What Is the History of Line Dancing? Some Surprising Facts

Line dancing is a popular genre performed by a group of people and is a choreographed dance made of a repeated sequence of steps. Line dances are typically enjoyed at gatherings, celebratory events and are sometimes seen in music videos. Line dancers engage in steps and movements not to entertain others but simply for their own enjoyment. When it comes to the history of line dancing, how exactly did it come to birth and develop into what is known as line dancing today?

Line dancing has its roots in cultural folk dances, but primarily developed into its modern form in the USA in the 1970s & 1980s. Line Dancing became incredibly popular and widespread in the 1990s. Line dancing as we know it was primarily danced to country music, but now embraces many music genres.

There are many different line dances, and just like it now encompasses many modern genres of music today it also has developed into a broad range of difficulty levels in the line dances, rated from beginner to advanced. There have been copious amounts of influences for the genre’s progression. Stick around to find out about the history of line dancing and how it’s become one of the most popular group dances for people of all ages.

What is Line Dancing?

A line dance is a choreographed group dance made out of a repeated sequence of steps. The group of people dances in one or more lines at the exact same time and the minimum number of dancers is 2. Typically, dancers are facing the same way, but sometimes the rows of dancers can face each other. Unlike many popular country partner dances and square dancing, line dancers make minimal to no physical contact with each other.

Line dancing is distinguished by the fact that it is choreographed, unlike other popular dances that are also danced in lines and involve a series of repeating steps. Many folk dances are danced in lines; however, they aren’t choreographed, and even though line dancing stems from folk dancing, it is not considered folk dancing. Line dancing is relatively new, while folk dancing has been around for centuries.

Line dancing involves repeating sequences of steps for the duration of the music. Each repeating set of the sequences are usually called a “wall.” The dance itself is defined by the unique choreographed sequence of steps, and they are typically comprised of 32, 48, or 64 steps. Each repetition of the sequence is identical to all others, except for any personal styling. The repetition of identical sequences is what sets line dancing apart from other forms of dances in lines.

The dancing that we see in music videos, as well as chorus line dancing and folk dancing, does not involve the repetition of an identical sequence. The fact that line dancing is done in lines sets it apart from other modern popular dances, which may even be done to the same music and involve many of the same steps. Dancers usually do these dances solo or with dance partners independently of anyone else on the dance floor.

Line dancing origins

The origins of line dancing somewhat overlap with the history of many other dances, as it stemmed from a combination of various cultures as a result of settlement movements and trending cultures of the time. While it’s uncertain as to how and when exactly line dancing was created, it’s been concluded that line dancing came about as a result of many influences at different points in time, originating from factors present during the 1950s–1970s and right on through to the present day.

Early traditional dances from the 1950s–1970s and folk dances from varying cultures in the 1970s–1990s all played a role in shaping what we know as line dancing to some degree. Certain cultural influences also played a role in shaping line dancing, such as dance TV shows, articles, and the Hollywood film industry, which encouraged many fad dances, serving as inspiration for the formation of line dancing.

Where was line dancing created?

Line Dancing has its roots in European folk dancing, which is a participatory dance form. It is traditional and is usually performed by members of a community. Those dances had been created by agricultural people for secular and ritual purposes. Some of the examples of folk dances are the Balkan Kolo, the English Morris dance, and the North American square dance, as well as Maypole dances and different kinds of sword dances.

It is important to remember that almost all well-established western dance forms are ultimately derived from folk dance. Folk dancing wasn’t only popular in Europe but in the United States as well, and many folk dances have been labeled as “tribal dances.” Folk dancing, as well as line dancing, is a popular dance form rather than a performing dance form. This means that people do folk and line dances as a way to entertain themselves and not the audience. These folk dances are believed to be the root of line dancing.

When was line dancing created?

There isn’t a definitive answer to when line dancing was conceived. Some people believe that line dancing as we know it can be traced back to the round and square dances of Europe, while others think that it’s a relatively modern dance that was created in the 1970s. That being said, the earliest records of line dancing dates back to 1650, where dance instructions written in a book were found, suited to English Country Dancing.

It can therefore be theorized that line dancing originated from European Country or Contra dancing, which was done in New England, and brought over with the settlers who immigrated to the United States at later points in time. The settlers would have brought their culture with them, only to bring it into an environment budding with plenty of cultural influences.

The United States of America is a cultural melting pot. During the 18th and 19th centuries, European folk dances were mixed together. During the mid-1800s, an American country and western dance style had evolved in the West and Midwest of the United States. This new type of dance incorporated some steps and patterns from older folk dances influenced by the culture of the time, and country and western dances were predominantly circle and line dances. This relates to line dancing, as some forms are not done in lines but in circular line formations where the dancers face the inside or the outside.

Contra dances from New England in the early 1800s can be directly linked to European folk dances, which inspired many aspects of modern line dancing. Dancers would form 2 lines, a line of men and a line of women. During the 1960s, some dances appeared that could be called line dances. A dance called “Hully Gully” was very popular in the mid-1960s. This dance included standard steps and was danced in lines. However, it wasn’t choreographed.

“The Stroll,” which was popular from the 1940s to the 1960s, is considered to be an intermediate form between line dancing and contra dancing because it contains elements of both.

It is also believed that line dancing was invented on disco floors during the 1970s. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the dance was officially labeled as line dancing.

Some early ‘line dances’ included “Bus Stop” and “Nut Bush,” which weren’t choreographed and evolved on disco dance floors.

Check out this vintage video showing The Stroll! Some almost grapevines happening and what sort of appears to be line dancing by the guys and gals waiting their turn to take the “stroll.”

Who came up with line dancing?

Line dancing as we know it today was born in 1980, despite the fact that the concept had already been around for a while. In 1980, Jim Ferrazzano choreographed the “Tush Push.” This is one of the most popular and well-known line dances today. This dance is the first known choreographed line dance.

Two more dances were choreographed in the 1980s. Jimmie Ruth White choreographed “The Travelling Four Corners” and “J.R. Hustle.” In their original form, these dances were square dances done to country music, but they were quickly adapted to line dancing.

A lot of folk dances were adapted to country music and renamed. Oakland Boys released “Elvira” in 1981. It is unknown when the dance to the song was choreographed; however, the earliest known step description dates to 1985.

Pinnacle of line dancing

Even though the trend of line dancing was firmly established at this point, the arrival of 1992’s country Western hit, “Achy Breaky Heart,” launched line dancing into wider public consciousness. The song became one of the most popular Billy Ray Cyrus songs, and it was one of the biggest country songs of the 1990s. After the arrival of this song, line dancing became popular all around North America, Australia, and Europe, and dancers started to offer line dance classes.

In 1994, choreographer Max Perry created a worldwide dance hit for the song “Swamp Thing.” This song was a techno song that fused banjo sounds in the melody line. It helped to start a trend of dancing to forms of music other than country.

During the mid-1990s country, western music was influenced by the popularity of line dancing. Max Perry and Jo Thompson Szymanski, Scott Blevins, and several others used ballroom rhythms and techniques to take line dancing to the next level. A band called Steps created further interest outside of the United States with the techno song “5, 6, 7, 8” in 1998. Macarena was a hit that was based on a line dance in the mid-1990s.

Line dancing history and timeline

While the formation of line dancing as we know it is rather blurry with so many influences and iconic cultural inspirations, one can estimate the approximate journey from folk and tradition inspired dances to modern line dancing. There have been various events and influences which have inspired the development of line dancing over time, with some having more power of influence than others.

TimeInfluenceCultureImpact on Line Dancing’s Formation
UnknownFolk Dancing and Traditional Dances: The Root of Line DancingMixture: European and Western, possibly many more culturesAlmost all line dance is derived from folk dance, such as the Balkan Kolo, the English Morris dance, the North American square dance, Maypole dances, and sword dances. Many folk dances have been labeled as “tribal dances,” and these folk dances are believed to be the root of line dancing.
1650English Country Dancing, line dance instructions, and dance sheetsEuropeanBased on the document found, it appears that English Country Dances, or Contra dances, were danced in New England and brought over to the US with the settlers.
1800sAmerican country and western dance influences the United StatesWesternThis new type of dance incorporated elements from older folk dances, influenced by the culture of the time. Country and western dances were circle and line dances.
1800sContra influences New EnglandEuropeanContra dances appeared in New England in the early 1800s, and they can be directly linked to European folk dances. Dancers would form 2 lines, a line of men and a line of women.
1927The “Shim Sham” began. This inspired many aspects of line dancing’s development.MixtureThe Shim Sham was originally a warmup exercise for Lindy Hop dancers at the Savoy Club, utilizing Tap and Jazz steps. Edgar Sampson wrote a song called “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” inspired by the distinguishing rhythm of dancers’ feet. The Shim Sham was originally developed in a night club and was later interpreted as a dance at Savoy.
1950s“Madison”MixtureThis dance became very popular in the United States. It is theorized that this dance originated in Chicago or Detroit.
1957“The Stroll,” originally inspired by Chuck Willis’ hit C.C. Rider, and later danced to “Lil Darlin'” by the Diamonds.Mixture“The Stroll” is an intermediate form of line dancing and contra dancing, as it contains elements of both. The Stroll originated on American Bandstand, a popular TV dance party that commenced in 1954. The dance became so popular that Willis was titled the “King of the Stroll.” But, Dick Clark suggested that the Diamonds create a song tailored to the dance, after which their hit “Lil Darlin'” released in 1957 became iconic for the opening line: “Come, let’s Stroll.”
1961“San Francisco Stomp”MixtureThis dance became very popular in the United States.
1960s“Hully Gully”MixtureA dance called “Hully Gully” was very popular in the mid-1960s and included standard steps danced in lines. However, it wasn’t choreographed.
1977Hollywood Film IndustryMedia and cultural trendsSaturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham. This musical combined line dance with disco culture and style.
1970s“Electric Slide” choreographed for “Electric Boogie” by Marcia GriffithsMixtureThis dance became very popular in the United States.
1980s“Bus Stop,” and “Nut Bush” which was choreographed for “Nutbush City Limits” by Tina TurnerMixture, disco cultureThe genre was officially labeled as line dancing, but early line dances, including “Bus Stop” and “Nut Bush” weren’t choreographed and evolved on disco dance floors. These two hits were extremely popular in the United States and in Australia.
1980s“Tush Push” by Jim FerrazzanoMixtureThis is one of the most popular and well-known line dances today and is the first known choreographed line dance.
1980s“The Travelling Four Corners” and “J.R. Hustle,” choreographed by Jimmie Ruth WhiteMixtureIn their original form, these dances were square dances done to country music, but they were quickly adapted to line dancing.
1980Hollywood Film IndustryMedia and cultural rendsUrban Cowboy, directed by James Bridges, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. This influenced the popularity of line dancing in a manner that was relevant and enticing for general audiences.
1981 – 1985“Elvira,” by Oakland BoysMixtureA lot of folk dances were adapted to country music and renamed. It is unknown when the dance to the song was choreographed; however, the earliest known step description dates to 1985.
1985Betty Casey’s “Dance across Texas” that was published by University of Texas PressMediaThis text speaks of the importance of dance socials to early Texans. “The Freeze” and relevant steps were first described in the text, on page 82.
1988“Copperhead Road,” by Steve EarleMusic: Rock RadioThis song inspired the classic line dance named Copperhead Road, the choreographer of which is unknown.
1989“Cruisin'” by Neil Hale, choreographed for “Still Cruisin'” by the Beach BoysMixtureThe iconic “figure 8” shape distinguished this single wall, beginner/intermediate line dance. Cruisin’ was the first internationally acclaimed choreography of its kind to be done to a non-Country/Western song, as it can be danced to varying rhythms, including Latin and Swing. In a poll conducted in England in 2000, it was voted the “Best Known” line dance in the world at the time.
1992Hollywood Film IndustryMedia and cultural trendsGrease directed by Randal Kleiser
1992“Achy Breaky Heart,” by Billy Ray Cyrus. Influences worldwide spread of line dancingMusic: Country WesternThis hit launched line dancing into wider public consciousness. After the arrival of his song, line dancing became popular all around North America, Australia, and Europe.
1994Max Perry choreographed “Swamp Thang” for the song “Swamp Thing”MixtureThis song was techno styled, and fused banjo sounds in the melody line. It helped to start a trend of dancing to forms of music other than country.
1990sBallroom Rhythms and techniques, by Max Perry and Jo Thompson Szymanski, Scott Blevins, and several othersMixturePopular choreographers used ballroom rhythms and techniques to take line dancing to the next level.
1990s“Macarena,” the popular line dance, was createdMixtureMacarena was another hit that was based on a line dance. While this may not be the most popular line dance, this dance has become iconic for the line dance genre and is popular amongst children.
1994Rednex released a popular version of the classic folk songMusicCotton-Eye-Joe has become the most popular line dance.
1998“5, 6, 7, 8, by StepsMixtureA band called Steps created further interest outside of the United States with this techno song.
1999Academy Awards Ceremony, The Gap’s “Khaki Country” ad.Trends and mediaLine dancers danced to the 1999 version of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, by Dwight Yoakam.
2008Country Music TelevisionMusic and mediaLine dancing began becoming more popular in Europe and gained the interest of the French government.

There are many more line dances that were created in accordance with the culture and changing developments in the formation of line dancing, all of which had less prominent yet still significant roles in shaping modern line dancing. Other iconic line dances which were created during the 1990s include:

1991Mustang Sally
1992Bar Room Romeo, Linda Lu, Waltz Across Texas
1993Hot Tamales, Midnight Waltz, Dance Ranch Romp
1994Cha Cha Lengua, Rock It
1995Smokey Places, Fly Like a Bird, Black Dresses
1996Cruise Control, Swing Time Boogie, Uno, Dos, Tres (aka 13 MWZ)
1997Running Bear, Ribbon of Highway, Hey Bruce
1998Got to be Funky, Dizzy
1999Jai’ Du Boogie, What’s Your Name, Whole Lotta Peppas, Storybook Endings

The most popular forms of line dancing

Line dances are separated into different categories depending on how many walls they use in their dancing sequence. The most commonly used forms of line dancing are one-wall dances, two-wall dances, and four-wall dances.

The Macarena was a hit in the mid-1990s and it is still very popular today. The Chacha Slide was choreographed by a Chicago DJ called Mr. C. The Hokey Pokey is a very popular line dance for children, and The Hoedown Throwdown is a song featured in Hannah Montana: The Movie, which increased its popularity. The most popular country line dance is Cotton-Eye-Joe, which became prevalent when Rednex released their version of the classic folk song in 1994.

It’s not often when line dancing gets the kind of exposure it did in the movie Hannah Montana: The Movie. But another such occasion was in the remake of the movie Footloose in 2011. For the dance scene early in the movie, there was a new and actually pretty advanced line dance choreographed to the song by Big & Rich called Fake ID. The line dance goes by the same name. To find out more about this line dance and even learn it yourself see my post: What Line Dance is in the Movie Footloose? Is it Easy to Learn?

Line Dancing and Country Music

During the early years of line dancing, country music wasn’t intimately connected with line dancing. Some line dances were done to country music, but most were done to contemporary music. Line Dancing was still primarily centered on Western songs, however, its newfound mainstream appeal would see the dance format spread out to other more pop-centric musical genres as well. This is partly because line dancing had exhausted the market of country music fans.

Another reason is that line dancers became more and more experienced and were beginning to experiment. They started looking to other musical styles and writing dances to songs that they liked, instead of writing dances to currently popular country songs. The shift to non-country music was very universal. In some parts of the world, like the United Kingdom, line dancing is almost never done to the country anymore. Most dances in England are to non-country music, and in Australia, people have maintained a balance, with a mix of non-country and country songs.

Line dancing today

Today, line dancing has very similar traditional dances to country music and less traditional dances to non-country music. Line dancers dance to most styles of music, not just country music. There are many popular line dances, including The Hora, Cupid Shuffle, Catwalk Shuffle, Tush Push, The Stroll, Hokey Pokey, Chicken Dance, and many more which are still practiced in modern line dancing.

As time progressed, the previous standard of dances being choreographed to music switched to music being written specifically for line dancing. Line dance now has iconic customary dances choreographed to country music, and less conventional dances suited to non-country music. It now utilizes far more than conventional country music, incorporating most styles of music.

This includes country, modern pop, Irish, Latin, disco, rap, dance club, rock ‘n roll, and much more, making it ideal for modern culture as well as people of all ages and musical preferences. Modern line dancing has adapted extensively and is often done in combination with other styles such as western promenade dances, western variants of the waltz, swing, and polka, as well as a country two-step. There are many online databases that describe the details of existing line dance routines, coupled with the name of the choreographer and the music which it was intended to compliment.

Although all forms of line dancing, whether it be country, classic, or high-energy line dancing, have undeniably become widespread and popular worldwide, there are still certain areas that exhibit a higher level of enthusiasm and commitment to the dance. Line dancing remains predominantly popular in the United States, Australia, Europe, and England, and Durham, N.C, was declared as the line dancing capital of America in 2014 based on the statistics of people who participated regularly.

Line dancing is certainly a unique and special genre of dance, as it holds key remaining elements of so many historical timeframes and cultural traditions. It has displayed a wonderful combination of so many cultural influences, with the achievement of creating something which can be enjoyed worldwide regardless of age, social activity, cultural background, or tradition.

Although the genre has developed to cater to dancers of varying cultures and calibers, it still remains a popular activity for individuals of all ages and levels, suitable for solo enthusiasts, couples, and small to large groups. With line dancing having undergone so many developments, there is definitive anticipation with regard to more exciting developments in choreography and music for line dancers to look forward to in years to come.

Brian Sheridan

I'm the owner of CDT. I live in Fullerton, California, and enjoy country dancing with my friends at least once a week.

2 thoughts on “What Is the History of Line Dancing? Some Surprising Facts

  1. Thank you Christina for the kind words and nice complement! I’m actually 58, so I am getting up there! I discovered this dancing thing a little late in life, but am trying to make up for it. I live in Fullerton, so I know InCahoots well! But my place to dance is the Ranch a little south in Anaheim. I’ve been to Montana’s too! I’m bummed that the videos didn’t play for you, not sure what is going on there. But, here’s a link to a YouTube video I have of Boot Scoot Boogie happening at the Cowboy Palace in Chatsworth. Its just a minute, but its a pretty good clear demo! And thanks again for commenting!
    https://youtu.be/_Jb47nuimFI

  2. Brian, what a great job you did putting this line dance article together. My name is Christina, and I’ve been dancing since the end of ‘81 early’82, after I lost my husband, and I’ve been dancing ever since. I just turned 75 years old, and yes, I’m still line dancing. In fact, I teach a line dance class here in Nevada. I was born and raised in L.A.. I danced at In Cahoots in Fullerton, and the many other country clubs that were around back then….probably before you were born….by picture you seem young. I couldn’t open the videos to watch the demos. They seemed to be all the originals I learned way back when. I did most of my dancing at Montana’s in San Dimas, until I moved here six years ago. If you can demo Boot scootin’ boogie for me, I would appreciate it…. they do it different up here. Thank you. Keep dancing….it keeps you young. Christina

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