What is the Jitterbug?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The jitterbug is a variant of swing dancing, and derivative of the Lindy hop and East Coast Swing. It became popular in the 1940s. Several suggestions for the origin of the term jitterbug exist. Since the dance involves jerking movements, and may resemble the jitters of alcoholic recovery, it may have derived its name from such. Cab Calloway once remarked that the dancers looked like a bunch of “jitterbugs.”

Swing dancers often wear period-inspired clothing.
Swing dancers often wear period-inspired clothing.

Another possible origin for the name jitterbug is that it was originally intended as a derogatory or ethnic slur. Most dance schools in the late 1930s did not want to teach the Lindy Hop. However, as the popularity of the dance grew, the jitterbug began to be taught, and any slur to ethnicity has since been forgotten.

Vintage microphones are associated with the rockabilly aesthetic.
Vintage microphones are associated with the rockabilly aesthetic.

Some people use the term jitterbug to refer to all types of swing dancing. This is technically incorrect by the strictest definition of the dance. As well, jitterbug can be used as a verb: Do you jitterbug?

The jitterbug places emphasis on the six-count move. The very basic move of the dance is a back, step, forward, touch, step, and touch. The man would begin this dance on the left foot. The footwork for the leading partner is left-right-left-right-right-left. The following partner duplicates the steps on the opposite foot.

There are multiple turns, lifts and spins associated with the jitterbug. Often the partners may dance side by side, instead of in a face-to-face partner hold. This is characteristic of many variants of swing dance.

Once basic steps and spins are mastered, some of the lifts are fun to learn. These can include lifting and swinging the following partner from one side to the other, swinging the partner through spread legs, and various other complicated maneuvers. The dance is quick, so most of the tricks take some skill to acquire.

The jitterbug requires brisk 4/4-time music. It can be danced to rockabilly, 50s and early 60s rock and roll, some modern rock songs, swing music, and some jazz predating swing. A variant of the jitterbug may be danced to quick time Country and Western music as well.

Since swing dance has risen in popularity, many clubs offer swing dancing with instruction for beginners for a half hour prior to open dancing for all. This is a fun way to get an introduction to dances like the jitterbug. As well, many dancing schools, community colleges and recreation centers offer introductions and more advanced classes in swing, which can soon have one tripping the light fantastic in classic jitterbug style.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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I saw a swing dancing exposition a few years back and I was amazed at the skill, precision and speed of the dancers. I had always thought of swing dancing as kind of a silly fad but seeing it with my own eyes is like watching a combination of jazz, rock and gymnastics.

It was clear that the dancers practiced relentlessly and that they had woked with each other for years. It was like they had one mind and two bodies. And the athleticism! They could rival a lot of professional ball players in grace and strength.


I took swing dancing lessons a few years back and the jitterbug was one of my favorite steps. It is simple but active. You do not have to try very hard to feel like you are really dancing.

Plus, it has amazing swing. Most swing dances are pretty upbeat and frenetic but the jitterbug really stood out for me. I do not swing dance much any more because how often do you really have the chance but I always enjoy enjoy being able to jitterbug when I can.

Last week was my grandparents' 40th wedding anniversary and they had a big celebration to commemorate the exciting occasion.

Both of them love to dance and they actually met at a dance when they were much younger. There was a band and a dance floor at the anniversary party and grandpa and grandpa were burning it up. They could dance better than just about anyone there even with their old knees and shaky legs.

You could see when they danced together what a bond they still had. It was like they were dancing on the clouds and no one else in the world existed. I was pretty moved by the sight of it all. I hope that I can find a love like that sometime in my life.

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