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What’s the Hokey Pokey all about?

Posted 05/24/2024 by Kira McBarron

To eat or to dance? photo by Ben Sutherland

Everyone knows when to put their right hand in, then out, and shake it all about, but the small jig has an unexpected twist to it.

The Hokey Pokey (also known as the Hokey Cokey or even the Okey Cokey in some regions,) is known as a participatory dance with singing, chanting, and spinning. But was it always known as that? Despite the commonly known tradition of doing the hokey pokey and turning oneself around, the phrase “hokey pokey” originated from something entirely unrelated 4to the little jig. 

The phrase is believed to be a shortened version of “hocus pocus,” potentially referring to an Italian street delicacy turned Baltimore staple. Some believe that the term could originate from the Italian street vendors, “ecco un poco,” or “here’s a little,” though this is a much less accepted origin of the phrase. According to the Hamlin, a Kansas News Gleaner, in 1880; “the hokey-pokey is made largely of cornstarch and milk.” The term is largely credited to the street snack because it isn’t really ice cream, but similar enough to suffice on a hot summer day.

 The transition of the term to refer to a dance is unclear, though back in the 40’s, alongside several other musicians, Larry LaPrise wrote and recorded the well-known song. It’s unclear where exactly he came up with the idea of referring to the dance and song with the term; however, in 1992, Laprise once said that “the Hokey Pokey is like a square dance, really.” He claims, among others, that the dance just “gets everybody involved.” The earliest known version of the dance dates back to 19th century England, originally performed as a folk dance in rural communities. However, the dance gained popularity in the US during the mid-20th century, particularly during the 1940’s and 50’s. It soon became a staple at social gatherings and summer camps, performed as a group activity. As local resident Pete Middents recalls; “It was pretty big for a while, but it didn’t last very long. Only mid-50’s. Everybody knew about it, though.”

Contrastingly, junior Skylar Danko knows it best from a more modern setting: kindergarten classrooms and SkateCity rinks. “I ate it up as a kid, both in the classroom and on the rink. It was everywhere when I was a kid, they still play it at SkateCity.”

Unfortunately, the sweet treat known as the hokey pokey in all its faux glory was challenged by The Association of Ice-Cream Manufacturers of Maryland in 1913. As mentioned in the Baltimore Sun, the association decided that the sweet treat contained harmful germs, and had “too little ice cream.” After that, it was deemed by the Health Commission to lack the clean ingredients of actual ice cream and the well-known carts began to dissipate around the nation. The association declared that they had only intended to raise the ice cream standard, not to drive the beloved hokey-pokey carts out of business. Nevertheless, health commissioners were asked to help encourage the disappearance of the carts, and so they did.

Now the legacy lives on in the phantom of the treat, still occasionally seen around or mentioned by long-living former sellers. But even so, the song and dance will remain a favorite with all ages at weddings, summer camps, and in kindergarten classrooms. People around the world will continue to put their whole selves in, out, and turn all about!!