In an effort to mimic the very basics of Soul Train, 11th grader Sarah Crest practiced her moves daily. (Courtesy photo)

By Sarah E. Crest
Special to the AFRO

By the time I reached the 11th grade, I thought I still had some hope of being cool. Afterall, I had the look, long brown legs, very short skirts, and a big ’fro. Unfortunately, I was totally not hip to 70s lingo. In fact, my friends said I “talked proper,” and I was seriously disinclined to try pot or drink Boone’s Farm. Worst of all, I could not dance! 

I was so uncool that I missed the first season of Soul Train. During that first syndicated season, 1971, I was working on Y-Teen programs at the historic Madison Avenue YWCA so I wasn’t aware of what everyone was talking about.

Soul Train began as a local program in Chicago in 1970, developed and produced by radio announcer Don Cornelius. The show aired on WCIU TV Chicago for only one year before moving to Los Angeles. By 1971, Cornelius’ amazing baritone was inviting the entire country on “the hippest trip in America.” That show would become one of the longest running syndicated TV programs in history. And I missed the first year.

Soul Train to the rescue…maybe.

Soul Train began as a local program in Chicago in 1970, developed and produced by radio announcer Don Cornelius. The show aired on WCIU TV Chicago for only one year before moving to Los Angeles. By 1971, Cornelius’ amazing baritone was inviting the entire country on “the hippest trip in America.” (Courtesy photo)

While Don Cornelius was developing the program that would become the cultural touchstone for African Americans, I tried to get caught up with my generation. I thought I could tap into the Cornelius cool by paying close attention and, well, learning to dance. The show was a nationally broadcast dance party featuring popular groups and the latest soul and funk music and, most of all, people my age, dancing. They could really dance. Each couple had their own steps, look and style. For most of us, it was our first exposure to popping and locking. 

In an effort to, at the very least, mimic the basics, I studied dancers that had my general body type. My legs were as long as Soul Train regular Damita Jo Freeman’s. Unaware that Freeman had an extensive background in ballet, I tried a few of her moves. The results were comic, risqué (but not in a good way) and painful. Me and my platform shoes limped to school for a week. I practiced in front of the TV while the show was on. My brothers found my rehearsals hilarious. I practiced side-by-side with my friends in the big mirror at the YWCA. After several more solo attempts and interventions by friends, I still had no moves; so I moved on to try to just be cool going down a Soul Train style line, quickly. This was not to be. My boyfriend was an affable three-sport athlete and a pretty good dancer. Everyone wanted to see him dance. He really did try to help me, but I was more like Juanita Jackson Mitchell than Arthur Mitchell (Dance Theatre of Harlem).  

It turns out I was a little cool. After all, I used Afro-Sheen, which was made by one of the program’s chief sponsors, Johnson Products, a Black owned company. And, I got my ‘fro trimmed at the original Afro Hut on Carrollton and Fayette, as did Oprah Winfrey! Finally, I was really good at delivering Don Cornelius’ cool catchphrase, “In parting, I wish you love, peace and soul.”

Sarah Crest is an adjunct faculty member of Towson University’s College of Health Professions and library faculty emerita.