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By Mark Paytress
The Daily and Sunday Express
June 26, 2011

FIFTY years ago this autumn Britain started to go round the Twist. So says Jeff Dexter, the noted bon viveur and music biz insider, whose career took off the night he got slung out of the Lyceum ballroom in London for daring to swivel his slim, 15-year-old hips.

“I got banned,” says Dexter, now a pipe-smoking 65-year-old who has been bashing a memoir of his days as influential Sixties club DJ, festival promoter and manager into shape for years. “Everyone crowded around to see what this lunatic was doing and they kicked me out for obscenity.”

Even in pre-Beatles Britain, however, things were beginning to move fast. Dexter’s moves were soon screened in newsreels at cinemas nationwide and he ended up back at the venue in a new starring role: teaching the new dance craze to a nightly packed house of eager movers and shakers.

His name is now forever associated with what is probably the most popular dance craze of all time, a phenomenon that got under way in urban America in 1960 and, insists Dexter, remained the basis for all dancefloor action well into the mid-Sixties.

“I met Chubby Checker when he came over to promote his Twist records,” says Dexter, who danced with the Philadelphia-born Twist man “in some posh hotel on Park Lane”.

“Chubby moved really well for a pudgy little bloke,” says the once-blond teen from Walworth, South London. “He was more than just the front for it, he was very good.”

Checker’s two hits, The Twist and Let’s Twist Again, had swept America by storm by the time this country itched for some new steps. The Jive, which buttoned-up Britain viewed as akin to the Kama Sutra set to a pulse-racing beat, might have been all the rage during the rock ’n’ roll era, but in 1961 the formal routines of old still dominated.

“People forget that it was the Twist that pulled the country out of the Fifties,” Dexter says. “They talk about the Pill and The Beatles but the Twist was absolutely key to what happened later that decade

“It took the country by storm because anybody could more or less do it. It was about individuality because you danced on your own, and it was about liberation because you were free to move your body. You could even be a complete idiot if you wanted to.”

Dexter always took the art of dance seriously, though. “I loved watching people move and I fancied being a ballet dancer, he says, “but at 4ft 9in I wasn’t tall enough.” The pint-sized Londoner had been attending dance classes (“a bit of tap, waltz, soft-shoe”) since the age of 12 but kept his passion secret. “You were called a poof if you took dance lessons,” he says. “The truth was, I loved to dance, I loved to sew and I loved hanging out with females!”

Too young and tiny to have been a thrusting Teddy Boy, Dexter mixed his own adolescent jive with the more formal steps of the tweed-and-twin-set brigade. “I would dance anywhere,” he recalls, “from clubs and dance halls to christenings and weddings.”

All that changed one night in 1961 when the 15-year-old tailoring student saw a French couple doing the Twist at the Lyceum, in the heart of London’s theatreland.

“It was only a glimpse,” says Dexter, “because when everyone rushed to see what they were doing, they quickly reverted back to their French jive.”

Those 10 or 15 seconds shook the world of the sharply garbed teenager, dressed up to the nines in a suit by Dougie Millings, The Beatles’ tailor. Two weeks later, having studied illustrations of How to Twist on the sleeve of Chubby Checker’s latest 45, Dexter hit the dancefloor Twisting and found himself out on his ear.

“The manager was this 6ft 4in guy named David Preedy and he was having none of this ‘filthy’ dance in his hallowed hall.”

Dexter was mortified. “The thought of not dancing at the Lyceum on Sundays and Tuesdays was unbearable for me.”

However, with Checker’s Let’s Twist Again creeping into the charts, the noted Arthur Murray School of Dancing moved quick and a couple of weeks later it was booked to appear. “I’d heard they were coming to demonstrate the Twist,” Dexter says, “the very thing that had got me thrown out. I couldn’t believe it, so I talked my way back in.”

Also present was a team from Pathé News. “They filmed people having a go afterwards,” Dexter recalls, “but because I’d promised never to do that filthy dance again, I did something different. I was doing the Jerk, actually, something that no one had done before.”

Unknown to the precocious teenager, his fleet-footed moves were soon being screened up and down the country, including in Glasgow, where top bandleader Cyril Stapleton was watching. Dexter was hastily summoned to the Lyceum.

“David Preedy picked me up and carried me into his office. I thought I was going to get a beating but he said: ‘It seems you were right.’ Cyril Stapleton had called him and said: ‘Get that little kid!’ He was about to start a residency at the Lyceum and he wanted me to dance in front of the band.”

There was one problem. Dexter was underage. “The manager said: ‘I thought you were about nine but if you’re working here, you can come in at 15.’ So within weeks of me getting thrown out of the most prestigious ballroom in the country for obscenity, I was back in and on stage Twisting my little nuts off. By then everybody in the world wanted to Twist.”

Over the next few months, the so-called King of the Midget Twist popped up on television and kept his audiences abreast of all the variants that sprang up in its wake. “I did the Mashed Potato, the Hully Gully, even the Madison, which was an older dance that had been given a new twist.”

The arrival of The Beatles, screaming Twist And Shout during 1963, induced a new generation to Twist and, says Dexter, the dance provided the basis for all the pop dancefloor moves right through to the heyday of Swinging London in 1966.

“Aargh, don’t call it Swinging London!” he says, in no uncertain terms. “We didn’t swing. That’s what our parents did. We weren’t swinging, man; we were Twisting and grooving.”

And the ever-dapper Jeff Dexter, the man who brought the Twist to Britain, still is.

Copyright ©2011 Northern and Shell Media Publications

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