Remembering Tyrone Proctor, a pioneer of the 1970s L.A. dance style waacking
Tyrone Proctor grew up in Philadelphia dancing with cousins in his aunt’s basement.
“He had no rhythm, he tried to keep up,” said his sister, Debra Burnett. But after some tips from family and regular dancing at a popular city spot — Wagner’s Ballroom — “next thing we knew, we were like, oh my God, this boy can dance.”
Proctor would go on to be one of the original “Soul Train” dancers who popularized the 1970s L.A. dance craze waacking, which grew from local underground gay clubs into a mainstream, global dance phenomenon.
A choreographer and teacher until the coronavirus lockdowns, Proctor, 66, died June 5 from a heart attack, said Burnett and her husband, dancer Archie Burnett.
When Proctor graduated high school, he moved to L.A. at 17 in 1972, determined to nab a spot on “Soul Train” — Don Cornelius’ iconic dance and music TV show that ran from 1971 to 2006.
“Soul Train” had “such an impact on him. He knew he had to be on that show,” said Jeffrey Daniel, a close friend and founding member of R&B group Shalamar, who spent years dancing with Proctor. “He barely had a place to live, didn’t really have a job.”
Proctor got his place on the show by sneaking onto the studio lot in the back of someone’s trunk.
“When he started dancing, he was so extra Don Cornelius kept looking at him,” Archie Burnett said.
It was in L.A.’s gay clubs, like the Paradise Ballroom and the Gas Station, where Proctor learned waacking.
Set to disco music, the improvisational dance form created by Black and Latino communities incorporates jazz, martial arts, rapid arm movements and poses. The style of dance — created a generation before the East Coast’s vogue — was inspired by drag queen performances and the glamour of women from Hollywood’s golden era.
Waacking is also known as “punking,” which was a way to reclaim a derogatory term for gay men during the time.
Proctor took the moves to “Soul Train,” touring nationally with Cornelius and other renowned dancers including locking pioneer Don “Campbellock” Campbell. Cornelius nicknamed Proctor “The Bone” because of his lanky physique.
In 1975 Proctor won the “American Bandstand” dance competition with partner Sharon Hill. He also danced in a group called the Outrageous Waack Dancers with Daniel and Jody Watley. The group’s moves and style influenced 1970s pop culture, showing up in films including “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and “Thank God It’s Friday” (1978).
After leaving “Soul Train,” Proctor moved to New York in the 1980s and began performing in the dance group Breed of Motion with others including Archie Burnett and Willi Ninja. He also began choreographing for TV and music acts Johnny Kemp, the Isley Brothers and New Kids on the Block.
In a recent tribute, Watley recalled dancing with Proctor in her 1987 music video “Still a Thrill.” The two “waacked, posed, sashayed and twirled all in the Paris Opera House.”
“Tyrone would be hollering over the music, ‘Werk Goddammit — you ain’t werking,’” she wrote. “That was Tyrone, he made you want to be all kinds of fierce.”
As a gay Black man in the 1970s, Proctor had to hide who he was in public.
“If you knew Tyrone, he would never represent himself that way. Extra extravagant on TV — yes. In the club — yes. But out in the street — no — because you get beat down,” Archie Burnett said. “You have to camouflage yourself in order to survive.”
But as he got older and as social attitudes about the LGBTQ community evolved, Proctor began to embrace his sexuality more. When he started teaching in the 1990s, across the U.S. and in countries including Japan and Brazil, Proctor became a mentor and guide for young dancers.
“He was allowed to be flamboyant whenever he chose to,” Archie Burnett said.
“He would do that especially when he teaches his kids to let the kids know that gay culture is very important. This is the dance you’re learning and this is where it’s from — their pain, their suffering, their struggle.”
In recent years, Proctor told Daniel about teaching classes in China. In one, some students stood in the back in tears.
“He was a very sensitive person and he’s a very generous person, so he went back because he thought maybe he was too hard on them,” Daniel said.
Proctor learned the students were actually crying tears of gratitude.
They told him: “This is the first time in our life we ever had a place to go to express ourselves and be who we really are.”
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