Chubby Checker may have popularized the twist, but he did not invent it.
The twist step goes way back to the early black minstrel and medicine shows. At the turn of the century, Jelly Roll Morton used to sing down in New Orleans about “sis . . . out on the levee doin’ the double Twis’.”
And pianist Perry Bradford wrote a song in the late ’30s called “Messin’ Around” that tells you to put your hands on your hips, lean back, and “twist around with all your might. /Messin’ round, they call that messin’ round.”
Although white teenagers and toddlers, weight watchers and debutantes caught the craze in the ’60s, the dance was African or Afro-American in style. Obviously, the buttocks were a focal point, and, as in the shimmy and the black bottom, the dancer bent his legs, bringing him closer to the earth, rather than gliding about erect and poised as in many formal European dances.
Black ghetto kids were twisting in the ’50s as part of a group dance called the Madison. At 19, Chubby Checker picked it up and toured the country. He sang “The Twist” (which was first recorded in 1959 by Hank Ballard) and shimmied across the stage, twisting high, twisting low, and showing white Americans how to “get down.”
Most of them didn’t budge, though, till the Jet Set had sanctioned this peculiar dance in which you didn’t even touch your partner. (Perfume companies were despairing over this.) Somehow New York’s trendiest discovered the Peppermint Lounge, a sleazy hole-in-the-wall in Times Square frequented by hoods and hookers.
There, singer Joey Dee and the Starlighters let loose with the twist and the place went wild.
“It took me an hour to get a drink,” one customer complained; “even the waitresses were twisting.” The press, including gossip columnist Igor Cassini, more widely known as Cholly Knickerbocker, discovered the Peppermint Lounge. Celebrities soon displaced the original clientele, and five mean bouncers manned the doors. From this seedy spot the twist spread like radar in every direction, to school gymnasiums and small-town bars, to Paris nightclubs and, allegedly, to the White House.
It was a dance revolution and a sexual revolution, of which not everyone approved. Roseland ballroom would have none of the graceless “fad,” and dancer and painter Geoffrey Holder called the twist “synthetic sex turned into a sick spectator sport.” But the overwhelming majority were ready to leave the lindy and the waltz in the dust. Except, that is, in Russia:
“The Twist is characteristic of pleasure-sated people in the free world who, to our high-minded cultural society, resemble patrician practitioners of orgies in ancient Rome.” This was the official report of the New York correspondent for Moscow’s Literary Gazette. “It is a dance performed to a noisy variation of rock ‘n’ roll played by drums of the stone age.”