ANIMATION: MURAT YÜKSELIR • VIDEO: DEBORAH BAIC • PHOTOGRAPHY: AMBER BRACKEN
It had already swept Europe by the time a K-Tel executive discovered it and, glimpsing the potential, brought a videotape back to his company’s offices in Winnipeg. There, he handed the recording to one of his employees and said, “Do something with this.”
This is a story about the Bird Dance. But it is also a story about the human spirit, and about the enduring power of connection and – actually, no. It’s pretty much just about the Bird Dance.
Step 1: Make your hands into beaks
The call came from Bernie Wilock, sometime early in 1982. Mr. Wilock was an accountant, but, like everyone who worked at K-Tel then, he juggled a wide array of jobs. On that day, he had been tasked with finding a way to introduce one of Europe’s most popular dance tracks to the Canadian market.
“I have a song that I want you guys to record,” Mr. Wilock said, when Allan Broder answered his jangling telephone in Edmonton.
“Is it the Bird Dance?” Mr. Broder asked.
Maybe it was fate or precognition, or simply an instinct that the strange little ditty from Europe would be a perfect fit for Mr. Broder’s band, The Emeralds. Whatever the case, it felt meant to be.
When Mr. Wilock asked how he’d guessed, Mr. Broder said, “I just know.”
Step 2: Flap your arms like wings
The original song is credited to Swiss accordion player Werner Thomas, penned in the late 1950s or early 1960s as Der Ententanz, or “The Duck Dance.” The infectious polka became a fast favourite at beer halls and parties, and later hit the European airwaves with versions like 1974′s Tchip Tchip, and De Electronica’s De Vogeltjesdans, or “Dance of the Little Birds” in 1980.
The Emeralds had already been playing the song for a couple years by the time Bernie Wilock phoned, having added it to their vast repertoire at the behest of regular patrons of their gigs at Edmonton’s Dutch Canadian Club, who’d come across the song – and some version of its corresponding dance moves – on a trip to Holland.
Mr. Wilock was of Polish descent, and quite knowledgeable about the polka – his bona fides included working on K-Tel’s popular collection 20 Polka Greats – and he had a distinct vision for the K-Tel version of the poultry-themed number (which in North America would become known as interchangeably as both the Bird and Chicken Dance.)
The song was a polka, there was no denying that. But Mr. Wilock saw something with a bit of pop flavour, upbeat and modern, with the potential to appeal to as many people as possible.
The Emeralds recorded it three times. The third one, Mr. Wilock says, “knocked it out of the park.”
The Emeralds’ version featured classic accordion set against a more modern tenor sax, and an upbeat tempo which, by the end of the song, rapidly picked up pace to ensure frantic hilarity for those dancing along.
Bird Dance by The Emeralds came out on May 15, 1982. The LP sold for $7.99, and included two recordings of the Bird Dance and a series of other polkas, waltzes and dance tracks, including The Kit Kat Polka, a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s Why Me Lord, and the original Emeralds’ composition, Saxy.
K-Tel was known for its television marketing campaigns, and the company’s ad for the album featured a crowd (including band member’s wives) dancing with people in bird suits amid a beach umbrella and tropical greenery in what appeared to be a building atrium. The ad billed the Bird Dance as “the European dance craze that’s sweeping North America.”
“With millions of singles already sold, the bird dance is the hottest dance craze since the twist,” the announcer enthused. “It’s easy to learn, and it’s more fun than you ever thought possible.”
Step 3: Shake your tail-feathers
But the thing is, it really was more fun than you would have thought possible.
At weddings and socials, sports events and birthday parties, the initial trills of the song sent crowds racing to the dance floor. And why not? It was a dance for everyone.
The moves were simple, and what’s more, there was something about the song that made you want to dance along. You couldn’t just sit there when the Bird Dance was playing, even if you wanted to. As Mr. Wilock says: “It demanded instant action.”
A story in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix in those days described the song and dance as “a wacky, uninhibited tribal rite, upon which audiences are left a quivering mass of laughter on the dance floor.” The Regina Leader-Post called it “sort of a polka version of the funky chicken.”
As the Leader-Post’s music columnist noted in 1986, “Everybody has a story to tell about surly old Uncle Jake taking to the dance floor and tearing the seat out of his pants as he squatted down in the dance’s frenzied climax, flapping his arms and generally carrying on in a most mirthful fashion.”
The Emeralds were already a popular dance band, and while they continued their usual rigorous roster of performances – including a standing gig that packed The Red Barn outside Edmonton every month, and a concert that summer at the downtown Bay store, “across from Stationery in our Men’s Shirts and Ties department in the main floor” – the Bird Dance flew up the charts in Canada and abroad.
Within months, Bird Dance by The Emeralds had sold 200,000 copies and gone double platinum in Canada. In Australia, the album sat alongside INXS and Billy Joel, beating out Fleetwood Mac at the top of the charts. There and in New Zealand, the album quickly went gold.
“It was an absolute hoot. There wasn’t a function we went to where they didn’t play this crazy thing,” recalls Bernie Wilock’s wife, Patricia. “And as many times as we heard it, we danced to it.”
She remembers Bernie coming home from an Emeralds tour with feathers in his suitcase, and the birthday party where she got a big chocolate cake that looked like a record album and one of their friends dressed up in a bird suit, and night stretched into dawn because people just couldn’t stop dancing the bird dance.
“Every time the song would come on, people would just stay longer,” she says. “So the party ended up going to like five in the morning. It was all good times, you know.”
The performances were too numerous to list. The Emeralds played alongside Kenny Rogers, kd lang and Randy Travis at the Craven Country Music Festival. They played at fairs and jamborees and stampedes, folk fests and polka parties, casinos and arenas.
Pierre Trudeau did the bird dance at an Oktoberfest celebration in Ontario that fall, and Alberta newspapers noted that “Progressive Conservatives birdied the night away” at a party celebrating the Alberta election. An episode of Canadian Bandstand in October 1983 featured The Emeralds playing the Bird Dance for 45 minutes straight.
“One thing we’ve noticed with the dance, it makes everybody smile,” Mr. Broder told a reporter, around then.
Step 4: Four claps
Even putting aside all the European Duck/Chicken/Bird Dance recordings, there were – and are – many other versions of the song in North America. Notable recordings including those by “Canada’s Polka King” Walter Ostanek, and “America’s Polka King” Frankie Yankovic. (There was a lot of polka royalty in those days.)
Wisconsin organist Bob Kames – whose discography includes Happy Organ and The Enchanting Organ of Bob Kames – claimed responsibility for the song’s success in the United States, and even staked his claim as “The Chicken Dance King.”
“This stupid little thing, it’s infectious,” Mr. Kames was quoted as saying, in an interview about the song in 1985. “It has only two chords, it doesn’t even change for the bridge. It implants the melody in people’s minds—it just sticks in there.” (Author’s note: It really does.)
But Bernie Wilock pays little heed to Mr. Kames’ claims to the song, and casually but devastatingly dismisses Frankie Yankovic’s version as “grinding.” (”It was grinding,” he says, doing a short, unflattering imitation. “Who wants to listen to grinding music?”)
Mr. Wilock says The Emeralds recording of the Bird Dance is “without a question” the defining version of the song. Emeralds’ bandleader, Allan Broder, is equally clear about the band’s place in Bird Dance history.
“There have been many versions of it out there by different artists, and they just don’t compare,” he says, with cool confidence.
He chuckles lightly at Bob Kames’s claim to be Bird Dance royalty.
“That doesn’t bother us a bit,” Mr. Broder says. “It’s a part of the music industry that people have the right to do that. The point is, no matter how they try, our version supersedes. So we just sit back and enjoy it and smile.”
Step 5: Link arms and dance in a circle
Brian Fauteux, assistant professor of popular music and media studies at the University of Alberta, places the bird dance alongside crazes like the twist, and popular dance movements like disco. But he notes the simplicity of the bird dance make it appealing to an even broader range of people, who may not usually have the same musical tastes or dancing abilities. In that light, the wild success of the bird dance isn’t necessarily surprising.
Still, that an instrumental polka by an Edmonton band could go double platinum as a popular hit – and that the song endures nearly four decades later – shows Bird Dance is more than a novelty.
“There’s something interesting about these songs that have taken on a variety of lives in different contexts…,” Mr. Fauteux says. “They turn up in film, they turn up in different genres, and they turn up in different generations, and that’s compelling.”
He says songs may ebb and flow through the years, but when there is something enduring there, they always come back around again.
As Bob Kames, Wisconsin’s disputed Chicken Dance King, once said of the song, “That’s gotta be the secret...It just keeps on going.”
Thirty-nine years after Bird Dance by The Emeralds was released by K-Tel, Bird Dance continues to be played and downloaded around the world. It recently enjoyed new success on TikTok, after a Jack in the Box ad campaign hawked an updated Chicken Dance as “TikTok’s newest trend” to promote a relaunched chicken sandwich.
There is a heavy metal version of the song, and a dubstep remix. It has been edited into Beyonce videos. It got a shout-out at a wedding reception in an episode of the popular program Letterkenny (“Youse guys got The Chicken Dance ready to play yet?”). For whatever these things are worth, May 14 is National Chicken Dance Day. (Or, alternately, ‘Dance Like a Chicken Day,’ it’s not really clear.)
“The Bird Dance is still alive and kicking,” says Allan Broder, speaking from his home in Edmonton one sunny afternoon.
After a moment of serious calculation, Mr. Broder estimates he’s played the Bird Dance about 150,000 times, but he swears he’s never grown tired of it. Instead, he remembers the feeling of seeing people rushing onto the dance floor, smiling and laughing.
Though the band has performed many songs in its 50 year run, there’s been nothing like it. Not even close.
“The Bird Dance was always, always, first and foremost,” he says.
He says he plays his horn every day, so he’ll be ready to go whenever live concerts are possible again. That day when people can crowd onto a dance floor together, hands making beaks, arms making wings, everybody laughing and clapping and dancing along.
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