History of the Chicken Dance and Oktoberfest

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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 D.J.s, the "Chicken Dance" charts higher than classics such as "We Are Family" and "Respect."

The tune remained in obscurity for years after being written in the late 1950s by a Swiss accordion player named Werner Thomas when he was in his 20s, who at the time tended a flock of ducks and geese so the tune was first named "Der Ententanz" (The Duck Dance.) Mr. Thomas began performing his song at his Davos restaurant around 1963 and got an immediate reaction. People spontaneously "began to move with the melody." A leg here, an arm up there and suddenly Thomas thought of his animals.

The dance evolved to include a beak, wing and tail motions. Mr. Thomas eventually named the song "Tchirp-Tchirp," 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.

Dancing Chicken

Sometime in the late 1970s, the song acquired the name "Vogeltanz" (bird dance) or "Vogerltanz" (Little Bird Dance or Birdie Dance), although these names never caught on seriously in Germany. On some sheet music and recordings it is called "Dance Little Bird." It appears that no one in Germany uses the term "Kükentanz" (Küken means chicken).

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. consisted 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," Mills said.

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 Mills did line up several recordings. Band leader Jimmy Sturr says he put the tune on a 1982 album called "Hooked on Polkas!" after Mills badgered him to "record this, it's going to be a big hit." 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." Mills had never heard the name used for his song before. 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 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.

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, The song's ubiquity owes partly to its simplicity; It consists of just a few notes that are repeated at an ever-increasing speed.

"Don't tense up. Just pretend you are the chicken."

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