In Trinidad, mourners at a traditional funeral approach a horizontal bamboo pole and attempt to walk forward while bending backwards from the waist, in order to pass under the pole without knocking it off its supports.
It is meant to symbolise the passage of the deceased person’s soul between this life and the afterlife.
The journey is a difficult one – the pole is in perpetual danger of falling – and the dancer’s prospects of entering heaven at the end of it are uncertain.
In short, the dancer is in limbo – the space between heaven and hell. One by one, the clapping and chanting mourners follow each other under the pole as it is gradually lowered, making limbo all the more trying.
American tourists witnessed the ritual in the 1950s and demonstrated it for the folks back home. At the time, Trinidadian Boscoe Holder was one of the most famous limbo artists, and he helped to popularise the dance through his performances.
The limbo craze took off – first among teenagers and beatniks, and then among their parents. Soon, Americans were kicking off their shoes and doing the limbo at dinner parties . . .
The limbo was showcased in the 1960 teen beach movie Where The Boys Are, and for the next year and a half Americans were limbo crazy.
The popularity of the craze had just begun to wane when – in 1963 – Chubby Checker (the man who popularised The Twist) released a song called Limbo Rock. The record shot to Number One and became the top song of the year.
Checker’s “how low can you go?” refrain was echoed everywhere. Taking up Checker’s challenge, one 15-year old Canadian girl went very low, hovering 6.8 inches from the ground.