“The Twist”, Chubby Checker

The Twist

My sister and I loved dancing to “The Twist” when we were kids, thanks to our mother showing us how it’s done.  When you’re a kid and you hear a great song, your body just starts to move and you feel happy.  Little did we know how controversial that dance was to some in its day, and how much it may have influenced people’s attitudes about race. 

 

Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” was one of the most popular songs of 1961.  “The Twist” was originally released in 1959 and became a popular dance in the summer of 1960 among black and white Americans of all ages.  Chubby became a sought-after performer and had additional hits over the next few years.  In January 1962, “The Twist” became the only song to ever go to number one for a non-consecutive second time.  Chubby, a young black performer, was only nineteen years old when his song sold over one million copies.[1] 

Chubby Checker

Despite the omnipresence of “The Twist” in the first few years of the 1960s, some were not happy about the dance itself.  For example, several Cleveland-area schools banned it, including Euclid High School and John Marshall High School.  Lakewood High School banned the Twist in 1960, though the city’s two junior high schools had no rule against it.  Principal Mahlon A. Povenmire explained in 1963 that, though the dance is not inherently “improper,” it “CAN be danced in an improper manner.”  Perhaps taking a cue from civil rights activists, four hundred students gathered in the Lakewood High School parking lot one night that September to protest the Twist ban by holding a “boycott dance.”  Police arrived on the scene quickly and the protest ended peaceably.[2]  The city of Lakewood had fewer than thirty black residents when the ban was established, so the fear of race mixing brought on by the “improper” dancing of the Twist was likely not among the reasons for the ban.      

 

Though the origins of the song and dance were disputed, its roots were indisputably black.  A story in the Call and Post explained that “the Twist is ‘old hat’ with Negro dancers in America,” adding, “Now even the most conservative American dancer is twisting, and such renowned dance studios as Arthur Murray’s are teaching the Twist.”  One critic of the dance claimed that it was copied by humans from monkeys.  “Monkeys and apes infested with fleas and ticks undergo the same contortions and movements,” said the unnamed commentator as quoted in the Call and Post.  Such language is reminiscent of racist attacks on the early days of rock and roll, though it is not stated whether the critic is black or white. 

 

Aside from the expected opposition to all things rock and roll, the overwhelming success of the Twist dance, with its simple side to side movements that anyone could perform, marked an important milestone in the acceptance of black performers, their music, and their style of dance in the early 1960s.[3]

 

And it gave me another reason to love rock and roll.

[1] Chubby Checker, “Biography,” The Official Chubby Checker Website, http://www.chubbychecker.com/bio.asp (accessed April 21 2010); “Chubby Checker: Singer sparks ‘Twist’ craze,” Ebony, January 1961, 41.

[2] “Lakewood Dance Ban Is Not a New Twist,” Plain Dealer, September 29, 1963; “Noisy Twist-Ban Protest ‘Shuffled Off’ in Lakewood, Plain Dealer, September 28, 1963.

[3] “Chubby Checker To Teach ‘The Twist’ To Britains,” Call and Post, December 9, 1961; Masco Young, They’re Talking About, Call and Post, February 17, 1962.

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