Something in the Way He Moves

Beatle Bob has been on a one-man dance marathon, bop-bop-bopping all over town. But why?

I remember the feeling that I could be free
Now I know it could never be me,
Because I'm on fire
Got myself on fire...

Twilley's performance at Mississippi Nights, on Laclede's Landing, was part of a burgeoning club scene that was beginning to flourish across the city. The emergence of new venues provided Beatle Bob with an expanding dance floor. Cicero's, in the University City Loop, started booking bands in 1983. Off Broadway, a South Side club, opened up in 1984. The Hi-Pointe Cafe arrived in 1986. With each new club, the diversity grew: Punk, zydeco, reggae, folk, blues and, eventually, alternative rock all were given new outlets. Roots music such as this rarely had received any radio play before the advent of community-radio station KDHX (88.1 FM), which didn't start broadcasting until 1987. Instead, the commercial stations saturated the airwaves with banality. For every Police or Clash song that made the charts, there were dozens of sappy tunes by Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers, Donna Summer, and the Captain and Tennille. "They started playing stuff that was not rock & roll," says Beatle Bob, "things that were too orchestrated. It had no meaning whatsoever."

Beatle Bob was not alone in his view. As disdain for the status quo grew, legions of young people simply tuned out commercial radio. Some of the disaffected took an interest in traditional and acoustic music such as bluegrass. Others consciously rejected the music industry's offerings by devoting their attention to local garage bands and the punk-rock scene. The latter genre consisted of angst-driven lyrics and thrashing three-chord guitar progressions played at ear-splitting volumes. Borne of postindustrial nihilism, the elementary compositions were played so fast that they often provoked a convulsive response in those who attempted to dance to the music. The simplest method of keeping up with the beat was a dance step called the Pogo, which required nothing more than aerobic stamina and the ability to jump up and down. Dancers who attempted any lateral movements were limited to clipped motions that resembled a spasmodic jitterbug. During the mid- and late 1970s, Beatle Bob spent time with a small following that had developed around local punk bands that often performed at South Side bowling alleys and VFW halls. It was under the influence of these obscure and short-lived ensembles that he honed his dance moves.

This is where he served his apprenticeship. This is where Beatle Bob received his minstrel degree, his doctorate of dance. Behind the pop-culture mask, he is a shaman who can conjure up a primordial spirit world long suppressed. Before the Moon Walk or the Funky Chicken, the Charleston or the Eagle Rock, there were other dances with more exotic names: the calenda, the chica, the juba, the jumba, the counjaille. They originated in West Africa and came here with the slaves. Over time, these rhythms have been integrated into modern Western music. Beatle Bob, by his own admission, has been captivated by these beats since childhood. Eventually, moving to these rhythms became an emotional and physical imperative.

"It's a combination of different styles," he says of his dancing. " It's just a mixture of stuff. It's really not one move. I really can't program it ahead of time." It is a dance with no program. A dance with no partner. A dance with no name. The Twist, the Hully-Gully, the Mashed Potato and the Pony, too. Anarchy in motion. A one-man costume party. Archaic and timeless at once. It's whatever he wants it to be. Beatle Bob is doing his thing. And it has now been well over 1,100 days since he has taken a hiatus. By his own count, the last time he sat out was Christmas Eve 1996. In essence, Beatle Bob is participating in a marathon of his own invention and claims to be chronicling his progress in a dance diary, noting each performance he attends in a spiral-bound notebook. For many Beatle Bob watchers, it is an obsession that defies explanation. They wonder whether something other than his genuine love of music is motivating him to continue pursuing his uninterrupted dancing streak.

"He is devoted to it way beyond anything I've ever seen," says Pick. "At the point where you go three years without missing a night, somewhere in there you stop actually caring what you're seeing very much. Somewhere along the line it became more important for him to actually be there than it was to experience whatever music was giving him.

"Although I suspect that whatever joy he gets in life comes from the dancing."

On one of his flings, Beatle Bob attends the Gateway City Bluegrass Music Festival at the Henry VIII Hotel on North Lindbergh Boulevard. He has been going to the annual event for several years now. During breaks in the entertainment, he eagerly seeks out the performers to have his photograph taken with them. He does the same thing wherever he goes. Among all the cowboy hats and denim, he seems to stand out more than usual, but it doesn't appear to make him feel self-conscious. He mingles and makes small talk with acquaintances. The lobby of the hotel is crowded with amateur musicians playing fiddles and mandolins. At the ticket table, he announces that he is a correspondent for Night Times, a music magazine, and receives complimentary tickets for himself and a guest. Beatle Bob the dancer has assumed the role of journalist. As a member of the "free" press, he walks to the front row and sits down. By the third act, he can no longer contain himself. The Lewis Family, a gospel group, is performing. The women wear purple gowns that resemble choir robes. Next to them, an old man, stoop-shouldered and carrying a cane, sings feebly through a microphone as a frantic five-string-banjo player picks out the melody. And there is Beatle Bob, on the far side of the stage, bop-bop-bopping along. Although he has positioned himself far to the side of the stage, behind the bank of speakers, the festival organizer finally asks him to sit down. Despite the rebuke, Beatle Bob has scored another free dance session. Night Times magazine no longer exists. But as a "correspondent" for the defunct publication, he has saved $50.

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