Annette John-Hall: 'Soul Train' spins a record in Philly

Dancing down the line at the Museum of Art are event organizers Dyana Williams and Manwell Glenn. They were among 327 dancers at the tribute to the late "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius.
Dancing down the line at the Museum of Art are event organizers Dyana Williams and Manwell Glenn. They were among 327 dancers at the tribute to the late "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius. (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 14, 2012

It began as an idea for a tribute to the late Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius, and it ended up being the ultimate love, peace, and soul challenge to the city: To put Philadelphia in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most dancers to go down a Soul Train line.

Well, that was easy.

Thousands of joyful folks formed a block-long Soul Train line Monday that snaked past the steps in front of the Art Museum, and 327 took a turn bogeying down before it got too dark to dance. The previous record, set last year by 211 dancers from California's Berkeley High School, didn't stand a chance.

I admit I was torn. You see, coincidentally, I'm a proud graduate of Berkeley High. Nobody wants to see their alma mater beaten.

But Philly needed a day to exhale. This hasn't been an easy start to 2012, and I'm not just talking about losing our celebrities.

It's been hard out there.

So for the city, the Soul Train line was a let-it-all-hang-out dance purge. A way to prove to the rest of the country that we can produce a peaceful gathering - not just violent encounters.

I'm not about to forsake my California roots, but for one crisp, clear winter day, I was prepared to make myself a member of Philly's Soul Train gang.

As it turned out, they didn't even need me. And I was stretched and hydrated, too.

I've never seen so many hot pants (over tights; it wasn't that warm) since the '70s.

Thigh-high boots and platforms. Patchwork leather jackets, suspenders. Glitter bell bottoms. Afro wigs and more Afro wigs.

Soul Train was about more than music. It showcased African American culture and fashion, a snapshot in time, complete with a banging beat.

"Let us remember what Don Cornelius did for African Americans, but for all Americans," Mayor Nutter said of the visionary, "to show folks who we were and what we were all about."

Yes, the mayor showed up, though not in bell bottoms and the apple cap he said he'd been saving for the last 40 years. But Mixmaster Mike did high-five his way down the Soul Train line to "Rapper's Delight," as did Rep. Bob Brady, always game to get into the mix; a waving Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown; and Sheriff Jewell Williams, strutting while combing out his Afro wig with a pick.

Organizer Manwell Glenn, a radio host on WURD, had predicted a big turnout for the event, hosted by Radio One. It took roughly a week from the time he came up with the idea until receiving proper clearance from the city to spread the word.

Days after he put up a group page on Facebook advertising the event, "the thing went viral," Glenn said. "Five hundred, 600 people asked to be added." The celebration was also blasted on R&B and top-40 radio.

Of course, the untimely death of Whitney Houston on Saturday added another star to commemorate. While some R&B purists dismissed the crossover princess for being too pop, Houston, like nearly all black artists of the '70s, '80s, and '90s, never turned down the chance to take the "hippest trip in America" by appearing on Soul Train.

"I'm here to celebrate Whitney Houston," said Anthony Brown, 48, of South Philly, who was carrying an enormous boom box with - what else? - a Houston album inside. And I do mean a vinyl 33 r.p.m. album. "Once you've heard Whitney Houston's voice, you've heard it all."

Delores Dunbar, sporting a platinum Afro wig, came ready to dance.

"I'm at the stage in my life where I've had a lot of losses," said Dunbar, 64, a retired educator. "My icons are fading away. So I'm going to have fun for the good times."

If only solving all of the city's problems could be as easy as dancing down a Soul Train line.

"People are cordial. People are happy. This is a sign of humanity that you don't usually see here," said Darin Tolliver, 42, a social worker from North Philly.

Tolliver, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania who is studying violence and incarceration rates among African American males, smiled at dozens of black males - along with other folks of all races - peacefully enjoying one another's company.

"Soul is colorless," he said. "That's what Don Cornelius helped instill in everybody - love, peace, and soul."


Annette John-Hall:

To see a video of the Soul Train line at the Art Museum, go to www.philly.com/soultrain


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

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