I wiggled around so much to the tune of The Twist as a teenager that I’m sure that’s why I developed a waist.
A new state, new school, new friends, and new music greeted me in 1960 as a high school freshman. Uprooted from recreational softball and winter bowling leagues in suburban Chicago to the raucous cigarette-smoking, boy-loving, rock ’n’ roll Jersey Shore, I surfaced as a backbeat cool cat in my new life.
My family had one black and white television tucked into the corner of the living room. After school, if my mother had vacated her usual spot curled up on the couch, my two sisters and I turned up the volume to the teenage dance show American Bandstand. We twisted and shouted and mimicked all the latest moves until my mother returned from the corner tavern with her New York Times.
The Twist and its offspring—Let’s Twist Again, Peppermint Twist, Twisting the Night Away, kicked up in my head constantly. When I got bored in class, I’d conjure the music and imagine myself dancing. My insides jumped and jived as my feet moved my body effortlessly through the school from class to class. Every once in a while friends would break out singing The Twist, and dance in the corner of the cafeteria, like a Hollywood movie.
Five blocks from our house in Sea Girt, New Jersey, the Episcopal Church, St. Uriel the Archangel, opened our own American Bandstand in the parish hall. Every Friday night, a disc jockey played the latest rock ’n’ roll records. We all showed off the dance moves we’d learned from watching the TV show. When The Twist came over the loudspeakers, kids swarmed the dance floor singing “c’mon baby, let’s do the twist…” Learning together to syncopate our wiggly feet and swiveling hips, we gained confidence for life at St. Uriel’s. Everyone starred in their own movie.
Dancing the twist killed the era of partner dances like the foxtrot, cha cha and the jitterbug. How we were able to get away with dancing like Chubby Checker to African-American music in a suburban church hall is a mystery to me. Did the white church elders realize the sexual innuendos and racial taboos in the simple lyrics…round ‘n around ‘n up ‘n down we go again? Did they see our awakening sexuality heat up in the carnal exhibitions of our new moves?
For sixty years The Twist was the most successful single on Billboard’s list of “Greatest Hit 100 Songs of All Time” . The song is on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. It’s been added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for long-term preservation.
With the ever-reckoning racial sensitivity afoot in the land today, I fear white teenagers might be cautious in taking a song like The Twist captive. Cultural police might shame us into the false confession of “…no fair appropriating black soundtracks as our own”. Maybe in the next cultural shift the bottomless glee of working-it-on-out will bust through racial borders.
Meanwhile, I thank Jesus for the green light to twist the night away in the 1960s.