Oh yes, there were scandalous dances in the 1500s. The volta was popularized in the mid-16th century, and caused a bit of ruckus because it required men and women to dance very close together. In order to achieve the leaps and turns required for the dance, men had to grip women by their waists and lift them up with their thighs. While women kept one hand free to “protect their modesty,” it was still deemed indecent and lewd in some circles.
The Waltz (1800s)
In 1816, The Times of London alerted parents about an “indecent foreign dance” called the waltz, which featured “the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs” and “close compressure of the bodies.” This “obscene display” sparked a panic that caused the Times to “warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion” that previously remained the territory of “prostitutes and adulteresses.” Yes, this was written about the waltz.
The Charleston (1920s)
Coupled with its association with the flapper — an icon of short skirts, drinking, and a more casual attitude towards sex — the Prohibition-era Charleston dance got older generations all up in a tizzy. The dance was faster and more frenzied than the waltz and the foxtrot of previous generations, so it was seen as much wilder. (A 1920 issue of the Atlantic Monthly compared flappers’ dancing to “a moving-picture of a fancy ball in bedlam.”) The mayor of Bradley Beach, NJ even banned the dance from the city’s municipally owned dance floor in 1925 after several young people received shin injuries. “‘I have no objection to a person dancing their feet and head off,” he said, ”but I think it best that they keep away from the Charleston.”
Though some members of the older generations deemed swing dancing too sexual, this variation was considered especially vulgar. With its faster, unrestrained pace, ballroom dancing master Alex Moore proclaimed that he had “never seen anything uglier.”
Elvis Presley’s Hip Thrusts (1950s)
The King of Rock and Roll’s dancing repertoire included gyrating hip thrusts and twitching legs, which almost got him banned from The Ed Sullivan Show. The ensuing frenzy surrounding his first television appearance had the press calling him “Elvis the Pelvis” and comparing his dancing to a striptease. You know how this equation works. Hip thrusts = sex = PARENTAL PANIC MODE.
The Bump (1970s)
Call this the horribly tame frontrunner to grinding, but the hip bump was once a cool new fad instead of a cheesy dance move you only do to be ironic. Yes, the moral danger came from bumping all parts of your body against a member of the opposite sex’s body. But also, if you bumped your partner too hard, they would go flying across the room. Total danger.
Slam Dancing (1980s)
An early form of moshing, slam dancing emerged from the new age punk and heavy metal scene. True to its name, this type of dance involved participants slamming into each other. The University of Minnesota banned slam dancing in 1983 after a Dead Kennedys concert led to 23 student injuries.
The Soulja Boy (2007-2008)
Soulja Boy’s eponymous Soulja Boy dance came with the music video for “Crank That.” The dance was just composed of many steps that required little coordination, so the controversy didn’t really concern the dance. Instead, it was the song’s sexually charged lyrics (“superman that ho”) that upset people. But since you couldn’t do the dance without the song, or vice versa, parents still went up in arms over Soulja Boy. Maybe it worked, because he hasn’t had a real hit since.
While the so-called freaking and grinding epidemic received a lot of press when the term was first coined, one of the best reports on the controversy was the 2007 Wall Street Journal article, “Freaked Out: Teens’ Dance Moves Split a Texas Town,” which pretty much establishes the dramatic soap opera effect that one controversial dance craze can wreck on one town. Freaking hasn’t fallen out of favor — you can still find it at any high-school prom — but all of the pitchfork-wielding hullabaloo has been heaped on to…
Though she didn’t invent twerking, Miley Cyrus undoubtedly put it on the mainstream cultural radar. Now we live in a world in which every mention of the word “twerk” has become blatant click-bait. Who knows how long twerking’s cultural cachet will last, but it has already caused enough controversy. From the high school in San Diego that suspended over 30 students for making a twerking video to the aforementioned “no twerking allowed” high school dance contract, 2013’s crazy controversial dance fad is undoubtedly twerking. Sorry, Harlem Shake. You never quite got it going.