Straight Up, with a Twist

"It is not a dance; [it is] synthetic sex turned into a spectator sport," asserts choreographer Jeffrey Holder.

"If they turned off the music, they'd all be arrested," adds phlegmatic comedian Bob Hope. The object of such moral outrage? A vulgar, animalistic dance known as the Twist.

Canadian documentary filmmaker Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential) has chronicled the evolution of rock and roll dance in his latest release, Twist, which will celebrate its world premiere on Sunday, March 21st, at the Colony Theater on Miami Beach. The showing, and the oldies dance party that follows it at the Eden Roc Hotel, are being sponsored by the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center, from whose archives much of Twist was culled.

The film is structured, roughly along chronological lines, as "an instructional dance film" in seven lessons. Each lesson details a segment in the evolution of the Twist, from its predecessors (the Lindy Hop) to its successors (the Frug, the Mashed Potato). All of the usual suspects are included A Chubby Checker, Dick Clark, Elvis A but the movie really belongs to the less-famous players such as songwriter Hank Ballard, who originally wrote and recorded "The Twist"; dancers Mama Lu Parks and the Parkettes (the World's Greatest Twisters); several former American Bandstand dancers; and Joey Dee and the Starlighters, the rock and roll band that became an overnight sensation at New York's renowned Peppermint Lounge and made the Twist fashionable for uptown white folks.

"I knew it was gonna be a big hit," claims Ballard in the film, "but when it came time to release it, they made it the B side of 'Teardrops on Your Letter.' I said, 'Man, the monster's on the other side. Please turn that record over.' I couldn't convince 'em."

Dick Clark didn't want to hear Ballard's song, assuming it was too dirty (probably based on Ballard's previous raunchy hit, "Work With Me Annie"). But as more and more of the Bandstand dancers tried to get away with the dance, Clark began to realize the inevitability of the phenomenon's popularity. When Checker, who candidly admits that a big part of his appeal lay in his ability to filter out the nastiness and "make everything nice," cut his version of "The Twist" in 1960 and began performing the corresponding moves in public, Clark finally threw in the towel, and the dance craze, maybe the biggest of all time, was unleashed.

Clips from the Wolfson Center include a marathon Twist contest, beachfront twisting in Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break, and late WTVJ anchorman Ralph Renick standing amid a sea of boisterous teenagers awaiting the arrival of Elvis Presley's train at the old FEC station in downtown Miami.

"Who's your favorite singer now?" Renick asks.
"Elvis!" comes the thunderous reply.
It's that kind of documentary. Fun, campy, nostalgic. Lots of goofy vintage footage. A Georgia State University physics professor tries to cash in with a dance called the Molecule-A-Go-Go. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform a blistering "Mickey's Monkey." Former President Eisenhower asks, "What has happened to our concepts of beauty and decency?"

Twist isn't all fun and games. The movie is matter-of-fact about white America's theft of the dance from black culture. Even the white Bandstand dancers who introduced the step to the massive young TV audience acknowledge that the dance originated in the black community. There's no controversy. Were Checker and Ballard exploited? Maybe, but if they harbored any bitterness, they don't express it here. The highlight of the film comes as the closing credits roll. Like the old gals of A League of Their Own, the Parkettes, now well into middle age, strut their stuff for the camera and prove that the World's Greatest Twisters have still got it. It's an uninhibited, ebullient moment, and it sums up the spirit of both the dance and the documentary better than words could ever hope to.

 
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