It was the clothes. It was the funky hairdos. It was the movement in style. It was the music that reflected the rhythmic energy of the soul. Legendary producer Don Cornelius said it best when he coined that Soul Train was “The Hippest Trip in America.” From 1971 until the end of its historic run in 2006, Soul Train became the staple of funk, cool and style on millions of television sets across the country and worldwide through the syndication market.
Every week you tuned in to hear and see the icons of the soul/funk era do their thing. The likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Con Funk Shun, Chaka Khan, Delfonics, Al Green, Bar-Kays, Aretha Franklin, the Stylistics, Jeffrey Osborne and LTD, Commodores, Minnie Riperton and so many others made it easy on the eyes and ears to easily tune out the rest of the world and its distraction for an hour of “love, peace and soul.”
A major part of that great escape was watching the latest dance moves performed by the women and men who made up the Soul Train dancers. Whether it was Shelia “The Diva” Lewis holding you spellbound with her array of eye-popping costumes, kicks, twirls and ballerina moves or Derek (Foxtails or DFox) Fleming giving cool a whole new meaning, the Soul Train dancers, especially during the Soul Train Line dance extravaganza, kept you glued to the TV set.
For more than 1, 100 episodes and 37 years of being on the air, the Soul Train dancers mesmerized us and became a national treasure. So much so that the groundbreaking dance crew are now considered to be history-makers. The world-renowned Smithsonian Institution recognizes this and has a permanent home for the Soul Train dancers to live in forever.
In November of this year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, will officially open. The Soul Train exhibit, which includes memorabilia of the Soul Train dancers, will be there for the world to see. Anaheim, California, a plush Orange County suburb, got an opportunity to be endowed with the presence of the famed Soul Train dancers during the city’s annual Black History Month celebration parade and culture fair in February.
And if there was any question about whether or not if the dancers can still get down that was quickly put to the curb as the myriad of colorful costumes and electric gyrating movement made its way down the street to the feet-stomping and hand-clapping cheering from shocked parade onlookers. This was Soul Train at its finest.
Fleming, who starred on Soul Train from 1980 until 1993, is an Orange County native, growing up in Santa Ana which is just outside of Anaheim. The flame of the Soul Train dancers still burns, he said.
“This is a definite tribute to Don Cornelius and his hard work and efforts that he gave to the black community,” Fleming said. “We’re here to represent that and to keep that spirit going. It’s always love, peace and soul. It (being part of the parade) definitely means that we’re considered, especially here in Orange County where there is only two percent black of people. As black people, it was especially important for us to come here and represent. I grew up here. I attended Santa Ana High School. I went to elementary and junior high. Because the community was backing me up it definitely gave the strength to be on Soul Train. That’s a definite.”
When Thelma Davis Martin got wind about the new dance show in town she jumped at the opportunity to come down and try to be a part of it. She found out about Soul Train from flyers being passed around the neighborhood where she lived at in the valley.
“When I moved into Los Angeles it was a natural evolution,” Davis Martin said. “So when they were passing out flyers for people to come down for the new dance show I went out and auditioned. That’s history. And I got on the show.”
Being part of Soul Train meant being a part of something that had never been done before. It is history that is hopefully passed down for generations to come, Davis Martin said.
“It’s definitely history,” Davis Martin said. “It’s a legacy that we’re leaving behind for our young dancers. When I see different dancers performing, I see us. I see remnants of us in the new school. It’s always wonderful to pay it forward and give back. It just makes me proud, proud to be part of the soul train family. ”
For Queen Turner, who was a Compton College cheerleader when she became a Soul Train dancer, participating in the whole Soul Train experience was something surreal.
“I came in on the third season,” Turner said. “It was a wonderful experience for me. We did not know we were making history at that time. It was unbelievable.”
You can’t talk about Soul Train unless you include fashion in the conversation. The weekly fashion show from the Soul Train gang was something to behold. And nobody flaunted fashion better than the charismatic and sometimes outrageously dressed Lewis. There wasn’t anyone who could work the clothes Lewis put on with as much pizzazz and enthusiasm as she did. Lewis, who received her fashion statements from designer Tamechi Toney Briggz, became the star of the Soul Train Line with her outlandish garments and dazzling dance moves.
Today, Lewis said she is thankful that Don Cornelius gave her and other Soul Train dancers a chance to show off what they could do.
“If it was not for Don, we would have never had the opportunity to be on the show,” Lewis said. “Thank you, Don. Don, may he rest in peace. From that moment on, I was in several commercials, movies and fashion shows. He opened a lot of doors for a lot of us.”
The memories of Soul Train have a special place in Denise White’s heart in more ways than one. White’s late father, the great Barry White, was close friends with Cornelius. The iconic baritone singer made appearances on the show often, performing some of his biggest hits like “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything” and “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” to the delight of the Soul Train audience.
Denise White said the Soul Train dancers are a mere reflection of who she is.
“We grew up on them,” White said. “They taught us fashion. They taught us how to wear makeup…beautiful clothing, beautiful hair. They have made me proud to be a black woman. I grew up with the Soul Train dancers. It is very important that we keep our legacies going. We have got to come together and keep our history alive.”