Fame completely changed the look of dance. I was about 10, and studying ballet in Madrid. Until then we all wore pink leotards and tights. After we’d seen the TV show we started wearing black, ripping our tights and wearing T-shirts that were too big and falling off the shoulder. And legwarmers! We’d leave class saying we were just going to the corner shop for some water, but really we just wanted to be out in the street with our legwarmers.
Tamara Rojo, British Royal Ballet principal ballerina
This post attempts to answer two questions:
- Was it a bit suspect for a ten year old New Zealand boy to wear leg warmers in 1982, and
- Whatever happened to Leroy?
The early 80s might have been the time when wearing sports/dance clothes became something you would do even if you didn’t play sport or train as a dancer. In the early 80s a few pop culture events coincided. In chronological order these “things” would be Fame (1980), Fame – TV series (1982-1987), Jane Fonda’s Workout (1982), Let’s Get Physical – Olivia Newton-John (1982), Wired for Sound – Cliff Richard (1982), and Flashdance (1983). Some say that Jane Fonda influenced Olivia Newton-John’s style for Let’s Get Physical, but based on the two photos in this post I don’t see it.
Physical maintains the long tradition in pop music of talking about having sex but pretending to talk about something else (some AC/DC album tracklistings read like a teenage boy’s brainstorming session for this), but it does it in particularly odd way:
I took you to an intimate restaurant
Then to a suggestive movie
There’s nothing left to talk about
Unless it’s horizontally
Let’s get physical, physical
I wanna get physical
Let’s get into physical
Let me hear your body talk, your body talk
Let me hear your body talk
This is a very curious lyric for a woman to sing. In fact, this whole song almost reads more like a kind of assertive, feminist anthem, and the video carries this on by criticising and then objectifying men. If only it weren’t so silly. In a song/video that puts men under a critical, heterosexual gaze the men in the video appear to sensibly vouch for a homosexual liasion. After Olivia’s treatment of them in the video this seems a reasonable response by the fellas who exit the gym holding hands in pairs, and makes you wish more rap videos would end with all the hotties in hot pants wandering off together and leaving the ridiculous rap star playing with his jewellery.
The whole video is “fun” when you watch it, and confusing as hell if you think about it. Exactly what happens when Olivia takes a shower? Are we supposed to be laughing at the fat people (one of whom she leaves with at the end of the video)? What exactly is sexy about a hand exercizer? The dude on the exercycle and Olivia’s hand… really? She wants that? Geez.
In some ways I’m glad to see that the messages were so confused. I think it might let me off the hook when it came to my collection of leg warmers.
For a long time I wasn’t sure if I had any musicality. Probably the root of my uncertainty was the test we all had to take for the choir at my primary school. We lined up next to the choir stall and were called up one by one by the man who played the organ at assembly. When it was my turn I stepped up beside him and he pressed down on a white key in the middle of the keyboard. “Sing that note,” he said. I sang that note. He shook his head, and called out “next boy, please.” I stepped down and wandered back to class. I think that meant that I couldn’t sing. It seemed strange to not be able to sing but to like music.
I liked Mrs. Jeffries though. She was the music teacher. She was tall with long, silvery hair and lovely, slender fingers. I could imagine that she had been a dancer. We sang songs in her class and she has never shook her head at anyone and dismissed them.
One week Mrs. Jeffries asked my class to listen to a piece of music with our eyes closed and our heads down on our desks. She told us that we were going to imagine a story while we listened to the music and that afterwards some of us would share our stories with the class. I think that the music was Peer Gynt.
When the music started I was just thinking about how sitting in class with my eyes closed was sort of silly, and how Jonathan had made a funny face, and how James had made a pretend snoring noise and Mrs Jeffries had frowned at him, but the music was so good that I had straightaway started to daydream. I imagined I was in a desert and I was walking really slowly, almost like I was tip-toeing across the sand, and there was a huge, amazing looking city sort of glowing on the horizon, but the music began to speed up, and up and up, and soon I was flying across the sand, and then shooting up into the clouds and swooping down over the city which was a jumble of towers and amazing buildings, and it was so exciting to dip and surge about that when the music ended I was almost out of breath.
Mrs Jeffries asked us to say what we had imagined, but when I described it my dream sounded sort of ordinary and hollow and I wondered why I couldn’t explain the magic.
Another time Mrs Jeffries asked us to sit in a circle and one by one say what our favourite piece of clothing was. I was somewhere in the middle of the line, and as I heard the boys ahead of me announce their choices, I began desperately hunting around in my mind for something to say. I wanted it to be cool, but different, because Mrs Jeffries was a cool teacher. Finally I thought of something. It was so cool. I waited really nervously as the boys ahead of me went, desperately hoping no one would steal my idea. Finally it came to my turn in the line, and I said:
Most of the boys laughed at me. Mrs Jeffries quickly hushed them and moved on to the next boy in the line. I was very confused and red in the face. Why had the other boys laughed? I had to wait to the end of the lesson when James told me: “only girls wear leg warmers”.
At first I felt embarrassed and then I remembered that this wasn’t true. Sometimes boys wore leg warmers. Leroy in Fame wore them and he was cool.
In fact, at the time of Fame and Flashdance I thought it would have been pretty cool to go to a school like the one in Fame but I’m not really sure what I would have done there. My mother tried to get me to take piano lessons but somehow I couldn’t understand what the dots and lines on paper had to do with pushing keys and making sound. Sometimes I tried to dance like Leroy did. I put on my blue track suit and leg warmers, put on some music, and jumped about, but one day I saw myself in the reflection of the window and thought I had better stop because I didn’t look much like Leroy.
What went on in my head always seemed so much better than what actually was. In my head when the choir master pushed down on the key in the middle of the organ’s keyboard at school I could sing like the men on Mum’s Puccini Masterpieces cassette, and when I told the class that I liked legwarmers and they laughed then I could do some amazing dance routine in the middle of the classroom and they would have all joined in like they did on Fame and it would have been totally awesome.
That would have been cool. Cooler than what happened anyway which was embarrassing. I suppose what I learned when I tried and failed to explain my dream after listening to Peer Gynt was that music was transporting and magical, but also temporary and illusory.
Leg warmers were originally worn by dancers to keep their muscles from cramping after stretching, but in the early 1980s, leg warmers became a fad, and wearing them was fashionable among teenage girls.
I should say nothing more. I believe question one has been answered.
The short answer to question two is that Leory is dead.
Leory is dead.
Before I went to Aro Street Video Store and rented disc one of the TV series Fame, Leroy was the only person I could really remember from the show that I had watched back in 1982. He was a dancer, and in my head he was the cool one on the show. The internet tells me he died in 2003 of a stroke at the age of 41. When someone who was very fit for most of his life dies of a stroke at 41 you have to think that things went wrong for Gene Anthony Ray. His career on paper doesn’t appear to have been glittering after Fame which wound down in 1987. A couple of one off episodes as a dancer in a few shows, and the lead role in a play that ran for five shows.
Fame is one of those songs most people can sing the chorus to even if they have never seen the show,
I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly
And then, my favourite lines:
I’m gonna make it to heaven
People will see me and cry
People cried when they saw the Elephant Man too… of course, he was pretty famous.
When I played the record and listened to the song Fame again I realised that I had forgotten the verses more or less, and that I had also forgotten the instantly recognisable guitar hook which sounds very similar in style to the biggest selling single of 1982, Eye of the Tiger (let’s call that syle “easy listening raunchy”). Naturally each episode of the TV show began with the theme tune, but the theme tune had brief excerpts of speeches from characters in the show cut into it. One of these speeches is delivered by Lydia, Leroy’s fiesty dance instructor, who says:
You got big dreams. You want fame. Well fame costs. And right here is where you start paying… in sweat.
I always loved that speech and thought it sounded tough and inspiring.
It turned out that other than that speech and the vague notion of Leroy I remembered very little about Fame, and absolutely nil about the plot.
Episode one. NYC is gritty and all the walls of the buildings look like they’ve been soaked in tea. Young people wear bright clothes and have lots of hair and attitude. A small town girl plays the cello movingly at an audition. Outside tough kids (of colour) sass each other (but you suspect they have hearts of gold). No nonsense English teacher does vocab lesson. “Can you use the word deleterious in a sentence?” “Seeing so many men in tights is deleterious?” I-am-not-amused facial expression from teacher. Leroy refuses to wear tights in dance class. Small town girl does impression of a giraffe slipping on a banana peel for dance teacher. Dance teacher looks perplexed. Small town girl can’t fit in with the city kids because her clothes are lame. Leroy won’t wear tights. Dreamy piano boy plays music with lots of notes. Sassy black girl does big ensemble dance number in the school canteen to impress dreamy piano boy. Small town girl fits in by changing her lame clothes for cool ones. English teacher explains the meaning of the word metamorphsis. Show’s audience goes: “oh, that’s clever.”
Actually, it wasn’t too bad. Often a bit obvious, and people are prone to speechifying, but not too bad. Of course there are really bad bits. In the third episode we are treated to Come What May, a song where Gene Anthony Ray proves he can’t sing in key to save himself, and some of Leroy’s little short shorts defy belief (where does he keep his bits?). Whatever, it’s just TV, and some of the lines are good. The sweaty, desperate urge to get ahead is believable enough, and the idea that you might just fail pushes through occasionally.
Gene Anthony Ray’s obituary in The Sun tells us about his post-Fame drug addiction, and drinking. About getting arrested for stealing a bottle of wine in Italy and getting in a fight with drunks. At the time he died he was HIV positive. It must have been a hard decade after the TV show was axed for Ray. I feel for him, and prefer to remember him as he was in 1982, when the kids on the show Fame could make speeches like this and sound tough because they didn’t really know how bad the reviews could get:
Nobody gives you anything baby. You make your own chances. Everybody gets bad reviews. You’re not out of town anymore. You’re in the hot burning centre of the galaxy.
See you round Leroy.
Thanks for the dreams.