How did Oklahoma help create the Chicken Dance craze?
I’m Rachel Hopkin, host of KGOU’s How Curious. The subject for today’s episode was suggested by Cheryl Homen, a dance school teacher at Mary Golda Ross Middle School in Oklahoma City. Carol contacted How Curious to ask if I knew that there was a link between the Chicken Dance craze and the Tulsa Oktoberfest. I didn’t know about this. Actually, I wasn’t even sure what the Chicken Dance itself was. Cheryl enlightened me: “It is a fun dance that celebrates community. It’s a very simple move. You take your hands and you make them look like beaks, you flap your arms like wings, then you shake your tail feathers, and then you clap. So it’s a very simple move and a fun dance people do celebrating community.” She then hummed the tune. Suddenly, I did know what it was, but in my native UK, it’s usually called “The Birdy Song." However, as Cheryl explained, the “Chicken Dance” is its preferred name this side of the pond. And for that, she said, we have the Tulsa Oktoberfest to thank. By the way, Cheryl learnt this from one of her fifth grade student’s papers.
But before we get to exactly how that Tulsa connection came about, first a quick bit of background. The song was created in 1957 by a Swiss accordionist called Werner Thomas, who used to serenade tourists in the ski resort town of Davos. He called it Der Ententanz or the Duck Dance and he came up with its famous moves a few years later. In the early 70s, a record producer holidaying in the Alps heard the piece and felt it might hold appeal beyond the mountains. He got a band named Cash and Carry to record a synthesized arrangement of the tune. They released it under the name of Tchip Tchip and Thomas’s creation became a hit for the first time. Since then, this tune has been recorded in multiple versions in multiple countries, sometimes with lyrics added, sometimes not. In the process, it’s gone by many names.
William Masopust is the drummer with the Masopust Polka Band which plays every other week at the Czech Hall in Yukon. I met up with him there and he had a list of its names with him: “The Bird Song, the Chicken Song, the Bird Dance, the Duck Dance, Check Out the Chicken, and many more non-English titles. We know it as Dance Little Bird because that’s what it was called when it was first introduced to the band.” That was before William was born. But his father David has been the band’s tuba player since 1975. David remembers that it was his cousin Bessie who brought it to the band in the late 70s but he doesn’t know how she got hold of it.
She could have heard it in any number of places because it was becoming all the rage at that time – so maybe on a recording, on the radio, but perhaps more likely she first came across it at some kind of a gig – because while there are many countries where its popularity was due to a single release achieving chart success, all the people I spoke with for this program became aware of it through live performances by polka bands or at least by bands playing at events where polka was the musical mainstay.
This was the case for Rick March. He’s the former Wisconsin State Folklorist and the author of Polka Heartland. Again, “This was in the late 70s. I was living at the time in Milwaukee on the south side which is the heavily Polish ethnic neighborhood. And there was an event called the Mitchell Street Fair and of course they had to have a polka band. They had Louis Bashell. He was a very prominent Slovenian polka bandleader in the city. And one of his lead men said “here’s a new thing that we picked up at the Oktoberfest in Munich. Watch me. Do this.” So they all did. When I asked Rick if he had any idea the popularity the song would go on to have, he said no: “It was fun, but it did seem a little ridiculous.”
Ridiculous fun was probably much needed at the 1981 Tulsa Oktoberfest. That was the third year that the city had put on the festival and almost didn’t happen due to days of bad weather running up to it. Tulsa’s Channel 2 reported from the soggy festival throughout and actually played a crucial role in this story.
Carol Wright is the leader of the Tulsa German American Society Folk Dance Group. She’s been performing at the festival since 1989, but has been attending for even longer and she was there in 1981 amid the rain and mud to witness a historic moment: “One of the bands that came over to perform at the festival introduced the dance. It was called the Duck Dance. And they wanted to dance in the costume of a duck. And we couldn’t find a duck costume. But one of our local TV stations had a chicken costume.” (That was the aforementioned Channel 2.) “So they loaned the chicken costume and performed it and everybody liked it and since then it’s been called the Chicken Dance. And history just got changed because of a costume we couldn’t find. And we really promoted it.”
The Tulsa Oktoberfest definitely embraced the chicken theme. Tonja Carrigg is Executive Directors of River Parks Authority which produces the Tulsa Oktoberfest. When I met her, along with Carol Wright, in her office, she brought out a wide array of chicken paraphernalia mostly in the form of hats. When you put one on, it looks like a chicken is sitting on your head and its legs dangle down by your ears. Tonja said that they sell thousands of chicken hats each year at the Tulsa festival, "so when I got to attend the Oktoberfest in Germany several years ago, I took ten or so of our chicken hats, and they had never seen them. So we’re out there wearing these chicken hats and they were like ‘nah-ah.’”
There’s no shortage of dance fads in popular culture. For example, La Macarena or Gangnam Style. They tend to travel fast, burn brightly, but have a limited shelf life. But the Chicken Dance has proven surprisingly enduring. When I asked folklorist Rick March about this, he said he thinks “it became ingrained in these traditional communities that hold polka dances.”
In other words, the Chicken Dance moved from the relatively quick turn over typical of contemporary popular culture into the more enduring folk culture of certain ethnic communities here in the US. Though – as I learnt from Rick - the polka itself had been something of a fad in its time: “Polka was a pop culture craze of the 1840s in Europe. It followed the waltz.” Up to that point, couples dancing so called together maintained a safe distance, but the waltz required them to put their arms around each other. Outrageous! Then “when the shock value of the waltz wore off,” Rick said, “instead of gracefully gliding across the floor, they started frenetically hopping. And even though the polka diminished in several European countries, it became the heritage dance of people emigrating to the United States who remembered it from their villages.”
For example, here in Oklahoma, that includes German Americans and Czech Americans. The longevity of the Chicken Dance within these communities has been aided by another aspect of the culture of polka dancing which Rick told me about: “At polka dances there have been traditionally some novelty dances that are just fun, for example the Circle Two Step. That’s a dance where men and women get in separate circles and go in opposite directions. At a certain point, somebody says ‘grab a partner’ and you grab the closest person. So it’s a little bit like musical chairs. They call them mixers."
According to William Masopust, the Masopust Polka Band has about “eight or nine fun songs that you would play in a large group setting. The Chicken Dance stands out by far. It’s an ice breaker song. Anyone can learn it. Most people are broken down and they’re having fun. Like my dad, when it was first introduced, he said ‘I am never dancing to that song.’ So what happened, I wanted to know. William’s father David was sitting next to me: “I danced to it. It was just fun. And it was something everyone could do, you don’t have to have a partner.”
William added that his father David sometimes comes off the stage during their performances of the Chicken Dance and plays his tuba over the children’s heads. I watched him do this later as the weekly Saturday night Czech Hall dance got underway. All the kids had got up for the Chicken Dance, and the ones whose heads he played over – they were just totally tickled pink.
Back in Tulsa, I mentioned to Carol Wright that there are many dances that one might shy away from for fear of looking unintentionally stupid but that’s not the case with the Chicken Dance. She agreed: “Everybody looks stupid. There’s no perfection to it.”
So whilst it might seem a bit daft, if it gets people moving and having a good time together, that’s not nothing. The chicken is now one of the official mascots of the Tulsa Oktoberfest. A new costume had just been made for it and Tonja Carrigg brought it in from her car to show us. The chicken mascot head was very large and seemed pretty heavy. I can’t say I’d be thrilled to wear it for any length of time but fortunately, the Tulsa Oktoberfest has plenty of less picky volunteers.
As my visit to Tulsa was drawing to a close, Tonja began checking some newly arrived text messages which turned out to be very relevant. She started to read them back to us: “A long term and original volunteer has weighed in. He is saying that the original costume actually when we were looking for a duck was a turkey and it was something that Channel 2 had left over from an old Safeway commercial. So they took the Safeway costume and as they started stripping its turkey parts, he says.” (We decided that was probably the waddle and maybe a fantail.) "So that it more resembled a chicken than a duck or a turkey and that’s what we went with.”
My goodness, we were this close to calling it the Turkey Dance. If you want to join the chicken bonanza that is the Tulsa Oktoberfest, it takes place during the third weekend of October and here’s a link to it. Here are links also for the Masopust Polka Band, the Czech Hall in Yukon, and Rick March’s book about polka is called Polka Heartland: Why the Midwest Loves to Polka and is published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Thank you to all the contributors to this episode and also to Jenna Black and Jim Leary.
How Curious is a KGOU Public Radio production. The producer/host is Rachel Hopkin. The editor is Logan Layden. The theme music is composed by David Graey.
If you’ve got an idea or a question for How Curious, please send it to the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.