One thing I do so enjoy is reminding my fellow Gen X’ers that the pop culture of our youth is in no way superior to that of the younger folks today. Oh, we like to think so, with a kind of delusion that may surpass even that of Baby Boomers, but it simply isn’t so. We had garbage pop songs. We had people who were famous just for being famous. We had garbage pop songs. We had stupid, annoying kids’ shows. We had garbage pop songs. We had reality television. And, if I hadn’t made it abundantly clear already, we had really, really shitty music. Sure, we can compare and contrast the differing levels of execrableness between today’s pop culture, but it still comes down to the hard truth that while we smugly pass judgment on the taste of the next generation, we should be equally wincing in embarrassment at our own.
We even had our own version of So You Think You Can Dance, called Dance Fever. A half-hour competition show capitalizing on the disco craze, Dance Fever premiered in 1979, when disco was already in its swift decline. Striking while the iron was lukewarm was Merv Griffin, who produced the show and somehow managed to keep it on the air for eight years, presumably because he had more money than God and could buy and sell large chunks of Hollywood if he so desired. The episode I watched for this piece aired at the end of 1981, when the closest thing to disco on the radio at that point was Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” and everything about the show, the music, the costumes, and of course, the dancing, seemed like it should have aired five years earlier. In first run it would have been tired and passe, and exactly what it was: a square old guy’s idea of what the kids those days were into. It would be like somebody just now getting the brilliant idea of making a movie about sexy teenage vampires, or giving that “Chocolate Rain” dude his own TV show.
Dance Fever was originally hosted by Deney Terrio. “Deney Terrio” is one of those names from my childhood that just sticks in my head, like “Eli Whitney.” There’s no relevance to it, it’s just there, taking up precious real estate. Deney Terrio taught John Travolta how to dance in Saturday Night Fever, and Hollywood repaid him that favor by giving him a job as the host of Dance Fever. I’ll let you decide if I intended that to be sarcastic. Terrio was nothing if not an enthusiastic host, opening each episode with his own dance routine, accompanied by two attractive ladies collectively referred to as “Motion.” In the episode I watched, their routine began with the three of them rising out of garbage cans, for no reason that I could discern, before launching into a hot number, or at least a number that would have been hot around 1976 or so.
Dance Fever had celebrity judges, and, like today, the word “celebrity” is used in a very broad sense. This episode’s stellar roster is Olympic ice skater Linda Fratianne, Lyle Waggoner, and “zany man” Rip Taylor. As each judge is announced, they’re required to do a little dancing with Motion. Lyle Waggoner dances like your dad at a wedding reception, while Rip Taylor foregoes dancing in favor of pulling his pant legs up and doing some sort of thing where he bobs his kneecaps up and down. Though the audience laughs in delight, it’s really kind of disturbing watching wrinkled old man knees twitching to generic disco music, and I don’t recommend it.
Seriously, be glad I don’t know how to make gifs.
Anyway, Dance Fever also had what was referred to as a “guest DJ,” who didn’t spin records, instead providing nuggets of trivia about the contestants. Why Deney Terrio couldn’t do this I have no idea, but in this episode the guest DJ is Audrey Landers. Or it may have been Judy Landers, I’ve already forgotten. Gazing blankly at the camera and speaking in a tone of voice that suggests payment for her appearance was tendered in the form of a handful of Quaaludes, Landers does a bang-up job reading cue cards as she introduces the first set of contestants, Lauren and Danny from Dallas. Per La Landers, Danny studies physical education and enjoys duck hunting, while Lauren is a former professional soccer cheerleader. They wear matching jogging suits, and their dance routine seems to consist mostly of hopping from one foot to the other. Lauren wears pigtails with those yarn ties that little girls used to wear in the 70s, and grins like a cult member the entire time.
The next couple is Diane and David from Minneapolis. David is a waiter who “hopes he’ll be discovered on Dance Fever,” while Diane was voted Miss Black Minnesota 1980, so clearly she already has the upper hand in accomplishments. They wear matching shiny red harem pants, and though it seems like a stereotype to say that they’re better dancers than the goofy white people who preceded them, they are in fact better dancers than the goofy white people who preceded them.
After them are Debbie and Jerry, representing Huntington, West Virginia. Jerry is also a waiter, who “dreams of becoming a famous choreographer,” while Debbie is a cocktail waitress/aspiring accountant. Their costumes are the most understated, though Jerry has some sweet glittery stripes down the sides of his pant legs. They’re good dancers on a technical level, though much of their routine seems to involve spinning each around around, and I start to feel a little seasick watching them.
The last couple is Susan and Chico from Miami. Chico is wearing an awesome sequinned vest. Judy or Audrey states that they support themselves by “selling cookies and apple juice as dancing street merchants,” which is so weird you wonder if it’s real or something that just came out of her in a ‘lude fog. Sporting a sensible middle-aged woman haircut, Susan tries hard to look sexy, but just looks like someone’s mom wearing a saloon gal costume.
She and Chico do their routine to a horrid disco cover of “Singin’ in the Rain” (listen to it here if you absolutely must), and they’re the only team to use props. Their routine is rather similar to Debbie and Jerry’s, in that it involves a lot of spinning around, and I find myself wishing I had some ginger ale.
If I told you that one of the prizes all the couples get is a case of Turtle Wax, would you believe me? Cause it totally is, though not, as you might expect as well, Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat. After a performance by the Temptations, which, admittedly, I skipped over, each couple is brought back out to do a very abbreviated version of their routine and be up for judgment. Each judge says virtually the same thing about every couple: “They looked well-rehearsed,” “They had a lot of energy,” and “I liked their costumes.” Even Lauren and Danny, who look like bought their costumes in the sportswear section of K-Mart, get a nod for their aesthetic choice. Considering they’re all given the exact same praise at the exact same level, the scores seem sort of arbitrary, but in the end it’s Susan and Chico who take home $1,000 and a case of Turtle Wax.
Deney Terrio brings the celebrity judges back to the stage to show them a dance move called the Trocadero, which seems to involve little more than moving one leg to the side and then back again. Mercifully, it cuts to commercial after about ten seconds. Oh, did I mention that this was uploaded to YouTube with the commercials intact? Little treasures can be found anywhere, my friends! Some highlights: Casio calculator watches, CBS Records & Tapes recommending that you give the gift of a Kenny Loggins live album this holiday season, Billy Barty playing one of Santa’s elves for Schwinn, and a Zina jeans ad prominently featuring a white woman with cornrows. And we think Justin Bieber has stupid hair.
Upon the final wrapup, Deney Terrio says “Here’s hoping you catch dance fever!” Symptoms of dance fever may include excessive perspiration, a sudden desire to wear satin clothing, booty shaking, and chronic diarrhea.
Rip Taylor ends the show on a dignified note by pretending to pick his nose.
And that’s Dance Fever for you. While I can’t be certain that every episode went like this, it seems likely that they did, and I ask you—how is this any better than So You Think You Can Dance, or America’s Best Dance Crew? Now, if you want to be argumentative about it you can claim that you knew Dance Fever was silly crap and didn’t watch that either, but that’s not the point. The point is that pop culture always has and will continue to go in circles, and eventually those pesky kids of today will come to rue some of the stuff they used to be into. We, on the other hand, are long overdue.