Dancer Shares Her Wild Ride on TV’s Legendary ‘Soul Train’
Legendary “Soul Train” dancer Damita Jo Freeman knew that she had some superbad skills when the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, picked her to boogie with him onstage.
“He grabbed me real quick and said, ‘You gotta dance with me,’ ” recalls Freeman of a 1973 show. “But I’d never heard his song ‘Super Bad.’ So I went up, listened to the beat and just did whatever that beat would tell me to do.”
It wasn’t the first time that Freeman’s freestyling had made such an impression on a “Soul Train” musical guest. On just her second appearance on the show, she sealed her spot as a regular dancer after R&B singer Joe Tex got her to step up for a performance of his 1972 hit “I Gotcha.”
“He put his hand out and pulled me onstage,” says Freeman. “On the other side of the camera, you could see a very nervous Don Cornelius. He walked back and forth, pointed, and said, ‘Get off the stage!’ All I knew is that the show must go on, so if Joe didn’t stop, I wasn’t gon’ stop.”
It was Freeman’s unstoppable talent that caught the attention of “Soul Train” scout Pam Brown in 1971, when the 17-year-old ballerina was dancing at a Los Angeles club called the Climax (and later Osko’s, the same multilevel venue used for the 1978 movie “Thank God It’s Friday”).
Soon after, Freeman had her first encounter with Cornelius — “He was as fly as Shaft,” she says. Then she was teamed with a regular dance partner, Don Campbell, with whom she brought “locking” moves to “Soul Train.”
But in addition to shaking it on the dance floor, Freeman, now 65, was shaking things up behind the scenes: She fought for the dancers — who weren’t paid unless they performed with an artist — to get basic needs such as tissues to wipe the sweat off of their brows and more than one soft drink each during long days of shooting two episodes.
“Also,” Freeman says, “a lot of the guys did the splits, and their pants, of course, would split, so [I said], ‘Don’t you need a person with a needle and thread to sew that up?’ ”
After a few years on the show, Freeman — like other “Soul Train” alums, including Jody Watley, Rosie Perez and Carmen Electra — made other career moves: She danced for artists such as Cher, choreographed the closing ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and even acted in movies (1980’s “Private Benjamin”).
Still, getting to rub shoulders with the likes of the Jackson 5 (“Michael loved how I did the robot”) in those “Soul Train” years is hard to beat. Says Freeman: “When I woke up, it was a party every day.”