'The Teenarama Story': A Dance Floor Revolution
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Before African Americans were black, before they were Afro-American (but after they were Colored), they were Negroes. Negro with a capital N: The name was meant to carry with it a certain weight, a certain restrained dignity, buttoned-up and sober, not demanding, but asking. Politely.
Amid all the dignity and decorum of that era was a musical revolution played out to the raucous rhythms of James Brown and the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves. And one local show, WOOK-TV's "Teenarama" -- as documented in, unfortunately, a rather flawed documentary, "Dance Party: The Teenarama Story" -- was a little slice of Negritude, shaking it up on the dance floor and creating a mini-revolution of its own. (The 45-minute film will be shown at 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Regal Gallery Place as part of Filmfest DC, with a Q&A session and performance by narrator Reeves to follow.)
It's a shame that none of the footage from the show's seven-year run survived, and not just because it's a bit of local history now lost. (Someone tossed out all the archival footage when WOOK was shut down, according to the film's narration.) "Dance Party" desperately needs the visceral hit of moving bodies turning and twirling to a nostalgic beat.
Instead, the filmmakers rely on black-and-white photos, stiffly staged reenactments and deadly dull talking heads reminiscing about days gone by to tell its story. (Not to mention shoddy production values.) The sociologist droning on about how "Teenarama" regulars "replicated the exact functions of the African traditional age grade societies" was a particular buzz kill.
Which is too bad, because "Teenarama" has plenty of rich history to mine. In the '60s heyday of teen dance shows like "Bandstand," "The Buddy Deane Show" and Washington's "The Milt Grant Show," black kids weren't usually invited to the party. And in the rare instances that they were, African Americans were relegated to specific, segregated days of the week, like "Black Tuesday" on "The Milt Grant Show."
As "Dance Party," directed by Herb Grimes and Curt Simmons, observes, the civil rights movement was in full force, but the notion of race-mixing on a social basis was still an itchy concept for many Americans. Heaven forbid if a camera caught a black teen and a white teen doing the Watusi -- together. Hysteria would ensue, as it did on Aug. 12, 1963, when black and white teens, as part of an organized civil rights protest, stormed "The Buddy Deane Show" -- taped live -- and danced together, cheek to cheek. Five months later, the show was yanked off the air, a casualty of America's race wars. (The incident served as the basis for John Waters's 1988 flick, "Hairspray.")
First broadcast in 1963 and hosted by Bob King, "Teenarama," the forerunner to the long-running "Soul Train," was supposed to be an antidote to the racial tensions of those days: a daily, televised dance party for local African American teens. As one observer notes in the documentary, "Teenarama" "gave the black community in the midst of the raging struggle a psychological place to take a break."
At first, local African American leaders fought the show, fearing that the specter of black kids bouncing to the beat on TV would just promote segregation and stereotypes. They need not have worried: Boys were required to wear sports jackets and ties, girls wore neat dresses, and troublemakers were given a stern talking-to about the rules of comportment. But then, of course, those were different times, times when trouble meant carrying a contraband switchblade and shooting craps outside the WOOK studio. The show, produced live six days a week on Channel 14, the first station created exclusively for Washington's African American audience, was an instant hit. Rhythm-and-blues royalty, from Chubby Checker to Reeves to Aretha Franklin, were glamorous guests.
But without the visual evidence, we'll just have to take the word of those who were there that "Teenarama" was the place to be.