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A Corny Tune, Plucked From Obscurity,
Finds Its Perch in U.S. Music History
By ANNA WILDE MATHEWS Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- At the Temple Bar here, incense burns as trendy couples sip cocktails and listen to a veteran Texas band called Brave Combo. Then the lead singer makes a promise that jolts the low-key Sunday night crowd into action: The "Chicken Dance" is on the way.

"I feel like chicken tonight!" yells an excited man from the back of the room. He gets his wish a few minutes later, when the band cranks into a goofy polka that has become one of America's most enduring, and least likely, dance sensations. Several dozen formerly stylish looking Southern Californians make beak motions with their hands, then frantically flap their arms and waggle their behinds. They finally join hands and spin in a big group circle as the singer screams, "Go! Go! Go! Go!"

The Macarena has left the dance floor. "Freaking," the saucy dance style of the moment, will one day grind its way into oblivion. But after nearly 40 years, the "Chicken Dance" has somehow managed to find a perch atop the party-music pecking order. It has left tracks all over the cultural landscape, popping up in everything from Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" -- a bilingual show for preschoolers -- to MTV's "Celebrity Deathmatch" -- in which claymation versions of stars duke it out. It's piped into Vegas slot machines and roller-skating rinks, and the San Francisco Giants play it when opposing pitchers opt to walk slugger Barry Bonds.

The Chicken Dance's secret weapon: It gets even the klutziest wallflower out on the dance floor, because it makes everyone look equally silly. That may be why, in a survey of DJs by the magazine Mobile Beat, the "Chicken Dance" charts higher than classics such as "We Are Family" and "Respect." Says Andrew Walker, a party DJ in Topeka, Kan.: "I've had better luck with it than Britney Spears, 'N Sync or the Backstreet Boys."

The tune remained in obscurity for years after being written in the late 1950s by a Swiss accordion player named Werner Thomas, who at the time tended a flock of ducks and geese. Mr. Thomas, now 71 years old, began performing his unnamed song at his Davos restaurant around 1963 and got an immediate reaction. People spontaneously "began to move to the melody," he says. "A leg here, an arm up there. And I suddenly thought of my animals."

The dance evolved to include beak, wing and tail motions. Mr. Thomas eventually named the song "Tchip-Tchip," to mimic the sound of a bird. But it didn't spread beyond the resort town until 1971, when a Belgian music publisher stopped in the restaurant and took a liking to the song. The publisher added words for the first time -- in Dutch, his native language -- and the song quickly became a success in Europe.

It migrated to America a few years later, when New York publisher Stanley Mills acquired the U.S. publishing rights. Mr. Mills, whose September Music Corp. consists of himself and an assistant, hawked the song relentlessly. "As soon as I heard someone was doing a dance album or a polka album, as soon as I even smelled it, I called them up," he says.

Mr. Mills changed the song's name to "Dance Little Bird" in an attempt to make it more commercial. He also commissioned English lyrics: "Hey, you're in the swing/You're cluckin' like a bird (pluck, pluck, pluck, pluck)/You're flappin' your wings/Don't you feel absurd."

The words never really caught on, but Mr. Mills did line up several recordings. Band leader Jimmy Sturr says he put the tune on a 1982 album called "Hooked on Polkas!" after Mr. Mills badgered him to "record this, it's going to be a big hit." Mr. Sturr still performs it in his live shows, yet the song failed to dent the pop charts.

Things started to change in the late 1980s. The dance began showing up at Oktoberfests and other events. Mr. Mills got his first personal experience of the burgeoning phenomenon when he heard the song played by a band at his son's bar mitzvah. Then a record label called to ask about using the "Chicken Dance." Mr. Mills had never heard the name used for his song before, he says. But an informal survey of bandleaders he knew revealed that many of them were performing the tune at weddings and other events, always using the "Chicken Dance" name.

As it became a staple of the dance-party circuit, the "Chicken Dance" also feathered Mr. Mills' nest. By the late 1990s, he was licensing the tune for use on dance compilation CDs, karaoke collections and TV commercials for Burger King and others. His "Chicken Dance" income from television commercials alone surged from a pittance at the start of the 1990s to approximately $7,000 in 1995, and then to more than $50,000 last year, he says. Mr. Mills declines to reveal the song's full earnings. "It's doing well," he says, "but I'm not a millionaire because of it."

Minnie Does It

Typical of the new "Chicken Dance" backers is Ted Kryczko, vice president for product development at Walt Disney Records. He decided to put the tune into a kids' collection after he saw children bouncing happily to it at a Mighty Ducks hockey game. In the Disney version, Minnie Mouse demonstrates the dance's finer points, though Mr. Kryczko himself says, "I try not to flap in public."

But lots of other people do, though even the song's performers struggle to explain why. People "think they're ridiculous for doing it, but they do it anyway," says Monkees frontman Davy Jones, who led 30,000 people in the dance at a Cincinnati festival last year. "It's like having too many beers and jumping in the pool."

The song's ubiquity owes partly to its simplicity; It consists of just a few notes that are repeated at an ever-increasing speed. "The harmonies are not complex," allows Bob Cerulli, who penned the score for a recent symphonic version produced by AOL Time Warner Inc.'s sheet-music division. He bulked up his orchestration by spiking it with melodic flourishes from French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens.

Mr. Mills also makes money from spin-off products that play the song, such as Gemmy Industries Corp.'s plush, battery-powered "Cornelius the Dancing Chicken" toy. And others are cashing in as well. There are dueling Web sites -- chickenhat.com and chickenhats.com -- that sell headgear with felt beaks and yellow feet that dangle over the ears. Robert Hearn, who runs chickenhats.com, claims to have seen 3,000 Chicken Dances, including one in which a man dropped to one knee, mid-flap, to propose marriage. For the chronically uncoordinated, he offers the following advice: "Don't tense up. Just pretend you are the chicken."

Brewing Backlash

As with many successes, however, there's a backlash building. "I'm personally burned out," complains Ted Lange, whose band Toledo Polkamotion has practically dropped the song from its repertoire. DJs report that certain upscale brides demand chicken-dance-free weddings.

And at Lincoln Center in New York City, the annual Midsummer Night Swing festival has asked bands to give it a rest. The official reason is that it doesn't fit with the festival's emphasis on dances for couples. Says Rebecca Weller, the event's artistic director: "We don't do group dances."

Still, when Brave Combo played the Chicken Dance at the festival in the days before the ban, sophisticated New Yorkers joined the flock. "When you have to get people involved, break the ice, it always works," says band founder Carl Finch. "It helps people let their guard down."

Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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