In 1960, a collision of factors catapulted a song and a dance to the top of the charts and turned The Twist into a national sensation. It was radical, it was lively, and it was easy -- and pretty soon every teenager in the country was twisting away and the voice of Chubby Checker rang out across the land.
The Skinny on the Twist
The Twist was a phenomenon waiting to happen and in 1960, it caught fire. The post-WWII Baby Boom generation was putting its own spin on swing dance. Rock 'n' roll was driving their parents crazy and playing nonstop on the radio. A swivel-hipped singer named Elvis had them shrieking and swooning with his scandalous moves. Urban kids borrowed steps and swagger from the West Indies-influenced dances of African-American teenagers. And 67 million U.S. households had TV.
To fill the hours between the afternoon soaps and the evening news, local television stations programmed for teens who were home from school and glued to the tube. Park a camera and a DJ in a TV studio, fill it with grooving and shaking kids, and add markets like Philly that had popular shows hitting a target audience for negligible production costs. One Philly dance program, Bandstand with Dick Clark, picked up a national audience when ABC started to broadcast the show, renaming it American Bandstand. And one song written in 1955, covered by a singer named Chubby Checker and performed as a solo gyration by a studio of zigzagging teens, became an overnight coast-to-coast dance craze. Even the parents of those teens could do it. C'mon, baby, let's do the Twist!
The Trick to Twisting
If you've just arrived from Mars, or awakened from the prolonged slumbers of a Rip Van Winkle, you might not know how to Twist. That's a sad situation, remedied in about two minutes flat. The Twist is so simple you can just start doing it. But here's the breakdown so you can hit the dance floor twisting like a champ.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Face your partner, if you have one. (A partner is optional.)
- Find your balance, bend your elbows, and relax your knees.
- Shift your weight to the balls of your feet and start to "rub out" a pretend lit cigarette with your shoes. You twist your feet from side to side, in the same direction at the same time.
- As your feet move, so moveth the pelvis. Twist your hips from side to side, just like your feet. Your hands and arms will naturally follow. Don't turn your entire body as one unit. Twist at the waist. This leaves your upper torso facing more-or-less forward as your legs and hips swivel.
- Get fancy. Take your weight to one foot, lean into that side, and raise the bent knee of your other leg into the air. Keep twisting both right and left legs, feet, hips, and arms. Lower the leg, still twisting.
- Get around. Twist yourself all the way around in a circle, ending up facing your partner (or your original direction) again. Twisting happens in place -- no need to travel across the floor.
- Get risky and get down. If your quads are powerful, this move is cake for you. If not, mind your balance. As you twist away, keep your back vertical and start to sink into a squat. Just twist yourself into the ground, side-to-side or like a corkscrew. Go only as far as you can manage without losing your balance. Epic twisters can get almost to the floor.
- Once you've got it locked and don't need to focus on keeping everything moving in the same direction at all times, experiment and put your own spin on it. Twirl one hand at the wrist. Shake one raised foot. Really jerk those hips back and forth or work a pelvic isolation into the twisting moves without breaking rhythm. Impressive.
- Keep smiling. You're supposed to be having fun, not frowning in concentration. Now you're cool.
But Wait! There's More!
The Twist unleashed a rash of hopping, bopping and pretzel-making dances that turned sock hops into cardio classes.
There was the Mashed Potato:
And there were more Twist records from Chubby Checker -- Let's Twist Again kept everyone swiveling and kept Checker and his twist songs at the top of the charts. Other artists chimed in with Peppermint Twist (Joey Dee and the Starliters) and Twist and Shout (The Beatles), and more -- all of them danceable. Films featured the dance, among them Twist Around the Clock (1961) and Hairspray (1988).
Behind the Scenes
Want to know more about twisting?
- Chubby Checker's real name is Ernest Evans. He was a chubby kid, so he earned his nickname. Dick Clark's wife suggested he use the name Chubby Checker to capitalize on the popularity of singer-songwriter Fats Domino.
- The original recording of The Twist topped the Billboard charts twice, in 1960 and in 1962.
- The dance was not universally beloved at first. Today, it seems quaint and tame, but its pelvic thrusting caused more than a few raised eyebrows and the disconnected dancing of couples, who were no longer joined in a sedate clutch on the dance floor, was considered a scandal.
- The Beatles didn't write Twist and Shout, which appeared on their first recorded album. A songwriter named Bert Berns wrote it as an homage, not to The Twist, but to the Mexican tune La Bamba.
Today, the Twist is more of a period dance style - not very popular in mainstream performance and social dancing. However, vintage dance nights hosted by clubs and dance halls, as well as stage plays and movies set in the 1960s, often include the Twist in their choreography. The Twist is an emblem of a time in America when young people revolutionized the dance world and replaced stuffiness with sexy, fun moves.