The hustle originated in the Hispanic communities of New York City and other U.S. cities in the early 1970s in what was known as the disco era. Historian Ralph Giordano has called hustle the first Latin dance indigenous to the United States. At first danced mostly by members of the Hispanic, African-American, and gay communities, the dance went mainstream in 1975 with Van McCoy’s hit, “The Hustle” (originally a line dance). The hustle marked a return to “touch dancing” after years of couples dancing apart.
The hustle was thought to be a passing fad until 1977, when the movie Saturday Night Fever became an overnight success in the theatres. Paramount Pictures was at first reluctant to release the film, fearing that the dance was becoming obselete. But the movie became an instant hit and reignited the hustle and disco craze. John Travolta returned the manliness to partner dancing. The movie’s soundtrack became the bestselling album in music history, selling more than the three previous bestselling albums combined. Department stores opened sections devoted entirely to disco attire as bell bottoms, open shirts, platform shoes, and hot pants became all the rage.
The disco era also inspired changes in the role of the DJ in the dance club, then know as the discotheque. No longer just there to keep the music playing, DJs began to concern themselves with creating the right atmosphere for dancers. They started to overlap one song with the next without stopping so the dancers could continue dancing. They even had a book that listed the BPM (beats per minute) of each song so that the dancers wouldn’t have to slow down or speed up in between songs. Strobe lights and mirror balls were also used, and DJs started to coordinate lighting and music. Rolling Stone writer Tom Smucker wrote at the time that disco “was about ecstasy: a place where the DJ choreographed music and lighting to manipulate the mood on the dance floor until everyone was lost in movement” (see note below).
Unlike most dances that gradually faded from popularity without much fanfare, disco and the hustle saw a much more heated demise. Long danced largely by minorities and gays, disco found itself a target of persecution during the rise of Rock & Roll in the late 70s. “Discophobia” mounted as disco came to be negatively associated with drugs, sex, immorality, and homosexuality. The “Disco Sucks” campaign was mounted and included sometimes violent demonstrations in public places. Disco was replaced with Rock & Roll, and “touch dancing” once again fell out of favor as the nation discovered break dancing, hip hop, and krumping in the 1980s.
The Music and the Dance.
Despite its origins in Hispanic communities, the hustle is typically danced to disco and other popular music instead of Latin music and is usually not danced in Latin night clubs alongside salsa and merengue. Instead, hustle is typically grouped with west coast swing, night club 2-step, and country western. In the city of Anchorage, hustle finds its place alongside these dances in classes, workshops, and other events put on by West Coast Swing Alaska.
There were originally many variations of the hustle, but the most common form, and what is considered standard today, is the New York Hustle. The New York Hustle consists of a six-count basic (or three-count basic done twice) that is danced for every eight counts of music. The rhythm is counted out in the following pattern: &1 2 3 (there is a pause on 4, but it is not counted). The basic step pattern for the leader consists of a quick ball change on left, right (count &1), followed by a step left (on count 2) and step right (on count 3). The leader pauses on count 4 and then is ready to repeat the pattern starting again with the left foot. The follower does the same step pattern but beginning with the quick ball change on the right foot.
The hustle is a quick dance that incorporates many spins and turns from the Latin and swing dances. The hustle is also danced with many acrobatic lifts and dips in competition. In social dancing, the syncopation of the “&1” count provides a swinging feeling (or push and pull) that allows the leader to prepare his partner for turns and other moves, which typically happen on counts 2 and 3.