A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Tai Chi that Isn't Tai Chi but Is Tai Chi
by Christopher Dow
From 1959 to about 1965, a dance craze called the Twist took over dance floors all across the country. I was a tween during part of that time, and I was soon Twisting along with everybody else.
Words can’t really describe the Twist, but here’s the Wikipedia entry on how the Twist is performed:
"The twist is performed by standing with the feet approximately shoulder width apart. The torso may be squared to the knees and hips, or turned at an angle so one foot is farther forward than the other. The arms are held out from the body, bent at the elbow. The hips, torso, and legs rotate on the balls of the feet as a single unit, with the arms staying more or less stationary. The feet grind back and forth on the floor, and the dance can be varied in speed, intensity, and vertical height as necessary. Occasionally one leg is lifted off the floor for styling, but generally the dance posture is low and with the feet in contact with the floor with very little vertical motion.” (1)
To really get the idea, go to YouTube and call up a video of Chubby Checker or other people Twisting. If you do, you’ll see that the Twist requires one to use alternating pushes from the legs to twist the waist and hips back and forth. The waist is flexibly connected through the torso to the shoulders, which also twists back and forth, but alternating with the twisting of the hips and waist. The twisting of the waist and torso then propels the arms forward and backward. Above this movement, the head is held steady, as if suspended from above. And through it all, the body rotates around its central axis, though often not neatly. This was, after all, a flamboyant dance, not Tai Chi.
But the combined actions of the Twist are very similar to the way the legs, hips/waist, torso, shoulders, and head move around central equilibrium during Tai Chi. Of course there are differences, too. In the Twist, the feet make no attempt to root, there is some leaning of the torso, and many of the body movements are flashier than you’d find in Tai Chi. And more limited. But the principles of the dance are remarkably similar to the principles of Tai Chi.
Considering the timing of the dance with the advent of Tai Chi in the United States in the late 1950s, one might be tempted to think that the art somehow spawned the dance, but that’s not the case. The dance has roots that go back to the nineteenth century. In their book, Jazz Dance, Marshall and Jean Stearns state that a pelvic dance motion called the twist came to America from the Congo during slavery. (2)
1 Wikipedia entry: "The Twist"
2 Stearns, Jean, and Stearns, Marshall Winslow, Jazz Dance (Da Capo, 1994).