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The Mysterious Origins of the Nutbush

Lucy Bailey approaches city limits.

Ask any Australian under 70 what dances they learned as children, and they’ll probably say the Nutbush. The dance, set to Tina Turner’s iconic ‘Nutbush City Limits’ has become a rite of passage for generations, but what may surprise you is the historiographical controversy surrounding its origin. 

There are a wide range of theories about the invention of the Nutbush. A popular, now refuted claim is that it was part of the Queensland primary school curriculum in the 1980s. However, Australian Cultural Studies scholar Professor Jon Stratton is quoted by SBS as believing that the dance was made up by somebody at the NSW Ddepartment of Education in the late 1970s, possibly inspired by the Madison: a line dance with similar, simple steps.  

Indeed, The Tina Turner Blog suggests that the success of the dance is likely due to its lengthy introduction, which gives adequate time for people to form a grid and even teach others the dance. The dance itself is also extremely simple, which means it can be enjoyed by people of almost all ages and abilities. 

Unfortunately, despite what convincing tribute shows like the Crown’s 2019 ‘Legends in Concert’ would have you believe, there is no evidence that the late great Tina Turner was aware of what the Nutbush would become — or what it would come to mean to generations of Australians. 

And I was ready to leave it at that. That was, until I started watching Turner’s performances from the early 70s and began to notice some familiar moves. 

First, there was a clip of Tina performing with Ike in 1973. Tina, dressed in a tomato red jumpsuit and dancing alone onstage, breaks into a two-step that bears remarkable similarity to the first moves in the Nutbush dance. 

Next, there was Tina’s performance on The Midnight Special in November 1973, where the Ikettes (Turner’s backup performers) launch into a routine that can only be described as a more complex version of the famous dance. There’s kicking and two-stepping, and the dancers even repeat the sequence facing different directions. 

Then, there it was: a clip from the Cher show in 1975. One minute and twenty five seconds into the song, just as Ike begins his synthesiser solo, it happens. Tina and the three Ikettes behind her lower their microphones and create a square formation: launching into the Nutbush’s unmistakable out-cross-out-kick, lifting their knees as they scoot towards the front of the stage. 

The Nutbush. It was more complex, and performed with more artistry than you’d find at your average primary school bushdance, but it was there and Tina was doing it. We may never know how the Nutbush first found its way into the schoolhouse, but Turner’s performances throughout the 70s show her and the Ikettes bringing its iconic steps from her one-horse town to the world.