You might be forgiven for thinking that the photo on the left dates from around 1968 or 1969. From the Isle of Wight Festival, for example, or from Woodstock or Glastonbury. In fact it’s a still from a 1922 film clip of people demonstrating a dance craze of the post-WWI era, the Shimmy. And in particular, as you’ll see in the clip below, a movement called the ‘Shake’.
The word Shimmy is presumed to date back to a 1917 ragtime dance-song by early jazz pianist and composer Spencer Williams (1889-1965) titled Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble (here performed by Sidney Bechet). Williams was a prolific and very successful songwriter, best known for hits such as Basin Street Blues, I Ain’t Got Nobody, Royal Garden Blues, and Everybody Loves My Baby, among others. The word obviously caught on, as in 1918 Sophie Tucker recorded a song titled Ev’rybody Shimmies Now, while between 1919 and 1922 there were numerous recordings (including the Original Memphis Five, the Cotton Pickers, and the Georgians) of I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate penned by Clarence Williams and Armand Peron.
The dance craze, popularised by the Flappers of the early 1920s, appears to be of somewhat later vintage, however. And if actress Gilda Gray, speaking in a 1919 interview with Variety magazine, is to be believed, the origin of the ‘Shimmy’, both word and dance, is to be credited to Native Americans:
You may not believe it but the original shimmy dance has never been properly introduced in New York. I know, for I have studied the dancing characteristics of the Indians for a long time and they are really responsible for the shimmy which they labeled the ‘Shima Shiwa’. There have been continual efforts on the part of this dancer and that one, with each declaring that his or her version is the ‘original.’ There is no doubt but that the shimmy dance as it was constructed by the American Indian… would have a greater popularity if done right.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the Shimmy caught on, and looks distinctly modern, as you’ll see in the clip below.