Peace, love and “Soul Train”

By Trevor Ballanger

The stage is dark as anxious dancers stand before a series of crackling light bulbs. The music starts, the cameras begin to roll, and it’s time for “Soul Train.”

That scene was repeated many times since Oct. 2, 1970, when “Soul Train” first burned through TV screens in a flurry of neon pastels, afros and bellbottom jeans. Disco music pulsed on the stage, infecting viewers with a groove that would set a standard for pop culture history.

At the heart of each episode was its creator, the late Don Cornelius, who hosted the show from its premiere in 1970 until 1993. Because of its growing success, the show’s headquarters were relocated to its eventual home in Los Angeles by 1971. At the time, “American Bandstand” was the primary rival against any African-American TV show, something that made “Soul Train” important to many people. It exemplified an era where the importance of self-expression tore down barriers of exclusion. Through outrageous apparel, eccentric dance moves and most notably the music, “Soul Train” was a symbol of change.

“It took off,” said former “Soul Train” dancer Diana Hicks. “It always had its popularity. Before its time, it was very unique because there was nothing else that really competed with that show.”

According to Derek Fleming, another former dancer, it was overwhelming to see a show come out that was directed toward African-American youth. It was important to him because it was one of the few times he got to see black people on TV. He grew up in a predominantly white area of Orange County, Calif., but the show became accepted by 
all races.

“To me, it was cultural as much as it was a dance show,” Fleming said. “When we saw ‘Soul Train,’ everyone was excited about it. It was exotic. At that time, you didn’t see that.”

Having musical TV like MTV and BET today probably wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for “Soul Train,” said Monica Hirston O’Connell, executive director of the Center for Black Music Research. “Soul Train” provided a platform for monumental artists who otherwise wouldn’t have been accepted on another series. It was an unlikely stepping-stone for artists to receive a broader audience 
and acclaim.

“There were the big ones that might have gotten the gigs on ‘American Bandstand’ like Michael Jackson,” O’Connell said. “But there were all these black artists that were really not going to bet the opportunity to perform on these mainstream venues.”

One weekend of filming would cover four episodes worth of shows that were scheduled to air every weekend. Fleming said Cornelius would step outside and handpick each dancer, primarily women. Hopefuls would show up in large groups outside of the studio, dressed for attention in an effort to be selected as part of that weekend’s crew. Meanwhile, dancing regulars, or “stars,” were able to walk in without needing identification.

The spirit of the show was brought to life by its star dancers. Tamechi Toney Briggs, dancer and costume designer of “Soul Train,” said the musicians were friendly with the dancers, and they shared a mutual respect and love for one another’s talents. Artists like Smokey Robinson and Rick James would embrace the dancers as if they knew them. Dancing regulars were celebrities in their own right and were approached many times by fans of the show in social situations. At times, they would get together outside of work, mostly at private parties or discos.

Club Paradise and The Highway Man were popular LA clubs that the “Soul Train” group would attend with legendary celebrity guests like Diana Ross and Elton John. Hicks said the entertainers of that era were much more down-to-earth and approachable than those today. She said being on set in March 1984 to film a tribute episode with Marvin Gaye stands out in her mind. The experience of working with Gaye was significant to “Soul Train,” she said, because he died soon after filming, affecting the lighthearted nature of the show.

“Everybody was so sad about that,” Hicks said. “It was just the experience of us doing that whole tribute to him, then you look at it and realize how significant that is because that would be his last one.”

Dancing for “Soul Train” created what some would come to call a family. The working conditions were long—more than 10 hours per day—but being tired didn’t stop the dancers from enjoying themselves. Fleming said their breaks were similar to those of the movie “Fame.” Together, they would dance through the streets and on top of cars outside the studio like a real-life musical number. He said it was during these periods they were able to bond and grow comfortable with each other.

Juliette Hagerman, a featured “Soul Train” dancer in the late ‘80s, said there was very little animosity between dancers but jealousies would sometimes arise for a prominent spot on stage. As a featured dancer, she was entitled to one of those spots. Hagerman said one dancer confronted her after being asked to move so Hagerman could take her regular spot on stage, but they later resolved the situation and became the best of friends.

The costumes for the show were just as culturally significant to the time as the influential dance and musical sequences. Hagerman moved to LA from Chicago at 20 years old to dance on the show. She said the fashions were unlike anything she’d seen in Illinois. It was empowering to see people who looked like her wearing clothes that were both “wild” and “different.”

Briggs also began as a dancer but later found a passion in designing the show’s outfits. While the studio approved the designs, it was the dancers who paid for their own costumes. During his time on the show, he designed thousands of pieces for “Soul Train,” but one article in particular would set the bar 
on uniqueness.

MC Hammer took an interest in a pair of pants that Briggs designed, which would later become his signature look. However, the parachute pants almost went undiscovered because of one small detail—they were a mistake. As a first attempt by Briggs to create a regular pair of drawstring pants, they were sewn by hand and almost discarded until he tried them on. The baggy design became a favorite among “Soul Train” dancers and fans alike.

“I had no idea that the clothes would take a run in the way that they did,” Briggs said. “My goal was to make sure that you got a fantasy when you saw the fashions. That’s what I did for the show.”

Style was something “Soul Train” never lacked, but as the music of the era began to evolve, so did its stars. Music shifted into hip-hop and rap during the ‘90s, and dance moves changed along with the fashions. Briggs said he wishes it would have retained its originality, which is partially why he left. Hicks said it was never a matter of anyone getting fired, as much as it was a coming-of-age decision. Years later, many of the dancers attributed their success to Cornelius, who died 
Feb. 1 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

O’Connell said Cornelius was able to create a show exactly the way he envisioned it. His work opened doors for black music culture, and she said it’s easy to see the influence of that in creating new genres 
of culture.

Cornelius had a reputation for being very driven during the filming of the shows. Hagerman said he was very powerful but very much a father figure who assisted in furthering her career as an entertainer. According to Fleming, Cornelius was a quiet businessman, but he remembers seeing him at his happiest and most vulnerable. During filming he was very serious, but elsewhere was warm and inviting. Hicks said he was a completely different person outside of the studio, sometimes inviting people out to dinner.

By 2006, viewer ratings had dropped substantially. The show was being aired in undesirable Saturday afternoon and midnight timeslots and was cancelled later that year. Briggs said he was literally in tears after hearing the news and canceled his cable service. The only thing he said gave him comfort was that so much pop culture history had been documented on the program. Honoring the tradition of the show, BET began hosting the Soul Train Awards in 2009 to celebrate artists from past 
to present.

Through the years, the “Soul Train” family has remained in contact, meeting occasionally for reunions. Hicks said there is nothing she would change about her time on “Soul Train” and would relive the experience if she could.

“That’s the funny thing about fun,” Hicks said. “Sometimes when you’re having it, you don’t realize how much of it you’re having. At the end of the day, where else could I have gotten that?”