Let’s do the Twist! (Separately.)

August 19, 2023

This was the era of Jim Crow segregation, and the fear lay in the idea of African-American and White teenagers mixing with one another, actually touching each other, dancing together. Black teenagers, but also White teenagers, pushed back in the form of protests against the shows, even on American Bandstand in the 1950s. And for the girls, there was always some danger involved in their rebellion, because here they were watching, enjoying, and expressing emotions for Black dancers, Black men, Black entertainers. The local teen shows as opposed to the national shows had a little bit more leeway. And even on the “special guest” days, as abhorrent as that practice was, the White kids were watching the Black dancers’ moves over the airways.

How did teen dance shows prior to the Civil Rights Movement reinforce segregation?

You know, the primary way they reinforced segregation was the fact that African Americans were not allowed to be seen on the screen. It was an egregious situation. African-American kids could be in the studio audience, sometimes they danced on the stage during commercial breaks and before the show went live, but they could not be aired. You could not have African Americans seen on the same show with White dancers. It was typical of the times, of the 1950s, that several of the shows had what they called “special guest days,” or “Blacks only days,” and these were days, maybe every Tuesday or one Thursday out of the month, when the show was devoted just to African-American teenage dancers. So that was the way in which you saw glaringly how segregation was reinforced. It also mirrored the politics of the time. This was the era of Jim Crow segregation, and the fear lay in the idea of African-American and White teenagers mixing with one another,  actually touching each other, dancing together. That's where the fear lay.

In what ways did Black musicians and teens push back against these racial barriers?

It happened in covert ways. For example, the Black teen dancers who still went to the shows even though they were restricted—that took some guts to say, “Look, you're not letting me in, but I'm coming anyway. I want to dance, even if I'm not going to be on air.” So I think that was one way that teenagers pushed back. Black teenagers, but also White teenagers, pushed back in the form of protests against the shows, even on American Bandstand in the 1950s. Of course, Dick Clark always said that the show was not segregated, but in fact, there were policies that really made it impossible for Black teenagers to get on the show.  By the early ’60s and the height of the Civil Rights Movement, there were major protests of the primarily White teenage shows, which forced many of them to close .

Another way the musicians and deejays and some Black producers were pushing back was by creating their own all-Black shows. These shows aired locally, they weren't broadcast nationally, so not everyone got to see them, but certainly in the cities in which they aired—Wilmington, Raleigh, and Chicago—they developed a huge African-American following: White teenage dancers were watching the shows too. And you had some of the best dancing on those shows. But television in the ’50s was very segregated. It really wasn't until the ’70s that you saw any kind of racial parity, and I think it would have been hard, frankly, for the Black musicians to fight that.

In the book, you talk about how these shows sought to present an image of White, middle-class suburbia. How then did they also provide spaces for teen rebellion?

Well, the shows, as I like to say, were bundles of contradictions. On the one hand, the producers on the networks tried to create shows that mirrored the rise of suburban life in America. There was a dress code—boys had to wear ties, and the girls had to wear dresses that were considered appropriate for daywear. So there was a conservative element to the shows. But on the other hand, they were testing grounds for rebellious youth. On the White shows, you have teenagers aligning themselves with rock and roll and rhythm and blues, based in Black culture. And Black culture, in a sense, enabled White youth to express that rebellion. What was the rebellion? It was against the sort of blandness of suburban life. It was rebellion against their parents’ way of life. I think in some cases it was even rebellion against some of the parents’ own racism. One critic called the entire rock and roll phenomenon “a teen breakout from jailhouse America.” But the way it was a breakout for White youth was in this adoption of forms from expressive Black culture. It was in the dancing, close together, and to rhythm and blues music. Kids used to cut classes to go on the shows, and often they wouldn't tell their parents. It was a symbol of their independence, and their dismissiveness of authority, which is sort of emblematic of teenage life in any case, African American or White.

For the White youth, the shows were really a vehicle to express their independence from the values and mores of their parents, and even more so for young women. There were so many prescriptions for women and girls’ behavior in the 1950s that to be dancing rock and roll and rhythm and blues really was kind of revolutionary in and of itself, you know?  That's why I said the shows were contradictions in that they represented 1950s culture at the same time that they allowed White youth to rebel against the mainstream culture and their parents.

What role did the shows play in perpetuating racial and gender stereotypes?

While Black entertainers were allowed on the shows, I think it's important to keep in mind that during this time, what were considered acceptable roles on TV for African Americans were relegated to singers, musicians, or comedians. So even though the shows featured some of the great performers of rock and roll and rhythm and blues they still fit the stereotype of what White audiences would feel were acceptable roles for African Americans. We see this even today, with entertainers and athletes.

In terms of gender, the teen dance shows were fueled by advertising, and product placement was rampant. All of the products were geared towards inculcating a teen culture that prized heterosexual dating and emphasized physical attractiveness. And the shows also tried to reinforce traditional ideas about gender in, for example, the beauty contests and sponsored fashion shows. But race and gender were definitely interconnected and there was a distorted view, I think, of race during this time, which turned up on the shows. Behind the clothing restrictions for the girls, behind the segregation of the dancers, was a deep fear of White girls associating with Black boys. And for the girls, there was always some danger involved in their rebellion, because here they were watching, enjoying, and expressing emotions for Black dancers, Black men, Black entertainers. That could be very threatening. There was a fear they'd be crossing the color line, and that would spell their moral downfall.

Besides the activism that emerged against the segregation policies, were there any positives that arose from the creation of these shows?

Despite the segregation, I contend there was a cross-racial association, that both Black and White teenagers found spaces to copy from one another and access each other's cultures. . So even when those African-American kids are dancing during the commercial breaks, they're dancing with the White kids, and White and Black kids are copying each other, and looking to each other to learn the latest dances. The local teen shows as opposed to the national shows had a little bit more leeway. Sometimes, the cameras would, in fact, pan over the studio audience that contained African American dancers. They'd never dare to do that on a national show, but they could do it locally in cities where there was a large Black population. And even on the “special guest” days, as abhorrent  as that practice was, the White kids were watching the Black dancers’ moves over the airways. So that's where I think there was a kind of intermixing of cultures; there was some overlap and association between cultures and cultural styles. And all of the kids, both African Americans and White teenagers, were ultimately driven by their desire to dance and their expressive capabilities. They wanted to dance to rock and roll, they loved the music, and they wanted to show what they could accomplish and how talented they were. We can't underestimate that.

The source of this news is from New York University