What makes a classic dance move? Perhaps by dissecting a some of the long-lasting moves that everyone and their mum can recognize we can figure out what makes a dance iconic. We’ve cherry picked a few that have really made an impression on dancefloors across time and lasted into modern culture, both out in the world and online.
Let’s start with a real classic; a dance move that dates back to the eighteenth century. This is the dance move that everyone sees in their mind’s eye then they think of ballet dancing. The pirouette is a classical ballet term that literally means “spin.” It denotes when a dancer is turning around on one leg with the other off the ground and in a position, most commonly in passé.
The pirouette is an intermediate step that is perfected and performed all the way to the professional level. A pirouette combination in centre is an essential part of all intermediate and advanced ballet classes. Pirouettes are frequently performed in classical and contemporary ballets and have been incorporated into other types of dance such as tap and jazz.
Carlo Blasis (1795-1878) attributed the invention of the pirouette to the great French dancers Pierre Gardel (1758-1840) and Auguste Vestris (1760-1842).
While it’s best learned in dance school, you can start teaching yourself to pirouette here.
Come on, baby, let’s do the twist! The Twist blew up in popularity across the US in 1960 as it was easy, exhilarating and extremely relevant. Elvis was booming, TV was available in most US homes and rock n’ roll was sending boomers into a frenzy. TV was as addictive then as the internet is today and when American Bandstand launched it had the power to create an overnight sensation.
That was when Chubby Checker’s classic “The Twist” swept the world (topping the billboard charts in ’60 and ‘62) and had every teenager and most of their parents moving in no time. The dance had such appeal that to this day it’s still known and easy to imitate by people whose parents weren’t even born at the time. The dance was even considered scandalous at the time, which feels awfully quaint now. Chubby Checker may actually be better known for his follow-up song, released to continue building his fortune upon this dance, “Let’s Twist Again”.
The robot dance was definitely a product of its time but thanks to Friends, Step Up, Tik Tok and other pop culture references, it has stuck around as one of the easiest novelty dances to pull off. The juxtaposition of acting as a slow and clunky machine while doing something as invigoratingly human as dancing has been a hit with onlookers for more than a century. Some of the first films ever showed footage of people doing stilted mannequin dances. But the word “robot” didn’t even exist back then, being first coined in 1921.
In the 1960s, a mime named Robert Shields took early mannequin dances and incorporated them into his act with…robotic precision. He and other mimes performed these robotic movements on television, which was now widely available, inspiring more and more people to create their own takes. Don “Campbellock” Campbell, inventor of “locking,” put together a crew of poppers, lockers and roboters to dance robotic moves to music. Others were making moves too, such as Bill “Slim the Robot” Williams (a former living mannequin in a clothing store), Damita Jo Freeman, Fred Berry and Charles “Robot” Washington, all of whom became members of the 60s locking scene and helped popularize the move.
Soul Train gave practitioners of the robot and locking dances a national platform. More and more people took up the trend, with James Brown and his featured partners popping, locking and roboting. All of these figures would go on to inspire Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, and once they dropped their hit “Dancing Machine” on Soul Train, the world was hard coded with a new move for decades to come.
The Single Ladies
Aside from turning being single into an empowering time to be celebrated, “Single Ladies” also inspired a new dance craze. The music video, entirely focused on the “Single Ladies” dance, features Beyoncé and backup dancers Ebony Williams and Ashley Everett (beating out 100 other applicants) in a simple white studio (inspired by a Vogue photoshoot) in contrasting black outfits, the entire video shot in black and white.
The video was directed by Jake Nava and the dance sequences were choreographed by Frank Gatson Jr. and JaQuel Knight, and incorporated J-Setting choreography. Beyoncé has been forthcoming about the fact that the choreography took heavy inspiration from Gwen Verdon’s Mexican Breakfast dance choreographed by Bob Fosse.
“I saw a video on YouTube. [The dancers] had a plain background and it was shot on the crane; it was 360 degrees, they could move around. And I said, ‘This is genius.’ We kept a lot of the Fosse choreography and added the down-south thing—it’s called J-Setting, where one person does something and the next person follows. So it was a strange mixture … It’s like the most urban choreography, mixed with Fosse—very modern and very vintage.”
The idea behind the dance was that it was powerful but simple enough to be attempted by anyone.
“There are little simple things like the hand gesture, even the strut walking around in a circle, and you can just see your grandmother saying, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” choreographer Frank Gatson said of the dance.
The dance is intended to be fierce and feminine, incorporating countless hip movements and is performed in high heels – ideal for imitation in night clubs the world over. The dancers broke their shoes several times through the intensity of their dancing, both an inspiration and cautionary tale for imitators.
Which classic dance moves do you want to learn about next? Have we missed an obvious one? Let us know! We would love to hear from you.