While they might seem fairly tame by today’s standards, in the 1950s, Elvis Presley’s dance moves were nothing short of outrageous. All that hip-action smacked a little too strongly of sex for conservative tastes but for a generation of young people finding their own identity in the face of post-war conformity, it was part and parcel of something modern, fresh, and vital – rock ‘n’ roll. But where did those iconic dance moves originate? Well, to answer that question, we need to take a quick step back in time.
Of all the things Elvis is famous for popularising, perhaps the most well-known is his iconic ‘rubber legs’ dance move. You’d expect something so legendary to have been finely honed over decades of gigging, but in actuality, the move was born during Elvis’ first paid concert in 1954. While taking to the stage with Scotty Moore, his guitarist and Bill Black, his bassist, Presley found that he couldn’t stop his legs from shaking – being so nervous about performing in front of a paying audience.
But rather than trying to hide this involuntary reaction, Elvis decided to use it to his advantage – backing away from the mic during the instrumental sections of tracks and emphasising the shaking of his legs to the point that he seemed to be having some music-induced fit, as though the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll had entered his bloodstream like a shot of adrenaline. Presley not only managed to disguise his nerves but also sent the crowd into a frenzy, causing them to scream to such an extent that he nearly left the stage, fearing that he was being booed off.
But the roots of Presley’s dance moves may go back even further than that. In his own lifetime, Presley was accused of appropriating several aspects of his style from Black artists. Defending himself against such comments in an interview in 1957, Presley said: “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along.”
Adding: “Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music. I used to go to the coloured churches when I was a kid – like Rev. Brewster’s church (Rev. W. Herbert Brewster of East Trigg Ave. Baptist Church in Memphis)”.
Music and dance formed an important part of religious ceremonies in Baptist churches such as the one Elvis attended as a child. While the practice is largely associated with Pentecostal church-goers, some Black-led churches in the US provide forms of worship in which the Holy Ghost is invoked through music and dance, causing members of the congregation to flail limbs uncontrollably and – stereotypically at least – speak in tongues. Is it possible that Elvis’ style was informed by watching the people around him celebrate their religion during those childhood church services? It’s hard to say for sure, but considering everything else that made Elvis famous existed well before he popularised it among white Americans, I wouldn’t be surprised if the origins of those iconic dance moves go back further than 1954.