Diary of An Ex-Soul Train Dancer Presents: Bob Cat

Bob Cat photoLarry “Bob Cat” Jur’dan Jeffries was one of the most fluid, rhythmic and skillful dancers to ever grace the Soul Train stage. Hailing from Burlington, North Carolina, his exquisite, soulful and natural stylistic moves caught the eyes of hundreds of viewers every week. Capable of doing all styles of dance, including modern, jazz and African dance, Bobcat is indeed a dancer in soul.

SoulTrain.com: Was dancing always your passion?

Bob Cat: Yes, it was. I come from a family of dancers. My grandmother, for example, loved to dance. She loved R&B music and she also loved to watch the old Fred Astaire movies, and I would watch them with her. That and figure skating are what really got me hooked on dancing. I could dance really well.

SoulTrain.com: When did you first dance publicly?

Bob Cat: I started dancing in talent shows as well as in the segregated parks in North Carolina during the summer. When I turned 14, the schools were desegregated and I was supposed to start going to an all- white school called Hickory High, but my mom came to get me and took me to Washington, D.C. initially for two weeks but then decided to keep me there.

SoulTrain.com: Discuss your continued journey of dancing while you were in D.C.

Bob Cat: I participated in folk dancing, which was held around the corner from where I lived on Saturdays. When I attended Western High School, which is now the Duke Ellington School of Arts, I took acting classes. From there I started dancing with this group called the African Heritage Dance Group, helmed by Melvin Deal. My professional dancing started in D.C.

SoulTrain.com: So your dance career slowly began to evolve.

Bob Cat: Yes. I was able to get connected with a program run by Debbie Allen and others at George Washington University during the summer, that taught art, dance, photography and other related classes to teach urban kids how to stay off the streets and out of trouble. I was also studying dance with Debbie. This was when she was still attending Howard University.

SoulTrain.com: How did you get the nickname Bob Cat?

Bob Cat: The streets of D.C. were tough and I had to fight because I wouldn’t run from no one.

SoulTrain.com: When did you move to Los Angeles?

Bob Cat: I moved out to Los Angeles in 1975. I became a part of the Inner City Cultural Center and taught African dance. When I came out to L.A., everything started to kick off.

SoulTrain.com: What was your first professional job as a dancer?

Bob Cat: I was a warrior dancer in the remake of the movie King Kong. I remember the audition well. A friend called me and said there was an audition in Culver City. I was nervous since it was my first big audition, but I had fun. Everybody was at the audition that I usually took African dance classes with, so when it was time for the guys to learn the dance, it was on. I was having more fun than really auditioning. It didn’t even seem like an audition. So I walked off the floor thinking I know I’m not going to get this because everyone was so much better than me. So I went to pick up my bags to leave and Lorraine Fields came over and said, “You know you walked off this floor like you got this job.” I said, “No. I’m nervous. I don’t think the choreographers like me,” and Lorraine said, “You got this job. You know that!” So I got the gig because I was a good dancer.

SoulTrain.com: What do you recall about shooting your scenes in King Kong?

Bob Cat: Shooting began on my 25th birthday. I portrayed one of the warrior dancers where we danced around the litter with the witch doctor. We were sacrificing the female (played by Jessica Lange) who was on the litter. A lot of the dancers from the Inner City Cultural Center were utilized for this scene. I also remember that 20 minutes before my call time one of the dancers had to leave, so I had to learn his choreography.

SoulTrain.com: How did you become a Soul Train dancer?

Bob Cat: A friend of mine was auditioning for The Wiz. She had a friend in the cast who wanted to hang out with the Soul Train dancers. So on a Friday night, they wanted me to go with them to Maverick’s Flat, where many of the Soul Train dancers would go and dance. Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniels were there that night, as well as Tyrone Proctor. My friends and I went in Maverick’s Flat and cut up on the dance floor and had fun. I met Jeffrey and Tyrone and they invited me and my friend to a Soul Train taping, which was the next day.

SoulTrain.com: What do you remember about your first day at Soul Train?

Bob Cat: I thought I was going to get on the risers but I was told to sit my tail down. I was getting ready to go down the Soul Train line and I was told that I couldn’t. At the end of the day I said I’m not coming back to this place no more. I was insulted. How dare they! [laughs] Word got around that I was not coming back Sunday and Tyrone called me and told me to come back. But I told him that the staff did not like me and my style of dance. Tyrone told me that all I needed was to wear a shirt and some slacks. I said I couldn’t dance in certain slacks since I am a dancer that does kicks, turns and spins, so Tyrone told me to wear some loose slacks, which I did when I came back on Sunday. I think I danced to one song on the floor and from then on I danced on the risers. Chuck Johnson, the dance coordinator, put me on the riser with my partner Daphne, who was my first partner. My other partners were Cheryl Song and a girl named Aretha.

SoulTrain.com: Now that you were being utilized on the show, how did you feel the day after being told you couldn’t dance on the risers or go down the Soul Train line?

Bob Cat: I felt like I understood. Being that I am in the dance profession, a lot of the things I went through at Soul Train that first day were unfair but that’s the way the business is. Until they know who you are and what you can do, you can’t just jump up there and get in a shot or scene. After I rationalized it that way, I was okay with how things went that first day.

SoulTrain.com: Did you ever have a chance to meet or interact with Don Cornelius?

Bob Cat: Don was the first person who started just calling me “Cat” after seeing me dance. But I did have one run-in with him.

SoulTrain.com: Tell us about that experience.

Bob Cat: I had been on the show a whole year and had gotten good feedback and results so I decided I wanted to do something for Don and the staff members Chuck Johnson, Pam Brown and Trish Steed. I decided I would give each one of them a rose–red roses for the ladies and white roses for the men. During one of the breaks, I gave Pam and Trish their roses and thanked them. I got Chuck by himself and gave him the rose and he said, “Oh man, that’s nice! Nobody has ever done that.” So I thought I was being very respectful when I caught Don in his chair by himself with no one around him. I said “Hey Don.” Don said, “Hey Cat, what’s going on?” I said, “Nothing much. I wanted to give you…” As soon as I took out the rose, Don said, “Aww man, give that to somebody who needs it!” My feelings were hurt so I just turned immediately around, grabbed my stuff and was leaving out the door.

SoulTrain.com: What happened next?

Bob Cat: As I was leaving out the studio, I saw Chuck walking Don’s way. By the time I got outside to the gate, I heard Chuck say, “Hey Cat, let me speak to you.” I said, “What?” He said, “Man, the big guy (Don) wants to say he’s sorry. He thought you were trying to do something else until I showed him my rose and Pam and Trish’s roses. Go see Don before he leaves.” After that, Don and I had no other problems. I knew how he could be so I tried to stay on the other side of that.

SoulTrain.com: So Chuck helped to smooth out that situation?

Bob Cat: Yes. Chuck and I were real close. He would always run ideas by me. He had the idea for shadow dancing, where the dancers’ shadows would reflect on the backdrop during dance numbers. He ran that idea by me and I said that would be a good idea for the dancers. I also shot him the idea of Soul Train having a dance studio. I told him that people were always talking about the Soul Train dancers but there is not even a Soul Train dance studio. At least if there was a studio, people would learn how to do the Hustle and other dances. Next thing I know, there was a Soul Train dance studio on Santa Monica Boulevard!

SoulTrain.com: During the 1978-1979 and 1979-1980 seasons, dancers from the show would be featured from time to time doing spotlight dances, which was something not done since the program’s early years. You were featured in these dance spotlights several times.

Bob Cat: Yes. For a short time, Don started letting us do special routines midway in the show. I remember one time I did a routine with my friend Antoine that was created in just 15 minutes because no one told us that we were going to be spotlighted until the day of shooting. Just before lunch, Cheryl Song told me, “Bobcat, you know you are doing the spotlight dance routine today, right?” I said, “No one told me. What’s the song?” Cheryl didn’t know so Antoine and I ran outside to start rehearsing. We were like, “What are we going to do?”

SoulTrain.com: You and Antoine had to come up with a routine in a short time when you two weren’t told beforehand you were going to be featured?

Bob Cat: Yes!  I said, “Don will embarrass us if we go up there and our routine is looking bad. So it can’t look bad. It’s got to look funky.” Antoine decided that we would do some routines we learned from Jerry Grimes’ dance classes. So we threw it together even though we didn’t know what we were going to dance to, and if you look at the routine the way it started out, we didn’t know what we were doing.  It worked out, except we didn’t have it finished and Antoine forgot some of the choreography in the middle of the routine and got in my way when we were supposed to do a quick turn. So that’s why Don said it was unfinished. But we thought we did a good job.

SoulTrain.com: There was also the time you and fellow Soul Train dancer Mr. X took to the stage in a dance battle. It was very interesting to see that since you both had different styles of dancing.

Bob Cat: Mr. X was an excitable dancer! He was more of a bodybuilder/pop lock type of dancer. I also did a dance challenge with a dancer named Moses. Don liked to have other dancers challenge me with my style of dancing because everyone was pop locking when I came on the show.  But I knew street dancing, jazz, modern and African dance and put it all together.

SoulTrain.com: Don even featured you in a dance solo on the show.

Bob Cat: I remember that improv! I was sitting in the audience relaxing and Don called me and caught me off guard to do that solo dance number. But I always had the ability to pick up steps quick.

SoulTrain.com: Did you ever deal with envy or jealousy from any of the other dancers?

Bobcat: I went through a lot of people being envious of me on the show but I wasn’t worried about it. Nobody would ever start with me because I was a fighter. I was a nice person but I was no pushover.  Also, other dancers would ask, “Why do you get on camera so much?” I would tell them, “Don’t dance for the camera, don’t dance to the camera. Dance for yourself and the camera will find you.”

SoulTrain.com: Do you have any favorite memories of recording artists that came to Soul Train?

Bob Cat: When Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson performed together, I sat right behind them. That was exciting because I had already worked with Aretha on the Midnight Special when she did her song “Sweet Passion.” I was the first one that was allowed to dip her because Aretha didn’t like people to touch her. At that time she was very quiet and to herself. Lon Fontaine was choreographing her number for Midnight Special. Aretha was convinced to let me be the first male dancer allowed to dip her. After that, I became friends with her sons Clarence and Eddie, who also used to dance on Soul Train.

SoulTrain.com: What other artists stand out that you enjoyed seeing perform on Soul Train?

Bob Cat: I used to work with this group called Hodges James and Smith. They were phenomenal singers, they just didn’t get their props. They had just released an album and I was on the show working with them and Lon Fontaine. It was exciting when they came on the show because they gave me props and a mention on air. I also enjoyed when Lester Wilson and Hinton Battle came on the show, since I already knew them from the dance world.

SoulTrain.com: You were also present when Soul Train saluted The Jacksons on their tenth anniversary in show business, right?

Bob Cat: Yes! The dancers were told to never approach the acts but if the acts approached us, it was a different thing. We were given these Jacksons t-shirts with peacocks on the front of them. So I had my t-shirt on, and during a break when a shot was being set up the group was on the stage and I was on the high riser and everyone was just waiting around. I asked Michael if he would sign my shirt and he said, “Yeah, come on!” Don and no one else on the staff said anything, so I went down on the stage and Michael had a pen with him and he signed my t-shirt while I was still wearing it. As he was signing my shirt, I remember him asking, “This doesn’t hurt?” We laughed and I said, “No Michael. It’s just a pen.” It really touched me that he was more concerned about him hurting me than giving me an autograph. He signed my shirt, “To Bobcat from Michael Jackson 1979.” I still have that autographed t-shirt.

SoulTrain.com: Did you ever have a chance to work with Michael?

Bob Cat: There were a couple of times I was supposed to. I was going to do the audition for the “Beat It” video but you’re not always going to get along with certain choreographers.

SoulTrain.com: What did you do professionally after leaving Soul Train?

Bob Cat: I left Soul Train to perform at the MGM Grand Hotel in a show called Hello Hollywood! from 1979 to 1983. I came back on Soul Train for a brief time in 1980.

SoulTrain.com: Did you do any other TV or movie projects?

Bob Cat: I danced on the first televised People’s Choice Awards. Me and the other dancers who were a part of it danced to Heatwave’s hit “Boogie Nights.” When it was televised, it was so funny to see Carol Burnett’s face as she watched me dance! I also appeared as a dancer in the movie The Blues Brothers, in the church scene with James Brown, the James Cleveland Singers and Chaka Khan.

SoulTrain.com: What was it like filming that scene in the presence of such legends?

Bob Cat: It was wonderful doing that because I knew all of the dancers in the scene. I was friends with the choreographer Carlton Johnson, who was the only black male dancer on The Carol Burnett Show. Doing the scene was fun, like a dance community. But it was just like Soul Train in the sense that we didn’t approach the celebrities.

SoulTrain.com: What did you do after performing at the MGM Grand Hotel?

Bob Cat: In the mid eighties, I had personal challenges with drugs. I got caught up with partying. I think if I  had had a mentor or if I hadn’t been out here by myself, I could have been directed in a different way.

SoulTrain.com: How did you overcome those challenges?

Bob Cat: After praying to God to get me out of L.A., He answered my prayer and I eventually got a job with Jeff Kutash, who was doing a show in Atlantic City, NJ called Superstars & Stripes. Being a part of the show and getting out of L.A. kept me clean from drugs. I eventually got jobs through Marla Blakely– who taught classes at the Inner City Cultural Center–with Lou Rawls, Dionne Warwick, Dennis Edwards and others. I also did a lot of stage work and appeared in plays such as Sugar Don’t Bite, Children of the Night–in which I played a drag queen called Miss It, and Indigo, which was a play about Billie Holiday. I also worked with Dionne Warwick as a Brazilian dancer during her tour of Brazil. Being in Brazil was wonderful. I even performed in a play at the Beacon Theater in New York. I didn’t make a whole lot of money, but I enjoyed what I was doing. If you enjoy doing what you are doing, it’s all good.

SoulTrain.com: So your faith in God helped you overcome your battle with drugs and took you to higher heights.

Bob Cat: Absolutely. I went through a drug challenge and leaned to my own understanding of God to help me get out of that.

SoulTrain.com: What are you doing currently?

Bob Cat: I’ve been part of the Panache Images Modeling Troupe. We present a fashion show that is held at the Marriott in Florence, CA every Mother’s Day. It’s not just a fashion show, it’s a drama that has been compared to surpassing the Ebony Fashion Fair. It is so much fun, we do not even think of it as work. It’s been easy for me to pick up the modeling steps and moves, the walkaways and the pivots. To me, it’s just dancing. Because I kept my body in shape, they had me one time come out on the runway wearing a thong. The ladies threw money and one woman even came up to me with her purse! [laughs] I also live with my partner of 10 years. We met at a repast after a funeral and we’ve been together ever since.

SoulTrain.com: What was your overall experience with Soul Train?

Bob Cat: A wonderful learning experience. It was also an opportunity to share and teach. One of the things that got me when I first came to L.A. was that everyone was so clique-ish. I would always share information about auditions but other dancers wouldn’t. I didn’t like that. I will help whenever I can.

SoulTrain.com: What would you like to say in memory of Don Cornelius?

Bob Cat: Don was a humanitarian and an overall good person. You just had to understand him and what he went through. He was here to do what he had to do.

SoulTrain.com: What word of wisdom do you want to share with readers?

Bob Cat: Trust your heart and trust your spirit within you because it is connected to God. Never give up. Seize the moment and God will give you the next moment.

To see Bob Cat and other Panache models in action, go to www.youtube.com and type in Panache Images.

–Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, performer, former Soul Train dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian.

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