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Will the Beat Go On? : Dance Shows are Slowly Disappearing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once the height of hipness among teens and others, TV dance shows may be heading the way of vinyl records and polyester disco suits.

Last year, the much-hyped “Party Machine With Nia Peeples” fizzled because of low ratings. In April, MTV announced it was canceling the five-year-old “Club MTV” and letting go of its host, Downtown Julie Brown. At the end of June the USA Network is pulling the plug on its six-year-old “Dance Party USA.”

That leaves only two shows on the floor: The Nashville Network’s Southern-flavored “Club Dance” and the venerable syndicated “Soul Train.”

If the dance craze is really over, some blame it on the viewers. “Obviously, the television audience doesn’t have the attention span to sit for a long time,” says Dick Clark, who has surely been around long enough to speculate. But the producers of shows that are still jammin’ counter that as long as the music is cool, people will tune in.

“Shows like ‘Soul Train’ are based on a musical genre,” says the show’s host and creator Don Cornelius. “With the ever-growing popularity of black music, theoretically it could last forever"--or close to it, anyway.

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“Soul Train,” which began 21 years ago as a sort of R&B; version of Clark’s “American Bandstand,” is a textbook example of the dance-show format: The quintessential scantily clad dancers, plus guest appearances by artists that range from Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan to Naughty by Nature and Vanessa Williams. (Yes, we did ask, but whether or not the performances are lip-synched still remains a carefully guarded dance-show secret).

Old pros might counsel against messing with the recipe. Clark says changing the setting of “American Bandstand” from an indoor “club” to outdoors in 1989 (and, presumably, changing the host) helped speed the show’s demise.

On the other hand, it was just such a comfortable-old-shoe feeling that made MTV decide to drop its own dance show. “Anything you do on MTV for a long time, it just sort of wears out,” says Doug Herzog, MTV’s senior vice president of programming. “ ‘Club MTV’ was very successful, and it wasn’t becoming a ratings disaster, but we wanted to kill it off before it killed itself.”

Contributing to the show’s tired feeling, says Herzog, was the possibility that its music is finally wearing thin. “The alternative music genre is strong right now, and dance music seems to be taking a back seat,” he says, adding that “ ‘Club MTV’ was like a product of the ‘80s in terms of its glitziness. There was a fantasy aspect to it. What you can feel out there these days is a desire for things of substance, a more organic feel.”

If Herzog is right, The Nashville Network’s “Club Dance” may be the perfect dance show for the down-to-earth ‘90s. Riding on country music’s newfound popularity, the show, since premiering April 1, 1991, has received praise not only for its classic country-Western dancing but for its non-intimidating clientele.

“Not everybody on the show has to be pretty,” says Cindy Dodson, who produces the show out of Knoxville, Tenn., at the fictional WhiteHorse Cafe. “I tell people the dress code is, ‘Wear what you would wear if you were going out Saturday night to your local nightclub.’ If you wear a three-piece suit or boots and jeans, that’s fine with me.”

This attitude spills over to the types of dancers on the show. Where “Club MTV” scouted New York nightlife for talent and “you gotta know somebody” to strut your stuff on “Soul Train,” getting on “Club Dance” entails merely making a reservation and showing up at the studio at the right time.

“There’s no auditioning; they all walk in the door and we start rolling the tape. They can leave when they want to. They don’t even have to dance,” says Dodson, whose “clientele” ranges in age from 15 to 85.

Part of “Club Dance’s” appeal, she says, is that viewers get to know the regulars and their stories; one couple’s rocky romance became a source of fascination for fans.

“People like to hear about other people, so we’ll do little interviews,” Dodson says. “A lot of people say that this is their daily soap opera.”

MTV’s Herzog said that “Club MTV” sometimes did similar interviews, “but we didn’t do a good job of that.” He also says MTV is experimenting with a revamped version of its dance show. “I would like to see a dance/performance program that’s not strictly what people call a disco show, that would include some different musical genres--funk/rock, reggae, hip hop. But the real test is whether the audience will buy into this.”

Then again, says Cornelius, “A dance show is a dance show. They’re really all the same.”

“Dance Party USA” airs Saturdays at 10 a.m. on USA through June 27.

“Club Dance” airs weekdays at 1 p.m. and 11 p.m. on The Nashville Network.

“Soul Train” airs Saturdays at 9 a.m. on WGN, 10 a.m. on KUSI and 11 a.m. on KTLA.


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