Song Writing

Soul Train Stories with Stephen McMillian

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Stephen McMillian was a Soul Train dancer from 1999-2005.

Launched in 1970, the program first aired in Chicago before going syndicated the following year. Don Cornelius (1936 - 2012) was the host, owner and mastermind behind the show, which stayed on the air through 2006, outlasting everything from The Midnight Special to Club MTV.

Cornelius said that the secret to the show's success was the dancers. There were plenty of other forums where artists could lip-synch their hits, but Soul Train owned the dance floor with squads of fashion-forward kids and their mesmerizing moves - stuff you would never see on American Bandstand or Dance Party USA.

Stephen takes us behind the scenes.
1) How did you end up on the show?

I called Don Cornelius Productions and asked about the procedure to become a dancer on the show. I was told to send a letter and photo to the dance coordinator, a guy named Eric. Eventually, the coordinator got back to me and I was invited to come to the show.

2) Please describe a typical day of taping on the show.

The dancers arrive to the studio at 11 a.m. and a half hour after being in the studio, the first guest comes on and tapes a segment. Sometimes the next guest will come on immediately afterwards and tape a segment or dance numbers are done, then the next guests come on, then the scramble board.

Often, the bigger guests came later in the day or some of them came earlier. If an artist was late, a segment that was to be filmed later was shot earlier. The show was totally filmed out of sequence all the time; the order in which you see Soul Train episodes is never the order they were filmed in. Generally, the Soul Train line was always done last (at least when I danced on the show in the late '90s to 2000s). Only rarely while I was on was the line filmed early. Sometimes some of the guests who filmed their segments late in the day stayed on set to watch the Soul Train line being filmed.

3) What kind of interaction did you have with the musical guests?

Generally, there was a policy of not interacting with the musical guests. If the guests spoke to the dancers, that was different. However, this rule was relaxed at times. No one ever said anything to me about speaking to the musical guests. I had great dialogue with guests like Musiq Soulchild, Naughty By Nature, The Isley Brothers, Lil Romeo, Nelly & the St. Lunatics, and a lot of the other artists.

4) The Soul Train documentary shows how dancers would compete for camera time, sometimes literally shoving other dancers out of the way. Did this ever happen during your time on the show?

Ahh yes! When I was on the show, the only dancers that got extensive camera time were those who danced on the stage and on the risers; the dancers on the floor were literally like background dancers (it was much different in the '70s and '80s when the cameras panned every area of the studio).

When the scramble board segments and closing segments (when the credits rolled) were shot, this was one time when floor dancers tried to get some camera time, as they would cut up next to the scramble board or try doing some moves behind the hosts Mystro Clark, Shemar Moore and Dorian Gregory during the closing segments. The floor dancers would indeed be bumping into each other to get even a mere five seconds of camera time. Since I danced on the floor a lot before making the risers, I made every effort to get some camera time whenever I could!

5) The artists lip-synched their performances on the show. Was that at all strange for the dancers?

Like many of his generation, Don Cornelius did not warm to hip-hop. When Kurtis Blow performed "The Breaks" on the show, Cornelius was flummoxed ("it doesn't make sense to old guys like me"). He was a very astute businessman, however, and allowed the show to change with the times, even if it meant less Stevie Wonder and more Fat Boys.
I don't know how it felt for the other dancers, but it didn't seem strange to me. Since I grew up watching Soul Train, I knew many of the artists lip-synched their performances so it was no big deal to me. In fact, I don't think the dancers cared. If this was the Apollo, then lip-synching would have been a problem! It was always a treat though when some of the artists would sing live such as when Rachelle Ferrelle, Jill Scott and Yolanda Adams came on for example.

6) What was it like being a dancer on the show? Wondering how you got along with the other dancers, if you enjoyed the experience, and how it changed your life.

It was the most fun, enjoyable and incredible experience for me. Being that I was very shy as a kid and teenager, I came out of my shell dancing on Soul Train. I was very friendly with all of the dancers and we all had fun on the set and outside of the set. I was always happy to welcome new dancers to the show. I was also intrigued by the way the show was put together and speaking to the production staff and camera crew asking questions about their cameras. It was really a family atmosphere.

7) What were you paid?

I never got paid to dance on the show. In fact, none of the dancers were paid to dance on Soul Train. The only exception was when a dancer performed with an artist (like when Damita Jo Freeman danced with Joe Tex years ago).

8) How did the choreography on the show work?

When I was on the show, everyone pretty much did their own thing but if the girls wanted to get on camera (on the risers, on stage and down the Soul Train line) they generally had to be thin, have long or shoulder-length hair, wear sleeveless tops most of the time and they had to gyrate and shake around as opposed to actually dancing. For the guys, if you were a breakdancer or wore outfits that showed off your underwear or your abs, you pretty much got camera time.

A handful of times, one dancer went down the line showing off his boxers while holding his suspenders in his mouth (that would have been unthinkable on the early days of Soul Train!). Thankfully, I didn't fit into that category but I was fortunate enough to be one of the few dancers able to get exposure due to my unique clothing and dance style without having to be a b-boy or show off my underwear.

9) Was everything scripted, or was there room for improvisation?

In the '90s, Don Cornelius gradually reduced his on-camera presence, turning the hosting duties over to more contemporary presenters, including Mystro Clark, Shemar Moore and Dorian Gregory.
The hosts would read cue cards and teleprompters, although they would try to improvise a little so it wouldn't appear that they were reading off teleprompters and cue cards. I remember host Shemar Moore had the most difficult time reading "New Brunswick" off of the cue card while introducing Jaheim. His introduction had to be reshot about five times!

10) What are some of your most vivid memories from the show?

Wow! There are so many memories, too numerous to mention but some of them include: the dancers rushing to get to the boxes of chicken and the containers of soda and bottled water after a long day of taping, when the taping dates got mixed up once and only about 20 dancers showed up; being able to attend the Soul Train Music Awards and the after parties; seeing certain recording artists when they were starting out before they became big (when Destiny's Child came to the show, I had no idea that they and eventually Beyoncé would become iconic). There are many other great memories for sure!

11) How did the line dance go down? Wondering if multiple takes were shot and if parts were edited out.

Towards the end of the taping day, the floor director would yell "Lines!" So the guys would form two lines and the girls would form two lines (by the time I was on the show, couples no longer went down the line, just one person at a time). Don Cornelius and the coordinator would first go to the girls' line to see who they wanted to use and they would ask certain girls to come out (see the answer to question 8). Then they would rearrange the girls to see who would come down first, second, etc... Often, they would ask the first three girls to demonstrate how well they could gyrate down the line before the cameras rolled.

Don and the coordinator would also go down the guys' line to see who they wanted to use before they asked certain guys to come out to the line. Unlike the girls, the guys had more freedom to do what they wanted in terms of dancing. However, although dance moves like the Robot (my signature move), locking and popping have gone from becoming mere dance crazes to dance movements all around the world, the coordinator thought of those dances as old-fashioned and would often have me and some of the other guys who did those dance styles come out of the line. Production staff members and even guests who remained on set after taping their segments disagreed about this, but they were powerless because Don and the coordinator had the final say on such matters.

If there were technical glitches, sound problems or if something embarrassing occurred like a dancer falling flat on his face while going down the line (which has happened), several takes had to be done. Once, one of the female dancers was gyrating so hard that she had a wardrobe malfunction and one of her breasts came out of her dress. Much to the embarrassment of the dancer, the malfunction was shown on the monitor about five times, then the line was reshot with her gyrating more tamely.

12) About how many years would a dancer last on the show, and how would they boot you off?

This varies. There was one guy who came to the show in 1990 and he pretty much stayed until the show ended in 2006. One popular female regular came to the show in 1989 and stayed until the show ended. The length of time a dancer would be on the show would depend for the most part on the dancer. Generally, I've seen dancers stay two years or one year or six years. There have been dancers, male and female, who danced their butts off in hopes of getting camera time on stage, the risers or down the Soul Train line but because the coordinator didn't utilize them and they remained floor dancers who didn't get camera time, they would sometimes leave the show after only having been at two tapings or for two months. Other times, some dancers would just stop coming for no particular reason.

If a dancer did something stupid like sneaking off to an artist's dressing room (which has happened), he or she would be asked to leave and to never come back. Also, if someone was caught bringing drugs or alcohol to the set or they refused to adhere to the other rules on set, the person would get kicked off the show. Once, one of the female dancers got in a shouting match with the coordinator and she was given the boot. She snuck in a few tapings later but unfortunately for her, Don Cornelius spotted her and escorted off the set and out of the studio.

13) What are your interests outside of Soul Train, and what have you done since?

I am currently a journalist with SoulTrain.com. I am also an actor/filmmaker and am working on getting my projects developed.

January 22, 2014
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Comments: 4

  • Bob Jackson from Phoenix Arizona My first real knowledge of Don Cornelius was when he was a DJ on wvon 1450 in Chicago, when I was the accountant for one of the DJ’s at the station. His personality or demeanor was nothing like what he appears to have morphed into. The early image was what helped him capture the country and his audience.
  • Barbarajean Lees from Dunnellon FlI loved watching the show, listening to the music and dancing with the dancers and am wanting to know why the show went off the air and never came back.
  • Herbert from AmsterdamNice work and intersting. Thank you for sharing this.
  • Joan from Columbia, ScGreat interview. I have forwarded it to everyone I know who watched the show. I always wondered who got the stage and risers. Would have liked for them to mix it up and showcase more dancers over time.
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