A Brief History of the Chicken Dance

It’s silly, it’s catchy, and it’s everywhere. A fun little jig with simple moves that can be learned in under a minute, "The Chicken Dance" is a staple at school parties, bar mitzvahs, and Oktoberfest celebrations. The story of this avian shimmy began with its melody, which was penned more than 60 years ago by a Swiss musician named Werner Thomas.

Back in the 1950s, Thomas earned his daily bread playing the accordion at Swiss holiday resorts. As he revealed in this German-language interview, the tune first popped into his head in 1955 or so. Thomas spent the next few years revising his melody—and coming up with a dance to go with it. The quirky routine he ultimately devised was inspired not by chickens but rather by skiers.

Even back in the 1950s, Switzerland was world-famous for its ski resorts, many of which Thomas frequented. While watching vacationers zip down the slopes with wild abandon, Thomas couldn’t help but note their resemblance to a certain water bird. Skiers, he said, use certain hand movements that—at least to him—evoked “the beak of a duck.” Other gestures utilized by the winter sports enthusiasts reminded Thomas of flapping wings and waddling feet. He then adapted these into a playful series of movements he called “Der Ententanz” or “The Duck Dance.”

The next major development in the song’s history came in the early 1970s, when Belgian music producer Louis Julien van Rijmenant heard Thomas playing it at a hotel in Davos, Switzerland. In 1973, Rijmenant collaborated with a band called Bobby Setter's Cash & Carry to publish the song as a single. Titled “Tchip, Tchip,” this version of the tune was created via synthesizer—a fact that caught Thomas totally off-guard when he first heard their cover.

“The synthesizer was a completely new instrument for me,” Thomas said. Although he initially didn’t approve of this electronic take on his song, he soon came around to liking it. And he wasn’t alone: Within a year, Rijmenant’s “Tchip, Tchip” record sold over 1 million copies in Europe.

Despite the tune’s popularity, Thomas’s accompanying dance wouldn’t become widely known until the Dutch band De Electronica released a new cover of “Tchip, Tchip” in 1980. Their version—which the group called “De Vogeltjesdans,” or “Dance Little Bird”—spent a respectable 29 weeks on the Dutch charts, where it peaked at number eight. At concerts and in TV appearances (one of which you can watch below), De Electronica reunited the melody with the original, duck-like movements that Thomas had devised more than two decades earlier.

By then, the melody had already crossed the Atlantic. Credit for bringing it stateside belongs to music producer Stanley Mills. His first exposure to Thomas’s masterpiece came at a 1972 convention in Cannes, France. Mills immediately liked the tune and purchased its American distribution rights. Like De Electronica, he called his version “Dance Little Bird.” Although the song is now an omnipresent force at dance parties across the country, it didn’t find its American audience right away. Mills attempted to make “Dance Little Bird” more marketable by commissioning original English lyrics, which have since faded into obscurity. (The chorus went as follows: “Hey you’re in the swing / You’re cluckin’ like a bird / You’re flapping your wings / Don’t you feel absurd?”) Although Mills convinced several polka bands to include “Dance Little Bird” on their albums, none of them managed to turn it into a hit.

Still, you can’t keep a good tune down. Mills says that in the 1980s, instrumental versions of “Dance Little Bird” slowly developed a following in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Austin, and other cities with large polka-loving communities. “People started dancing to it at weddings and bar mitzvahs and the local dance bands began to play it,” Mills said. “A few local polka groups recorded it and sold it out of the back of [their trucks].”

Unbeknownst to Mills at the time, the song acquired a new name at this point in its history. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when American audiences started calling it “The Chicken Dance,” but a festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma may well be responsible. At the city’s 1981 Oktoberfest, a German band decided to play “Dance Little Bird” and taught the crowd how to do Thomas’s Duck Dance. Since visual aids are always helpful, the event organizers scoured the greater Tulsa area in search of a duck costume before the party got started. None could be found, but a local TV station was able to loan them a chicken suit—and the rest is history.

One day in 1994, Mills got a call from a company that was looking to create a dance party compilation record. The caller asked if he could include a song called “The Chicken Dance.”

“I don’t own anything called ‘The Chicken Dance,’” Mills replied.

“Yes you do, I’ll play it over the phone,” said the stranger.

“When he did that,” Mills later recalled, “I realized it was my song. It got that name all by itself.” The resulting compilation record—titled Turn Up the Music—was a resounding success. Ever since, "The Chicken Dance" has been a real cash cow for Mills.

As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2001, “His ‘Chicken Dance’ income from television commercials alone surged from a pittance at the start of the 1990s to approximately $7000 in 1995, and then to more than $50,000 [in 2000].”

“It’s doing very well,” Mills said at the time, “but I’m not a millionaire because of it.”

Since then, “The Chicken Dance” has pecked its way into the cultural mainstream, livening up everything from parties to sporting events. Although many artists come to hate their biggest hit, Thomas still appreciates the song’s success. As the accordionist notes in the aforementioned interview, whenever he sees “The Chicken Dance” on television, he can rest secure in the knowledge that his next beer has been paid for.

This story has been update for 2019.

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

10 Things You Need to Know About 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

The actual star-spangled banner is displayed at the National Museum of American History.
The actual star-spangled banner is displayed at the National Museum of American History.
National Museum of American History, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1814, Francis Scott Key saw the tattered remains of the American flag still blowing in the breeze after Maryland's Fort McHenry had been bombarded by the British navy all night. Here are a few facts about Key's poem (yes, poem) that we know as the American national anthem today.

1. There really is a specific star-spangled banner.

It's the actual flag Francis Scott Key saw when he was watching Fort McHenry in Baltimore being bombarded during the War of 1812. His tale goes just like the song: after gunfire and rain all night, the flag was still standing when the sun rose. Inspired, Key wrote down what he was feeling—but when he wrote it, it was simply a poem called “Defense of Fort McHenry.” It became a song when Key’s brother-in-law discovered the poem perfectly fit the tune of a popular song called “The Anacreontic Song” (see #3).

Although the song was played at public events and on patriotic occasions from that point on, it wasn’t officially named as the national anthem until after Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe it or Not! noted in his cartoon that “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.” John Philip Sousa rallied for "The Star-Spangled Banner" to become the new national anthem, and on March 3, 1931, Herbert Hoover signed a law making it so.

The actual star-spangled banner that Key observed is now displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

2. There were other contenders for the national anthem besides "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Other candidates included “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Hail Columbia,” and “America the Beautiful.”

3. The national anthem's tune is based on a drinking song.

Before it was a national anthem, the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner" belonged to a popular British drinking song. The anthem takes its melody from “The Anacreontic Song” or “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a British drinking song sung by members of London’s Anacreontic Society.

4. Francis Scott Key wrote alternate lyrics for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

One version of the lyrics, handwritten by Francis Scott Key himself in 1840, changes the version we all know so well. It’s a subtle change, though: "Whose bright stars and broad stripes, through the perilous fight" was written as "Whose bright stars and broad stripes, through the clouds of the fight.” This version is now housed in the Library of Congress.

5. The lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are surprisingly difficult to remember.

It’s a hard song to sing musically because it stretches vocals an octave and a half, but it’s apparently a hard song to remember lyrically as well—at least for some people. In 1965, Robert Goulet sang the national anthem before the big Sonny Liston-Muhammad Ali fight. The crowd wanted to fight him, however, when he botched the lyrics right from the start: “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early night.”

"I walked into that town and I was a hero. Then the fight lasted a minute and half and I walked out of town and I was a bum," he said.

In 2009, Jesse McCartney was asked to sing the famous song before the NASCAR Pepsi 500. He went right from “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,” to “Whose broad stripes and bright stars." McCartney chalked it up to stage fright.

6. A fifth stanza was added to "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the Civil War.

It’s little known today, but it appeared in songbooks and sheet music in 1861. It goes like this:

When our land is illumined with liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

You might be surprised that there’s a fifth stanza—in fact, you might be surprised that there’s a second, third and fourth. The others are rarely played, but you might hear them on really formal occasions. You’ll almost never hear the third stanza, though, which is pretty anti-British. Here are the lyrics to the song in their entirety.

7. Francis Scott Key's grandson was imprisoned in Fort McHenry.

Ironically, Francis Scott Key’s grandson was jailed in the very place that inspired his granddad to write “The Star-Spangled Banner." In 1861, residents of Baltimore who were deemed to be pro-South were held in Fort McHenry.

8. Other countries have played "The Star-Spangled Banner" to support the American people.

The song inspires all kinds of emotions in a lot of people, but there’s one instance where it really tugged at the heartstrings of the world. On September 12, 2001, the Buckingham Palace band played the American national anthem during their Changing of the Guard. The gesture of solidarity and show of support was repeated for Spain (with their national anthem, of course, not “The Star-Spangled Banner”) in 2004 after the bombings in Madrid.

9. "The Star-Spangled Banner" wasn't always played before baseball games.

The tradition of playing the national anthem before a baseball game wasn't standard until WWII. Before that, the song was typically reserved for the seventh-inning stretch.

10. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is really hard to sing.

Our national anthem is so difficult to sing well that radio host Garrison Keillor started a campaign to transpose the song to a more congenial key, G major. He argued that most singers are able to tackle that key with ease, unlike A flat major, the key in which it's typically sung today. So far, obviously, he has been unsuccessful.

A version of this story first ran in 2010.