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Sock Hops of the 1950s -- What were they?
From my radio days
Still strong after all these years
Fan photo from my personal file
A very popular past time for teenagers
A wise man once said that necessity was the mother of invention. If that is so, the sock hop had to have been a brainchild born of necessity. The sock hop was a social dance originating in the 1950s, usually put on by school groups, in which no shoes were worn on the dance floor. The dancers danced in their socks. The original sock hops were held in gymnasiums where street shoes were forbidden. Even tennis shoes were not allowed because someone invariably would sneak in wearing conventional shoes and scratch the hardwood floor. Chaperones were often the worst culprits of all, so even they were required to wear socks unless they observed from the bleachers.
There is very little written on the history of the sock hop of the 1950s, and most of it is from someone’s imagination. The writings center on being hip, preppys, greasers, saddle oxfords, and other things someone read in a book. One wrongly held view is that kids held sock hops because they could do the twist better in socks. Sorry, but we never heard of the twist in the 50s, and Chubby Checker and his version didn’t come along until the 1960s, after the sock hop became popular.
No one seems to know exactly who originated it or where, but it probably began in small towns or perhaps even suburbs without community centers or good places for teens to congregate and dance. At least that’s why my friends and I sock hopped.
My small town of 5,000 was typical of a sock hop town. There was no community center, and if we went outside the school to hold a dance, most places charged a rental fee that we kids couldn’t afford. Our very special dances and proms were held at the Country Club, while the Episcopal Church Parish house graciously allowed us to hold others. Either place had to be reserved months in advance. We usually could talk our principal into lending us the gymnasium with no more than one or two weeks’ notice as long as it was available and we obeyed the rules.
The rules were simple:
· No shoes on the gym floor, socks only, and that included chaperones
· No smoking in the gym
· No drinking
· Respect the chaperones
· Everyone in school was invited
Sock hops were usually held in cold weather when boredom set in, although there were other times. Someone would beg the principal’s permission, a date would be set, and then came the task of finding sponsors or chaperones, or maybe that in reverse order. Our high school of 300 students usually had no more than 50 to 75 to show up, so we needed no more than a half dozen chaperones. There were usually a couple of teachers willing to sacrifice a Friday or Saturday night, and we had our choice of enough parents willing to help.
Someone, usually two or three interested students, would make poster board signs and place them in strategic areas around the school announcing the date. Then excited students would talk up the sock hop in the halls:
“Are you going Friday night?”
“Oh yeah, wouldn’t miss it!”
"Be there or be square!"
Dates were lined up, but it was okay to come single because there would be lots of others of the opposite sex without dates, too.
Dress was simple. It was basically a come-as-you-are party in our school clothes. Guys dressed in clean jeans and shirts or tee shirts. Girls wore their mid-calf skirts with lots and lots of petticoats that looked cool swirling on the dance floor, or they wore jeans. A big fad for girls at the time was wearing their daddy’s white shirts, so sometimes a group of girls would decide to dress in jeans and their father’s shirts, which, unless the girl was tall, hung down to the knees. Poodle skirts weren’t much of a thing to us because they weren’t that easily obtained in the rural South. A few girls bought them in Little Rock or Memphis and wore them. Oh, and the jeans—Levis were our “designer jeans.” They were still affordable at $2.98 a pair, while off-brands could be bought at $1.98 a pair. No self-respecting teenager of the 50s would show up wearing off-brand jeans, not even Lees. Levis made ladies jeans that were fitted at the waist, but that wasn't cool. Jeans had to fit low on our hip bones. We wore boys jeans and we wore 'em skin-tight. My mother claimed that we girls "looked like we'd been melted and poured into our jeans."
Guys wore their regular white socks, but bobby sox were a must for the girls. Bobby sox were long, to-the-knee socks that were folded down three times to make a thick roll at the ankles. Plain anklets simply weren’t hip. The saddle oxford phase was passe by then, although they never went completely out of style. Pat Boone had popularized white bucks, and we preferred oxfords or penny loafers of white buck. Shoes were removed at the door, and there was always a scramble for shoes in a pile of white bucks after the dance was over. Lucky were the ones who wore unfashionable colored shoes that made them easier to find.
Music was provided by one of the students who had a phonograph and a good collection of 45s. Other students would lend their 45s also, and a sorting and claiming of the records occurred following the dance. A sock hop could not be held without Elvis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino to rock ‘n roll and Connie Francis and Pat Boone for slow dancing. The owner of the phonograph usually insisted on being in charge of the music and was aided by best friends who kept the requested records ready to go. Cries of “play something by Elvis!” or “how ‘bout Long Tall Sally?” rang out. “Rock around the clock,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Blueberry Hill” were all favorites, too.
It’s hard for me to even remember the names of the dances we did, in fact, we didn’t know the names of most of the dance steps. We watched Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and a local channel show from Little Rock called, “Steve’s Show” and imitated the dances we saw. Names came later.
I do recall one dance movement popular at our sock hops because only the most foolish girl would attempt it in heels. With a good momentum going, the boy would cross the girl’s arms and then swing her head over heels over his left shoulder. Then, if properly executed, she would land on her feet, release one hand and he would swing her around to face him. It was a very athletic move still popular today in ice dancing. Since I weighed less than 90 pounds soaking wet, I was usually one of the girls chosen for this step. I don’t recall ever having an accident, but a couple of times I remember a girl landing on her fanny and pulling her partner over backwards.
I was also very good at the Limbo, being only 5 feet tall I could get under a low pole much easier than the taller kids.
To have a real DJ spinning records at a sock hop was unheard of in the beginning. We never thought about it, mainly because there wasn’t one available. That came later after the sock hop caught on in the big city.
The sock hop was popular also because the anxiety and nervousness of the formal dance was not present. Girls danced freely in socks and didn't suffer achy feet or sprained ankles from high heels, and boys didn’t have to wear what they called their “monkey suits”. It was acceptable to snatch up a parent or a teacher to dance as long as the subject was willing to rock ‘n roll. Cuddling a mother or the algebra teacher in a slow dance was not socially acceptable, but no one would have wanted to, anyway.
Gosh, this brings back the memories. Dang, I’m old!