What We Know About Boogaloo, the Dance of the 1960s

How I learned to love The Boogaloo

I was a teenager during the mid through late 1960s, growing up north of Lake Erie. Dancing was our main social activity, with bands from Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, and other cities playing in the last of the pre-war ballrooms (left from the swing era) and in local arenas or Legion halls. We tried the various dances as they appeared on TV dance shows. The Boogaloo became a favorite because it incorporated the best moves and movement of all the other dances of the era, worked with a wide range of tempos, and felt super-funky. We danced to Motown hits, Soul, and Funk music.

At the Blues Experiment in 2019, I incorporated some Boogaloo songs into my DJ set. Afterwards, Kenneth Shipp asked me what I knew about Boogaloo. Recognizing the gaps in my knowledge, I began researching the topic. What I first found was confusing, but this summary tries to help sort it out.

The first thing to recognize is that Boogaloo has multiple meanings. It refers to a dance of the 1960s that developed in the black community but spread rapidly as a popular social dance form, before largely disappearing by the 1970s. It’s also genre of Latin music developed by Puerto Rican musicians in New York City in the mid-1960s that fused Latin and R&B / soul rhythms. Further confusing the issue is the use of the same label for another dance—similar to popping—popularized by the band Electric Boogaloo in the 1970s. In the 1990s a dance called boogaloo flourished within hip-hop dancing. The focus here is on the 1960s Boogaloo dance.

Uncovering the history of boogaloo dancing is challenging. Even the spelling varies: boogaloo, boo-ga-loo, bugalu, bu-ga-lu, boo ga loo.

The dance as we know it in blues dancing was ephemeral as a popular social dance: one of a set of solo and occasionally partnered dances that came and went during the 1960s, building on and incorporating elements of dances that went before it. James Brown was filmed dancing the Boogaloo in 1964, but the dance may have appeared earlier.

The music is equally complicated, with sources describing two varieties: Latin boogaloo and Soul boogaloo. To confuse matters, some sources refer to “Latin Soul Boogaloo.”

The origins of Latin boogaloo music

Latin boogaloo music developed among Puerto Rican musicians in Spanish Harlem in NYC in the 1960s and was promoted through the Fania record label. It incorporated Latin rhythms with an R&B or blues backbeat: it involves a characteristically funky cha-cha rhythm. It seems to have developed contemporaneously with Soul music. According to Goldman (2014), the music style may have taken its name from the dance of the same name. (By 1970, Latin boogaloo as a musical genre gave way to the popularity of salsa, as Fania decided to focus its recordings on salsa music. The song “Boogaloo LeBron” by the LeBron Brothers reflects that transition in the music. Not all of the ‘Latin boogaloo’ music is well suited to blues dancing.)

Some Latin boogaloo music artists: Joe Bataan, Tito Puente, Willie Colon, Joe Cuba, Pucho Brown, Lebron Brothers, Latin Soul Syndicate

Herbie Hancock, a jazz musician, wrote a notable boogaloo song: Watermelon man

Some Latin boogaloo music that works for boogaloo blues dancing:

Latin Soul Syndicate – The funky cha cha

Mike Goudreau – Chicken boogaloo

Pete Rodriquez – I like it like that

Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers – Sex machine

Poncho Sanchez- Watermelon man

The development of Soul boogaloo music

Soul developed out of R&B and blues during the late 1950s and through the 1960s, alongside the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Associated with record labels such as Atlantic (NY), Motown (Detroit), and Stax (Memphis), it grew in places like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis, and New Orleans. The music and musicians emphasized the African American experience and culture, while reflecting their pride in being black. Themes in the music of artists such as James Brown – known as the Godfather of Soul—were unapologetically bold and percussive (inviting a dance style to match): Brown called his music and the dance he did to it ‘Soul boogaloo’, and later ‘Funk’. Artists such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin had many hits with driving syncopated dance beats (although their repertoires were not exclusively suited to Boogaloo dancing).

By the 1970s, Soul diverged into several styles (some of which were better for blues dancing than others). James Brown moved increasingly into Funk. Artists such as Sam Cooke, Ben E. King, Al Green, and Otis Redding sang Soul ballads with limited pulse. The Staple Singers added a gospel touch to their Soul. “Soul boogaloo” fell out of fashion as a music genre label, replaced by “Soul”.

Some Soul boogaloo musicians: James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Ike & Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Junior Walker, Sam & Dave, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, Rufus Thomas, Etta James, Billy Preston, Booker T and the MGs, Irma Thomas
Some Soul boogaloo songs:

Etta James – In the basement / I prefer you / Tell mama

Ray Charles – I got a woman / What I’d say

James Brown – I got you / Say it loud /Papa’s got a brand-new bag / Cold sweat / Sex machine

Solomon Burke – Cry to me

Wynton Marsalis – What’d I say (boogaloo)

Aretha Franklin – The house that Jack built / Respect / Chain of fools/ Rock steady

John Primer & Bob Corritore – Harmonica boogaloo

Smokey Robinson – Going to a go-go / I second that emotion

Marvin Gaye – I heard it through the grapevine

Sam & Dave – Soul man / Hold on, I’m comin’

Martha and the Vandellas – Dancing in the streets

Stevie Wonder – Superstition / Uptight

Junior Wells – Messin’ with the kid / Chitlin’ con carne / We’re ready

Blind Mississippi Morris – Funk ‘n see

Daddy Mack Blues Band – Giving you my money

Junior Walker – Money / Shotgun /Cleo’s mood / Shoot your shot

Taj Mahal – Hard way

Tiny Topsy – Just a little bit

Wilson Pickett- Mustang Sally/ In the midnight hour

The Boogaloo dance

The dance that became “the Boogaloo” drew on other dances from the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was danced solo to both Latin boogaloo and to Soul boogaloo music but became more closely associated with the latter (through weekly dance programs such as American Bandstand –and its many local and regional variants — and through the appearance of the Soul artists on TV programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show).

Some of the footwork – step step triple-step—may have derived from the LA hop and Chicago bop dances, both of which used a triple step, triple step, step step (or kick kick) rhythm, or from Chicago triple-step (then developing as a blues dance).

Ron Parker Dances

The smooth stylings of acts coming out of Motown, choreographed by Cholly Atkins, also influenced social dances in the era, because of their ability to look “cool” and funky. Syncopated footwork rhythms and arm movements were common in these dances.

The Temptations

The Supremes—Shake

The Boogaloo dance represented a fusion of dance styles and movements. It took advantage of syncopations in the music to encourage triple-steps, shimmies, and shakes. Several dances from the 1960s had percussive elements—jerks, wobbles, bounces—that Boogaloo drew on or incorporated. Some of the dances it incorporated were the Watusi, the Swim, the Jerk, the Frug, the Skate, the Chicken, the Pony.  Many of these dances were inspired by earlier black dance forms such as shimmy, shakes, Black Bottom, and sand dancing.

Dance Styles of the 1960s

The Mashed Potato

The Hitch Hike

The Monkey, 1963

The Funky Chicken

Probably the most influential singer-dancer of the age was James Brown. He promoted Soul Boogaloo music and dancing and made Boogaloo the go-to dance for 1960s Soul, Motown, and Funk music. Brown can be seen doing the dance or related dances in several clips from the 1960s.

James Brown does the Boo-ga-loo, 1964.

James Brown gives a dance lesson.

If you want to see more of James Brown, you can find his performances and interviews on Soul Train compiled here.

As shown in film from the era, the Boogaloo dance incorporated energetic triple-steps pushed from the side or back along with syncopated body rhythms, elevation changes, and arm movement. The dance was often shown on dance shows such as American Bandstand.

In the 1970s, Soul line dancing replaced Boogaloo, perhaps due to changes in the character of Soul music and the influence of the syndicated TV program, Soul Train, with its diverse improvised dance movements.

Similar name, different dance: Electric Boogaloo

In the mid-1970s, the Electric Boogaloo dance appeared, danced to Funk music. It combined some elements of the earlier Boogaloo dance with popping techniques added in. The term “boogaloo” may also refer to a form of break or hip-hop dancing that developed in the 1990s.

For more information on boogaloo, see my annotated bibliography for books, articles, and more.

Jill L Grant
Dr. Jill Grant has been dancing for fun for as long as she can remember, but only began partner dancing around 2006. Now she is seriously addicted to blues dancing. She became a fan of blues and swing music as a child, and since she retired from university teaching and research she’s begun investigating dance and music history as a new passion.

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