A Brief History of the Chicken Dance

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 more than 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 revealed 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 back in the 1950s, 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—evoked “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,” Thomas said. Although he 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 1 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,” Mills said. “A few local polka groups recorded it and sold it out of the back of [their trucks].”

Unbeknownst to Mills 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.

This story has been update for 2019.

The Bus From Spice World is Now an Airbnb Rental

Razzladazzla, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This summer, Airbnb is giving 1990s kids the chance to fulfill their dream of living like a Spice Girl. As People reports, the Spice Bus, made famous by the 1997 movie Spice World, has been converted into an Airbnb rental—and it's open to guests for only a few nights in June.

After shuttling Baby, Sporty, Scary, Posh, and Ginger Spice around London in Spice World, the Spice Bus fell into disrepair. The movie prop was neglected for years until the Island Harbour Marina on the Isle of Wight purchased it and renovated it to its former glory. It went on display on the island in July 2014.

Now, the bus is moving back to London as a quirky vacation rental. On June 14 and June 15, up to three guests per night will sleep over in the bus at its temporary location at Market Square in Wembley Park. There they'll be made to feel like pop princesses (or princes). The interior has been decked out with Union Jack upholstery to match the outside paint job and zebra-print carpeting that would make Mel B proud. There are also disco balls, a neon sign that says "Girl Power," and nostalgic goodies like scrunchies and CDs.

Rates start at $129 per night, but the two announced dates have already been filled. Spice Girls fans looking to relive their childhood shouldn't give up hope: More rental dates may open starting May 22. After the bus's stint in London, it will return to its home on the Isle of Wight at the end of June.

[h/t People]

10 Amazing Variations on the Game of Thrones Theme Song

Jerome Flynn and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Game of Thrones
Jerome Flynn and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Game of Thrones has an iconic credits sequence, featuring a memorable theme song composed by Emmy Award-winning artist Ramin Djawadi. It's weirdly catchy—so much so that other artists have found increasingly unique ways to cover it over the years.

1. NESKeytar

Greig Stewart combined a Guitar Hero controller with an old school Nintendo to create the NESKeytar he used in this cover. Bonus: The NES still works as a separate gaming system!

2. Floppy Drives

Eight floppy drives playing in sync. The geekery is extreme.

3. Violin

A beautiful electric/acoustic violin version by Jason Yang.

4. Hard Rock

Roger Lima overdubs some metal riffage, drums, electric bass, and several layers of electric guitar.

5. Metal

Charlie Parra del Riego shreds.

6. Classical Guitar

Five guitar tracks!

7. Solo Piano

Bonus geek cred if you know the answer to his opening question.

8. 8-bit

YouTube commenter skinke says it best: "No? 'Game of Tones'? That's a missed opportunity if I've ever seen one."

9. Piano and Violin

Lara, coverer of video game music, takes a shot at this one, purely by ear. Wow.

10. Guitar, Cello, Drums, Shaker, and Flute

Talent show players for the win!

This post has been updated for 2019.

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