TWIST


"It was people moving their hips," says Chubby Checker, in Ron Mann's exuberant "instructional dance film," recalling the phenomenon that made his career. "It was hips, it was doing . . . hips." And in the words of Hank Ballard, who wrote the song that created the craze that started the whole world Twisting, "If you're not moving your hips, it just ain't happening."
Liner notes for the Voyager laserdisc of Ron Mann's Twist

  Almost by definition, then, the Twist was a Happening of massive proportion, a blast along the light fantastic that was decried in headline type as "THE MOST VULGAR DANCE INVENTED" (surely a good sign) and hailed as "THE BIGGEST MERCHANDISING BONANZA SINCE DAVY CROCKETT" and which changed forever the way we dance. Arriving at the dawn of that decade of liberation, the swinging '60s, the Twist not only emancipated dancers from their partners, and from a host of social conventions in the bargain, but put an end to the awful tyranny of ability: It took almost no time nor talent to learn the basics. ("Putting out a cigarette with both feet, wiping off your bottom with a towel" is how Checker pictured it.) It was the dance everyone could do, and, so it could seem, everyone did.
In nightclubs and gymansiums, in the backyard, on the beach, uptown and down, teens, tots, moms and dads, socialites, movie stars, suburbanites and street kids alike were carried away by the gyration that was sweeping the nation. The baby boomers' first dance craze (you know the President's done it), it was adopted as well by an older generation in the thrall of an era in which youth was exalted and age was suspect. It's not too far-fetched to see the Twist, a unisexual dance without leaders or followers, as the herald of the decade's do-your-own-thing celebration of self, not to mention the beginning of the end of male social dominance. Mann's documentary captures this, ah, revolutionary moment, along with the steps that led to it and the steps that followed. As colorful as the names of the dances it records -- the Lindy Hop, Itch, Stroll, Bop, Strand, Madison, Fly, Pony, Monkey, Mashed Potato, Hully Gully, Loco-Motion, Frug and Watusi -- Twist traces the history of rock & roll terpsichory from the early '50s to the mid-'60s (and the arrival of that self-invented dance that had neither steps nor name). It's the story as well of the effect of black culture on white, and the effect of youth culture on everything -- a real-life version of Hairspray, John Waters' homage to American Bandstand, a case for abandon in the face of "decency."


Mann builds his account out of a remarkable wealth of archival footage, from home movies to Hollywood features to TV dance parties, including rarely seen performance clips of the affable Chubby Checker, the spectacularly hyper Flamingos, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles getting all the way down to "Mickey's Monkey." Latter-day interviews with principal players drive the narrative: Checker, whose "The Twist" was the only record ever to go to number one twice; Hank Ballard, whose original version was the exact model for Checker's; Joey Dee, who found his 15 minutes of fame at New York's Peppermint Lounge, where Cafe Society discovered the Twist (the inevitable Peppermint Twist added a goofy hop); Harlem's Parkettes, "The World's Greatest Twisters," whose mile-a-minute routine under the closing credits is alone worth the trip; and the stalwart dancers of American Bandstand, the nation's unofficial retailer of teen obsessions. 
Remembered now, the Twist and its cousins can seem camp fads from an innocent age, ephemeral and harmless and essentially meaningless. "Twistin' Postman," "Twistin' Matilda," "Twistin' U.S.A.," movies like Twist Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist are not the pillars of our civilization. But what Ron Mann's movie so vividly restores to us is the freedom, youth, energy, sex and danger these dances promised ("threatened," to some) in their time, and the controversy they caused. An astonishing array of personalities are seen here weighing in on the Twist -- Dwight Eisenhower, Marshall McLuhan, Rob and Laura Petrie, Ozzie and Harriet, Fred Flinstone.


The Twist had to go, of course, carried away in an avalanche of Twist hats, Twist briefs, Twist dolls and hilariously unnecessary instruction records. The kids were on to other, less co-opted steps by then. But wherever revelrers of a certain age gather to dance to the hits of their youth, you'll see it again, the step everyone remembers and anyone can do. And like the songs that made those days go round, this Twist has got a good beat -- and you can, literally, dance to it.



 
Robert Lloyd wrote this and puts his
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