I’m not a dancer, but I play one on TV.
Here’s the deal: I crashed a TV dance party. I finagled my way onto the dance floor of Club MTV and bopped till I dropped with kids half my age (thirtysomething) and twice my ability (nothingsomething).
Club MTV (Monday to Friday, 5:30 p.m.) is the hottest dance show on television: hot new music, hot new fashions, hot new dances. It’s American Bandstand, hot and new and improved.
The only reason I know Club MTV is hot and new is that the people who work on it told me so when I showed up to dance for this story. I live on the shores of the mainstream. I have a wife and a kid and a mortgage. The last time I danced — really danced — was at my wife’s cousin’s bar mitzvah.
But, hey, I grew up on this stuff: I bought my first record (Mel & Tim’s ”Backfield in Motion”) after I heard it on Soul Train, and I got my first pair of bell-bottoms (a mustard-and-blue number) because I saw a pair just like them on a cool-looking Bandstander.
Which brings me to my first dance-show crisis: what to wear? If I was going to make a dancing fool of myself on TV, I wanted to look good doing it. Dance- show regulars wear things like jackets with no shirts underneath. It’s a hot look, a cutting-edge look, but it’s not a comfortable look. I know. I tried it. This look and me, we just didn’t get along. I settled on a pair of stone-washed jeans and basketball sneakers and an oversize shirt that properly hid the fact that my health club membership expired almost two years ago. And, for a couple of hours on a Monday afternoon at the Palladium in downtown Manhattan, I flailed about with the best of them. The B-52’s kicked things off with ”Roam,” which has a catchy, 2-1 clapping rhythm to it. Right away I fell into a footloose, clapping kind of fluidity, and I swear, if you stood back a couple of hundred paces, and dimmed the lights, and squinted…
Celie helped. Celie Rose Macadaeg is one of the original Club MTV dancers and the reigning queen of good sports. She was, I’m guessing, short-strawed into being my dance partner, and she made me look as good as I had any right to expect. When ”Pump Up the Jam,” by Technotronic, filled the club, Celie and I, we did this little thing, it was like a monkey kind of thing, and almost by itself it turned into a hitchhiking kind of thing, and it was like we’d danced together before, and even though I have no idea what it means I’m sure we were pumping up the jam, absolutely, and then I got a little carried away and shifted into a panicked doggie-paddle kind of thing, but by then Celie was way ahead of me, and when I tried to catch up, it was like I’d reinvented the Jerk, and even though I’m sure Celie’d never seen this particular dance before, and certainly never heard it called by name, she recognized it immediately.
Between songs the club turned into your basic high school cafeteria with klieg lights. Everybody admired everybody else’s hair; hot-looking guys shyly approached hot-looking girls and asked if they had a partner for the next video.
This is a big deal, a spot on Club MTV. Every six weeks, about 180 dancers are invited to two day-long taping sessions (seven shows per). Almost all of them are looking to turn this gig into something bigger. Almost all of them are between 16 and 21 years old. When a crack in that steady lineup appears, it is filled through open auditions (which attract up to 300 hopefuls) or by spot checks at nightclubs.
Club MTV dancers get $30 per day plus lunch. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but to them it’s everything. It’s the chance at careers as dancers, singers, choreographers, models. The dance floor is crowded with tales of regulars launched to greater heights: the cast of Cats, a music video, a concert tour.
I spoke to a dancer who calls himself MTV Lee, who travels five hours from Utica, N.Y., to be at the tapings. ”There’s not much chance I’m getting discovered in Utica, right?” he allows. Another dancer, John Ngai, flew in from Michigan for the show until he graduated from high school. Now he’s moved nearby. He designs his own clothes and can’t imagine a better billboard for his outfits.
Julie Brown, Club MTV‘s Dick Clark, has worn Ngai’s creations on the show. ”All my kids are talented,” she says. ”They’re brilliant. They’ve been doin’ it and doin’ it, and I try to follow them.” What she follows them with is a relentless energy and the style to say, between videos, ”Wubba, wubba, wubba” in a British tongue and have it sound as if it means something.
When I was all danced out, I started to worry what my flailings would look like on TV. ”Hopefully we’ll never know,” said the show’s then-casting director, Gerri Bulion, and then, felled by a bolt from the gods of diplomacy, she added, ”What I mean is, you know, I don’t think there’ll be any close-ups or anything. You’re a little bit older than we usually look for.”