The History of the Chicken Dance Polka

By Carl Halling
Chicken Dance Polka movements resemble chicken movements.

The Chicken Dance Polka is a popular novelty dance in polka style. Of Swiss origin, it is a feature of weddings and other festivities throughout the United States and the world, as is the tune associated with it. The dance's numerous names include the Chicken Dance, Bird Dance, Birdy Dance, Duck Dance, Ducky Dance and Dance de Canards. Its history dates to the 1950s.

The Origin of the Tune

The tune associated with the Chicken Dance Polka was written in the late 1950s by Werner Thomas, a Swiss-German restaurateur and accordion player from the municipality of Davos who also tended a flock of ducks and geese. He started performing the song at his restaurant in 1963 at the age of 71 years. After noticing that people were moving to the quirky and catchy melody, he named it "Der Ententanz," or "Duck Dance."

The Origin of the Dance

In time, certain features were added to the dance. These included the famous finger movements made in imitation of a rapidly opening and closing beak, the flapping wing motions made with elbows pointing outward, and the downward hip wiggle, suggestive of a bird's tail feathers. In time, the tune was renamed "Tchirp Tchirp," but neither song nor dance had success beyond Thomas' hometown until 1971, when a Belgian music publisher happened into his restaurant and took a shine to the tune.

The Dance in the United States

When the music publisher added words to Thomas' tune in his native language of Dutch, the song became a success in Europe. In the late 1970s, it was renamed once again, this time to "Bird Dance" and "Birdy (or Birdie) Dance." It reached the United States a few years later, when New York City publisher Stanley Mills acquired the U.S. rights to the song. He renamed it "Dance Little Bird" and added his own lyrics in English, but this version failed to catch on.

The Song on Record

In 1981, The Chicken Dance Polka became a hit on the British Pop charts as "The Birdy Song" by the Tweets, and it was introduced in the United States in 1981 during the Tulsa Oktoberfest by the Heilbronn Band from Germany. It didn't appear on record in the United States until the following year, however, after Mills persuaded polka musician Jimmy Sturr to include it on his 1982 album, "Hooked on Polkas." Mills was convinced it would be a hit in America. too, but that didn't happen. In the late 1980s, though, it started to be played at Oktoberfests and other festivities. This resulted in a record label's representatives asking Mills about what they referred to as "The Chicken Dance." With this name, the song went on to become a success on the American party circuit, its appeal lying in the simplicity of a few simple gestures and hand claps, followed by the linking of arms with a partner or partners while circling the dance floor.

The Popularity of the Dance

The Chicken Dance Polka shows no signs of fading in popularity in the United States or elsewhere. It is featured on a multitude of dance compilation and karaoke recordings as well as television commercials, and it has become a staple of Oktoberfests and other German heritage events. It's also a feature at dances, on the party circuit, in grade schools and at sports stadiums. The Chicken Dance Polka is especially popular at weddings in locations such as St. Antonio's German-American community, Pittsburgh's Croatian-American community, Romanian-American communities in Detroit and Chicago and others throughout the United States and the world.

About the Author

Carl Halling was born in London, U.K. and gained his Bachelor of Arts at London University. He has worked as an actor (appearing largely in theater, including at London's Old Vic) and as a singer. Halling has been writing seriously since 2006.