Damita Jo Freeman, who joined "Soul Train"'s cast of dancers after the show moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, was among the attendees at the Don Cornelius Memorial Celebration Thursday at Forest Lawn in Hollywood.
One of the longest-running syndicated show's most popular dancers, Freeman was hand-picked to come on stage with "Soul Train" performers Joe Tex and James Brown. Her time on "Soul Train" lead to work as a choreographer for televisions shows including "That's My Mama," "Dionne And Friends," "Your Big Break," and "Sister, Sister." As an actress, she appeared in the movie and television versions of "Private Benjamin."
Before the memorial began, I had an opportunity to interview her briefly. See below:
HIP HOP MEDIA TRAINING: Can you talk about the impact of "Soul Train"?
Me and my partner Camelot, we were on the thirteenth show that came to L.A. That was in February, I think. And we won the contest. When I first went on that show, I was like, 'What do you mean?' I thought it was a club.
So you didn't know it was a TV show?
I didn't know I was going to be on TV. But that show was [centered around] the idea of street dancers, who never got an opportunity. Their dancing was always in the clubs and now we were on television. Now, Don had opened a way for those street dancers to see that the talent they had could be open to be in showbiz. There was a sprinkle [of black people] on "American Bandstand." A sprinkle there. This was solid black.
What kind of impression did it make on you in the early 1970s to be on a show hosted by a black man?
When I was on that show, [I got] to see Don Cornelius evolve… Because first he was a little happy, and then he was cool.
Happy? I remember the cool Don Cornelius. Tell me about the happy Don Cornelius?
The happy was when I first went on there. He was trying to be happy. And they picked up his persona. So the dancing was kinda like the breakdown. But when Camelot and I came up to the show, I kicked my leg, he split, well, we pointed. The first thing Don Cornelius said was, 'I want you two way in the back over there in the corner.' (laughs)
So, we ended up winning the first dance contest. Then, he had a main contest, and we all went to that part. Then, from there, I was with Scooby Doo, and then we won the next contest. Danced for James Brown and Joe Tex.
Even for Joe Tex and James Brown, they don't tell Don, they don't tell anybody. They just say, 'Hey Damita, can you dance with me?' And I think I'm going to dance on the floor and they're going to bend down and look at me. Honey, they picked my hand up and said, 'I got ya.' And pull me up … And I never heard the song before. And even James Brown, he said, 'Dance with me. I want you to dance with me.' He didn't even kick one leg. He just kept looking at me.
How old were you?
I was definitely 17 going to 18. I happened to have a show. I was coming out of a Broadway hit show called "Candy." I was at [the nightclub] Maverick's Flat, which is where all the dancers used to hang out. They did 'Thank God It's Friday', a movie [with Donna Summer and Jeff Goldblum]. That was our club. So, our thing is, it's $100 here at this contest. A $100 there.
Did "Soul Train" pave the way for you to go on to do movies like "Private Benjamin" with Goldie Hawn?
Yes it did. It happened the first time when Diana Ross called me on the phone. And I just went, 'OK, which one of y'all is playing [like you're] Diana Ross?'