It’s silly, it’s catchy, and it’s everywhere. A fun little jig with simple moves that can be learned in under a minute, "The Chicken Dance" is a staple at school parties, bar mitzvahs, and Oktoberfest celebrations. The story of this avian shimmy began with its melody, which was penned over 60 years ago by a Swiss musician named Werner Thomas.
Back in the 1950s, Thomas earned his daily bread playing the accordion at Swiss holiday resorts. As he reveals in this German-language interview, the tune first popped into his head in 1955 or so. Thomas spent the next few years revising his melody—and coming up with a dance to go with it. The quirky routine he ultimately devised was inspired not by chickens but rather by skiers. Even a half-century ago, Switzerland was world-famous for its ski resorts, many of which Thomas frequented. While watching vacationers zip down the slopes with wild abandon, Thomas couldn’t help but note their resemblance to a certain water bird. Skiers, he said, use certain hand movements that—at least to him—evoke “the beak of a duck.” Other gestures utilized by the winter sports enthusiasts reminded Thomas of flapping wings and waddling feet. He then adapted these into a playful series of movements he called “Der Ententanz” or “The Duck Dance.”
The next major development in the song’s history came in the early 1970s, when Belgian music producer Louis Julien van Rijmenant heard Thomas playing it at a hotel in Davos, Switzerland. In 1973, Rijmenant collaborated with a band called Bobby Setter's Cash & Carry to publish the song as a single. Titled “Tchip, Tchip,” this version of the tune was created via synthesizer—a fact that caught Thomas totally off-guard when he first heard their cover. “The synthesizer was a completely new instrument for me,” he recalled. Although Thomas initially didn’t approve of this electronic take on his song, he soon came around to liking it. And he wasn’t alone: Within a year, Rijmenant’s “Tchip, Tchip” record sold over a million copies in Europe.
Despite the tune’s popularity, Thomas’s accompanying dance wouldn’t become widely known until the Dutch band De Electronica released a new cover of “Tchip, Tchip” in 1980. Their version—which the group called “De Vogeltjesdans,” or “Dance Little Bird”—spent a respectable 29 weeks on the Dutch charts, where it peaked at number eight. At concerts and in TV appearances (one of which you can watch below), De Electronica reunited the melody with the original, duck-like movements that Thomas had devised more than two decades earlier.
By then, the melody had already crossed the Atlantic. Credit for bringing it stateside belongs to music producer Stanley Mills. His first exposure to Thomas’s masterpiece came at a 1972 convention in Cannes, France. Mills immediately liked the tune and purchased its American distribution rights. Like De Electronica, he called his version “Dance Little Bird.” Although the song is now an omnipresent force at dance parties across the country, it didn’t find its American audience right away. Mills attempted to make “Dance Little Bird” more marketable by commissioning original English lyrics, which have since faded into obscurity. (The chorus went as follows: “Hey you’re in the swing / You’re cluckin’ like a bird / You’re flapping your wings / Don’t you feel absurd?”) Although Mills convinced several polka bands to include “Dance Little Bird” on their albums, none of them managed to turn it into a hit.
Still, you can’t keep a good tune down. Mills says that in the 1980s, instrumental versions of “Dance Little Bird” slowly developed a following in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Austin, and other cities with large polka-loving communities. “People started dancing to it at weddings and bar mitzvahs and the local dance bands began to play it,” he said. “A few local polka groups recorded it and sold it out of the back of [their trucks].”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, the song acquired a new name at this point in its history. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when American audiences started calling it “The Chicken Dance,” but a festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma may well be responsible. At the city’s 1981 Oktoberfest, a German band decided to play “Dance Little Bird” and taught the crowd how to do Thomas’s Duck Dance. Since visual aids are always helpful, the event organizers scoured the greater Tulsa area in search of a duck costume before the party got started. None could be found, but a local TV station was able to loan them a chicken suit—and the rest is history.
One day in 1994, Mills got a call from a company that was looking to create a dance party compilation record. The caller asked if he could include a song called “The Chicken Dance.”
“I don’t own anything called ‘The Chicken Dance,’” Mills replied.
“Yes you do, I’ll play it over the phone,” said the stranger.
“When he did that,” Mills later recalled, “I realized it was my song. It got that name all by itself.” The resulting compilation record—titled Turn Up the Music—was a resounding success. Ever since, "The Chicken Dance" has been a real cash cow for Mills. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2001, “His ‘Chicken Dance’ income from television commercials alone surged from a pittance at the start of the 1990s to approximately $7000 in 1995, and then to more than $50,000 [in 2000].”
“It’s doing very well,” Mills said at the time, “but I’m not a millionaire because of it.”
Since then, “The Chicken Dance” has pecked its way into the cultural mainstream, livening up everything from parties to sporting events. Although many artists come to hate their biggest hit, Thomas still appreciates the song’s success. As the accordionist notes in the aforementioned interview, whenever he sees “The Chicken Dance” on television, he can rest secure in the knowledge that his next beer has been paid for.