The advent of Rock and Roll in the 1950’s introduced a profound change in the way men and women danced. Rather than the traditional paired dance movements where the man and woman embraced each other, rock dances involved mostly non-contact, fast paced dance steps. One of the first worldwide rock-n-roll dance crazes occurred in the 1960’s when The Twist dance hit the scene and became a worldwide sensation.
The Twist, originally inspired by Hank Ballard’s B-side song “The Twist”, is a simple dance that calls for you to swivel your body from side to side while alternately lifting each heel as you turn away from it. The Twist prompted an outcry from conservative 1960’s adults who felt the dance was too provocative. The popularity of the Twist on the dance circuit inspired other dances such as the Jerk, the Pony, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, and the Funky Chicken.
Origin of the Twist Dance
Several independent factors influenced and led to the creation of the Twist dance movement and name. Similar dances appear to have originated from enslaved African Americans. In the 1890’s, the African American plantation dance called “wringin” or “twistin” was popular with American slaves. In addition, the use of the name “twist” for dance movements most certainly came from the pelvic dance motion called the “twist” that came to America from the Congo during slavery.
In addition, several older songs mention the “twist” as part of a dance or dance movement. Joel Walker Sweeney’s “Grape Vine Twist” was an early blackface minstrelsy (minstrelsy being an American entertainment show consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music ) hit song. Sweeny himself had learned the banjo from enslaved African Americans in his native home town of Appomattox, Virginia. The African American influence on Sweeney influenced Sweeney’s lyrics for the song.
One of the first black dance crazes of the early twentieth century was the Mess Around, described by songwriter Perry Bradford in his 1912 hit song “Messin’ Around” as: “Now anybody can learn the knack, put your hands on your hips and bend your back; stand in one spot nice and tight, and twist around, twist around with all of your might.”
In the 1953 song “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll”, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters sang, “When she looked at me her eyes just shined like gold, and when she did the twist she bopped me to my soul.”
These factors and more led to the basic Twist dance movement and mention in Twist related songs.
Dick Clark sets the Stage for a Dance Craze
August 6, 1960 was a definitive date that influenced the popularity of the Twist dance. On that date, Chubby Checker’s version of the Twist debuted to national audiences on The Dick Clark Show. The Dick Clark Show was a Saturday night television program that featured national musical acts. Dick Clark was already a well-known music celebrity at the time due to the popularity of the American Bandstand show which ran five days a week and showcased local dancers and music acts. Although Dick Clark served as the catalyst that launched the worldwide Twist craze, the Twist dance had already begun to appear amongst the nation’s youth thanks to an earlier version of the song recorded by a singer named Hank Ballard.
In 1958, Dick Clark heard Hank Ballard’s original version of the song The Twist that had appeared on the B-Side of Hank Ballard’s single “Teardrops on your Letter”. Ballard’s version of The Twist was a 12 bar blues song that itself had become a major hit on the airwaves two years earlier. Ballard had been inspired to write the song after noticing the twisty moves of his background singers.
Clark noticed how the Philadelphia kids (his show was based in Philadelphia) gyrated in a unique way to Ballard’s song, The Twist. Although Clark like the song and was interested in the dance move kids had developed to go along with it, Clark felt that Ballard’s band, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, were a bit mature and inappropriate for Clark’s younger audiences. As a result, Clark approached Philadelphia’s Cameo/Parkway record label and asked that they record a new version of The Twist using an artist more attuned to the younger generation of kids. The label in return, hired Chubby Checker to remake the song applying his own personal style to the song. Chubby Checker had already demonstrated his talent for copying other artists on another minor hit of his, 1959’s The Class song.
Chubby Checker’s rendition of The Twist was released in the summer of 1960 and rocketed to number one on the singles charts in 1960 and again in 1962. This was only the second time in history that a song landed in the number one spot for a second time (the only other time this had happened was with Bing Crosby’s White Christmas). Checker’s remake was so close to the original in sound that according to the New York Times, “even Mr. Hank Ballard thought it was his own version the first time he heard it on the radio.”
The Chubby Checker version of The Twist gets credit for setting off the worldwide Twist dance craze. The original Ballard version had already started the Twist dance trend but Chubby Checker’s version pushed the dance over the top. The Twist became a media sensation about a year after Checker’s version was released. Upscale socialites were dancing the Twist at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City and the dance craze quickly moved to other countries.
The Twist Spreads to Other Entertainment Outlets
The song reached its height during the time when beach movies were popular and the Twist was a perfect fit for that movie genre. Typical dances that required the feet glide and turn were difficult to do in the sand. The Twist on the other hand, was easy to do in the sand and led the way for other similar dance moves such as the Monkey and the Swim.
As The Twist soared in popularity, other artists jumped on the bandwagon and released their own songs referencing The Twist. Bill Haley and His Comets released The Spanish Twist and Florida Twist in 1961 which were huge hits in Mexico. In 1961, Joey Dee and the Starliters released the Peppermint Twist which became number one in the United States for three weeks in January 1962. Bo Diddley released his album Bo Diddley’’s A Twister in 1962 which included tracks such as The Twister, Bo’s Twist, and Mama Don’t Allow No Twsitin. The additional media exposure from these songs served to propel the Twist dance craze even further.
As the dance craze exploded, the Twist spread to other popular media and entertainment outlets. In 1962, Dell Comics released a comic called The Twist. The Alvin Show produced a parody of The Twist called The Alvin Twist. The Flintstones cartoon debuted their version of the dance called The Twitch which aired in 1962. The Dick Van Dyke Show televised their version called The Twizzle in 1962. Even the conservative Leave it to Beaver TV show featured an episode called “Beaver Joins a Record Club” which featured The Twist dance.
How to do The Twist Dance
The original Twist record included instructions instructing the dancer to “imagine you are stubbing out a cigarette with both feet whilst drying your back with a towel”. Although the dance is not common today, you may still find occasion to do The Twist dance at retro parties or 1960’s themed events. Here’s how you do the Twist:
1 – Position yourself with both feet spaced shoulder width apart
2 – Hold your arms out from the body with the elbows slightly bent. Arms should stay more or less stationary except for any slight natural movement.
3 – Rotate the hips, torso, and legs as a single unite on the balls of the feet. The feet will grind back and forth on the floor as you swivel.
4 – Swivel the torso from one side to the other lifting each heel alternately as you turn away from it. The torso should be angled slightly forward.
Occasionally one leg is lifted off the floor for styling but generally the dance posture is low with the feet in contact with the floor and very little vertical motion.