Several metropolitan cities produced local television dance show in the 1960s, including Philadelphia’s “American Bandstand,” “The Buddy Dean Show” in Baltimore, Allen Freed’s “Big Beat” in New York City and “The Milt Grant Show” in D.C.
Those shows had a strong following but were absent of Black teens in their early broadcasts.
But in 1963, D.C.’s WOOK-TV launched “Teenarama,” the first Black dance program in the country, on the first television station in the country with programming for Black audiences. The history of this landmark television show was captured in the 2006 Emmy Award-winning documentary “Dance Party: The Teenarama Story.”
The film, co-produced by Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, opened an event held recently at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum called, “Dancing through the Flames: How DC Dance Survived 1968.” The audience reminisced about the “Teenarama” era 50 years ago against the backdrop of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and riots in segments of D.C.
“Teenarama” aired live Monday through Saturday and was hosted by Bob King from 1963-1965. On the air until 1970, the show was produced from studios that housed both WOOK Television and Radio, on First Street NE, a block from the present-day Ft. Totten Metro Station.
Teens arrived after school, well-dressed for dancing and to enjoy lip-synced performances from top national music acts. Sometimes teens would leave school early to wait in line at WOOK with the hope of getting a ticket to be on the show, while the show’s “regulars” set the standard of how to dress and behave.
A group of “regulars” recalled the magic of being on the show during the museum dialog. Audience members chimed in about how D.C. hand-dancing, whether on “Teenarama,” in dormitories, or at house parties, created a mutual bond and a sense of normalcy after the King assassination.
During a time when the city dealt with a tense atmosphere and riots, there also was an embracement of Black self-awareness for equality.
For Black teens, a big challenge during the 1968 riots was getting to and from “Teenarama.” There was limited access around town due to a sundown curfew within D.C. city limits. If teens did not live in the area near the WOOK studios, getting home afterwards could be a problem because bus service had been cut back and going across town on one or two buses could have people out past the curfew (this was before the days of Metrorail).
Monroe Farewell, a dancer on “Teenarama” in 1968, remembered the feeling throughout the city.
“It was a horrifying time,” Farewell said. “The only thing that perked you up was WOOK Radio and TV. You had your friends you danced with, then you had house parties on Friday and Saturday nights.”
After King’s death, Christine Liddell, another dancer on Teenarama, remembered watching the news on TV with her family as unrest began to simmer. She had a feeling that residents would begin to riot.
“I wanted to keep getting my dance on,” Liddell said. “I did not want the show to end, but I felt something was not right.”
Others at the Anacostia Museum expressed similar feelings as they remembered tension and fear that existed in the city in 1968. Joan Riggins, who at age 13 was a dancer on “Teenarama,” was given a stern mandate.
“My mother and my sister hand-danced, so I had been hand-dancing since I was 3 years old,” Riggins said about her love for the classic D.C.-style of dancing.
But when King was killed, things changed for the dancer: “My dad shut that down, saying, ‘you’re not going.'”
A surprise during the discussion was a pre-recorded interview with actor/producer Leon Isaac Kennedy of “Penitentiary” fame, who hosted “Teenarama” from 1968 to 1969.
He shared his plan that hosting a radio show, then a television show was a part of his career strategy to start his acting career.
In 1968, Kennedy was a 19-year-old Howard University student and radio DJ at WOOK known when he was tapped to host “Teenarama.” As the face of the dance show during King’s death, the ensuing riots and then the assassination of Robert Kennedy, he acknowledged that Black people were watching politics more closely and sought ways to make positive changes.
“To have our own show, we didn’t have to try to identify with someone else,” he said. “‘Teenarama’ was a major part of Black pride, Black image and Black culture.”