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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 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.

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12 High-Kicking Facts about the Radio City Rockettes
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More than 2 million people see the Radio City Rockettes's Christmas Spectacular show each season—and it’s a wonder you have to see to believe. Here are some things you might not have known about the leggy dance company, which has become synonymous with the magic of the holiday season.

1. THE GROUP GOT ITS START IN ST. LOUIS.

Nope, this wasn’t always a Midtown Manhattan production. The Rockettes launched in 1925 as the Missouri Rockets, a Follies-style dance troupe out of St. Louis. Creator Russell Markert got the idea after he was impressed by the UK precision dance troupe in 1922’s Ziegfeld Follies. “If I ever got a chance to get a group of American girls who would be taller and have longer legs and could do really complicated tap routines and eye-high kicks,” he once said, “they’d really knock your socks off.”

2. THEY GOT THE ATTENTION OF A BROADWAY IMPRESARIO ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.


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Theater magnate S.L. (“Roxy”) Rothafel caught a show while the group toured in New York and hired the dance team—then a group of 16 women—for his Roxy Theater (demolished in 1961, it stood at 50th Street and Seventh Avenue). The dance company went through a few names—the Roxyettes, the American Rockets, and even the Rosettes—before Roxy found a moniker and location that stuck.

3. THE ROCKETTES TOOK THE STAGE AT RADIO CITY ON DAY ONE.

Rothafel planned and designed Radio City Music Hall, a joint venture between John D. Rockefeller and RCA. On opening night, December 27, 1932, the precision dance team performed alongside 17 other acts, including Martha Graham and vaudevillian Ray Bolger (you might know him as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz).

4. A YEAR LATER, THEY DEBUTED THE ICONIC CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR.

The team behind the show, produced by Leon Leonidoff (a Radio City mainstay, whose "name on a production represented a warranty of grandeur") and designed by Vincente Minnelli (eventual husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza), had major star power. Back then, the Rockettes and other live performers served as a sort of opener for screenings of the latest films. Now, of course, Radio City is a premier concert hall, akin to playing Carnegie Hall.

5. THE ROCKETTES WENT ON STRIKE IN 1967.

The troupe picketed outside Radio City that September, rallying for better wages given their demanding rehearsal schedule and pay for rehearsal time (previously they were paid only for performances). The standoff lasted 27 days and the dancers won out in negotiations, just in time for the holiday show to go on.

6. RUSSELL MARKERT STAYED WITH HIS GIRLS FOR DECADES.

At Radio City, the group’s creator continued on as their director, lead choreographer, and stern drill sergeant until his retirement in 1971. A father-like figure to about 2500 Rockettes, he referred to his employees as his “dancing daughters.”

7. PRECISION IS THE NAME OF THE GAME.


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Markert’s vision was a drill team that performed and moved as one dancer. For each member of the Rockettes to learn precisely how to hit her marks, choreographers assign a grid-like system of labels to the stage; one Rockette recently likened it to a game of Battleship.

8. THE DANCERS’ ATHLETICISM IS A THING OF BEAUTY.

Sure, people may write these girls off as “Stepford dancers, objectified women reduced to nothing but legs and teeth,” per The New York Times. But in the same story, the Times points out that the Rockettes’s physical accomplishment is nothing to sneeze at: “Even in a city full of sweating, striving talent, the Rockettes may well be the hardest-working women in show business.” Case in point: Before opening night, November 13, the troupe rehearses for six hours each day, six days a week, for nearly six weeks. On any given day, when the Rockettes perform up to five shows, a single dancer can do more than 1000 high kicks.

9. ONE OF THE TROUPE’S MOST CLASSIC NUMBERS HAS REMAINED UNCHANGED SINCE 1933.

“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a perennial favorite in the Christmas Spectacular, has been part of the holiday show since its first year. Dancers, who take tiny, precise steps in straight formations, say it’s one of the hardest numbers in the show. Spoiler alert: The dance ends with a slow-motion backwards fall, where each soldier knocks down the next in a domino-effect move. Talk about Christmas magic.

10. THE COSTUME CHANGES ARE PRETTY INTENSE.

Speaking of the toy soldiers: the Rockettes have a mere 78 seconds to change out of those starchy white pants and impossibly high hats (which actually cover their eyes), and into their next costumes: the sparkly red and green dresses and white coats of the "Christmas in New York" number. The dancers also have to fit shoe, hat and, earring changes into those 78 seconds, and quickly remove the red felt circles that they adhere to their cheeks with double-stick tape during the toy soldier number. In one holiday season, the Rockettes go through 15,000 pairs of those red cheeks. Also, of their numerous other outfits, the Santa Claus costumes—which weigh 40 pounds each—are the only one they get to wear flat shoes with.

11. THE ROCKETTES ALSO EMPLOY LIVE CAMELS, SHEEP AND A DONKEY.


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For the Living Nativity number, which closes the show and involves a parade of robed dancers and animals walking below the North Star, the production trots out a few four-legged celebrities, including Ted the camel, who’s held his role for two decades and is said to be a bit of a prima donna. In 2015, for the first time, the Archbishop of New York blessed the show’s animals before opening night. During the show’s run, the animals actually live in Radio City and take walks outside on the streets in the wee hours each morning.

12. IT'S INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT TO MAKE IT AS A ROCKETTE.

Hundreds of women audition every spring for 80 cast-member spots (though just 36 dancers perform at each show), and even Rockettes who want to return for another season must re-audition with no guarantee of a placement. Applicants must be skilled in tap, jazz, ballet, and modern dance, and must stand between 5’6” and 5’10½” without shoes. Plenty of hopefuls audition multiple times before they make the cut. Over the course of each show, every dancer changes costumes up to eight times, does more than 200 high kicks, and handles her own hair and makeup—multiple times a day for more than a month. Plus, they do all of this while maintaining chipper smiles, doing promotional appearances, and spreading good cheer.

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New York City Will Now Allow You to Dance Without a License
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In New York City, there’s a tricky law on the books that requires any business serving food or drinks to acquire what’s known as a Cabaret License in order to allow customers to dance. The mandate stems from a 1926 policy introduced by then-mayor Jimmy Walker to help curb what some residents believed to be “altogether too much running wild” in the Jazz Age clubs of the era. (It's also possible that the law was meant to prevent interracial coupling.) City officials have regularly enforced the law during the proceeding century, with some clubs even cutting off music—or switching to country—when inspectors arrived unannounced.

Now, it appears the outdated restriction has come to an end. According to The New York Times, Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal has introduced a bill expected to pass Tuesday that will forever end any and all comparisons to the 1984 Kevin Bacon film Footloose. The repeal comes on the heels of concerns that the prohibition pushes people into attending "underground" dance clubs that exceed (or ignore) fire department capacity limits.

While Espinal is convinced he has the necessary votes to move forward, several proprietors have attempted to challenge the law over the years. In 2014, bar owner and attorney Andrew Muchmore filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming that the restriction was outdated and obtaining the license was a laborious process. To approve an application, the city’s Department of Consumer affairs has to verify a venue has security cameras and owners have to attend regular board conferences. The cost of the license can range from $300 to $1000, depending on the area’s capacity and, for some unfathomable reason, whether it’s an even or odd year.

Espinal's efforts and anticipated success getting rid of the Cabaret Law will cap 91 years of illicit dancing within the city limits. Just don't get too cozy with your partner: thanks to another antiquated regulation, you can still be fined $25 for flirting.

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