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.
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."
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
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."
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
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."
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