Jitterbug can be used as a noun to refer to a swing dancer or various types of swing dances, e.g., Lindy Hop, Jive, West Coast Swing, and East Coast Swing. This has led to confusion within the dance community, since jitterbug can refer to different kinds of swing dances. It can also be used as a verb to mean someone dancing to swing music. For example, "People were top-notch jitterbugging, jumping around, cutting loose and going crazy".
Various editions of Arthur Murray's "How To Become a Good Dancer" contain the following text. "There are hundreds of regional dances of the Jitterbug type", "A favorite with young New Yorkers is the Lindy Hop"(1947), "Whether it's called Swing, Lindy or Jitterbug.." (1954). "Formerly called Jitterbug, Lindy Hop and various other names in different parts of the country... Swing is the newer title"(1959)."
The term jitterbug comes from an early 20th-century slang term used to describe alcoholics who suffered from the "jitters" (i.e., delirium tremens). The term became associated with swing dancers who danced without any control or knowledge of the dance. This term was famously associated with swing era dancers by band leader Cab Calloway because, as he put it, "They look like a bunch of jitterbugs out there on the floor" due to their fast and often bouncy movements on the dance floor. In popular culture, it became generalized to mean a swing dancer (e.g., you were a jitterbug), a type of swing dance (e.g., you danced the jitterbug), or the act of swing dancing (e.g., you were jitterbugging).
Calloway’s 1935 recording of “Call of the Jitter Bug (Jitterbug) and the film “Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party” popularized use of the word “jitterbug”, and created a strong association between Calloway and jitterbug. Lyrics to “Call of the Jitter Bug” clearly demonstrate the association between the word jitterbug and the consumption of alcohol.
World War II facilitated the spread of jitterbug to Europe. For instance, by May 1944, in preparation for D-Day, there were nearly 2 million American troops stationed throughout Britain. Time magazine reported that American troops stationed in France in 1945 jitterbugged , and by 1946, jitterbug had become a craze in England.
In 1944, with the United States' continuing involvement in World War II, a 30 percent federal excise tax was levied against "dancing" night clubs. Although the tax was later reduced to 20 percent, "No Dancing Allowed" signs went up all over the country. Jazz drummer Max Roach argued that, "This tax is the real story why dancing...public dancing per se...were [sic] just out. Club owners, promotors, couldn't afford to pay the city tax, state tax, government tax.
Jitterbug dancing was also done to early rock and roll. Rockabilly musician Janis Martin equates jitterbug with rock and roll dancing in her April 1956 song "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll".
In 1957, the Philadelphia-based American Bandstand was picked up by the American Broadcasting Company and shown across the United States. American Bandstand featured currently-popular songs, live appearances by musicians, and dancing in the studio. At this time, the most popular fast dance was Jitterbug, which was described as “a frentic leftover of the swing era ballroom days that was only slightly less acrobatic than Lindy”.