I’m a sucker for the Hokey-Pokey, but I’m not sure why.
The Hokey-Pokey’s enduring influence on our culture is hard to explain. Why is it still around? I think its strange charm stems from its unabashed goofiness combined with its open-ended mystery. For instance: first you put your right foot in, then you take it out. You put your right foot in again, then shake it, and only then, just before turning yourself around, do you actually do the Hokey-Pokey. So what is the Hokey-Pokey, exactly? It happens between the shaking and the turning, but the song doesn’t provide any clues. My friend JMike is convinced the Hokey-Pokey refers specifically to the screwing-in-a-lightbulb motion you do with both hands before turning yourself around (or as he put it, “rotating your hands thusly around the long axis of your arms”). This sounds like plausible guesswork, but I do not consider it authoritative. What do you think the Hokey-Pokey is?
It is the closing line that moves the Hokey-Pokey from mediocrity to greatness: “That’s what it’s all about.” Ambiguity is everywhere. What’s “that”? What’s “it”? Truly, the Hokey-Pokey is a mirror in which every age sees its own reflection. We might ask, for example, what William Shakespeare would have made of the Hokey-Pokey. As luck would have it, the Washington Post’s Style Invitational recently invited readers to “rewrite some banal instructions in the style of some famous writer.” The winning entry, by Jeff Brechlin of Potomac Falls, Virginia, gives a sonnet version of the Hokey-Pokey in the style of William Shakespeare (you have to scroll down a bit to find it). How might the bard have styled the song that launched a thousand skate-themed birthday parties? Ahem…
O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke — banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, ’tis what it’s all about.