In 1977 the “Dance Movie” exploded on to the silverscreen with Grease and Saturday Night Fever. Both starred Johnny Travolta, and he immediately replaced my then idol, Elvis Presley. I’m speaking of the young Elvis though, not the pudgy, jumpsuited Vegas Elvis! The truth was, I never wanted to move like Jagger (as the song goes), for me it was always the Elvis of the 50s and 60s, Elvis the Pelvis. With that sneer and stepping-razor swagger, I so wanted to be like him. Unfortunately I was growing-up in the flowerpower and glamrock era, and the Elvis I wanted to emulate no longer existed. Then along came Johnny! Man, I wanted to dance like him! I had always loved dancing but I lived in a neighbourhood and society where dancing was for “girls and homos” so no dancing for me except behind the closed door of my bedroom or at the odd party I went to. The fact is I had endured years of bullying and ridicule at my primary school because I was “different” and didn’t really fit in, and it was only at high school that I was now being grudgingly accepted because of my rugby-playing abilities by those same bullies. So I kept my yearning and need to dance to myself and focused on my rugby.
In 1980 Alan Parker’s Fame, in which dance was a major theme, was released and became the iconic youth movie of the 1980s. It also set a major trend for the movies of the 80s, as the decade of dance: Urban Cowboy(1980), Flashdance(1983) and Staying Alive(1983), Footloose (1984), A Chorus Line(1985) and Dirty Dancing (1987). The 80s also had the disco disaster of Olivia (Neutron Bomb) Newton-John’s Xanadu(1980) as well as numerous breakdance movies. It was Fame though that started the whole teen dance movie genre and its accompanying youth culture. The movie is one of my favourites and has a depth and sensitivity to it which wins one’s credulity as well as one’s affection. The dancing and music just adds to the sheer texture of the movie. There is a realness to the characters as well as a familiarity. These are real people with real lives; you recognize them from your own high school days. This is because the cast was recruited from New York’s most talented performers and they almost play themselves. The teachers too are recognizable; they are drawn in, as we, the audience are, by the magic of the Fame kids.
The kids in Fame are like high school kids anywhere, but the movie focuses on their drive and hard work to hone their natural gifts, and how they strive to follow their dreams. It is because they are so talented that they are different, and the movie is at its best when it examines the special pressures on young people who are more talented than they are mature or experienced or sure of themselves. Parker’s way of telling their story is almost-documentary in style, more like a home-movie. We watch the familiar characters in fragments of their experiences over the four years of high school. In this way we get to know the characters and their personalities gradually like in real life: you meet as total strangers and by the end of the movie they and the school have become your world.
My favourites? Leroy and Miss Sherwood, the English teacher, and their relationship: Leroy, as well as Miss Grant, the dance teacher, were quite likely the first fully developed black characters/people that I had ever encountered, real or fictional, apart from the maids that worked in our neighbourhoods, and most certainly my first black role models! Remember we are talking about apartheid South Africa in 1980! It was a miracle in itself that the movie made it to our screens at all because of its depiction of normal societal interracial interaction. This was something that was prohibited by law in South Africa! Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray, May 24, 1962 – November 14, 2003) was who I really wanted to dance like! I loved Travolta and his slinky smooth moves, but Leroy was who I was more physically like, and also character wise as well; a loner, unafraid to voice an opinion and most of all, inspired by music nobody else heard. When the 1982–1987 Fame television series based upon the film aired over here I celebrated, it was like being reacquainted with old friends! I dreamed of attending a school like that and not the white-trash jungle into which I had to venture every day.
My love of dance always remained with me and I was always an avid theatre goer, attending shows as often as I could, living vicariously through the performers. At Varsity I was one of the guys who would volunteer to wear the tutu and do the comic relief dance piece in the variety shows at the end-of-year dances. Then one day I couldn’t play rugby any longer, I took a heavy tackle and fractured my ribs. A lifetime of the physicality of training and playing, left me at a loss with what to do with myself or my time. With a huge gap in my life now, I filled it by taking up kickboxing, eventually becoming a personal trainer and specialist tae-bo instructor. And this is how I finally ended up dancing; by instructing tae-bo classes at a dance studio, Dance Direction International, and watching their shows (my “daughter”, Kayleigh attended the studio’s classes).
(Below: me on stage in 2008)
I started by joining the beginners’ adult hiphop class and in following years progressed to the stage where I was taking dance exams and appearing in full dance numbers on stage, and even instructing the odd adult beginners’ class for my dance teacher, Des! At one stage I was dancing 6 days a week, sometimes seven: hiphop, modern, ballroom and Argentinian Tango classes. I loved it, just couldn’t get enough of it! Unfortunately I started dancing very late in my life, so I started with a body with shot knees, shoulders and wrists from years of being pounded on the rugby field, collision after collision after collision! I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had had the opportunity to start dancing while in my formative years. I hope that in some other life I am on some stage dancing alongside Leroy! But in this life I at least did get to dance seriously for 5 or 6 years and it was glorious! I experienced some of that…Fame!
My man, Leroy? Gene? So sad, such a talent! He was born in Harlem, New York on May 24, 1962. In this tough neighbourhood he began performing, street dancing at block parties. Ray actually attended the New York High School of the Performing Arts, which was the inspiration for the film Fame, but was kicked out after one year. “It was too disciplined for this wild child of mine,” Ray’s mother, Jean E. Ray said. Then Ray won the part of Leroy Johnson and much like his Fame character, he had little professional training, but he possessed a raw talent. Reports USA Today: “Alan (Parker, the director) had to approach him very carefully. His mom was dealing drugs during the filming. It was not pretty.”
Ray also starred in the television series in 1982, based on the film, as well as dancing in The Weather Girls’ music video for “It’s Raining Men”. Additionally, he began touring the UK with the other members of the Fame cast as The Kids from “Fame”; they performed at 10 venues, including a sell- out performance at Royal Albert Hall. In 1984, USA Today reports: “Ray was axed from the show after his mother was jailed for running a drug ring, and he failed to turn up for work 100 times.” He struggled with addictions to alcohol and drugs, and worked intermittently once the TV series ended. He was involved in various short-lived theatre productions, did a couple of movies and commercials, and filled a couple of choreographer positions. His last video project was a one-hour BBC Fame reunion documentary, Fame Remember My Name, taped in Los Angeles in April 2003.
As his Telegraph obituary describes:
“Ray remained a ‘frantic partygoer’ with a self-confessed weakness for drink and drugs. As his life fell apart, he slept on park benches, and during a failed attempt to launch a Fame-style dance school in Milan, shared a flat there with a porn actress. In 1996 he was diagnosed HIV positive. He suffered a stroke in 2003. “Flamboyantly camp, he brushed aside questions about his sexuality. He never married.”
Ray died on November 14, 2003 at age 41, from complications of a stroke he had suffered in June that year. Ray’s mother stated that Ray was HIV positive. Sad, the fall of one of my heroes. Perhaps, like Icarus, it is possible to fly too close to the Sun. Finally, I think he would have enjoyed the fact that he, a black boy growing up in Harlem, inspired a white boy growing up in a working class neighbourhood in Africa. RIP, my man.
(Below: me busting some hiphop moves)