It was a simple step. Imagine stubbing out cigarettes with your feet while drying off your backside with a bath towel. By today's standards, that move may look a little chaste, but The Twist was almost single-handedly responsible for emancipating the American groin.
Just as "Hatless Jack" Kennedy made the men's fedora passé, The Twist dismantled the last remnants of old-fashioned ballroom dancing. Couples were no longer required to lead or follow, endure clammy hand-holding or step on each other's feet. It was every gal and guy for themselves, off in their own joyful, hip-shaking orbits.
The song that started the craze was written and recorded in 1959 by R&B singer Hank Ballard, then covered a few months later by a grocery store clerk-turned-singer named Ernest Evans, aka Chubby Checker. After Checker's appearances on American Bandstand and later, The Ed Sullivan Show, "The Twist" went #1, while its accompanying step tornadoed its way across the country.
Ground zero for the dance fad was New York City, in a small midtown dive bar called The Peppermint Lounge. On any given night you might find the likes of Noël Coward twisting away next to an off-duty cop. The Lounge's house band, Joey Dee & The Starlighters, cooked up their own variation, called "The Peppermint Twist," which furthered the cause of uninhibited gyrating and topped the charts on the heels of Checker's disc.
By the following year, when Hollywood was churning out movies like Twist Around The Clock and Don't Knock The Twist, the dance's popularity was already waning. Significant as it was in loosening our national inhibitions, it is just one of many dance fevers that have swept the country over the last century. The Charleston, The Hokey Pokey, The Hitch Hike, The Frug, The Watusi, The Hustle, The Robot, The Macarena, The Lambada, right up through today's hip-hop moves such as popping, gliding and krumping--they've all set our collective backfields in motion while helping us feel free of our troubles.
What remains so attractive about the Twist (and many of the other dances mentioned) was that everybody could do it. It was democratic joy. Bum-shaking for and by the people. When is the last time that happened? The freestyle stomping and chest pops of krumping are the closest thing we've had, but there hasn't been a breakthrough song to deliver them to the masses. Beyoncé almost did it with "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)," whose moves can now be found in aerobics classes at YMCAs everywhere.
Today, we seem increasingly content to sit on the sidelines rather than dance. Maybe it's because the couples on shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars are acrobatic and confident beyond our abilities, and to achieve the sexed-up poses they strike, we'd would require at least a few cocktails (not to mention a post-dance tube of Ralgex--or for American readers, Bengay).
What we really need is another unifying step, a move to set the national rear-end going (Note to remixers: the Fat Boys rejiggered "The Twist" into a Top 5 hit in 1988). In her book Dancing In The Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the "ecstatic possibility" inherent in dance. In a time when we're locked in a grinding march of worry, fear, depression and obesity, ecstatic possibility sounds like just what the doctor ordered. Whatever the step may be, here's to finding a new Twist in our story sometime soon.
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