Disco dance history is shaped by the music it is named after. This is ironic, as the first thing that comes to most people's minds when they think of disco is the iconic man in the white suit, dark shirt unbuttoned and finger pointing jubilantly into the sky. It is also ironic that something so recognizable all over the world is still considered to be "dead."
Disco Dance History: Created for the Dance
While musicologists may argue about exactly what the first "disco" album was, they universally agree that one of the pioneers of the form was Tom Moulton, a man who loved dancing in clubs like the Garage in New York City during the mid 1970's. Crowds would gather there, dancing in loose improvisation with each other to popular songs of the day.
Moulton found it frustrating that most songs only lasted for three or four minutes - perfect for radio stations, and the limit of what seven inch records could hold with any quality. He experimented with recording a song to tape more than once, blending the beats seamlessly to create extended versions - and thereby single-handedly invented the "remix," a form of musical arranging that lasts in almost every genre of music to this day.
Moulton's goal wasn't to create a new dance music form, though - as he put it, he wanted to create music people could dance to. He worked with other sound engineers and recording artists to develop longer-playing records, and the crowds at dance clubs began responding enthusiastically. Without the limitations of only a few minutes of time, more complex versions of choreography began emerging.
The Dance Forms of Disco
Disco dancing is not a technically complex form - its roots are in other popular dances from Afro-American, Latin and Caribbean dances, transformed in America to dances like the Hustle, the Cha-Cha, and "Touch Dancing." While anyone could learn to move to the clear rhythms with nothing more than a step-touch back and forth, many more complex moves were created and taught as more and more people wanted to show their stuff on the floor.
The floors themselves became part of disco history, with many theatrical lighting technologies worked into the club and engineered to complement the music. Dance competitions were held, sometimes with substantial cash prizes, and professional disco dance troupes such as "Hot Gossip" and "Pan's People" were organized. Individual songs became the vehicle for new dances, such as the Village People's Y.M.C.A. and the line dance known as The Electric Slide.
The Beginning of the End: Saturday Night Fever
In 1977, disco dance history reached its peak with the release of the film Saturday Night Fever, catapulting John Travolta to iconic status worldwide. The soundtrack featured music by artists such as the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor, and became the most successful soundtrack album ever sold. The costumes and dances used in the movie became pop culture references, constantly parodied or imitated in all forms of media from candy advertising to puppet shows to John Travolta himself, who decades later performed a similar self-mocking dance solo in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.
In the success of Saturday Night Fever were also the seeds of the end of disco dance history. Record companies flooded the market, every club wanted to become a disco dance club, and the general public began to get bored. By the beginning of the '80's, radio DJ's were calling for the "Death of Disco," and the backlash grew so intense that a "Disco Demolition Night" sponsored by a Chicago radio station resulted in thousands of dollars in damage to Comiskey park by rioting fans. By the mid-80's, "disco" was a dirty word, and was considered dead.
Disco is Dead; Long Live Disco!
While it may not be called "disco," the dances and musical style live on. Hip-hop dancers carry on the tradition of the dance competitions, the Electric Slide is still a staple at weddings and dance clubs all over the world, and music forms such as "House" music are named after legendary dance clubs such as the Waterhouse. While it may never reach the hedonistic, drug-and-sex-filled experience of a pre-AIDS and pre-Drug War era, the core of disco remains. Disco is done for the pure joy of music, dance, and people sharing them together.