Many people 40 years and under seem to think 'Saturday Night Fever' started Disco. Wrong. I know better. Like many people my age, I lived and breathed Disco back in the 70s. This was my Time of the Season, perhaps the most exciting period of my life. Things happened so fast!
Disco actually started becoming popular in 1973. There were dance clubs all over Houston playing the Isley Brothers and jazz/funk songs like 'Shaft'. Donna Summer music started around 1975, but before her came Gloria Gaynor and KC and the Sunshine Band. Interest in Disco dancing increased steadily throughout the mid-70s. What 'Saturday Night Fever' accomplished was to make Disco a craze phenomenon like 'Achy Breaky Heart' did for Western, the Gap Commercial did for Swing and 'Living La Vida Loca' did for Salsa.
Besides bringing Disco into the public eye, 'Saturday Night Fever' is also credited for making partner dancing cool again. Not since the 50s Bop and Jitterbug had there been much touch dancing. SNF changed all that by bringing partner dancing to our attention when it came out in November 1977. Despite dancing Disco in the clubs steadily from 1974 on, I had only seen Disco partner dancing one single time before 'SNF' came along.
This happened when I bought my house here in the Heights in early 1977. While buying my house I became pals with my realtor Debbie Apple (who sadly passed away in the late 80s after a battle with multiple sclerosis). Back then Debbie was healthy and happily married to Max Apple, a professor at Rice who is well-known for his excellent fiction writing. Debbie got to know me as we looked at houses and wanted to learn more about my hobby of Disco Dancing. So I offered to take her dancing one night. Unfortunately because it was the middle of the week the first two places we visited were dead. I suggested we go to a gay bar I knew about. Sure enough, this place was hopping so Debbie and I merrily free-styled the night away.
As we were taking a break, two men got up on the raised floor and proceeded to dance the Whip together. This was the first time I had ever seen the Whip danced. Despite dancing in the clubs steadily for three years, I had never run across the Whip till now. Debbie and I were mesmerized!
After the two men stopped, I went over to their chair and asked them what was the name of the dance they were doing. After they explained a little about the Whip, I asked a few more questions and discovered they were both professional dance teachers. I have a hunch one of these men was my eventual dance teacher Glen Hunsucker, but I would not actually connect with him until a year and a half later.
I saw the Whip for the second time soon afterwards at the Stevens of Hollywood Dance Studio when I signed up for a line dance class in the spring of 1977. One night Lance Stevens (the owner) stopped my class to put on an impromptu exhibition with his wife Cliann. Again I was mesmerized, but I was still not ready to take on this Whip challenge.
My life accelerated at a whirlwind pace from then on. That same spring I asked for permission to substitute teach for my favorite Disco teacher Roz Lively in her dance class one night. I did such a good job that one month later Roz asked me to substitute teach again - this time for the entire summer while she vacationed. So I taught my first dance classes all summer long in 1978 at the Braeswood JCC.
This led to another opportunity to teach dance in September 1978 at the Memorial JCC. However these new students at the Memorial JCC class threw me a curve. One night a lady asked me to teach her how to Disco partner dance. She said she had just been to Los Angeles and had seen some great dancing (which obviously hadn't hit Houston yet!) All the other students quickly supported her and said they wanted to learn to partner dance too.
Unfortunately I was lost. I had never partner danced in my life, but I was determined to please my students. I remembered the Whip from Stevens of Hollywood. It was the closest thing I had ever seen to Disco partner dancing so the next day I called the studio. I started my first Whip class in early October 1978.
By an odd coincidence, the Disco teacher at Stevens of Hollywood had just quit. When Mr. Stevens found out I taught Disco elsewhere, he basically hired me on the spot to take her place. This incident remains the biggest stroke of luck in my life.
SNF came out a month later. Suddenly my life changed completely. In the space of four months I went from teaching two hours of Disco classes a week to teaching 25/30 hours a week (which when added to my full-time day job nearly killed me! Thank goodness I was young.)
And what a difference a year makes. Fast forward from spring 77 to spring 78. From one class of 15 in 1977, now I had a dozen Disco classes. And these classes were huge. Some had more than 100 students!
But I still knew little about Disco partner dancing which was a problem because SNF had created a huge interest in touch dancing. To my dismay I had already come to the conclusion that the Whip was far too complex to work to the fast Disco music. Besides this wasn't the dance I had seen in SNF. I heard the brand new Pistachio Club had dance lessons so off I went.
THE STORY OF THE
My first night to the Pistachio Club was
in the spring of 1978. This trip was a disaster.
There was quite a bit of partner dancing to watch, but I found it bewildering. I didn't have a clue where to begin. I started my free lesson. The guy told me to walk backwards and forwards in a manner very similar to the Salsa dance known as Merengue. I asked him which foot to start with. He said it didn't matter. This upset me a great deal. I asked him what was the timing. He said don't worry about it.
I needed a lot more structure than this.
His teaching style and my analytical brain
were obviously not simpatico. He showed me a couple more steps that I was equally clueless about, then
totally lost interest in me when some girls showed up for the lesson. I
wasn't there any more.
In disgust I gave up and walked over the railing to study the dancers. I was so bewildered I was ashamed to be a dance teacher. I had a major attack of insecurity.
Today 25 years later I can report the dancing I saw was basically a mixture of the Merengue and another dance we call 'Aggie Jitterbug', a flashy mixture of Swing moves with one walking step per beat of the music. Unfortunately back then I had so little background in partner dancing that what I saw was too complex to know where to start. Overwhelmed and humiliated I stood frozen at the railing watching the people dance for half an hour.
Eventually I stopped feeling sorry for myself. Something had caught my eye. Treating the dancing like a puzzle, I had found an opening. I noticed there was one particular move that seemed to be the most popular step. There was a repetitive pattern were the man and the woman would alternate turns over and over again. Guy turn, girl turn, guy turn, girl turn. Can't be that hard, right?
I asked a girl standing next to me if I could experiment and learn the step. She was willing so I picked up her hands and tried to imitate what I had seen to no avail. Every combination I tried failed so in further disgust I quit again. Showing at least some manners, I thanked the girl. Then I went back to watching. I felt even more miserable than before.
What I couldn't figure out is how they appeared to turn using two hands without ever letting go!!
I had several problems. The floor was crowded, making it difficult to see through everyone. The Disco lights were flashing, making it tricky to decipher the illusion that was tricking me. Plus no one did the move over and over till I could be positive what it was they were doing. Although practically every dancer on the floor used this distinct pattern, they only did it once or twice. It was like watching fireflies blinking in the dark. By the time I focused on one couple, the man led another pattern just as I spotted someone else on the other side of the floor doing my move. My eyes flitted from one couple to another hoping to solve the riddle. I was going nuts! Why wouldn't someone do the stupid move 20 times in a row so I could figure it out?
The original girl had left and a new girl took her spot on the railing. In desperation I asked her if she knew how to do the move I pointed to. She said sure. I asked her to help. She laughed and told me to buy her a drink first. Gladly.
She led me through the move. Now I understood where my error had been. I assumed the man turned under his left hand. Wrong. He turned under his right hand. Earlier I had tried the right hand, but had gotten stuck in cuddles. As I danced with this girl, I realized it was an illusion that the man did not let go. In reality he simply slid his hand along his partner's waist and picked it back up in front of her, then repeated the sliding hand trick when he did his own turn. They did it so fast it looked like they didn't let go, but they did. Riddle solved.
I was so happy! I had learned my first-ever Disco partner move. I named it the 'Pistachio Step'. Ta Da!
With this breakthrough, in the following days I quickly began to learn how to partner dance. Mr. Stevens helped me. He taught me 4-count Swing. The footwork was 1-2-back-step danced to 4 beats. We called it the 'New Yorker'. It quickly became my pride and joy to teach. Every night I could I went to the Pistachio Club and watched for new moves.
THE BIG BASH - SATURDAY, DECEMBER
I learned some other interesting lessons at the Pistachio Club. It became a 'membership club'. I believe it was $100 to become a member or else you had to pay a steep cover charge. I suppose it is the same concept as an Astroworld season pass. My Disco classes were huge. I must have had 500 students spread out over the week. I wondered if I could swing a group discount for them.
One day in the fall of 1978 I asked somebody at the Pistachio Club if I could organize a party on a weeknight there for my students. Perhaps as an incentive to come to the party, the membership fee could be lowered for anyone who wanted to join during the party.
The management liked this idea. Our party started at
8:30 pm. They said they would waive the cover charge that night
until 10 pm when the regular crowd would normally begin to show up. We
had the place completely to ourselves for over an hour.
Not only did they let all my students in for free, they also sold memberships for half price during the night as a promotion. All night long I watched as one of my students after another filled out membership sheets and forked over cash and credit cards to buy these memberships. I would estimate they sold 100 memberships that night.
You know what? We had 300 people at that party. I am not kidding. The doorman told me the limit was 300. We had filled the place to the brim. What a bash!
And do you know how much money I made off this event? Not a dime. Didn't get a free membership (I already had paid for one). Didn't even get a free drink. Oh well. I generated a lot of fun.
That had to count for something.
I did get to throw
around my influence once. It's a cute story.
My favorite dance couple, Tommy and Hazel, just sat there and sat there. I was waiting for them to dance so I could watch. But they kept sitting. I wanted my students to see them in action. They were a lot of fun to watch. Finally I went over. Tommy had his arms folded with a big scowl, so I talked to Hazel instead. She said Tommy didn't like to start dancing until the DJ played 'Night Fever' by the Bee Gees and it hadn't come on yet. I raised an eyebrow.
"Well, why doesn't Tommy request it?"
"He has. He has been to the DJ two times."
"What did the DJ say?"
"He says the Bee Gees are out."
I smiled. The SNF era was a
year old at this point. Personally I was sick of the Bee Gees and secretly glad the DJ felt the same way I did. Still, ever the good host, I personally went to the DJ and explained the problem. Bless his heart, he played 'Night Fever' soon after.
It worked like a charm, a classic example of
stimulus-response. Tommy leapt from his seat,
grabbed Hazel's hand, and almost accidentally catapulted Hazel to the
floor in his haste.
Then Tommy and Hazel put on a beautiful show.
Everyone at the party just loved watching them dance. I was pleased to have helped. On a side note, Tommy and Hazel were such good dancers, not long after this party they won a major dance contest which included a free trip to Cozumel. Way to go, Tommy and Hazel!!
I danced at the party too. I had not one, but two dance partners at the
time - Victoria and Joanne - and rotated between them all night long. If I may say so, there was not one
couple there that night any better than we were.
On the night of this event, it had been 9 months since I had
first struggled to learn the Pistachio Step
on this same floor.
By now I was an accomplished Disco Partner Dancer
thanks to having partners to practice with, lots of dance experience
over the past year, plus recent training from a new instructor (more
about him in a moment).
I thought we were pretty good. The two ladies
and I did all
the acrobatics, turns, wonderful intricate patterns, and even managed to
smile in the process. I
was proud of all three of us. It was a triumphant moment for me.
In a nutshell this was one of the biggest events I have ever organized in my entire life. Today our annual Halloween Party generates the same numbers, but this was quite an event considering it was my first year in the biz!
MY TEACHER APPEARS
One night in October 1978
I was at the club with my dance partner Victoria and a group from my studio.
I was watching the floor scouting for moves
when I noticed something unusual going on at the other end of the dance floor. People were leaving the floor in droves only to turn around and line the dance floor. I moved down to see what was happening.
By the time Victoria and I got there, the floor was empty save for two people. A tall, handsome man about my size and his pretty blonde teenage dance partner were putting on the finest exhibition of Disco partner dancing I had ever seen!
Their dancing easily eclipsed anything I had seen in SNF. They were incredible! Out of respect for their excellence, all the other dancers had cleared the floor. Glen Hunsucker and Paula Abbott were unbelievable. They danced three songs in a row, then sat down and did not dance again. Everyone in the building was in awe. I was mesmerized.
As they walked off the dance floor, Victoria said to me, "Rick, why don't you find out who he is? Maybe he is a dance teacher!"
I realized Victoria was absolutely right. She had
been seen me watching him like a hawk and guessed what was going through
my mind. So I approached the man before he could sit down and asked he was a teacher. This is how I met
Glen Hunsucker, the man who over the next ten years would teach me practically everything I know about dancing.
THE FINAL WORD
Let's fast-forward to the 90s. I was teaching a Swing/Jitterbug class at
the studio one night to a group of beginners. Without naming the
move, I demonstrated I was about to teach called the Pistachio Step.
A woman from the group of 50 students blurted out, "That's the Pistachio Step!!"
I smiled and told her she was right. Then I asked, "Have you taken this
class before?" I assumed she was repeating the class.
She replied, "No, I have never been here before."
"Then how did you know it was the Pistachio Step?"
"I took a dance class at North Harris County Community College. That was
what they called the step."
I smiled. I personally had never been to this school in my life nor did
I know anyone who had. Obviously someone had taken a class here at the
studio to learn how to teach the dance and exported the name along with them.
The Pistachio Club was long gone, but its memory lived on thanks to a
stumbling dance student who was a complete failure in his first partner
That's irony at its best.