Back in 1993, one of my friends, Suraya Fadel, was a regular dancer on Soul Train. When we went out clubbing, Suraya was always amused at my antics on the dance floor. So one weekend, she invited me to join her on the show.
At the time, I assumed she was yanking my chain. I couldn’t fathom being allowed on the set of the world-famous Soul Train, much less as a dancer.
There were many reasons for my skepticism. For starters, I expected to undergo an audition, which I would inevitably fail after injuring myself while attempting the Roger Rabbit. My arsenal of moves were limited to doing an impression of a smack-induced epileptic seizure. Plus, the only time I had ever danced on a stage was when I played the role of Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie in our high school musical. And trust me — my moves weren’t compatible with r&b, hip hop, or the rest of the cast’s choreography.
But above all, I grew up watching Soul Train. Perhaps I was the last generation of teenagers to spend weekends watching people dance on Saturday mornings. Most notably, never ever never did I see an Asian guy on Soul Train.
Nonetheless, I opted to drive down to Southern California with Suraya. When we arrived in Hollywood, we headed for Paramount Studios, which houses the Soul Train set. We met a man at one of the Paramount gates who knew Suraya and let us in. And seconds later, we were both on the famous Soul Train set.
I always assumed that there were Chorus Line or Fame-like auditions to become a Soul Train dancer. But apparently, you just had to know the right person. (I suspect, however, that in order to become one of the “featured” dancers on stage, you had to do the Humpty Dance with one of the producers.)
Once all the dancers arrived, I felt uncomfortable because everybody was staring at me.
I thought it might’ve been because I was likely the first Asian American male on the show. To everyone else, I must’ve represented the Orient Express colliding with the Soul Train.
But as I look at these photos, I realize that everyone was staring at me because I was wearing a Cabbage Patch Kids vest and a ski cap with a rainbow of pastel colors.
I mean look at me …
Have you ever seen anybody in front of the Soul Train Scramble Board so devoid of soul? I look like Long Duk Dong in a Chappelle Show skit.
Hours after we arrived, waiting and waiting, the producers finally announced that they were ready to begin taping. After hand-selecting those who would get to dance in the cages on stage, the producers told everyone else to spread out on the main dance floor. And just like that, they cued the lights, pumped up the jams, rolled film, and I was dancing on Soul Train!
1993 was the first year that Don Cornelius stopped hosting and they began the guest host format. So during the four episodes that were filmed that Saturday and Sunday, I saw the first quartet of guest hosts — Kim Wayans, T.K. Carter, Aries Spears, and Ajai Sanders.
Here’s a photo of me with Aries Spears (who is now most famous for being a cast member of Mad TV.)
The musical performers (who actually lip synch instead of perform) whom I saw on stage were: Bell Biv Devoe, Zhane, H-Town, Keith Washington, Xscape, MC Lyte, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, Freedom Williams (from C&C Music Factory), Aaron Hall, and Tag Team.
This was so dope. I was easily the most star-struck person in the room. After all, I spent 34.8% of high school memorizing lyrics to Bell Biv Devoe. I saw the video for C&C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now” a thousand times, and now suddenly, Freedom Williams is five feet away from me. And who doesn’t violently shake their caboose when they hear Tag Team’s “Whoomp! There It Is?” Other than everyone?
But to my surprise, I was easily the most star-struck because nobody else was star-struck. The dancers seemed uninspired or unimpressed by the celebrities; the producers had to really push the dancers to fake enthusiasm for the musical performances. I learned that most of these dancers were just hoping to be discovered on TV; they only perked up when talking to somebody who could score them a better gig.
Over the weekend, everything that seemed magical about this show — the scramble board, the Soul Train lines, the big celebrities, the crotch cams, the dancers’ big smiles — evolved into a web of optical illusions.
It didn’t help that the producers treated the dancers like cattle. I vividly remember lunch-time. While the executives enjoyed a catered lunch on the set, the dancers were herded outside near the trash bins where some staffer brought out buckets of fried chicken. We weren’t given plates, utensils, or napkins, as I recall. The historical comparisons that could be made didn’t escape me or the dancers, 80% of whom were black. One guy actually referred to us as modern-day slaves. Nobody disagreed.
I would’ve echoed his sentiments, if it weren’t for the fact that I was wearing a Cabbage Patch Kids vest and a ski cap with a rainbow of pastel colors.
But one final moment of adrenaline-pumping came Sunday afternoon when Don Cornelius walked onto the set. I wanted to ask him for an autograph or a photo or a massage, but I was too intimidated by his legendary icon status.
Here’s the best part of this story: during the last hour of filming, Don, the Executive Producer, suddenly stopped filming while we were dancing to Zhane’s “Hey Mr. DJ.”
We all wondered why.
I heard Don tell the director that one of the dancers was mugging the camera. He asked that dancer to leave the set, but nobody left. We didn’t know to whom he was talking.
Don then walked on to the dance floor, approached me, grabbed my arm, and escorted me off the dance floor!
Don Cornelius touched me!
In fact, he personally removed me from his show!
Frankly, I don’t remember mugging the camera. I suppose that when I was trying to pop-and-lock, it may have appeared like I was waving “Hi Mom!” to the camera.
Personally, I think Don Cornelius saw me and concluded that he didn’t want the Seoul Train on Soul Train.
You get my drift? To Don Co, I was Don Ho.
Horrendously embarrassed, I sat on the sidelines until the filming ended. I should’ve been ashamed over the “incident,” but, in reality, I was excited that the Don touched me.
Some people hope to get touched by an angel. I yearned to get touched by Don Cornelius.
You know why I don’t tell most people this story? Because it requires showing these compromising photos. But now that a decade has passed, I can dismiss these pictures as being from another era, even though my fashion sense remains similar. By similar, I mean identical and that those clothes are still in my closet.
I also don’t tell this story much because it sounds too ridiculous to be true. But I swear to everything sacred that this story has not been exaggerated or invented in any way. Don Cornelius really did touch me (try not to be too jealous) and really did escort me off the dance floor. None of these photos have been Photoshopped or otherwise edited (except to crop them).
By the way, weeks later, I watched our four taped episodes on TV, which aired over the course of four weekends.
I scrutinized the footage as if it were the Zapruder film. I added up every second that I could clearly see my face on TV.
Total: 4 seconds. At best.
Suraya is an attractive woman, so she snagged far more airtime than me (an unattractive woman), but I’d estimate her total at 45 seconds.
So, after 12 hours of exhaustive dancing and another 6 hours of waiting around, we received a total 49 seconds of airtime and were paid nothing, unless free fried chicken counts as currency. But I was grateful for the experience. Not many people get to say they danced on Soul Train.
Sadly, I lost my recording of those shows. But maybe one day, they’ll put every Soul Train episode on DVD. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be asked to provide commentary.
Incidentally, Suraya Fadel is now a reporter for CBS down in LA, so she is getting much more airtime than during her Soul Train tenure. (Update: I talked with Suraya on the phone today and she says that she actually interviewed Don Cornelius while standing on the red carpet at a LA party. He claims to have remembered her and her difficulties with the Scramble Board.)
You can still watch new episodes of Soul Train on tv, although you won’t find my soulful moves.
But who knows? Maybe one day they’ll invite me back.
After all, if every person gets 15 minutes of fame, I still have 14 minutes and 56 seconds remaining.
Peace, love and sooooooooooooooooooouuuuuul!