Sunday, November 6, 2011


Jitterbug can be used as a noun to refer to a swing dancer or various types of swing dances, for example, the Lindy Hop, Jive, and East Coast Swing. This has led to confusion within the dance community, because jitterbug can refer to different kinds of swing dances. It can also be used as a verb to mean the act of dancing to swing music.

Various editions of Arthur Murray's "How To Become a Good Dancer" contain the following text: "There are hundreds of regional dances of the Jitterbug type"; "A favorite with young New Yorkers is the Lindy Hop" (1947); "Whether it's called Swing, Lindy or Jitterbug..." (1954); "Formerly called Jitterbug, Lindy Hop and various other names in different parts of the country... Swing is the newer title" (1959).

Early history

The term jitterbug comes from an early 20th-century slang term used to describe alcoholics who suffered from the "jitters" (i.e., delirium tremens). The term became associated with swing dancers who danced without any control or knowledge of the dance. In popular culture, it became generalized to mean swing dancers themselves, or a type of swing dance – for example "they danced the jitterbug", or the act of swing dancing – "People were top-notch jitterbugging, jumping around, cutting loose and going crazy".

Cab Calloway's 1934 recording of "Call of the Jitter Bug" (or "Jitterbug") and the film "Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party" popularized the use of the word "jitterbug" and created a strong association between Calloway and jitterbug. Lyrics to “Call of the Jitter Bug” clearly demonstrate the association between the word jitterbug and the consumption of alcohol:

If you'd like to be a jitter bug,
First thing you must do is get a jug,
Put whiskey, wine and gin within,
And shake it all up and then begin.
Grab a cup and start to toss,
You are drinking jitter sauce!
Don't you worry, you just mug,
And then you'll be a jitter bug!

In the 1947 film Hi De Ho, Calloway includes the following lines in his song "Minnie the Moocher": "Woe there ain't no more Smokey Joe/ She's fluffed off his hi-de-ho/ She's a solid jitterbug/ And she starts to cut a rug/ Oh Minnie's a hep cat now."

Regarding the Savoy Ballroom, dance critic John Martin of The New York Times wrote the following:

The white jitterbug is oftener than not uncouth to look at ... but his Negro original is quite another matter. His movements are never so exaggerated that they lack control, and there is an unmistakable dignity about his most violent figures...there is a remarkable amount of improvisation ... mixed in ... with Lindy Hop figures. Of all the ballroom dances these prying eyes have seen, this is unquestionably the finest.

Norma Miller wrote, however, that when "tourists" came to the Savoy, they saw a rehearsed and choreographed dance, which they mistakenly thought was a regular group of dancers simply enjoying social dancing.


In 1944, with the United States' continuing involvement in World War II, a 30% federal excise tax was levied against "dancing" night clubs. Although the tax was later reduced to 20%, "No Dancing Allowed" signs went up all over the country. Jazz drummer Max Roach argued that, "This tax is the real story why dancing ... public dancing per se ... were [sic] just out. Club owners, promoters, couldn't afford to pay the city tax, state tax, government tax.

World War II facilitated the spread of jitterbug across the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. British Samoans were doing a "Seabee version" of the jitterbug by January 1944. Across the Atlantic in preparation for D-Day, there were nearly 2 million American troops stationed throughout Britain in May 1944. Ballrooms that had been closed because of lack of business opened their doors. Working class girls who had never danced before made up a large part of the attendees, along with American soldiers and sailors. By November of 1945 after the departure of the American troops following D-Day, English couples were being warned not to continue doing energetic "rude American dancing." Time Magazine reported that American troops stationed in France in 1945 jitterbugged and by 1946, jitterbug had become a craze in England. It was already a competition dance in Australia.


Here’s an excellent article by Bobby White (international swing dance instructor & author) called The Definition of Jitterbug: I suggest you follow his blog. You can learn amazing stuff.

Before you go, check my Cab Calloway's Hepster Dictionary link under "Are you Hep to the Jive?" on the right side of this blog.

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