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American Bandstand

By Julie Malnig

American Bandstand is the nation’s best-remembered televised teen dance program. Five days a week for an hour and a half each day, teens danced to the latest pop hit musical recordings. Hosted by former radio host and TV commercial announcer Dick Clark(1929-2012), American Bandstand aired for thirty-seven years, first locally and then nationally, and became the bellwether for new and emergent styles of social and popular dance. A landmark TV show, American Bandstand introduced the public to hundreds of dances, performed by ordinary teenagers, which were then picked up and copied by their television-viewing peers. American Bandstand was also a trendsetter for the latest fashion and etiquette styles, and mirrored a familiar and appealing vision of adolescence.

American Bandstand took place amidst several converging historical forces: a burgeoning youth culture, the mass dissemination of rhythm and blues music (also known as rock and roll), and the rise of technology in the form of the transistor radio, the jukebox, records, and most especially television, which made the music (and dance) widely accessible to young teens. By 1954, rhythm and blues exploded into the mainstream with recordings such as The Chords's "Sh- Boom," the same year that Elvis Presley recorded his first commercial record "That's All Right Mama," at the famed Sun Studios. At the same time, Alan Freed, the controversial rock and roll impresario, helped to create a mass, racially mixed teen audience for rock and roll in his influential "Moondog" radio broadcasts that originally aired in Cleveland. For white middle-class teens, for whom Bandstand was targeted, the adaptation of black and working-class styles was in and of itself a subversive move, a symbol of their break from the mores and morality of their parents' generation.

American Bandstand actually began as Bandstand in 1952, hosted by veteran radio deejay Bob Horn who wanted to bring his successful radio program of the same name to TV screens. For the Philadelphia-based show, broadcast on WFIL-TV, he recruited dancers as well as the studio audience primarily from local-area high schools including West Philadelphia High, West Catholic High School for Girls, and West Catholic High School for Boys. On the first day of the show, 1500 teenagers arrived at a studio that could accommodate only 200. By 1955, over a quarter of a million teenagers between the ages of thirteen and eighteen had passed through the studio’s doors. In 1956, after an embarrassing run-in with the local police over a driving violation and charges of inappropriate behavior, Horn was replaced by a young Dick Clark, who had been WFIL-radio's host of "Caravan of Music.” Clark made his debut on August 5, 1957 and the show became so successful that within the year it was broadcast nationally on ABC-television.

The vehicle for Bandstand was the music: top hit recordings easy to reproduce on air. A good deal of the novelty lay in the idea that hit tunes heard on the radio could now at the same time be visualized through the accompanying dances. On the surface, American Bandstand contained a deceptively simple format—on live TV, adolescent boys and girls danced to the recorded music of rhythm and blues, often in competition with one another, and were chosen as winners by the home viewership. The other central ingredients included live appearances by black and white recording artists and singers, all of whom lip-synched their latest hits; casual chats with nonmusical guest celebrities, such as movie stars and athletes; as well as a variety of activities such as the popular "rate a record" segments, fan-mail drawings, and dance and beauty contests where home viewers wrote in their votes. Many of the teens became heralded as teen “stars” and were featured in teen and fan magazines. Central to Bandstand was its affable, clean-cut host Dick Clark, whose avuncular manner suited the wholesome quality of the show. By today's standards, many of the dances on the program look absolutely chaste, but this was partly the point—to frame the teen dances within a homogenized view of the white suburban family that prized togetherness and conformity and to tame what were perceived as rock and roll’s rougher edges. 

The standard means of organizing the show amounted to a veritable caste system: the selection of the studio regulars, who had worked themselves up from studio guests, to studio dancers, to elite "committee members." Competitors had to undergo exacting auditions where they were judged on their dancing and appearance. Once chosen, committee members insured that studio dancers mixed well and enforced the strict dress code required—usually jacket and tie for the boys; poodle skirt and bobby socks for the girls.

In the flush years of the post-World War II era, children of the middle class had more time and money (an estimated $7 billion) to indulge their pastimes, and TV happily capitalized on this booming demographic group. Bandstand became a rallying point as it featured the music and records that teenagers were already listening to on their newly acquired transistor radios and portable record players—all of which were advertised on the show.

Like rock and roll music itself, the dances seen and disseminated on Bandstand were mostly of African American origin. In the early fifties, the basic rock and roll dance was a modified 1940s Lindy (a Swing dance derivative whose African American antecedents may be traced to the Texas Tommy and the Charleston). Solo and partner dances also involved greater use of the shoulders, torso, and pelvis, which moved in opposition to one another, while some of the popular line dances, such as the Hand Jive and Madison, drew on call and response variations. The dances, which had a distinctive rhythmic flow and encouraged improvisation, proliferated at an astonishing rate and represented a radical break with past styles of dance.  In a typical dissemination process, dances seen on Bandstand were often picked up at school dances or local dance hops and brought back to the show where they were presented by mostly white adolescents. In fact, many dances derived from The Mitch Thomas Show, the popular all-black teen show in Philadelphia, from which they were copied by white teens and then seen on Bandstand.

Over the airwaves, American Bandstand either spawned or helped popularize some of the major dances of the day, including the Hand Jive and Madison and also the Stroll, Bop, Chalypso, Twist, and others. One of the earliest dances credited to Bandstand was the Bop, performed to Danny and the Juniors’ "At the Hop," a song that became a number one hit as a result of its exposure on the show. In the Bop, couples lightly grasped hands and took a small jump up and down and then ground their feet into the floor when they landed. The Chalypso consisted of a combination of Cha-cha steps and steps done to a calypso beat. In the popular Hand Jive, two rows of dancers faced each other and to the lyrics of Johnny Otis's “Willie and the Hand Jive” enacted a series of steps and gestures such as slapping the thighs, clapping hands, and hitchhiking motions with the right thumb poised over the right shoulder. As the decade continued, the overall movement trend was towards a general flexibility in the body with bent knees and a pliable torso (exemplified by the Twist) and away from strictly closed couple dancing.

In 1964 American Bandstand moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles where the producers, and Clark, thought it might be easier to book name entertainers. Even though the show now aired once a week on Saturday afternoon instead of daily, Bandstand managed to reinvent itself and thrive with each new decade to accommodate changes in musical styles. By the 1990s, though, Bandstand had to compete with Soul Train, America’s first national black dance show, and the highly successful Music Television Network (MTV). The program eventually went into syndication in 1987 and Clark left in 1989. American Bandstand still reverberates with us today. The show remains synonymous with youth, rock and roll music, and dances and dance styles that have become a secure part of the American social dance lexicon.


Julie Malnig is an Associate Professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University where she teaches courses in performance criticism, history, and aesthetics. She is the author of Dancing Till Dawn: A Century of Exhibition Ballroom Dance (NYU Press, 1995) and most recently editor of Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2009). Julie Malnig is a former Editor of Dance Research Journal.  She holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from NYU.

 

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books 

Altschuler, Glenn C. All Shook Up: How Rock ’n’ Roll Changed America. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Delmont, Matthew F. The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ’n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Random House, 1993.

Hine, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

Jackson, John A. American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ’n’ Roll Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Weingarten, Marc. Station to Station: The History of Rock’n’ Roll on Television. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. 

Moving Images

Selected excerpts from episodes of American Bandstand online:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8dEn6qCecg&playnext=1&list=PLE26CC878E25B715B&fea ture=results_video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Y9IBwihU4w