throughout time as types of music and trends change.
Way back in the early 1930s, a new style of music developed in the United States. A form of jazz, swing music featured a strong rhythm section (bass and drums) paired with brass (trumpets and trombones), woodwinds (saxophones and clarinets) and stringed instruments (violins and guitars).
Swing music used medium to fast tempos and soloists who would add their own unique take on the melody to the song. Swing quickly became the most popular form of music during the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Swing bandleaders, such as Benny Goodman and Count Basie, would draw thousands of young people to huge halls to dance to swing music. Many of these young people were new to both swing music and dancing in general.
The uptempo beat of swing music led many of them to dance in a way that made them look completely out of control. Rather than some type of weird biting insect, it was apparently the hundreds of jerky, jittery young people on the dance floor who inspired the name “jitterbug” for the dance they were doing.
The jitterbug actually got its start in the late 1920s in the African American jazz dance clubs around Harlem, New York. Over time, the jitterbug became known by several other names, including the Lindy Hop, Jive, the Big Apple, the Push, the Whip, West Coast Swing and East Coast Swing.
Jitterbug was the name that was most popular, though. In 1934, musician Cab Calloway recorded a song entitled “Call of the Jitter Bug (“Jitterbug”).” A film called Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party also helped to popularize the dance and the association of Calloway with the jitterbug name.
When World War II began in the early 1940s, American soldiers taught the jitterbug dance to young people throughout Europe. Even though some people thought it wouldn’t catch on overseas, young people in Europe were soon just as crazy about the dance as the Americans were.
Over time, the term jitterbug was used to describe any type of dance to swing music. Later the jitterbug was adapted for use with the fast pace of early rock and roll. In the late 1950s, teenagers could be seen jitterbugging to rock and roll each week on the television show American Bandstand.