Dancing At The Dawn Of A New Age

Today, once more, we’d like to welcome John Ross as this week’s Guest Blogger! John, as many of you know is the creator and host of our favorite music Blog, “The Round Place In The Middle” 

Please enjoy John’s great take on the Art Of Dance, and much much more, “Here’s Johnny”

There are things about the 60s I’m not sorry I missed. The draft comes readily to mind. But, coming of age in the 70s, there was a lot that made me feel like I had been born a decade late.

At first I thought it was just the music and the cars of my own teen-era that couldn’t keep up. I’m no longer sure about the music. Though it only takes one visit to a single car show in Anywhere, America to know we’ll all take the T-bird over the Mavericks and Gremlins that succeeded them.

But rock & roll was more than music. After the girls had screamed and the preachers had pontificated and the businessmen had counted the money, somebody had to figure out the really important stuff: Like how we were going to move in this new age! By the late 70s and early 80s, when I had to decide whether I would ever dance or not, the options weren’t appealing. By then, along with everything else being turned upside down, dancing was more akin to narcissism than any remotely communal. Punks slammed into each other. The disco crowd (at least as it reached the masses) seemed to be more about primping than prancing. Then came aerobics, which always looked like a glorified gym class where Jane Fonda was your P.E. coach.

See what I mean?

For me, the point of music was to get outside of myself. Because inside, my angst-ridden teenage self was a place that ranged somewhere between unpleasant and unbearable. Hence, the aggressively faddish dancing that swept through the 70s was never remotely appealing. I decided not to bother resisting my wallflower instincts and stayed off the dance floor. Even the square-dancing that was still being taught in public schools in the late-60s looked more appealing than pogoing around in spandex or emulating the shallow materialism of Saturday Night Fever.

I settled for listening to the music and dreaming about the cars. My attempt at buying a cool car simply taught me that, by 1978, Ford was building a Mustang that couldn’t get arrested for speeding because it couldn’t go fast enough to make cops do anything but point and laugh. Imagine then, years later, my shock at discovering the decade with all the cool music and cars had known how to dance too, and I had missed it the whole time.

I first acquired an inkling of this by purchasing one of the VHS compilations of Shindig! put out by Rhino beginning in 1991 and watching the Shangri-Las. Seeing a group move that way, a way that was 180 degrees from the Supremes or the Temptations but just as fabulous. A way of moving nearly as liberating as the music itself had been when I was an angst-ridden high schooler.  A way that looked like anybody could do it. Which turned out to be true, because, unlike the MoMotownroups, the Shangs choreographed themselves, something that was generally unknown until lead singer Mary Weiss finally gave an in-depth interview decades later.

It was a little late for me to become a dancer (or so I maintain), but it felt like something I could have enjoyed, compared to the trends of the 70s that I grew up with, and which were such a turn-off. But it wasn’t too late to keep buying Shindig! tapes (and then Hullaballoo tapes, and then bootlegged HoHollywood Go-Go tapes, still the Holy Grail of 60s’ dance shows!) in hopes of discovering somebody else who lit up the screen like the Shangri-Las. Before too long, though, I found another reason to keep acquiring those tapes and that was the girls who had been hired to dance along with the music. But it’s not what you think, I promise.

I was long familiar with the American Bandstand ethos—local kids (albeit mostly carefully chosen) doing the latest steps. This was different. The dancers on Shindig! and the like were clearly pros and had obviously been passed through a stricter filter than Dick Clark’s. I thought I even recognized a couple of them from various ‘ElviElvis17; and ‘Beach Party’ movies. Such as Toni Basil, who seems to have found her way into almost every ‘Beach Party’ genre movie as either a dancer or choreographer. If that name sounds familiar, you might be thinking of her one and only smash hit ‘Mickey’ which topped the charts in 1981.

These shows’ dancers were mainly provided by David Winters, on his way to becoming a giant of 60s film and television choreography, with additions from the L.A. nightclub scene. Those who appeared on Hollywood A Go-Go have become collectively known as the Gazzari Dancers after a club where many of them worked. They didn’t exactly walk in off the street. But they came across as a kind of visual equivalent to the garage bands they spent so much of their time backing up and pirouetting around. Even the average Hullaballoo dancer often looked like the hottest girl in your neighborhood. And they looked like they were having not just a blast but a catharsis. It was an odd dynamic, and a thrilling one.

What you saw was an aristocracy, one anybody could try out for (at least anybody who lived in Southern California, which, in 60s America, was a form of aristocracy in itself), but not just anyone could join. During the 1960s, girls like Garr, the dancer who became most famous in the 70s and 80s, weren’t merely picked for ‘Elvis’ movies because of their quirky personality and work ethic. Discipline and hard work were prerequisites, but they were hardly enough. No, Teri Garr and others like her were picked because she was long and lean, built and blonde and, yes, she could dance. First, you matched the fantasy ideal of every lad ’twixt twelve and twenty whose parents owned a television set. Then you got a chance to show off your personality, in the 1960s.

The effect though—the way it translated in black and white and then color, in an age when a 25” TV screen was a status symbol—gave the illusion of inclusiveness, and of possibility. Nowadays, the performers know and their audience knows they know, that if you were really cool, you would be where they are, and if they somehow weren’t cool, God forbid, they would be where you are.

By contrast, the Gazzari Dancers, however stringently chosen, forever the prettiest girl on the block, and definitely the best dancer – still somehow communicated a spirit of both longing and belonging. Their happy presence made the stage seem closer, friendlier, a place where anyone might join in. If it wasn’t truly a meritocracy, it at least felt attainable.

But the most important aspect for me, chasing down bootleg tapes in Goldmine all those years later, was that it gave the music a new shape.

Throw anything up on those television stages—Motown, susurfgarage bands, girl groups (yes, even the Shangri-Las), folk rockers, stray Brits, Jackie DeShannon (who could be mistaken for somebody who stepped straight out of the crowd to teach the Dancers a thing or two, at least until her voice came through the speakers)—and the Dancers made it seem of a piece. Viewed in retrospect, nothing which came after, not even the Jefferson Airplane song that bore the name, said “we can be together” like those Dancers did. We’ll train hard, their ethos said. But only so we can show you how to get down!

If you still don’t believe me, then consider The T.A.M.I Show – the era’s greatest movie, rock & roll or otherwise, where the Dancers, Teri Garr among them, lit up the show. James Brown finally became the one-and-only performer to transcend the Shangri-Las and Motown. It was all there, the dream finale, a vision of Rock and Roll America as it might have been—a vision that has now vanished.

Yes, the talent on display was formidable: The Godfather of Soul, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, the Beach Boys and on and on. For one moment, it looked and sounded like we all understood each other. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening again, with the rhythm of each performer building and carrying into the next, sounding and feeling like a cohesive whole.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Dancers were there, or that they looked like they were having the time of their lives, wishing you could be there too.

If you’d like read more from John, and we highly recommend that you do, here’s a link to his incredible site, The Round Place In The Middle.

9 Comments

  1. RICK

    Thanks! I remember the early disco thing well as I was a bartender at the Cosmic Train in 1973-1974, the first of the new discos in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I was pleased to see discos getting girls out of jeans and into dresses.

    The whole disco phenomenon was inextricably linked with cocaine: it sometimes seemed like everyone—disco owners and managers, disco employees, and disco goers—all had a little gold spoon around their neck or in their pocket or purse.

    The serious users grew one of their pinky fingernails out real long and filed it into the shape of a shovel, making a spoon redundant.

    At the time most of us thought coke was a cool drug about which “the authorities” were once lying as they had with pot and acid. Alas, this time they were telling the truth.

    I agree: the aerobics video is hilarious—not for the dancing, as everyone has a beautiful body and can move it just fine. But they all look . . . plastic. (They also look like their drug of choice is cocaine.)

    Keep on keepin’ on!

    NEAL

    PS: As for the videos John chose, I agree the aerobics one is funny but I keep going back to the Jackie DeShannon video. (WOW!)

  2. I was never that big a fan of the Motown moves, especially those of the Supremes and the Tempts: too stylized, too much like something that might show up on the Lawrence Welk Show.

    The Shangri-Las come off great in the video above. And that does look like things we did (or tried to do) at teen dances in the mid- to late ’60s.

    And Jackie DeShannon—WOW! If only she could have captured a fraction of that energy and pizazz on her records.

    What turned the loose and easy free-form dancing of the’60s (“Wheeeeee!”) into the “primping” of ’70s disco (“Look at ME!”) was cocaine.

    I kinda like the modern dancing, even though it does look like choreographed gymnastics. At least the dancers remind me that not everyone in America is an overweight couch-potato.

    Keep on keepin’ on and get up and ride your poney before it’s too late!

    Peace . . .

      • Hey John,
        You’ve delivered some fascinating info and opinions on The Round Place In The Middle and more recently here at SMS,but simply nothing you’ve contributed can come close to the Aerobic video posted this week!
        Honestly John, if I watched it once, I watched it 20 times! And, my God, each time I laugh out loud!
        Meanwhile thanx for that incredibly entertaining and insightful article! Already looking forward to your March post!
        Best, Rick

    • Hey Neil,
      Great to see you here at SMS! You raise some good points, I’ve never connected the dots between 70’s dance moves and Cocaine, I think your theory makes total sense!
      But, meanwhile that aerobics video Kills me. Thanx for joining in the commentary, you always give us something to think about
      Rick

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