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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016

Gray Matter: Oktoberfests and 'The Chicken Dance'

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

            It’s mid-autumn, and time once more for harvest festivals, those celebrations  that must have begun with our earliest ancestors. 

Probably most common in the upper Midwest is some variation of the German Oktoberfest. The one best known in our area is held in Remsen, just over the Plymouth County line to our west " German, with Luxembourg overtones. 

If you will be fortunate enough to attend, I know you will enjoy the delicious ethnic foods washed down with your beverage of choice. Beyond that, I’ll wager you will witness (or take part in) the Chicken Dance. In any case, I want to share with you parts of a delightful piece I read recently by a writer in a German community in another state.    

            This clever fellow began,  “At any German festival there is one dance that never fails to fill the dance floor. Precocious kids, teens on a dare, reluctant dads, and cane-wielding seniors spill out to form a circle at the first strains of The Chicken Dance. Soon an elaborate choreography unfolds. First, dancers form beaks with their fingers and “quack” four times. Next, tucking thumbs under arms, they waggle their elbows as if trying to launch themselves from the dance floor.

            “Then the dance gets interesting.  The waggling migrates to the derriere, as dancers slowly crouch  and ‘shake a tail feather.’  Finally in a move common to the folk dances we all learned in 6th grade, the dancers join hands, circle right eight steps and then left eight steps.  Relentlessly, the process begins again and so it goes on at a faster and faster pace*.  Perhaps the reason so many participate is to save themselves the pain of sitting and watching others do it.

            “Did you notice the use of the word “quack” in the above?  That was deliberate because the dance was imported from Europe and there it was known as Der Ententanz, or the Duck Dance.

            An accordion player, named Werner Thomas of Davos, Switzerland, actually claims to have written it in the 1950s  and it hit the US in the 1970s as the Chicken Dance. Apparently the name was the result of a careless translation by an Austrian tour guide*.  It is actually known in other parts of the world as The Bird Dance, qualifying it as an affront to the entire avian world.

            Frivolous as it seems, the Chicken Dance is serious business, a requirement for any American Oktoberfest. Every German/Polka/Oompah band plays it. To which there is a wide variety of reactions. Some clubs ban it while others recognize its appeal and embrace the insanity.

            It’s all too easy to mock the dance, and daintily demur when the band starts in and the kids pull you out on the floor. But the song is a part of the pantheon of silly songs with canned steps such as the Cotton-Eyed Joe, the Schottish, and the Bunny Hop. So go ahead and be silly. All you have to lose is your dignity!

            Whether or not you will take part in, or witness, this particular loss of dignity, I was almost certain you would enjoy these observations.