Annette John-Hall: Recalling an '80s classic

Randy Robinson, 45, strikes an '80s dance pose. He was featured on the Phila.-based television show "Dancin' on Air."
Randy Robinson, 45, strikes an '80s dance pose. He was featured on the Phila.-based television show "Dancin' on Air." (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2011

Before this week, I couldn't have told you the difference between Dancin' on Air and Dancing With the Stars. For all my boomer mind knew, Dancin' on Air could have easily been a millennial remix of Lionel Richie's "Dancing on the Ceiling," or Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street."

But then my Facebook feed blew up with "likes" from friends, directing me to the Dancin' on Air marathon page and RSVPs to the Dancin' on Air "watch party." PHL17 is doing a four-hour 30th anniversary rebroadcast of the hallowed '80s dance program from 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday and again from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. The watch party starts at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties.

Dancin' on Air was for Philly kids what American Bandstand was for their parents or Soul Train was for me in the '70s: a program that validated youth by showcasing teen dancers more than the artists themselves.

Not only that, "it became a cross-pollination of cultures in a form and a space that didn't previously exist," says Randy Robinson, 45, who appeared on the show from '81 to '84 as a member of North Philly's pop-locking Scanner Boys crew. "It was a cultural phenomenon."

Acid jeans, Reeboks

Sure, it must have been a thrill to see Madonna, replete with layers and ankle socks, make her first televised appearance on Dancin' on Air with John "Jellybean" Benitez in '83. Or to dance to lip-synched performances by Paula Abdul, New Kids on the Block, Bootsy Collins, Vanity 6, Menudo, or MC Hammer.

Geez, I can almost hear the synthesizers and drum machines.

"When the artists came on the show, they were just like us - kids," says Denise "Niecey" Leisner, 43, a regular from '82 through '86, "and we got to experience it with them."

In retrospect, any kid worth his acid-washed jeans or Reebok hightops saw how a stint on Dancin' on Air not only made for instant celebrity, but also taught about discipline, respect, and the value of diversity - characteristics many hold to this very day.

First reality show

Created by Mike Nise, the show ran from 1981 to 1992, first as Dancin' on Air, then as the nationally syndicated Dance Party U.S.A.

"Dancin' on Air was one of the first reality shows," PHL17's Travis Brower says. "There were kids who dated from episode to episode. They'd be dancing together one week and the next week be dancing on the opposite ends of the studio - all of these little storylines."

There were plenty of viewer favorites. Romeo King. Chris Kelly. Philip Ferrara. Annette Pizzo, a Madonna lookalike.

Ah, and Kelly Ripa. Yes, Regis' Kelly and the pride of Eastern High in Voorhees boogied on the show, big hair and all. Israel Beauchamps, Leisner's big brother and resident heartthrob, couldn't walk through the Gallery without getting mobbed.

Rennie Harris - the hip-hop visionary and founder of Rennie Harris Puremovement - credits Dancin' on Air for honing his business saavy. During the show's final years, Harris, 47, served as floor director in charge of guiding dancers on camera, setting up interviews, staging artists. He danced, too, but for only 18 months as leader of the Scanner Boys.

Still, it was long enough to establish a reputation, says Robinson, Harris' crewmate.

"Dancing gave me the popularity in the community that I still have today," says the director of government affairs for the National Comprehensive Center for Fathers. "It provided a forum for interaction." Sadly, Robinson says, "kids today have retreated as a turf thing."

In this age of texts, tweets, and territory, it's hard to imagine something as intimate as Dancin' on Air holding as much appeal today. After all, a YouTube video and a few thousand hits can virtually guarantee instant stardom.

Leisner says you can't understand it unless you were part of it: "Man, if I could go back to one time in my life, I'd go back to that show - and stay there."


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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