Transcript, Episode 132: Toni Basil on Dancing Through the Decades

Hi dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit podcast. I’m editor and producer Margaret Fuhrer. And I’m here today with another interview episode, this one in partnership with the talent agency McDonald-Selznick Associates.

Our guest this week is Toni Basil, an icon of not just the dance industry but the whole entertainment industry. Partly that’s because she’s worked in just about every corner of it over the past nearly 60 years.

Most people know Basil as the singer of the 1982 hit song “Mickey”—as in, “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey.” And that will now be stuck in your head for the rest of the day, sorry not sorry. But the full scope of her career is pretty staggering. And it started very early. She comes from a family of performers—her mother was in vaudeville, her father was an orchestra leader. In the 1960s Basil appeared in just about every film that involved dancing, and she worked as a dancer and choreographer on an array of variety television programs during that same era—including “The T.A.M.I. Show,” which you’ll hear her talk about as the place where she first encountered the life-changing dancing of James Brown. She was one of the original members of The Lockers, the crew that helped bring street dance into the mainstream in the 1970s, and was the mastermind behind their famous “Swan Lake” piece that combined locking and ballet. She has made dance for some of the biggest music stars in the industry, including Tina Turner, David Bowie, David Byrne, and Bette Midler. And she has choreographed some of the movie world’s most memorable dance moments over the past several decades, from that great opening credit sequence in My Best Friend’s Wedding to Legally Blonde‘s “bend and snap” to the deliciously retro moves of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Basil is now a very unconvincing 79. She is still not only dancing every day but also performing and putting out new music and judging international street dance competitions. The ostensible reason that we’re talking with her at this particular moment is that she’s about to receive the Palm Desert Choreography Festival’s prestigious lifetime achievement award. But, you know, one never really needs an excuse to talk with Toni. She is perpetually doing something fabulous. Here she is.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:

I am both honored and excited to be here now with the great Toni Basil. Toni, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Toni Basil:

Well, thank you for the nice intro, Margaret. I’m always pleased to talk about dance. I don’t have to worry about, is the floor going to be slippery? Did I bring the right shoes? What’s going to happen with the orchestration? Is somebody going to step on a cord? Nothing more I like to do, more than dance and choreograph, than to talk about it.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Talking about it is much less complicated logistically. Yes.

Toni Basil:

Yes. Dance is my drug, my drug of choice.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I was just chuckling to myself because you’re about to receive this lifetime achievement award at the Palm Desert Choreography Festival, but your career has been so full and rich and varied, it seems like the work of multiple lifetimes. Could they give you more than one award?

Toni Basil:

Thank you. Well, I just received the HAL Award, which is the Heroes and Legends. And that’s mainly a Motown award. Of course, I didn’t record for Motown, but man, wow. Stevie Wonder showed up! It was songwriters, songwriters, songwriters. They must be so rich in comparison to us dancers! But it was really wonderful, really wonderful.

Margaret Fuhrer:

You posted some great photos from that on your Instagram. We’ll have to link to those.

Actually, I wanted to start by going back to the beginning of your life, because very few people know the full extent of your resumé. It seems like in many ways, your early days growing up with vaudeville, with vaudeville stage shows, laid the foundation for the diversity of your future professional life.

Toni Basil:

Absolutely. I came in armed and dangerous, because it was like, every weekend I would stand on the side of the stage in the wings, at the Chicago Theater, from 1947, ’48 to 1957. Then we moved to Vegas, where my dad was the orchestra leader at the Sahara Hotel, where I went there every weekend also.

I have seen every act live, since that time period. The Chicago Theater was stage shows. I don’t know if your young audience knows what stage shows were, but you had three live acts and a movie, three live acts and a movie. My father did four to seven shows a day. No day off. No day off. One month off a year.

Margaret Fuhrer:

How did that experience shape the way that you thought about what show business was?

Toni Basil:

I just thought it was everything, because I saw an opening act, which was the juggler or the dance team or the tap dancer. Then the second act was always a comic. The third act was always a singer, was the star, whether it was Judy Garland or Josephine Baker—I actually saw that show at the Chicago Theater—or whether it was a Mel Tormé or whether it was the Crew Cuts, I mean, I saw everything and I loved it. I loved it.

I knew it was special. It wasn’t like I took it for granted. Because my mom and I used to walk down the alley of the Chicago Theater. There were all these autograph seekers standing outside the stage door. They used to have to part like Moses and let us through. That stage door would open. I knew that was special, because my mom and I could go in, but they couldn’t. Man, I would head straight for the wings. I would just stand in the wings and watch those shows. Also, there was a movie in between the live shows, so I saw all the great American musicals.

It was incredible and I knew it. I’m so grateful. I knew it. It was one big rehearsal. Everything was a big pre-production. I love pre-production.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Well, so then let’s talk about the beginning of the show then, after that big rehearsal. Your early days in Hollywood—I mean, you were everywhere. You were a dancer on Shindig!, you were the literal girl with the red dress in Viva Las Vegas, not to mention the assistant choreographer for that film. You did Robin and the 7 Hoods. I mean, the list just goes on and on.

I wanted to talk actually specifically about “The T.A.M.I. Show,” because you said that watching James Brown dance on that show changed the way you moved.

Toni Basil:

Yeah, it did. Because if you go to my YouTube channel, Toni Basil’s House, and you see the early ’60s movies that I danced in and was the assistant choreographer to the great David Winters—he and I would merge in the early days, jazz dancing, West Side Story jazz dancing, and go-go. What was special about it was, there was about 20 of us that worked throughout the ’60s, and only 20 dancers in L.A., because we needed to be young enough to love go-go, but we needed to have studied dance. So, we just fit in this slot that worked, and we did so much stuff.

But when I saw James Brown on “The T.A.M.I. Show” dance, wow. I thought, I better go back to the drawing board. I thought I was a fabulous, fabulous go-go dancer, but I really realized I was dancing on the wrong side of town. I was dancing on Sunset Strip. I was doing dance contests on the Sunset Strip. I would do ballet class at 11:30 in the morning. I would go to acting class at seven. I would hit the dance contest at 11 or 12, midnight. But it was uptown.

It was such an eye opener for me. You’d see that all of a sudden, I’m trying to do James Brown steps, trying to do a slide split. I mean, I’m putting in a little jazz, but you can just see my dancing changed.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I want to talk about the fact that—this is a facet of your career that not enough people know about, is your work with The Lockers, with Don “Campbellock” Campbell and The Lockers, and how you were some of the artists who really helped bring street dance into the mainstream in the ’70s. What was so revolutionary about that group and about what you were doing?

Toni Basil:

Well, as I said, I was up on Sunset Strip in those dance contests. I was on the wrong part of town. And then it was the end of the ’60s. There was no dance contests. But I was just chomping at the bit, because I always knew, there’s always something going on.

So, I called a girlfriend and I said, “Find me the best kid on your…” It wasn’t “Hollywood a Go-Go” because I think that was finished…I can’t remember which TV show it was, that still had kids dancing on it. I said, “Find me the best dancer, because I need to catch up.”

She found me this guy named Lamont Peterson. Lamont, he taught me the bump, because the bump was very popular at the time, and a dance called the runaway, which turned into freezes and poses, which turned into waacking. He was one of the first guys.

He said, “There’s a guy named Don Campbell. He’s doing this dance call the Campbellock.” One day at the Osco’s, Don flew in the side door with two other people, dressed in striped socks and knickers. And I thought, well, this is the best thing I’ve seen since James Brown. It was the most unique and it was spectacular.

Later on, about a year later, I got a call from the Dick Clark Production Company, because I had worked for… look, I had been doing stuff through the ’60s. They said, “Remember this guy, Don Campbell, that you were talking about, that you showed us a video of?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Are there more of them?” I said, “Well, yeah, there are people that lock.” They said, “Can you get that together for the Roberta Flack special? Because she’s crossing over. We can’t get Alvin Ailey’s company because we’ve got a union problem. Are your guys in the union?” I said, “No, they’re not in the union.” They said, “Great.” And that was the beginning of The Lockers.

Margaret Fuhrer:

That is wild, that it was an alternate for Alvin Ailey. Oh my goodness, what a story.

Toni Basil:

Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

One of the genius things that you did with The Lockers was to connect street dance directly to concert dance, and to ballet, specifically. That version of the “Little Swans” dance that you did, was it for “SNL” the first time?

Toni Basil:

It was for “SNL” the first time. The Lockers were on the second “SNL.” Penny Marshall and Rob Reiner were the hosts. Then the next time, I had talked to Lorne about a film idea that I had, which was merging…I’m telling you, plant seeds. You plant seeds, and all of a sudden you get a call from Lorne, “Hey, remember that idea? We do films now on Saturday Night Live. Would you be interested?” I went, “Yeah.” So that was that first Swan Lake.

Then the second Swan Lake that I was nominated for an Emmy for, was on “The Smothers Brothers,” which was in the late ’80s. That’s when I merged with the four Little Swans, boogaloo, popping and locking. We inspired all these street dancers and street dance to come: “Oh my god, we can earn a living at our craft.” So yes, we inspired a lot of people.

Of course, I think even though “Soul Train” was happening and blowing everyone out of the water seeing “Soul Train,” I think the thing is, is that it was putting a group together with that kind of music and presenting it like the opening acts that I saw at the Chicago Theater. Like my mother’s act, which was vaudevillian—it was an opening act. It was an opening act. We opened up for Sinatra eventually, at Carnegie Hall.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Oh, wow. Why do you think that kind of cross-pollination, melding those different worlds, is important?

Toni Basil:

Well, for us, for me at the time, it was important because I thought, you know what? Now we’ve established that street dance is a viable American art form, but have we really established that it is up to concert dance? Are they still considering it out there, “street kids,” that street is something crazy? I knew if I choreographed something to classical music, with classical dancers, and that the street style could hold up next to it and be a perfect fusion. I knew that would be the next step of changing the perception of street. It was. It absolutely was.

Margaret Fuhrer:

It’s a pretty incredible group of ballet dancers that you had too. Was it Stephanie Saland was part of that group that was on the Smothers Brothers?

Toni Basil:

Yeah, and Ann Marie DeAngelo.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Oh my gosh.

Toni Basil:

Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I’m sorry to change tacks here a little bit, but I want to make sure that we talk about the work that you’ve done choreographing for, I mean, major stars.

Toni Basil:

Major stars. I’m so grateful once again, to be choreographing for major stars because everyone I’ve worked for, oh man, I have learnt so much. You don’t come out of working with David Bowie without mucho knowledge that you didn’t go in with, and with Bette Midler and with Tina Turner. All three of them are radically different, radically different. They prepare differently. Very, very, very interesting, working for different artists.

For me, working with an artist that’s a singer, as opposed to an artist that’s a dancer, you don’t give them what you do. You give them back what they do. You look at what they can do and you make that bigger and better.

Margaret Fuhrer:

How about when you were working with David Byrne? Because you were actually on the cover of Dance Magazine back in 1988, on pointe, with David Byrne.

Toni Basil:

Yes. Well yeah, that was a whole ‘nother approach. He approached things more like a performance artist, because he came out of art school.

I understood that. He’s not a dancer, but he approached it as an actor. As an actor, performance artist, with wonderful, wonderful ideas, just incredible ideas. We did a lot of research for “Once in a Lifetime.” We sat and watched a lot of films over at UCLA that were all movement, but not dancers: preachers in trances, anything you could think of that was movement but not dance. And then ideas flow.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, you find ways to give him himself. Yeah. Well, and then you of course also had your own music career, which is the way most non-dance folks, at least probably know about you through your song, Mickey. I’m sure you get somebody yelling, “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine,” at you every day. What did you learn from working on that side of show business?

Toni Basil:

Well, once again, I was flying by the seat of my pants because through word of mouth, I got a deal through a European company. In Europe, they were promoting music through video. This was 1979, 1980. MTV didn’t happen until September of 1981. So, I was making videos for this company and songs, before there was MTV.

I don’t know. It was so easy for me. I know that sounds crazy. I shot “Mickey” and half of “Time After Time” in one day.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Wow.

Toni Basil:

I was also a filmmaker in the ’60s. My boyfriend bought me a camera. We hung out with a lot of underground filmmakers. He was actually a very famous actor, Dean Stockwell. But we hung out with a lot of the underground filmmakers of the time and performance artists. So, I was into making films.

I made a lot of films in the ’60s, so I understood film. I had done so much television in the ’60s, that making video—just do the storyboard and shoot the storyboard.

I still have the storyboards to “Mickey” and a lot of my videos. I tell you, the storyboard to “Mickey” looks exactly like the video.

Margaret Fuhrer:

You still have the costume too, right?

Toni Basil:

I have everything. I hoard. I hoard. I have every costume that survived, that didn’t fall apart, from all of my shows, all of my videos and my BBC specials.

Margaret Fuhrer:

That’s so cool. That’s fascinating that you saw, essentially, your music career was as much a video project as a music project. What perfect timing for that to be happening. Yeah.

Toni Basil:

Yeah. Yeah. Nobody was really interested in video in America. I didn’t have an American deal. I had a European deal. I didn’t get an American deal ’til my first BBC special became very big, and “Mickey” became number two, I think, within six weeks from that special airing on the BBC.

Then all of a sudden, I had an American record deal. It was by then, 1982. And there was MTV.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Just perfect timing.

Toni Basil:

So, I was really lucky. I was really lucky that the timing happened and that my videos, which I made in 1980, held up in 1982.

Margaret Fuhrer:

All right. Sorry. I’m jumping all over the place here, but your career just goes everywhere.

I want to talk about film work now, because you’ve been choreographing for Hollywood for half a dozen decades, from Viva Las Vegas to Legally Blonde and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. How have you seen the film industry change, and how have you seen the film industry’s approach to dance change, over that time?

Toni Basil:

There’s no rehearsal.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Now?

Toni Basil:

There’s absolutely no rehearsal. I think the first film I did was Bye Bye Birdie. We rehearsed! We rehearsed on a sound stage. They did camera blocking. Even on the beach films that David Winters and I did, we rehearsed.

There was no rehearsal for Legally Blonde. The “bend and snap,” I had her for a half a day.

Margaret Fuhrer:

You had Reese for half a day?

Toni Basil:

Yep. I had Reese for a half a day. I had Reese for a half a day. She ran in, learned. The second Legally Blonde I did, I taught her the choreography at a lunch break. At a lunch break!

Margaret Fuhrer:

Oh gosh.

Toni Basil:

It’s just incredible. Trust me, if it was a movie about golf, they’d be training the actor for six weeks, of how to play golf. But somehow they just think dance, I don’t know, is automatic. It’s the strangest thing.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was that experience a little bit different?

Toni Basil:

No.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Never mind. [laughter]

Toni Basil:

That was not different. What was different about it was that I was working with the greatest actors, the greatest director of all time. Plus, it took place in the ’60s, so that was like an acid trip for me. I just kept saying, am I here?

I thought, wow, I would pay them to do this film. I loved working with Quentin Tarantino so much. I loved everybody so much, because the quality of the actors and how they worked and their work ethic was phenomenal. It was absolutely phenomenal.

I did a lot of workshops at my studio here. I worked with Margot Robbie. She would come over. We taught her every dance step from the ’60s known to man, so that she could improvise at any given time and not do some contemporary dance.

I did a lot of workshopping here at my little studio in my house. Thank God I had it, because things change around. Things moved around, as far as Quentin goes. Things changed. I mean, we rehearsed stuff that didn’t happen. And then all of a sudden I was in the midst of the Playboy Mansion and he said, “Toni…”

Margaret Fuhrer:

“Let’s have the Bunnies dance.”

Toni Basil:

Yeah. “Toni, let’s have the Bunnies dance.” I thought, the Bunnies? I knew. I just told the producer, “You better hire some Bunnies that can dance,” because I just foresaw something like that happening, but they don’t want to put out the bucks. I understand.

The Bunnies were all gorgeous. We pulled four Bunnies. I said, “Quentin, how long do I have?” He said, “20 minutes.” I said, “Okay.” I saw what the shot was, and that the shot was really from waist up. I thought, okay, so it’s got to be the jerk. Everything’s got to be upper body. That screams ’60s.

I choreographed to the weakest link, because she needed to be able to do it. Then the most advanced Bunny, I had her count as they were shooting. She counted like a mime, just talking under her breath.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Like a ventriloquist. Yeah.

Toni Basil:

So yeah. We got it done. Quentin loves that section. He loves it. He loves it. He talks about loving it.

I loved it. I loved the fact that he said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Can you?” and I went, “Yep,” because I come from so much improvisation anyway, with street. street is all about improvisation, really. I mean, that’s how all those dances develop.

Margaret Fuhrer:

A lot of people of the younger generation know you from your work as a judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Toni Basil:

Yes. That’s right. Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:

That’s personally one of my favorite modes of Toni Basil, just because you were really the perfect judge for that show, as somebody who speaks all of these dance languages fluently, because the show is all about dancers who are trying to speak 15 different dance languages and maybe are only fluent in two. Can you talk a little bit about that experience, about judging on that show?

Toni Basil:

Oh, I loved it. Oh my god, I loved doing it so much. I’m so grateful to Nigel for asking me to do it, really. I think he had to fight for me.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Oh, really?

Toni Basil:

I used to replace people. Yeah. Because I’m not the current—at the time, I think, they were also having TV stars judge sometimes.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. It was Ellen DeGeneres hopping in and out.

Toni Basil:

Yeah. Yeah, I understand. I understand. He’s got to deal with the guys in the suits upstairs.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. Well, one of the great things that you did on that show was, you would give little history lessons as you were judging. You would say, “And this is why that’s important.” Who do you think are some of the most overlooked artists from dance history? People that few dancers today know about, but everybody should.

Toni Basil:

Well, now…everybody. Today the kids don’t know about anybody. I mean, that they don’t even know about Gwen Verdon, I mean, to me, it just blows me away. Do they know about Nureyev? Do they know about Baryshnikov? Do they know about the Nicholas Brothers? They don’t know about anybody.

I mean, maybe they get it in college, some of the colleges that teach a lot of dance, but I don’t know. They don’t know about anybody.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Dance History 101 with Toni: What’s on your syllabus? Who are you teaching?

Toni Basil:

Hello: Jack Cole.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yep.

Toni Basil:

Historically, Gwen was Jack’s assistant. Then when Gwen left Jack to marry Bob Fosse, Bob’s tap dancing was so influenced by Gwen, who came from Cole, who also had her own style.

Jack’s choreography became darker. He did some things with Chita that were very dark. Whereas when he worked with Danny Kaye, with Gwen and Marilyn, it was all very female and light. But the choreography was staggering.

Gwen used to teach all those girls. Then she left, and his choreography did change. Bob’s also changed.

Gwen. Gwen, Gwen, Gwen, Gwen. And Chita.

Margaret Fuhrer:

How about Ann?

Toni Basil:

Margret?

Margaret Fuhrer:

Ann Reinking. Well, and Ann-Margret too!

Toni Basil:

Oh, Ann Reinking. Ann Reinking, yeah. Well, I think Gwen came first. I mean, Gwen came first. Ann was a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful technical dancer.

I had lunch with Ann, because—I almost went into Chicago. I almost went into that show several times. I was ready. I knew the whole choreography. I knew everything. And I said, “In one of the numbers, it’s like…was he locking?” She said, “Oh my god. Bob, when you guys were on television, he used to call people and say, ‘They’re on television.'”

Well, at lunch I burst into tears, because at the time, we were flying by the seat of our pants. I mean, to know that Bob Fosse was calling people to watch us, it was incredible.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Wow. What a story.

As you’ve said before, you’ve been on the cutting edge, through multiple decades. One of the reasons is that you have a great eye and a great sense of the zeitgeist. I’m wondering what dancers and choreographers you have your eye on today. Who of the rising generation gets it?

Toni Basil:

Well, before the pandemic I used to go… I always go to class. I see people, and a lot of them have… Some of the young dancers have no clue who I am because they don’t expect to see me in class. I will get their phone number. They have no idea why I’m getting their phone number. And I swear to god, eventually I use them. My three assistants that I used on Bette shows and with Tina, I got their numbers all from seeing them in class.

Margaret Fuhrer:

How about choreographers? When we were talking earlier, you mentioned Justin Peck.

Toni Basil:

Oh, Justin Peck, as far as Broadway goes, I love, love, love him. I mean, I did watch an interview of his or heard an interview of his, where he said he took tap as a kid. I went, yeah, you see, that’s why he has so much attention to rhythm in the beat. Because ballet choreographers, they move through the measure, because you don’t have a bass and a drum beating out, boom, boom, boom. You have violins. Whereas Justin, he’s got that concept.

I don’t know. I mean, I love all the choreographers. I think they all do a magnificent job. A lot of the stuff now looks the same, on the music awards. You go, wow, it looks like the same act, one after the other, after the other. But it’s the acts that want this. The choreographers have to do their own thing and contribute what they can contribute, but there’s a lot of requests of what the act is looking for or what the management is looking for or what the record company is looking for. Has nothing to do with the artist.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. It does feel like there are more and more fingers in the stew these days.

Toni Basil:

Oh, yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Are there musical performers today that you feel are really shaping what they’re doing as dancers as well?

Toni Basil:

Well, Beyoncé.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, Beyoncé.

Toni Basil:

Beyoncé, for sure. For sure. I mean, Derek Hough, phenomenal. He creates his own stuff. Derek is phenomenal too. So, there certainly are.

Margaret Fuhrer:

All right. I’m sorry. I’m realizing we’re coming to the end of our time now. So, I’m going to end with a huge question that I think you’re uniquely qualified to answer.

Toni Basil:

Uh-oh.

Margaret Fuhrer:

What do you think makes an artist great?

Toni Basil:

Their uniqueness, their uniqueness, their uniqueness. And their work ethic, their work ethic. Everyone I know, that I feel that I’ve worked with that’s great, has the god-given talent, but their work ethic is phenomenal. You can’t get there without the work.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Mm-hmm. Toni, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, for sharing all of this history and knowledge and insight. It’s really been such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

Toni Basil:

Well, thank you so much. As I said, dance is my drug. Nothing I like to do more than dance, except to talk about it.

[pause]

A big thanks again to Toni. She will receive the Palm Desert Choreography Festival’s lifetime achievement award this Saturday, November 12th, at the McCallum Theatre in California. In the show notes we’ve included a link with more information about that. We also have links to Toni’s very active and informative YouTube channel, to her website, and to her Instagram account, so that you can keep up with everything she’s working on, including some upcoming music releases that sound very exciting.

And thanks to all of you for listening. We’ll be back next Thursday with a headline rundown episode, recapping all the top dance news stories. Until then, keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.