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Opinion

The Twist: The swivel that shook the world

The Twist: The swivel that shook the world
Chubby Checker demonstrating the Twist in December 1961 in London.
(Associated Press)

It’s been just over 50 years since a new dance craze called the Twist swept the nation. Though tame as near-beer by today’s standards, the dance so upset the guardians of public morality that Dick Clark ordered the cameras turned away when teens on “American Bandstand” started swiveling their hips. And when adults such as Truman Capote, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys took up the craze, the New York Times fumed that “instead of youth growing up, adults are sliding down.”

In the Twist, one could see the seeds of everything that became the ‘60s — sexual liberation, civil rights, even the women’s movement got a boost by allowing girls to operate as free agents on the dance floor instead of being attached to shambling males.

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What most people didn’t realize at the time is that the nightspot where the craze took off, an off-Broadway dive in New York, was owned by a high-ranking member of the Genovese crime family. The Peppermint Lounge, where celebrities and socialites gathered for a laugh to try out the crazy new dance, was never supposed to be a hit. It was intended to be nothing more than a front for the rackets — including gambling, numbers running, loan sharking and union swindles — that Mafia capo Johnny Biello operated out of the back room.

By the time rock ‘n’ roll came along, Johnny had risen so high that New York newspapers were touting him as the next prime minister of the Mob. Any day you give a judge a case of whiskey, Biello liked to say, was a good day.

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He ended up with the club that would become the Peppermint after a friend went on the lam. When Dick Cami, Biello’s son-in-law, suggested that his father-in-law put in rock ‘n’ roll music, the club took off.

Soon, the bridge and tunnel kids from Jersey, with their bouffant hairdos and rolled-up jeans, were going at it on the Peppermint’s dance floor, which was so small that waitresses climbed up on the rails to dance, becoming the world’s first Go-Go girls.

Within weeks the craze caromed out of New York and bounced down to Washington, where First Lady Jackie Kennedy began holding Twist parties at the White House. From there it shimmied across the country to Hollywood, where Marilyn Monroe murmured that she didn’t Twist, “I do the Twister. I put something else in it.”

“Cafe society has not gone slumming with such energy since its forays into Harlem in the twenties,” harrumphed New York Times columnist Arthur Gelb.

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That the object of this scorn was a dance that its chief exponent, Chubby Checker, said was like pretending “you are wiping your bottom with a towel and putting out a cigarette with both feet,” may be difficult to imagine in these more jaded times, but it’s true.

By 1960, when Checker’s recording of “The Twist” exploded, millions of teenagers were rushing home after school each day to watch Clark’s “American Bandstand,” where kids from Philly showed off the new dances of the day.

Social dancing still carried a whiff of the dance halls and brothels, which is why Clark’s dancers were scrub-faced kids who looked like they’d just come from church. And if the music they were dancing to, and the dances they were doing, had been devised by black people, well, that was something to play down. One “Bandstand” dancer said he was instructed to say they made up the dances on the spot, rather than admit they’d been taught by black kids.

As Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver wrote in “Soul on Ice,” though, “The Twist was a guided missile, launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia.”

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Soon, the fad hopped generations, sweeping up the “Mad Men” set of swinging company men and their hip-shaking wives. “The Twist succeeded,” Cleaver added, “as politics, religion and law could never do, in writing in the heart and soul [of whites] what the Supreme Court could only write on the books.”

For a time, society reacted to the Twist revolution by applying the same policy of containment that the U.S. and its allies applied to communism. Parents moved to “forbid [the Twist] individually and some towns communally,” according to sociologist Marshall Fishwick. “Barbaric,” “inhuman,” even “satanic” were terms used to describe the dance.

The fad was soon such a juggernaut, though, that it couldn’t be contained. There was no greater proof of how mainstream the craze had become than the sight of Richard Nixon campaigning for governor of California with a group of gyrating young women who called themselves the “Twisting Nixonettes.”

And that was just the problem. Once everybody was doing it, the hipster quotient fell faster than a dropped martini glass. When the radical Students for a Democratic Society issued its Port Huron Statement — one of the founding documents of student activism in the ‘60s — it could think of no nastier indictment of college campuses than to label them places of “mass affirmation of the Twist.” Ironic in the extreme that the dance that helped inflame the rebel passions of the young was suddenly cast aside as old-fashioned.

The death of the Twist took the Peppermint with it, though the club would be reborn in the ‘80s as a venue for a new generation of rockers.

Biello, who hoped the Twist would ease his exit from the Mob, never did get out. He was assassinated in 1967, in broad daylight in downtown Miami. The crime was never solved but was likely part of a power struggle in the top ranks of Mafia leadership.

As for Chubby Checker, he’s still swiveling at 71, though the venues he now performs in are Indian casinos, and the dancers look somewhat worse for wear. A few years back, Billboard magazine named “The Twist” the No. 1 record of the previous 50 years.

As Chubby would say: How about that?

John Johnson Jr. is coauthor of the nonfiction book “Peppermint Twist: The Mob, the Music and the Most Famous Dance Club of the ‘60s.”


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