This is the second in a series exploring popular American Culture and the influences on Social Dance in the US. This piece focuses on “The Roach” one of the “dance crazes” to come out of Chicago’s Soul scene in the early 1960’s. On The Steve Harvey Show, the host is noted for dancing “The Roach” and his interview of Rumer Willis and Valentin Chmerkovskiy was no exception.
Not sure just how Val will follow Steve Harvey’s request to include “The Roach” in one of their dances, but if it works out that way, it’ll be a hoot! After seeing the segment below, I was curious about the origins of this dance step. Was it a product of Steve’s imagination, or perhaps created as a joke after giving chase to one of the creepy crawlies?
Others, more savvy than I, recalled seeing this dance in “Hairspray,” the memorable tribute to 1960’s de facto segregation-era Baltimore. (It should be noted, Baltimore and Maryland schools desegregated after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1956, although based on demographics, the city’s schools and general society were still largely segregated, although not by law.) However, it didn’t originate there. Instead, “The Roach” was one of many to come out of Chicago in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Below is the 1961 Gene and Wendell recording of “The Roach,” which is generally credited for spreading the dance of the same name.
However, Gene and Wendell were beaten to recording by Little Sammy Jones and the Eldorados recording of “Doing the Roach” in 1960. I actually enjoy this version better. More R&B vibe, with brass and a singer with a richer voice, than in the Gene and Wendell rather pop-sounding version.
The Chicago Soul musical tradition has been documented in a well-reviewed, if not often reviewed book, “Chicago Soul: Music in American Life” by Robert Pruter.
Many people know of Motown, fewer know of Memphis based Stax music. It was said if Motown was Hit Town than Stax was Soul Town. However, Chicago, long a rich resource for music and in particular from the black community, also had plenty of soul and recording studios. From regional sized labels, to mom and pop studios, there was a twelve block stretch along South Michigan Avenue known as “Record Row”  with label owners and management who knew their market and the performers. The book chronicles the history of Chicago’s Soul music industry from the 60’s-80’s, including the gobbling up of smaller labels, by large entities who didn’t have the same connection, or necessarily, results, once businesses changed hands. One reviewer, Benjamin, noted , “Maybe because the author’s day job is the editor of an encyclopedia, this book also reads like a reference book. Organized mainly by record label, this is a detailed account of everyone who ever recorded anything that might be filed under soul. After a while though, it starts to gel together as some of the most important figures appear again and again. The chapter on dance crazes alone is worth it!”
It’s that chapter on “dance crazes” where the history of “The Roach” is found, along with all sorts of other styles to come out of Chicago’s black community. Others included the “Continental Walk”, “Continental Stomp”, “Pony”, “Hully Gully” and more. “The Roach” is a stomp dance, mimicking the initial stomp on the insect, crushing it for good, then a backward flip of the foot to symbolically dislodge the bug from the bottom of ones shoe. A rather iconic dance of the era, author Robert Pruter notes, “the kids who did the dance knew it was “their thing,” unique to them, and they had a particular pride in doing the dance even though it pointed to the reality of the ghetto existence of many of them. The dance really represented a psychological triumph over their physical environment.” 
Steve Harvey wasn’t born or raised in Chicago, nor did he live in the ghetto, as far as his bio indicates. However, he was a young child when “The Roach” became popular, and having been homeless for many years as an adult, before finding success in the entertainment business, he probably had an encounter with a roach or two.
As a side note, watching Rumer Willis and Val Chmerkovskiy on the Steve Harvey show, I was once again impressed with Rumer’s drive to do her best on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. Her desire to win as a team with Val and confidence in their ability to do so, is rooted in a rather “old school” demonstration of focus and determination to achieve a personal goal. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, with two parents who reached lofty heights in the film industry. Tinseltown is highly competitive. Without focus, drive, talent, and perhaps a bit of luck, her parents might well not have been so successful. How delightful to enjoy a DWTS celebrity who not only wants the win, not only believes the win can be achieved, but is more than willing to put in every ounce of effort to earn the win. Val quoted Rumer’s comment to him from a few days prior to the shows taping: “I’d rather live in a place of confidence than insecurity.” Considering how much we read about women and confidence issues, it’s refreshing that Rumer is living in a “place of confidence.”
If you enjoy dance, music, and a little slice of history, check out SWAY: A Dance Trilogy. Produced by Dance With Me USA, with partners Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Tony Dovolani, and Val Chmerkovskiy headlining the upcoming production run June 5 & 6 in NYC. Featuring Special Guest, Olympic Gold Medalist and S18 Mirror Ball Trophy winner, Meryl Davis, Guest Performance by Para-Olympian and S18 runner up, Amy Purdy, and Featured Performances by Dancing With the Stars and SYTYCD favorites, Peta Murgatroyd, Emma Slater, Artem Chigvintsev, Henry Byalikov, Jenna Johnson, and Serge Onik all complimented by Dance With Me USA performers, who you may not see on TV, but are highly talented with national and international accomplishments.
 Wiki entry on the 2007 Jonathan Waters film, “Hairspray”
 Wiki entry on desegregation of Baltimore (and Maryland) schools in 1956
 Chicago Tribune review of “Chicago Soul”, 01.07.1991
 Goodreads review by Benjamin
 Google books excerpt from “Chicago Soul” on dance styles
 Google books excerpt from “Chicago Soul” on the importance of “The Roach” and other dances
 Wiki bio on Steve Harvey