BOSTON—According to a survey published Wednesday by historians at Boston University, more than 85 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with the upbeat, traditional dance routine intended to accompany the singing of the national anthem.
Once taught in the nation's elementary schools, showcased at the start of all sporting events, and included as part of the exam for new U.S. citizens, the patriotic kicks, dips, waves, and twirls from "The Star-Spangled Banner" have nearly vanished from the public consciousness over the past century, the study found.
"From a historical perspective, it came as quite a shock that nearly nine out of 10 Americans could not recall more than a single step of what was, for many years, an essential part of civic life," said Kenneth P. O'Neill, who co-authored the report. "Most people are familiar with the dance's iconic first move, placing one's right hand over one's heart. But when we asked them what comes next—placing the left hand over the right and pumping back and forth—people had no idea what we were talking about."
In the original choreography of Francis Scott Key, the lawyer and vivacious dancer who also penned "The Star-Spangled Banner," singers begin the second line of the song by holding a salute while marching in place. Then, when "Whose broad stripes" is sung, they jump into a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance, put a hand on their hip, and slowly point across the horizon, pantomiming Key's view the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, when he awoke to see the U.S. flag still waving over Fort McHenry after a British naval bombardment.
"Surprisingly, we found very few people who knew that once the song gets to 'O'er the ramparts we watched,' you're supposed to face the person on your right, fold your arms, plant your right foot, and kick around in a clockwise three-quarter circle," said O'Neill, gracefully demonstrating the move in a traditional red, white, and blue national-anthem cape. "This sequence puts you in the right position for 'And the rockets' red glare'!"
"That's when you shimmy like there's no tomorrow," he added.
Despite the fact that there has been an official choreography in place since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson ordered "The Star-Spangled Banner" be performed at all state functions, there have been several updates and revisions to suit the needs of the times.
A relatively tame tap dance to 'Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,' popular through World War I, later morphed into a more provocative free-form sway emblematic of the Jazz Age.
In 1931, when it became clear the elaborate semaphore flag routine performed to 'O! Say does that star-spangled banner yet wave' had gone out of style, Herbert Hoover signed a resolution replacing it with a peppy jazz square, which was thenceforth known as the "Hoover Shuffle."
"What has sadly eluded nearly everyone's memory is not only these changes, but also the all-important grand finale during the routine's emotional climax," O'Neill said. "On the last line of the song, the singers leap into the air as high as they can, thrust a fist toward the sky, and land in a split."
"On one hand, I suppose it's unfortunate the majority of U.S. citizens are not aware of the rich tradition of movement that informs our expressions of patriotism," he continued, adding that before long finding someone who can dance the national anthem might be as rare as meeting someone who knows his state's handshake. "But we also shouldn't forget there is still a small group of individuals working to keep those traditions alive."
O'Neill made a point of praising presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who along with his 12-member step crew, "Shade," has consistently whipped crowds into a frenzy on the campaign trail.