With Meaning and with Feeling.
She is one of our favorites. This woman is a pioneer in street dance, an original soul train dancer, and an international icon. Ms. Damita Jo Freeman, who started out as a ballet dancer, got her fame from her hot steppin’ on Soul Train. Check out this interview of the lovely lady on the Soul Train website, as she gives you her dance background, advice for dancers (females especially), and her experience on Soul Train!
“Did you see that girl dancing with Joe Tex?” “Who is that girl who kicks her leg way up?” “That girl was getting down with James Brown!” Damita Jo Freeman is arguably the most creative dancer in Soul Train history. Indeed, she was bestowed Soul Train’s “Best Creative Dancer Award” at the first Soul Train Gang reunion. Her rubbery, flexible movements and trademark leg kick were visual treats to watch every Saturday. Her classic performance with Joe Tex on his hit “I Gotcha” made Soul Train’s ratings go into the stratosphere. Her style of dancing caught the eye of many in the entertainment industry and helped her to get work in specials, theater and commercials in addition to doing choreography for major events. She also helped get opportunities for other Soul Train dancers whenever she could and fought for better conditions for the dancers while she was on the show. Presenting Damita Jo Freeman!
Soultrain.com: Thank you so much for granting Soultrain.com this exclusive interview, Damita. Where are you originally from?
Damita: I am originally from Palestine, Texas, then I moved to St. Louis and then moved to Los Angeles when I was six.
Soultrain.com: Was dancing and being in the entertainment industry something you always wanted to do from when you were a child?
Damita: I knew at 5 years old I wanted to be a dancer and to be on TV. I remember when I was little and would be watching Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room, I tried to get inside the TV set (laughs)! But my mother told me there were other ways to get on television.
Soultrain.com: When did your journey with dancing begin?
Damita: From age 8 to 17 I was in a scholarship class for ballet. I was the only black person in the class. We would perform on Saturdays and Sundays and were in class all day during the week. At age 17 I danced in a production of Shakespeare’s Candide. I also was in a production of The Nutcracker. I love ballet! My training as a ballerina gave me the foundation for dancing later on.
Soultrain.com: Legend has it that your journey with Soul Train began at the club Maverick’s Flat in Los Angeles.
Damita: Me and my girlfriends, Jackie and Linda, went to a club one Thursday night called Maverick’s Flat. That was my first time at a club. I saw these dancers (Don Campbell, Little Joe Chism, and Jimmy Scoo B Doo) do a unique style of dancing and it was the most magical thing I’ve ever seen. We were just watching them from a distance. On Friday night, my girlfriends and I went to a club called the Climax. The guys were dancing but the girls were just cool. So my girlfriends pushed me to go out on the floor to dance. So I did and this is where I first met Don Campbell. A record played and at first I danced regularly but then I started locking like Don Campbell then Scoo B Doo jumped in and danced with us. Then I pulled my girlfriends on the floor and we all started locking. After we left the club, we went to Fat Burgers. (laughs)
Soultrain.com: So is this when you first went to Soul Train?
Damita: No. I went on tour with an opera show for a month and when I came back, my girlfriends, Don Campbell, and I and some other friends were back at Maverick’s Flat dancing and locking. There was a lady running around the club named Pam Brown and she saw me and Don dance that night. She said she liked our dancing and invited us to this new television dance show called Soul Train. This was on a Wednesday night. That Friday, a Soul Train line was being done at Dinker Park and we saw Tommy Kuhn (Soul Train’s executive in charge of production) dressed like Superfly and Don Cornelius dressed like Shaft! We saw Patricia Davis there, who was already a dancer on the show. We went down the Soul Train line and we were invited to come to Metromedia Studios to become Soul Train dancers.
Soultrain.com: What do you remember about that first time you went to Soul Train?
Damita: When Don Campbell and I first went on it wasn’t that good because everywhere we danced, the other dancers complained we were in their space. So we danced in the back behind Thelma Houston, who was performing on the show that day. Other people then started mimicking how we were dancing. We won a dance contest our first time on the show also. I remember after the taping I ran into my girlfriends at Roscoe’s and they asked me where I was and I told them I was dancing on this show called Soul Train. They were interested in coming to the show and when we all went to the club The Climax, I announced if anyone wanted to come to the show to be at Dinker Park at 7AM.
Soultrain.com: What was it like being on the set of Soul Train in those early years?
Damita: The bathrooms at the studio were the dancers’ dressing rooms. We would have lunch at 12:00 with a box of chicken and only one Coke! We had nothing else to drink for the rest of the day! We only had one Coke and one drink of water. We couldn’t even use the phone in the studio. I had to call my mom to let her know that I would be getting home late because we had no idea when we were getting out of the studio, but me and the other dancers were told we were not allowed to use the phone. I told my mom about this when I got home and she called the cops and a cop came to the set the next day and explained to Don Cornelius that since most of the dancers were minors, we had to be able to use the phone to call our parents to notify them what time we would be home. So from that time on, we were allowed to use the phone. This all happened during my first weekend at Soul Train.
Soultrain.com: Only one Coke and one drink of water all day long and you couldn’t use the phone? Soul Train was really ““roughing it” in the early days!
Damita: I even told Tommy Kuhn about this and that we also had no Kleenex tissues to wipe our heads since we would be sweating after all the dancing we would do, which they eventually took care of. I remember during the second weekend I was on the show, all of the dancers had been dancing all day and were tired and thirsty. I saw two big garbage cans filled with sodas in Don Cornelius’ office at the studio. I got some of the other dancers–Perry Brown, Little Joe Chism and Scoo B Doo–to bring the two garbage cans right out on to the dance floor during the middle of a dance number and I yelled, “Break!” (laughs)
Soultrain.com: You really fought to get the dancers better conditions and treatment in Soul Train’s early days.
Damita: Absolutely! The dancers would usually be at the studio before the crew. Only the security guards would be there. The TV cameras were pointed down and the stage would be dark. The dancers who didn’t drive or didn’t have any transportation to the studio had to be at Dinker Park at 7AM so that they could be driven to the studio on a chartered bus. But the dancers would be there so early, well before the call time. No production personnel would be at the studio.
Soultrain.com: Interesting. What other ways were you able to get the dancers better conditions on the show?
Damita: I worked with Tommy Kuhn to arrange to get me and many of the dancers Soul Train ID cards so we could park in the TV studio’s parking lot.
Soultrain.com: Damita, you are the woman! I applaud you for fighting to get the dancers better treatment on the show. My next question is something a lot of people want to know. How did the classic dance performance of you with Joe Tex on his hit “I Gotcha” come about? Was that planned?
Damita: He had asked me to dance with him before his performance so when the song (“I Gotcha”) started, he pulled me up on the stage and I danced. None of my dancing was choreographed. It was impromptu. I just did my own interpretation of the song through my dance moves. I remember Don Cornelius was looking at me angry the whole time I was dancing with Joe because he didn’t want the dancers to interact with the guest stars. I just knew this would be my last time on Soul Train. But after that episode aired, the show’s ratings went up.
Soultrain.com: Incredible! Even Don himself said on a 1982 Soul Train tribute to Joe Tex that your performance with Joe helped Soul Train to become popular. How does it feel that you helped Soul Train’s ratings go up and became one of the show’s most popular regulars?
Damita: It was very exciting to me. I loved being on TV! I danced with Joe Tex two other times on Soul Train.
Soultrain.com: You also danced on stage with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. How did that come about?
Damita: When he came to the show, he asked me quietly if I wanted to dance with him on stage. So after Don interviewed him and went down the steps, I went up on stage and I danced! Sometime later, Soul Train dancers Little Joe Chism, Perry Brown, Jimmy “Scoo B Doo” Foster, Pat Davis, Gary Keys, Alpha Omega Anderson and I opened for James at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Soultrain.com: One of your trademark moves is when you kick your leg straight up. You are such a pro at that! How are you able to do that?
Damita: Thank God I was a ballerina! This was a step I did while I trained as a ballerina. I worked hard at putting my leg way up. I was always good in stamina.
Soultrain.com: Besides James Brown and Joe Tex, what are some of your other favorite memories of artists that came to Soul Train?
Damita: Smokey Robinson, The Dramatics, The Jackson 5 and The Whispers are some of them. A lot of the artists that came to the show already knew my name. We got to meet a lot of the artists. We even had lunch with them.
Soultrain.com: You also created a lot dances.
Damita: Yes. One of my dances was the DJ Which Way, which I named after me. It later became known just as the Which Way. I also gave nicknames to other dances such as the Alpha, The Runaway, The Whispers and the Stop & Go. I told Don Campbell to call his locking dance the Campbell Lock.
Soultrain.com: Tell us about your experience with being a dancer on American Bandstand.
Damita: It was fun. We taped three shows on Saturday and three shows on Sunday on an 11AM to 6PM schedule. The first time I was on was for a dance contest. Little Joe Chism and I were partners. It was a six-week contest in which dancers representing different cities competed. Michael Jackson, who was a guest on one show, was a judge and selected Joe and me as the winners. He referred to me as “the girl with the leg control.” (laughs) We won the second contest, too. Helen Reddy was a judge on that show. She chose Joe and me as the winners. It was funny because she said, “I choose the girl in the green,” but Pat Davis, who was also in the contest, and I both wore green that day! Eventually, Joe and I won the finals and we won a trip to Hawaii. Dick Clark asked me what dancers I could recommend for the next season, and I recommended Tyrone Proctor and Sharon Hill. They, too, won the national dance contest and won a car.
Soultrain.com: You even had the privilege of choreographing certain acts that came to American Bandstand, right?
Damita: Yes. I choreographed The Spinners as well as Shalamar when they had their first hit “Uptown Festival.”
Soultrain.com: Your popularity on Soul Train opened up a lot of doors for you in other arenas of show business. In 1973, you became a part of the Shakespeare play Two Gentlemen of Verona. How did that come about?
Damita: I had done some plays at The Music Center and someone called me about this play. I did a three day audition. Clifton Davis, who was one of the stars of the play, told me that I had the job. I acted, sang and danced in the play. Joanna Kerns, who later played on the show Growing Pains, and Katey Segal from Married With Children were also in the play. It was a lot of fun working with Clifton and the cast. I also did choreography for an episode of Clifton’s TV show That’s My Mama.
Soultrain.com: Diana Ross also wanted you and several other Soul Train dancers to be a part of her Las Vegas act in 1974.
Damita: Yes. I got a phone call from Diana and she said she wanted Soul Train dancers to be a part of her show in Vegas. So I chose Eddie Cole, Little Joe Chism and Pat Davis to perform with Diana Ross. I also chose several of the dancers to perform during a Rolling Stones concert. I was always trying to help the other dancers and open doors for them.
Soultrain.com: In 1973, you were part of a TV program called 90 Minutes.
Damita: Right. Jimmy Scoo B Doo Foster and I were trying to teach the host Cannonball Adderly how to do the Slow Motion dance step.
Soultrain.com: You have been friends with Michael Jackson and the Jackson family for many years. You were one of the first people, if not the first, to teach Michael Jackson the Moonwalk, or as it was originally called, the Backslide. How did that come about?
Damita: Michael Jackson was a good friend. Years ago, I watched a Marcel Marceau special on PBS and he was doing this mime routine called “Walking Against the Wind” in which imaginary wind would be pushing him and he appeared to be walking forward and backward at the same time. I was taken away by what I saw. So when I choreographed and appeared in Cher’s show at Caesar’s Palace, I did the routine, which would later become a street dance called the Backslide. Michael happened to be in the audience for this show. After the show, he came backstage and asked how I did that dance step. I showed it to him and then I told him I learned the move from watching Marcel Marceau. So after that, Michael began studying and watching Marcel Marceau. Other people taught him the move also. It would become his signature dance step, the Moonwalk, which he first did on the Motown 25 special. Michael always stated that he was not a creator of that dance step.
Soultrain.com: Since you were friends with Michael for many years, how did you feel when he became a megastar from Off the Wall onward?
Damita: I was so proud of him! I remember at the 1984 American Music Awards, where he won a lot of awards, I saw him backstage and all of these cameramen and news people were around him. We saw each other from a distance and we started doing locking moves and played “invisible” guitars before going separate ways.
Soultrain.com: Being a dancer on American Bandstand paid off in a lot of ways in that you were able to choreograph the American Music Awards for years. What was that like?
Damita: It was a wonderful opportunity and it opened many doors for me. I even did stand-ins for Lola Falana and Diana Ross during rehearsals for the show. I also performed in dance numbers during the awards ceremonies, like Lionel Richie’s performance of “All Night Long.” I did choreography for the American Music Awards until 1992 when Hammer came on the show with his own dancers, and then other artists would come to the awards with their entourage of dancers. I also did choreography for American Bandstand anniversary specials and Dick Clark’s Good Ole Rock & Roll specials.
Soultrain.com: Did you choreograph any of the Soul Train Music Awards specials?
Damita: I choreographed its very first awards ceremony in 1987. I also danced during Cameo’s performance of “Word Up.”
Soultrain.com: You had a major role in the 1980 movie Private Benjamin. How did you get the role?
Damita: I met with the casting director and at the audition. I had to cry on cue. It just so happened that the room I was auditioning in was just painted and I was allergic to the paint, and I literally started crying. (Laughs) So I got the role.
Soultrain.com: What was it like working with Goldie Hawn in the movie?
Damita: Goldie Hawn was very sweet. She knew I was a Soul Train dancer. This was her first time producing a film. I remember when we had to do training for the army scenes in which we had to go through all these obstacle courses. It was so funny! Doing the movie was an overall great experience.
Soultrain.com: You also reprised the role of your character in the TV version of Private Benjamin, right?
Damita: Yes. Unfortunately, Eileen Brennan, who also played in the movie, was hit by a car and that ended the show.
Soultrain.com: Tell me about your experience of working with Shirley MacLaine.
Damita: I auditioned as a dancer for her stage show. After I passed the audition, I had to learn her whole show in two days! It was incredible. Her show went around the world. I was able to go to Las Vegas, New York City, Europe and Madrid. I was all over the place! I was a part of Shirley MacLaine’s show for five years.
Soultrain.com: You also met President Jimmy Carter, correct?
Damita: Yes. I met President Carter and went to the White House. [Former Los Angeles mayor] Tom Bradley was also there. I talked to Bobby Kennedy’s wife and Red Skelton, who was another guest, even made a drawing of me.
Soultrain.com: You even had the honor of dancing for the Queen of Engand.
Damita: Yes! It was an all star show with celebrities like Bob Hope, Shirley McClaine and even Kermit the Frog. After my dance performance, all the celebrities stood in line to meet the Queen and she told me that she liked the way I dance. We bowed and curtseyed before Prince Charles. His future bride-to-be, Diana, was also there.
Soultrain.com: What an honor! You worked with and choreographed so many people. You even had the chance to choreograph Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down tour. What was that like?
Damita: It was so much fun working with him. I was on tour with him for three years.
Soultrain.com: One of your greatest honors, and there were so many, had to have been choreographing the 1984 Olympics Closing Ceremonies.
Damita: It was quite an honor. I choregraphed 500 street dancers, 100 regular dancers and 25 children. We all were one. Although the producers gave me no credit, I choreographed the entire closing ceremonies that year.
Soultrain.com: You were also a part of the “We Are the World” event.
Damita: Yes. I remember I was at Lionel Richie’s house and Michael Jackson came over. This was one of the nights they were writing the “We Are the World” song. At one point. Lionel had to tend to some other business and asked me to entertain Michael. So Michael and I just started telling each other all kinds of jokes. On the night of the recording of “We Are the World” at A&M Studios, I was responsible for seeing that all of the artists signed the T-shirts that were sent to the people in Africa who were experiencing starvation and famine.
Soultrain.com: After you did choreography for episodes of the programs Sister, Sister and Moesha you did some TV commercials and became a part of the TV show Your Big Break. How did that come about?
Damita: I became a part of the show due to Dick Clark, who produced the show. I not only did choreography for the show, but I also did some of the lighting and directed episodes, but I only got a credit as choreographer. Our show was like karaoke, but then American Idol came about and eventually Your Big Break came to an end.
Soultrain.com: More recently, you did choreography for the 36th annual Daytime Emmy Awards, which must have been an honor. With all of these accomplishments, what are you working on now?
Damita: Right now I am currently writing and working on children’s books.
Soultrain.com: Looking back and seeing how dance has evolved, do you feel that you and the rest of the early Soul Train dancers were responsible for and laid the blueprint for the hip-hop, breakdance movement and phenomenon?
Damita: We are the pioneers. We opened the doors. During the early 70s, everything we did was street dancing. We brought in something fresh and new. I see dancing as a way of enhancing each other, not overtaking each other.
Soultrain.com: You and Pat Davis helped paved the way for girls who lock and do other street dances. What would you say to them?
Damita: It’s wonderful. I don’t mind the girls looking like the guys in terms of wearing the caps and other gear, but they should maintain their femininity.
Soutrain.com: The late Joe Chism of the Soul Train Gang was a very dear friend of yours who you helped get on Soul Train. What do you want to say in his memory?
Damita: Joe wanted to be a part of everything! I still remember he was so grateful that I acknowledged him in a book about American Bandstand. I miss him.
Soultrain.com: We sadly lost both Don Cornelius and Dick Clark this year, two people who were very instrumental in helping you get many opportunities in show business. What would you like to say in their memories?
Damita: Don opened up many doors. He opened doors that gave me an opportunity to slip through and help to make dreams happen. Dick Clark gave me the tools once Don opened the door for me. I applaud them both.
Soultrain.com: Do you have a word of wisdom you want to share with the readers?
Damita: If you are a young kid today who wants to be a dancer, know all different types of dancing. This will only help you further with what you do. Strive to stay in the business.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian