Word of the Month—January: Nutbush

Nutbush noun: a line dance performed to the song ‘Nutbush City Limits’.

At what is promoted as the world’s most remote music festival—the Birdsville Big Red Bash—a peculiar record was broken in July of this year: ‘The Birdsville event broke its own world record for most number of people (2330) doing the Nutbush dance.’ (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 4 August 2019)

To achieve this record, the participants had to correctly perform the line-dance steps to US singer Tina Turner’s 1973 song ‘Nutbush City Limits’ for the duration of five minutes. Perhaps more peculiar than this record-breaking feat is that the dance is an Australian phenomenon. While there is anecdotal evidence of the dance going back to the late 1970s, printed evidence for the term Nutbush is much later.

A newspaper article on ‘The mysterious history of the Nutbush’ explores several possibilities for why the ‘uniquely Australian phenomenon’ became so popular here. There is very little hard evidence, as it points out, but many theories on the Internet, including the notion that it was part of the Queensland physical education curriculum. One interviewee gives us a hint that the dance may have been around for a long time:

This was how Western Sydney interdisciplinary artist Kay Armstrong first encountered the Nutbush, as a primary school student newly arrived in WA from England in the late 1970s. ‘We learnt the Nutbush in primary school, and then in high school, and then I’ve probably done it at every wedding I’ve gone to since’. (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 2018)

It is not till the 1980s that we find written evidence of line-dancing in connection with the song: ‘…the children were too busy dancing the Madison to the song Nutbush City Limits to worry much about next year.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 1989) The Madison is not the same as the Nutbush, and although there are a number of similar references to people dancing to the song, we find the first printed evidence of a dance routine called the Nutbush in the next decade:

As you nibble croissants and drink coffee on a Sunday morning at Southgate, outside, Melbourne’s cowgirls and cowboys practise line dancing. Beware calling it daggy or boring. Put up your hand if you did … the Nutbush to Tina Turner’s ‘Nutbush City Limits’ in the ’70s at discos. That’s line dancing, partner. (Melbourne Age 2 July 1995)

The term increases in frequency from the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s. It is often mentioned in the context of school events, and in accounts of parties, social gatherings, and even wedding receptions: ‘Beth and Glenn surprised their guests by performing the Nutbush as their bridal dance.’ (Melbourne Herald Sun, 16 September 2001)

Recent evidence, including the record-breaking attempts in Birdsville, show that the Nutbush remains a crowd-pleaser—its popularity is largely due to simple choreography combined with the funky foot-stomping beat of the hit song. As a Tina Turner impersonator found when on tour here, many Australians know it and are keen to join in:

Only in Australia does the audience jumps to its feet to do the Nutbush dance whenever Rebecca O’Connor is on stage. Known as ‘simply the best’ Tina Turner impersonator … Rebecca has studied her character, moves and voice to perform flawless renditions of Turner’s greatest hits for more than 20 years. But she had never come across the Nutbush City Limits dance until she performed in Australia…. (Rockhampton Bulletin, 15 September 2011)

Nutbush will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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