Hand Jive Dance: Origin, Costumes, Steps & More

Although the swing era officially ended in the late 40s, it was still massively popular well into the 1950s. Besides common variations of the swing like the Jitterbug, the Madison Line dance, and the Calypso, there was also the hand jive dance. Energetic, jolly, and wholesome, it was one of the traditional dances of the decade.

Feeling nostalgic and would like to learn more about the hand jive? This guide is for you. Today, we’ll tell you everything you need to know, from its origin to costumes, the steps, and more!

What is Hand Jive Dance?

The original hand jive dance is a dance form that grew in popularity within dance halls in the 1950s. Usually, it’s performed on top of rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues music. They were both new genres of music at the time, with rock-and-roll coming to being around the early 50s and rhythm-and-blues in the late 40s.

This dance is characterized by the dancer performing a series of complicated arm and hand movements. They can clap and tap on various points on their bodies to mimic the sound of drums and percussion instruments.

Hand Jive History

No one can tell exactly who invented the hand jive dance. Nobody can even say for certain when the hand jive was invented!

But the earliest record of the dance came in 1957 when a freelance photographer named Ken Russell recorded a group of teenagers hand jiving in The Cat’s Whisker coffee bar in London.

The crowded basement left very little space for them to jive properly, so they started to make exaggerated arm and hand movements to the beat of the music instead.

In a later interview, he said about the strange, new dance: “the place was crowded with young kids … the atmosphere was very jolly. Wholesome … everyone jiving with their hands because there was precious little room to do it with their feet … a bizarre sight. The craze fascinated me. It seemed like a strange novelty; I used to join in.”

Once Russell broke the new dance form, the hand jive became a huge hit throughout the city. In the following years, many new songs made specifically for hand jiving were created. For example, Willie and the Hand Jive by Johnny Otis.

Grease and Hand Jive

But while the hand jive was popular among the swing dancers of the era, it wasn’t widely known among the mass public until the famous musical film Grease (1971).

The hand jive came to being and was popularized almost a decade before the release of the movie. But it’s thanks to one of the musical numbers in this movie, aptly named “Born to Hand Jive”, that successfully made it more known to everyone outside of the ballroom dancing community.

How To Do The Hand Jive Dance?

The hand jive is a very simple dance. It’s partly the reason why it became popular in the 50s: anyone can learn how to hand jive in a couple of minutes. No classes needed!

Step 1: Patting the Thighs and Clap

The basic steps involve bending slightly at the waist by lowering your knees, then tapping your thighs twice with your hands. After that, stand up straight again and clap your hands in front of you twice.

You don’t necessarily have to stand to perform this dance. Hand jiving is entirely possible to do while sitting, as well.

Plus, if you don’t feel comfortable clapping your thighs, you can tap on your knees instead. So long as there’s a percussive sound to the rhythm of the music, you do what’s most comfortable for you!

Step 2: Crisscrossing Your Wrists

Stand up straight, then make a crossing motion with your hands by moving your right wrist above your left. Your hands should form X-shaped, with your palms facing the ground.

It’s important not to let your hands touch one another. Instead, they should glide over the top of one another.

Cross your wrists, then uncross. Do this motion two times. Then, switch the hand and cross your left wrist over your right. Repeat the above motion two times with the new hand arrangement.

Step 3: Form Your Hands into Fists (The Hammer)

Form your hands into fists, then align them on top of one another, almost like you’re grabbing and holding a pole. Then, knock the top fist on top of the bottom one. Do this twice.

Then, reverse the hands (brings the bottom fist up top and vice versa) and knock the fists together twice.

Step 4: Make Thumb-Up Signs

Once you’ve finished the hammer motion, it’s time for the “Thumb Ups”!

Lean your upper body to one side (usually the right first), then form a thumb-up sign with the right hand and point your thumb outward two times. Make the same motion on the opposite side (your left) twice.

Step 5: Rinse and Repeat

And that’s all of the dancing steps you need to know! You only have to repeat the hand jive dance moves above for as long as the music keeps playing.

If you wish to practice this dance, then play a hand jive song and dance all of the moves above to the rhythm of the music.

Since the steps are very simple, even if you don’t have prior experience in dancing, you’ll still be able to learn the hand jive in just 20 or 30 minutes (possibly even less!)

Hand Jive Dance Costumes

Traditionally in the 50s, female hand jivers would wear poodle skirts while male dancers would wear suits with suspenders. These were considered fashionable back in the day.

However, in the 21st century, if you were to visit a ballroom, you’ll rarely see anyone dressed like that. Instead, they’ll most likely be dressed in clothing that’s more comfortable to dance in, like fluffy skirts and slacks.

If the venue or the event doesn’t enforce a dress code, some people may show up wearing loose, casual clothes like jeans!

However, this also means that there are many events out there that will have dress codes telling you to come wearing “vintage, era-appropriate” clothes. In that case, confidently walk in attired in clothes from the 50s!

Hand Jive Music & Songs

Today, you can hand jive on top of any rock-and-roll or rhythm-and-blues song with many percussions. But there are a few “classic” hand jive songs that you must listen to and maybe try to dance to if you’ve just started.

In the US, the 1958 song Willie and the Hand Jive by Johnny Otis was iconic. It’s the song that ultimately made the hand jive popular in the US for the next decade.

Many artists remade that song. There were covers by Eric Clapton in 1974, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, George Thorogood, and the Delaware Destroyers.

Or you can try the 1958 recording of the aptly named Hand Jive by Bud Allen and performed by the Betty Smith Group.

If Willie and the Hand Jive was the hand jive anthem of the US, then Hand Jive could be considered the anthem for the UK!

A common theme among hand jive music and songs were that most used the Bo Diddley beat. It’s a musical rhythm that originated from Afro-Latin music and was popularized by Bo Diddley (hence the name). The beat is still in use today, and you can hear it in recent songs like If It’s Lovin’ That You Want by Rihanna and Fool for Love by Lord Huron.

Conclusion

Hand jive was the dance of a different era, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a shot! As you can see, it’s very easy to do, and you’ll be able to master the basic moves at home in just a few minutes.

And if you want the full hand jive dance experience, come to your local ballrooms or search for hand jive events and meetings online. There are many clubs and enthusiasts out there that are still keeping this nostalgic dance alive!

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