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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Phil Walter, Getty Images
How Michael Jackson's Dancing Defied the Laws of Biomechanics
Phil Walter, Getty Images
Phil Walter, Getty Images

From the time he debuted the moonwalk on broadcast television in 1983, Michael Jackson transcended the label of "dancer." His moves seemed to defy gravity as well as the normal limits of human flexibility and endurance.

Now we have some scientific evidence for that. Three neurosurgeons from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, recently published a short paper in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine that examines just how remarkable one of Jackson's signature moves really was.

In the 1988 video for "Smooth Criminal" and subsequent live performances, Jackson is seen taking a break from his constant motion to stand in place and lean 45 degrees forward. Both he and his dancers keep their backs straight. Biomechanically, it's not really possible for a human to do. And even though he had a little help, the neurosurgeons found it to be a pretty impressive feat.

An illustration of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' dance move.
Courtesy of 'Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.' Copyright Manjul Tripathi, MCh.

Study co-author Manjul Tripathi told CNN that humans can't lean forward much more than 25 or 30 degrees before they risk landing on their faces. (He knows, because he tried it.) Normally, bending involves using the hip as a fulcrum, and erector spinae muscles to support our trunk. When Jackson leaned over, he transferred the fulcrum to the ankle, with the calf and Achilles tendon under strain. Since that part of the body is not equipped to support leaning that far forward without bending, the "Smooth Criminal" move was really a biomechanical illusion. The act was made possible by Jackson's patented shoe, which had a "catch" built under the heel that allowed him to grasp a protruding support on the stage. Secured to the floor, he was able to achieve a 45-degree lean without falling over.

But the neurosurgeons are quick to point out that the shoes are only part of the equation. To achieve the full 45-degree lean, Jackson would have had to have significant core strength as well as a strong Achilles tendon. An average person equipped with the shoe would be unable to do the move.

How does this apply to spinal biomechanics research? The authors point out that many dancers inspired by Jackson are continuing to push the limits of what's possible, leading to injury. In one 2010 paper, researchers surveyed 312 hip-hop dancers and found that 232 of them—almost 75 percent of the cohort—reported a total of 738 injuries over a six-month period. That prevalence could mean neurosurgeons are facing increasingly complex or unique spinal issues. The surgeons hope that awareness of potential risks could help mitigate problems down the road.

[h/t CNN]

Michael Jackson's Moonwalk Turns 35

“What the hell was that?” For a moment, members of the production staff monitoring the stage at California's Pasadena Civic Auditorium forgot about the control panels in front of them and exchanged puzzled looks with one another. As the team charged with overseeing the ABC special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a celebration of the famed record label’s silver anniversary, they were typically too focused on their jobs to become starstruck. But what they were witnessing was something else entirely.

Onetime Jackson 5 bandmate Michael Jackson had taken the stage solo to perform “Billie Jean,” which was already the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 chart. In between all the twisting, contorting, and spinning, Jackson took a fleeting moment to glide backwards on his feet. It had the smooth kinetic energy of someone skating on ice. It lasted barely a second. The crowd erupted.

Jackson had not used the dance move in rehearsals for the show. It was a surprise to everyone, including the live audience and the 33.9 million people who would watch the tape-delayed event on television on May 16, 1983. Jackson was already a superstar, but his moonwalk would take him to another stratosphere of fame. And although many assumed Jackson invented the gliding step himself, he was simply following in the footsteps of dance giants from the past.

Usually referred to as the back slide or the back float, the seemingly weightless backward slide had touched down across a number of decades and performers before Jackson's interpretation debuted on March 25, 1983. Famed French mime Marcel Marceau performed an act he titled “Walking in the Wind,” in which he seemed to be bracing against imaginary gale forces, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. Jazz singer Cab Calloway pulled it off in performances; so did tap dancer Bill Bailey (as seen above) in the 1950s. James Brown incorporated the move into his stage shows, as did Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. David Bowie performed a more economical version of it during the 1973 tour for his Aladdin Sane album.

While Jackson credited Brown and Marcel as being particular influences on his performance style, he first learned of what he came to call the "moonwalk" after seeing two break-dancers appear on a 1979 episode of Soul Train. During the show, Geron "Caszper" Canidate and Cooley Jaxson performed a routine set to Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night.” The singer remembered the performance and asked his staff to arrange a meeting between him and both men in Los Angeles while he was preparing for the Motown special in early 1983. Jackson asked them to teach him the back slide, which he practiced until he was satisfied he had it down. (Cooley would later express disappointment that Jackson never credited the duo directly. The singer wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker, that the move was a “break-dance” step created on street corners. While that could be true, it was Cooley and Jaxson who gave Jackson a tutorial.)

Although it may look like an optical illusion, the step is the result of weight-shifting. Dancers begin on their right foot, heel raised, and weight bearing on the right. As they lower the right heel, the left foot moves backward until the toes are aligned with the heel of the right. The left heel is then raised, weight is shifted to the left, and the process repeats itself. For those who are not particularly agile, it can look clumsy. For Jackson, who had been dancing practically his entire life, it was seamless.

For the Motown special, Jackson reportedly agreed to appear with his brothers, the Jackson 5, only if Motown owner and show producer Berry Gordy allowed him a solo performance. Jackson’s Thriller album had been released in November 1982 and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful releases of all time. It’s likely Jackson didn’t feel like he needed the appearance, and some accounts relate that Jackson was initially reluctant to do it because he feared being overexposed. Gordy’s producer, Suzanne de Passe, convinced him the show wouldn’t be the same without the Jackson 5.

Whatever got Jackson on stage that evening, he was clearly prepared for the moment. Short pants and white socks drew attention to his feet; he insisted a stage manager rehearse the placement of his hat following the Jackson 5 performance so that it would be within reach when he segued into his solo performance.

“I have to say, those were the good old days,” Jackson told the crowd after finishing with his brothers. “Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot … but, especially, I like the new songs.” It may have sounded off the cuff, but Jackson’s mid-performance speech was actually written by Motown 25 scriptwriter Buz Kohan.

With that, Jackson got down to business. “Billie Jean” was the only non-Motown song performed during the special, and it felt like a jolt of energy in a sea of nostalgia. Jackson, who was 24 years old at the time, moved effortlessly. Tossing his hat to the side and mouthing lyrics into the microphone, the contrast between Jackson in the middle of a medley with his brothers and then alone on stage was striking. Though he was two solo albums deep by this point, the performance helped cement that he was out on his own.

Jackson spent nearly three and a half minutes singing before debuting the moonwalk. It lasted barely a second but seemed to send the crowd into a mania. With 20 seconds to go, he took another few brief steps backward. After the song played out, Jackson received a standing ovation.

When the performance aired several weeks later on ABC, Motown 25 was a ratings hit. Jackson’s reputation as a live entertainer benefited from a broadcast network audience, and the moonwalk became linked to his routine. Fred Astaire called to congratulate him, a gesture that Jackson—a huge Astaire fan—could never quite believe.

Jackson’s fame led to an untold number of people trying to perfect the moonwalk, with varying degrees of success. Anyone who thought it included some camera or visual trickery may have been dismayed to find it simply required some lower-limb dexterity. Those who got the hang of it were able to impress friends. Those who didn't probably felt a little disappointed at their lack of coordination, especially when they heard that Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, learned to do a variation of it.

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