How the Twist Worked


"Come on baby, let's do the Twist."
"Come on baby, let's do the Twist."
GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

The scenes are iconic: Mia and Vincent, so serious about it in "Pulp Fiction"; Peggy in "Mad Men," trying to seduce Pete; Ferris Bueller atop a parade float with thousands cheering him on. The dance called "the Twist" has left an indelible impression on multiple generations since it hit the airwaves in 1960… but why?

It's about as simple as a dance can get, and it's pretty low-energy as far as these things go. It's sexy, but not lewd; Twist partners don't even touch. The dramatic impact of the Twist on the youth of '60s (and beyond) had perhaps more to do with its social implications than it did the easy, anyone-can-do-it hip rocking that flooded dance floors and living rooms around the world -- although the hip thing definitely didn't hurt.

In this article, we'll find out what the Twist is, how it got started, who popularized the iconic dance and how you can do it on your own dance floor today. There's nothing quite like the Twist for straight-up, retro fun.

Let's begin with the guy who started it all with a catchy song: Chubby Checker, aka grocery-store clerk Ernest Evans…

Chubby Checker and the Twist

The King of the Twist himself, Chubby Checker, demonstrating his expertise.
The King of the Twist himself, Chubby Checker, demonstrating his expertise.
Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Images

The stage name, they say, is rooted in a childhood nickname, "Chubby," combined with an observation by Dick Clark's wife that Ernest looked like a chubby Fats Domino (checkers and dominoes -- get it?) [sources: ChubbyChecker, Jourdan].

But the song that made Chubby Checker a star was actually a cover; "The Twist" was first performed by a group called Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, but it didn't really take off. In 1959, Chubby recorded it -- and again, it didn't make much of an impact. His producers slotted it to be a B-side [source: ChubbyChecker].

That changed the following year, when the song was released as a single and Checker performed "The Twist" on Dick Clark's pop-music show "American Bandstand." With that coveted exposure (and all those pretty girls shaking their hips), the song, the dance and Chubby Checker took the world by storm.

Chubby Checker became an overnight sensation, performing his hit song nonstop in the early '60s and going on to record hit song after hit song, often accompanied by signature dances. Many of his follow-up hits also had "Twist" in the title, most notably "Let's Twist Again," which was nearly as big a hit as Checker's original break-out song.

"The Twist" hit No. 1 on the Billboard Charts in September 1960, and stayed there for a week. Still, impressive as a run at No. 1 is, that's not the biggest claim to fame for the song and dance …

The Twist Craze

Chubby Checker's hit and related follow-ups had folks Twisting all over the world. These kids in Shoreditch, East London, Twisted during recess.
Chubby Checker's hit and related follow-ups had folks Twisting all over the world. These kids in Shoreditch, East London, Twisted during recess.
Evening Standard/Getty Images

No. 1 is a feat. Worldwide phenomenon is a feat. Simply performing on "American Bandstand" is an honor. "The Twist," however, earned a much more significant achievement in 1962, when it accomplished something no other song has, before or since: The exact same version of "The Twist" song landed at No. 1 for a second run in 1962.

The total time Checker's hit spent on the charts came to nine months (with three weeks in the top spot), and its impact ran deep. For one thing, it was the first popular dance in which the dance partners didn't touch, but instead danced separately to the beat.

It fit the '60s -- a decade moving away from the structure of the 1950s, of poodle skirts and cone bras, a perfect accompaniment to the pencil skirts and slacks that suddenly put girls' hips (and rear!) in the public eye. "The Twist" had girls and boys dancing on their own, individuals rather than a single unit, and gave them the freedom to express themselves as such.

Chubby Checker's song and dance became a symbol of the decade, landing at or near the top of the charts in Great Britain, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil, for a start, and inspiring countless Twist-related follow-ups, and not only by Chubby Checker, of which Sam Cooke's "Twistin the Night Away" (1962) and The Beatles' "Twist and Shout" (1964) are two of the best-known [source: Tsort].

Even in the 21st century, "The Twist" lives on in movies, TV shows, and its ever-lasting effect on couples'-dancing styles. You'll find people twisting on dance floors today -- although they may not be aware of it.

So, how do you know if you're Twisting? It's easy to tell…

How to Do the Twist

Belgian champion Twisters Demandt Gilbert and Hester Wienen could have likely given you some pointers on the dance.
Belgian champion Twisters Demandt Gilbert and Hester Wienen could have likely given you some pointers on the dance.
Keystone/Getty Images

While you don't see masses of people twisting the night away at dance clubs (the dance itself hasn't been a craze in decades), elements of the Twist -- the hips, the dancing-apart-but-together -- have stood the test of time.

Plus, retro is (almost) always groovy.

To properly Twist, then, you'll need at least a modicum of rhythm. And that's about it.

If you've ever stubbed out a cigarette with your foot, or seen someone else do it with style (check out Olivia Newton-John in the final scene of "Grease" for reference), you've seen the Twist without musical accompaniment. It goes pretty much like this:

  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your arms relaxed, slightly bent, at your sides, hands outward. They should be at about hip level.
  2. Bend your right knee and raise your right heel, toes still touching the floor. Shift your weight onto your left leg.
  3. Move your right shoulder back, your left shoulder forward, and thrust your right hip to the side. Then thrust your left hip to the side, and keep going back and forth between the two. Switch your shoulder positions to coincide with your hips' movements, always turning your upper body in the direction of your thrusting hip.
  4. Still thrusting one hip and then the other, slowly shift your weight onto your right leg, lifting your left heel. Repeat steps two and three.
  5. Smile. It's the '60s.

With the right amount of attitude, rhythm and maybe a little humor, the Twist can still go over big. And beyond the retro appeal, the dance is a requirement at any '60s-themed party -- or any of the "Twisting" conventions that have popped up around the song's 50th anniversary, some of which have featured Chubby Checker himself performing the iconic hit.

Because, ultimately, the Twist never goes out of style. It's kind of like The Beatles that way. Only kitschier.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Biography. Chubby Checker.com. (Aug. 22, 2011) http://www.chubbychecker.com/bio.asp
  • Chubby Checker Marks 50 Years of "The Twist." CBS News. July 9, 2010. (Aug. 22, 2011) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/07/09/entertainment/main6663048.shtml
  • Jourdan, Kristi. "Twist dance craze creator forever immortalized on Las Vegas street." Las Vegas Review-Journal. June 7, 2011. (Aug. 22, 2011) http://www.lvrj.com/view/twist-dance-craze-creator-forever-immortalized-on-las-vegas-street-123306308.html
#}