Stepping back in time: ‘Dancin’ On Air’ returns briefly to TV

Philadelphia’s WPHL (Channel 17) will rebroadcast old episodes of “Dancin’ On Air” this weekend. The station is devoting four hours to it on Saturday night from 8 to 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The original program, which aired from 1981 to 1987, featured area teens dancing to popular music.

The Watcher

As such, it featured all that was good, bad, and ugly about the 1980s: From the teen-pop, family band The Jets (“Crush On You”) to proto-rappers Sugar Hill Gang; from piles of perm, down to pegged pant legs.

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“It looks like it’s from another planet,” said Joey Sweeney, founder of the pop culture blog Philebrity. “It doesn’t look like it’s coming out of America.”

As a teenager, Sweeney identified with punk rock. To him, the “disco bunnies” and “guidos” on “Dancin’ On Air” constituted a culture war.

“There was a teen disco in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia called ‘Electric Playground’ that my friends and I all went to, always got beat up for being punk rockers,” recalled Sweeney. “But we would go anyway because they’d play one U2 song and one Violent Femmes song every weekend, and a fight would ensue and we’d all get kicked out.”

Nevertheless, the candy-colored antics of teens bouncing to Duran Duran held him in thrall. And still do. “I can’t stop watching. It’s something I can’t look away from. It’s like in my visual DNA,” Sweeney says.

The Watched

“Dancin’ On Air” produced some bona fide celebrities–Kelly Ripa of “Regis and Kelly” was a featured dancer–and some cultural heroes. Rennie Harris, premiere hip-hop choreographer and founder of Puremovement, worked on the program showing other teens fresh moves.

Clyde Evans, who went on to found the Chosen Dance Company, was introduced to performance dancing on “Dancin’ On Air.” Before he was a dancer, the show introduced him to America.

Evans, who was born in Trinidad, immigrated to Philadelphia with his family when he was a child.

“We had two TVs. One was black and white, one was color,” said Evans. He and his sister would fight over who would be able to watch the color TV.

“She would win, she would watch the program and I would kind of watch it with her,” he said.

Evans wanted to see what American kids did: how they dressed and how they danced and what music they listened to. When he became a dancer on the show, he learned to move for the camera, a handy skill when he became a theatrical dancer as an adult.

Everybody Wang Chung Tonight

For two years–1985 to 1987–“Dancin’ On Air” went national as “Dance Party USA,” and competed with “American Bandstand,” which also got its start in Philadelphia.

Even though the TV show would be taped over marathon, 12-hour sessions, none of the kids were paid. They came every week because they got to be on TV. Other kids in Philadelphia watched because they might see their friends and classmates on TV. That’s how it was done before Facebook and YouTube.

“Dancin’ on Air” appears occasionally as bootlegged clips on YouTube, featuring muddy sound, the soft blur of old VHS tape, and the same hip-swaying, shoulder-rolling moves accompanying everything from Madonna to the Stray Cats to Will Smith.

To a foreigner, it represented America. To a native, it was foreign. “Dancin’ On Air” lives in the cloud, where hormones clashed with braces, and we really believed we could build this city on rock and roll. Or at least dance to it.

Video content courtesy of Omni 2000

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