Monday, February 8, 2016

Born to Hand Jive

Last week's live production of "Grease" brought renewed attention to one of the finest dances we ever stole got from England...the amazingly fun Hand Jive!

There wasn't enough room for dancing in the London coffee bar called "The Cat's Whisker" in 1957.  Ken Russell - then a photographer, later a filmmaker ("Women in Love," "Tommy," "Altered States") got pictures of the teenagers doing the "steps," as it were, to dances with just their hands. Russell found the whole thing so enjoyable that he wound up joining in.

"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."

You know that Irish-style step dancing that Michael Flatley and others do so well was developed so that people could dance in their homes without worrying about the parish priest walking by and seeing them flailing about in the throes of dance fever.  From the waist up, which is all one could see through the living room window, there was no hint that the legs below were shakin' all over.

And the Hand Jive dance came to America in the late 1950s, which was handy (!) because so did a hit record "Willie and the Hand Jive" by Johnny Otis, a song that featured that "shave-and-a-haircut two-bits" tempo that was actually the featured rhythm for Bo Diddley's songs.

Trivia lovers will note that Johnny Otis, born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, is the father of Shuggie Otis, who gave us "Strawberry Letter #23, and I suppose one could Hand Jive to that song if one were not so busy trying to figure out what it's all about!

There are three ways to learn to do the Hand Jive,  One of them is to ask me, quite possibly the worst dancer since Elaine Benes, or you can read these instructions...

  • Slap your thighs twice with the flats of your hands.
  • Clap your hands together twice.
  • Turning your palms parallel to the floor, move one hand over the other, then apart, then over again, keeping about three inches between your hands. Then reverse, putting the other hand on top, again with two beats back and forth.
  • Finally, make a fist with one hand leaving your thumb sticking out, and rotate your hand out twice, as if motioning with your thumb for someone to "Get outta here!". Do the same thing with your other hand, and you've completed one full iteration of the "hand jive." Repeat as long as the song continues.
OR you can watch this video and learn it from the charming cast of "Grease Live."  

Now you can Hand Jive, baby!  Oh yeah!

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