‘Dancin’ on Air’ takes a new turn

In the 1980s, “Dancin’ On Air” was teased perms, blazers with shoulder pads, and Topsiders. It was the Running Man, the Cabbage Patch, and the Moonwalk.

If nothing else, those old episodes prove that pop eats itself.

“I look at them, and I look at us, and I’m like, wow. What were they wearing?” said Jimmy Hartman, 16, one of the dancers on the new, updated DOA.

“It was just such a wholesome and really feel-good American television show,” said another dancer, Nicole Zell, 17. “And now to bring it back and make it more edgy — the dance moves are phenomenal and crazy.”

Beginning in 1981, “Dancin’ On Air” had a local run in Philadelphia, going national from 1987 to 1991. It helped launch of careers of Madonna, Kelly Ripa, and the Beastie Boys. It was where Duran Duran made their first American television appearance. Those old episodes now have a nostalgic cult following.

A line dance of predecessors

The whole notion of a TV show featuring kids dancing to popular music had been a staple of American broadcasting, from “American Bandstand” to “Soul Train” to MTV’s “The Grind.” Those programs were some of the best ways teenagers could see how other kids danced and dressed. But the genre has more or less vanished.

“People are going to the Internet more and more to find what used to be available on TV,” said TV critic David Bianculli of the public radio program “Fresh Air.”

“Whether that pre-empts TV from showing it, we have to wait and see. Maybe you don’t sit still for a whole dance show. But you should,” he said. “I still think, properly done, all of these forms can survive and mutate.”

“Dancin’ On Air” is not ignoring the fact that TV dance programs have been replaced in the last 10 years by reality shows such as “Jersey Shore” and competition programs like “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” The cameras will follow the dancers home for reality segments, tracking the kids as they develop relationships with each other, and struggle to learn new dance moves.

Expanding the dance vocabulary

Bringing up the old guard is Clyde Evans Jr., one of the original dancers from the 1980s. Now 38, he’s a hip-hop choreographer and Drexel University instructor. His job is to guide kids through hip-hop moves.

“I don’t see a lot of variety. I don’t,” said Evans. “Not as much as the show in the ’80s. That will take time to develop. I think a lot of them have energy — that’s so important to the show — but as far as a vocabulary of moves … no. We need to build dance vocabulary on the show.”

The problem may be that kids are becoming insular. Back in the ’80s, “Dancin’ on Air” featured a diverse group of kids, and attracted an viewing audience that was just as diverse. Now, because of YouTube, teenagers can choose to only watch teenagers just like themselves, and miss out on cross-pollinating dance moves.

“We all do the same thing at some points,” says Hartman. “I’ll do the same hand moves. We do a lot of tutting.”

Tutting?

“Tutting is pretty much, you use your arms and hands, making right angles and shape angles with your hands and moving their arms around,” he says. “It’s really cool.”

Tutting, as in King Tut. Like Steve Martin, you know? But that’s a different nostalgia trip.

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