At Least We All Agree On The Hokey

So, for the first time in my life I celebrated Independence Day. Which was an enjoyable event, however, what was odd was I celebrated it in the UK. Our church decided to have a barn dance, which Canadians would have called a square dance, on 4 July, and thought it was only reasonable to make it into an Independence Day celebration, American flags and all. Actually, the flags were all there was to the Independence Day celebration; no Star Spangled anthem, or fireworks, just the flags and a little bit of cowboy attire as a shout out to the wild west of America. I was not disappointed, as obviously I am Canadian not American. Well, that is not so obvious here, as people assume my accent is American. That confusion is so prevalent that on Sunday morning when I got up to preach under the stars and stripes, I made it clear that I was not American and this would not be standard wall decoration for the church.

It was called a barn dance, although it was in the sanctuary of the church. What I found out was that the barn was a reference to the form of dance, not to the structure in which the dancing would take place. To be fair, we Canadians call it a square, and yet for the most part we do not dance in a square, often we form lines, and circles. Labels are rarely accurate in any form of English.

We had a British caller who did an excellent job of leading us through dosey doe and promenade all with a lovely English lilt. The highlight of the night was the penultimate dance and the last dance. The second last (why do some insist on using a fancy word when simple words work) dance was a form of punishment on the person who was odd man out on the dance previous, which could be called the penultimate penultimate (if one fancy word works, doesn’t using it twice make it better). We were told that the person would suffer a consequence, which I understood would be they would have to belly dance. So, when one of our late 50 year old fellows was the unhappy contestant, I was greatly amused. However, when the music started, which sounded more like an excerpt from Swan Lake then from an bollywood flic, I wondered how he was going to shake his belly to the music. As he started to twirl, plié and frappé, I realized that once again something was lost in the translation. They were saying ballet, not belly. I could have sworn it was the latter, but clearly it was the former. I was impressed by his flexibility and balance, but I must admit his 2 inch vertical leap was not going to be the wow that the shake and tussle of his tummy would have been.

On the last dance they called us all in a circle and we proceeded to put our left hand in and shake it all about. I thought this was recognizable and was greatly enthused by the dance of familiarity, until they all swung into the center and yelled ‘hokey cokey, shake it all about’. At first, I wasn’t certain what we were yelling, and as I looked at Becky with great consternation, whilst still shaking body parts, we tried to guess the meaning of this verbal aberration. Finally we realized they were saying hokey cokey. Where did that come from you might ask, as I did ask that night.

My research has taken me down a number of different trails. There appears to be many people who claim the honour of penning the song. Sometimes, it amuses me as to what people wish to claim as their own doing. Some suggest that some young girls from Canterbury brought it over to New Hampshire in the middle of the 19th century with a completely different name, but a similar set of actions. Another possibility suggests that Scottish children were making fun of the Catholic sacramental view of communion and used a derivative of hocus pocus. I can’t imagine anything fun came from such a dark past, although that is awful naïve considering almost all of our best festivals come from some pagan ritual. My favorite explanation is that during the war a Canadian introduced it to a bandleader in England, explaining that hokey pokey was a reference to an ice cream vendor. All good things come from Canada. The bandleader changed pokey to cokey, as cokey was slang for crazy, a better descriptor of the movements called out for by the song’s lyrics. Whether any of this is true is anyone’s guess, and seems to be the sources of some litigation back and forth across the continents. You can find out more from this link

Two nations divided by a common language is a common saying that often comes to mind here in Britain; also one that no one is really sure who said it first, although most attribute it incorrectly to Winston Churchill. I find the variation in language between Canada and Britain fascinating and wonder when that divide will widen sufficiently to create jobs for translators. Until then, we just look at each other pleasantly and pretend we understand. The reality is we can sit back and look at each other, or we can just jump right in, shake it all about and with great gusto come together over the hokey we have in common.


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