Put on your dancing shoes, dance away the blues

Rock and roll is here to stay
It will never die
It was meant to be that way
Though I don’t know why*

Sixty years ago Bill Haley and his Comets released the hit single “Rock Around The Clock” and its driving beat got teenagers rocking and rolling all around the world. Today, those kids are in their 70s but many of them are still rockin’ – and joining them on the dance floors are their Baby Boomer brothers and sisters as well as their children and grandchildren – because today, rock ’n’ roll is undergoing a revival.

Consider the statistics. In South-East Queensland there are more than 30 dance schools, venues and regular events dedicated to rock ‘n’ roll. Websites give details of gigs and dance classes. Festivals that celebrate the theme include this month’s Rods and Rockabilly Festival at Hamilton in Brisbane and Cooly Rocks On at Coolangatta on the Gold Coast, the biggest event of its kind in Australia.

This year the Cooly festival will run from May 29 to June 8, and its many attractions include markets selling everything from hot dogs to vintage rock ‘n’ roll collectibles, a dance competition, indoor and outdoor displays, and even a rock ‘n’ roll church service. Last year’s visitor numbers topped 100,000.

As these popular festivals indicate, retro rock is not just about dancing but about a lifestyle, including the big finned, gas-guzzling vehicles of an era when nobody gave the price of fuel a thought. And for those who want to pursue their passion outside Australia, there is a rock ‘n’ roll travel club that organises two or three tours a year to major events such as Viva Las Vegas, the world’s biggest rockabilly event. These tours are accompanied by instructors who give dance lessons along the way.

"“I look at people’s faces while they’re dancing.
You don’t see them smile like that at the gym”. "

At least one Brisbane website offers a glossary of “jive talk” to those who want the vocabulary to go with their blue suede shoes, available – like other rock ‘n’ roll clothing and accessories– from specialist stores and online retailers.

So why is rock ‘n’ roll – used here generically to cover traditional four-step rock as well as the slightly faster rockabilly, jive and swing – so popular? Exponents list improved physical fitness, good fun, social interaction, pride in learning and practising your dance routines, and, of course, the music.

Says old rocker Steve Muir, “I look at people’s faces while they’re dancing. You don’t see them smile like that at the gym!” Steve, in his early 60s, has all the dancefloor moves of a vintage rocker yet says he only took it up a couple of years ago, so that he would be able to dance at his daughter’s wedding.

Today he goes to two dance classes a week, as well as weekend rock ‘n’ roll gigs on the Gold Coast. “It’s the best thing I ever did,” he says. “I kick myself I didn’t do it years ago”.

Steve’s teachers, Linda Simister and Barry Chatel, have been running classes for more than a decade and in that time, students have ranged in age from under 10 years to over 80, though the majority are in their 40s and 50s.
Linda first started teaching jive in Darwin in 1989 and helped develop and name the “Pubjive and Rock ‘n’ Roll” concept to reflect the relaxed style of social dance as distinct from the “strictly ballroom” competitive style.

She says many friendships and a few romances have been formed at her classes. In fact she first met Barry when he came to her for a lesson. They now perform in public at dance events, as well as teach.

The social benefits of rock ‘n’ roll are also emphasised by Jill Radley of Jill’s Jive at Nundah, in Brisbane, a large family-run dance studio which offers rock ‘n’ roll tuition and social dancing on Thursday and Sunday nights, plus other dance styles – ballroom, salsa, tango and the now-popular modern jive which can be danced to a wider variety of contemporary music than traditional 1950s-era rock ‘n’ roll.

Jill, 65, has been teaching for 20 years and credits recent television dance shows for much of today’s interest in dancing as a social activity. Her regular customers are mostly in the 50 to 70 year age group, although many are younger.

At Palmwoods on the Sunshine Coast, the total rock retro experience can be found at Rick’s Garage, a genuine garage out the back with a 50s style diner in front. Most of the regulars, who are over 55, come here for rockabilly music and dancing, while others turn up just for the experience. It’s like stepping onto the set of Happy Days and into a world when life was simpler. It really is about being happy and getting back to a time when you could dance like nobody was watching. There’s usually one of those big, glossy, gas guzzlers out the front and a live band to go with the burgers inside. “You become invisible once you turn 50 so you drop your guard,” proprietor Rick Jameson sums it up. “You realise that not every dollar is important and life is about having some fun.

Different strokes
Rock ‘n’ roll generally refers to traditional 1950s era music and dance and should not be confused with the generic term ‘rock’ that covers all popular music with a ‘rocking’ beat from that era until today.

Those learning, teaching and performing rock ‘n’ roll today also differentiate between rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, jive and swing and these are also defined by the number of steps to the beat – for example four, six or eight-step.

According to instructor Linda Simister, dance styles follow music trends and thus the Lindy Hop of the 1920s, named for transatlantic flier Charles Lindburgh, evolved into the Swing of the 1930s and the ‘40s Big Band era. Variations in technique led to styles such as boogie-woogie and jitterbug – known generically as “jive” and danced to Swing music.

After World War II bands got smaller and a new hard, fast, driving beat was developed, as epitomised by the music of Bill Haley and the Comets. By this time, black singers such as Fats Domino and Little Richard were already establishing a distinctive rock style based on honky tonk piano while out of the hills and swamps of the South came white singers like Carl Perkins and Elvis, with a country-infused rockabilly style based mainly on lead and rhythm guitars teamed with drums and sax.
* Song written by David White Tricker, Published by ARC Music Corp. Useful rock ‘n’ roll websites rockcentral.com.au/qlddanceclubs.htm dependablerockers.com.au rockroll.com.au lively50plus.com.au facebook.com/groups/73412725859 
Main Image: Rick and Lisa Jameson.