Few of the American’s who take part in a favorite party tradition realize that it originally served as a sacred funeral ritual from the West Indies – it is called the Limbo.
In Trinidad, the Limbo was a part of a funeral dance. Mourners at the funeral would walk towards a horizontal bamboo pole and would attempt to walk forward, while bending backwards at the waist in order to move under the pole without knocking it off of its supports. The act was meant to symbolize the passage that the soul of the departed would take between life and the afterlife. Being able to pass under the bar without disturbing the pole or falling down was difficult symbolizing the difficulty of the journey to heaven and thus that difficult period of time was spent in limbo (the area between heaven and hell. As the clapping and chanting mourners followed each other under the pole, the pole was moved lower and lower towards the ground.
American tourists in the 1950’s witnessed the event and demonstrated it for friends at home. Boscoe Holder, a dancer from Trinidad was one of the most famous limbo artists and used it in his dance routine. As more people were exposed to it, the limbo craze took off, first among teenagers and beatniks, then among their parents at dinner parties.
Eventually, it was showcased in the 1960 movie “Where the Boys Are.” For the next year and a half it spread like wildfire across the country, but began to fade in 1962. In 1963, however, Chubby Checker, the man who made the Twist famous released a song called “limbo Rock” which quickly soared to number one on the charts and finished the year as the top song of the year. In the song, Checker asked “how low can you go.” In Canada, a 15 year old girl was able to go as low as 6 1/8 inches from the ground. As with most fads, the limbo craze finally petered out the public became infatuated with the arrival of the Beatles.