Sunday, August 11, 2013


August 11, 2013


Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) American University communications and history professor Dr. Leonard Steinhorn suggested to me recently that a posting on "JFK and the Twist" might prove interesting.

Dr. Steinhorn says that bringing the dance craze of the early 1960s to the White House...

"ushered in the new era in a number of ways, perhaps even more profoundly than"...JFK's inaugural address.

Thank you Dr. Steinhorn for the great suggestion, so here we go.

Britannica defines the twist as a...

"vigorous dance" of the 1960s characterized by "hip, arm and leg movements" akin to "drying the buttocks with an imaginary towel while grinding out an imaginary cigarette with a foot."

Mary Meyer biographer Nina Burleigh said...

"The twist represented youth and the end of the dreary 1950s."

According to Robert Strauss, the twist craze was born when...

"The producers at Philly's Cameo-Parkway Record label reformulated a song called 'The Twist' by the R&B group Hank Ballard and the Midnighters."

Strauss said that the record company employed Ernest Evans (a.k.a. Chubby Checker) to record the new version and then headline at the Rainbow Club in Wildwood in the summer of 1960.

Chubby Checker, who would go on to perform on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show, said...

"Rock and roll had a sound, a beat, but it didn't have a dance, not until...the twist."

Chubby added...

"Everything from then on was dancing apart to the beat.  It was like doing a striptease without taking your clothes off, and the kids loved it."

Apparently, so did Jacqueline Kennedy.

The First Lady, one of the youngest in history at age 31, danced the twist at the White House.  

A friend said she saw her... 

"bend her knees and elbows and turn like a corkscrew down to the East Room floor during a private party."

It seems the friend said nothing about the President so we may assume he was not dancing with her.

The website "Return to Camelot: Music of the Kennedy Years," says...

"While some thought it scandalous when there was 'twisting in the historic East Room,' the President himself did not dance--he merely watched the twisters at work."

Geoffrey Perret tells us that as far as the music, JFK liked "sentimental Irish ballads and Broadway show tunes," but goes on to describe the President as...
" daring...placing himself at the center of whatever was new and exciting....the President of the buzz, then and forever."

So it would seem quite natural for John F. Kennedy to have himself associated with the latest dance of his era even though he was not willing to perform it.

Carl Anthony writes that "many 1st families refrained from dancing in public to avoid censure of pleasure often assailed by the popular press."

Abigail Adams, the wife of 2nd president John Adams, hosted the first dance party in 1799 even before the first family moved into the newly completed presidential mansion in Washington, D.C.

John Tyler lectured his oldest daughters on the "sins of dancing," although he apparently later changed his views and his wife, Julia, "avidly danced the polka."

In 1897, Frances Folsom, wife of Grover Cleveland..

"virtually remained in motion continuously, giving the diplomats one last whirl around the East Room with her."

                 Frances Folsom Cleveland
         Library of Congress Photo (1886)

The allegedly notorious Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, danced the "Grizzly Bear" to the ragtime tune "Doin' the Grizzly Bear" and believe it or not, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of FDR, made dancing at the White House "a tradition" with her annual dance parties.

Of all the First Ladies, young or old, Carl Anthony says that it was Betty Ford, wife of Gerald Ford, who "focused on the movement of dance" in her youth and had, in fact, been a dance instructor in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  

As First Lady, Betty's girlhood dream was realized when she danced with Fred Astaire at the White House.

                  Betty and Gerald Ford
           Gerald R. Ford Library (1948)


"Jack: A Life Like No Other," by Geoffrey Perret, Random House, New York, 2001.

"John F. Kennedy: A Biography," by Michael Obrien, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2005.

"Return to Camelot: Music of the Kennedy Years,"

"Twisting Into History: 50 years ago Wildwood gave birth to Chubby Checker's dance craze," by Robert Strauss, New Jersey Monthly, April 11, 2013,

"When First Ladies Dance," by Carl Anthony, May 6, 2011,