BEVY SMITH MUSES ON THE DADDY OF THE CAT DADDIES, SOUL TRAIN HOST DON CORNELIUS
Soul Train offered dance lessons, fashion tips and elocution training from the always articulate and debonair Don Cornelius. Don was the original MC, the epitome of a Master of Ceremonies. Don was old school even back then. A true “Cat Daddy,” he presided over the
show, part of the action but always a bit aloof, looking down on his kingdom from his train-shaped podium. I remember Don breaking his ice-cold facade only once — when Mary Wilson of the Supremes convinced him to go down the Soul Train line. Don was doing just fine, swiveling his hips to the beat of James Brown’s “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time” until he attempted a split and tripped. However, in true Don Cornelius fashion, his recovery was smooth; he drifted out of the camera’s range, laughing.
Yes, I had a little crush on Don. I know, it’s a bit Lolita, but my sister had dibs on Gordon fromSesame Street… Hey, even back then, black women had slim pickings when it came to dating. Don was the man in charge and as sharp as the blade on Foxy Brown’s knife. From his powder-blue hot-pants suits and knee-high boots to his Brooks Brothers ensembles, he was an urban Beau Brummell.
Watching the show, I dreamed of growing up to become a Soul Train dancer and often imagined what I would wear. When performing the “loose booty” or the “bump,” a mini-skirt or hot pants was the appropriate look. However, if I was going to be heading down the Soul Trainline and ending with a split, gauchos would be the perfect style accent–no chance of a “wardrobe malfunction.”
A featured Soul Train dancer’s style was just as important as his or her pop-and-lock skills. A pair of satin pants provided a divine sheen and reflective background when performing the “back slide,” later known as the “moonwalk.” I suspect we have Soul Train re-runs to thank for the satin spandex leggings craze that we are currently experiencing. Ladies, everything ain’t for everybody, and some things should stay in the time capsule.
Hair was equally important. A downy soft Afro could channel Angela Davis; Afro puffs gave you the look of little sister Dee from the TV show What’s Happening!!; and cornrows identified you as righteous soul sister number one, a cross between Nina Simone and Cicely Tyson. All of the above looks could be achieved by using liberal amounts of Soul Train‘s title sponsor, Afro Sheen. If you opted for the press and curl, Ultra Sheen gave you the shiniest, “bouncing and behaving” hair. Twan, my current weaveologist, uses old Ultra Sheen ads as a litmus test for how “natural” his weaves look.
Of course, the shoes on the show were crucial. Not just for comfort, but also how they looked as a dancer was doing a cartwheel or spinning on his or her head, legs akimbo. If Louboutin had made shoes back then, just imagine how many dances would have centered on kicking up one’s heels! However, the red bottoms hadn’t been created, and the featured dancers had to settle for plain old stacked, wedged and spiked heels. I followed their lead. I may have been a little young for high heels (and for Don Cornelius, for that matter), but I was a girl with a dream. Every Saturday morning I watched as the Soul Train girls shimmied, shook and split in high heels, and I was determined to do the same. I debuted my very first pair — royal blue
sandals from Bakers — on Easter Sunday, 1978. I was 12 years old and instantly labeled “fast” by my friends’ mothers.
Did I care? No, I instinctively knew that real style is a personal choice, a reflection of how you live your life! Even as a pre-teen, I had no use for sneakers, T-shirts and jeans. I clearly wasn’t going to lead an average, comfortable life. To this day, I wear high heels, dresses with heaving cleavage and bangle bracelets that jingle a tune as I walk. I look like I’m having a good time and I feel like a modern day Soul Train dancer. Thank you, Don Cornelius, for teaching, inspiring and showing me how to live life with love, peace and soul!