Cheryl Song is a dancer synonymous with Soul Train. Cheryl looks too young to be a “Soul Train” icon but, she is. For those of you who don’t remember her by name, you will remember the pretty young Asian dancer who strutted her stuff like an acrobat on the Soul Train line.
She certainly is the most memorable and represented a minority. Soul Train fans looked forward to seeing her along with the other dancers every Saturday morning. Especially, those of us that danced and sang to our favorite R&B group or singer while doing chores. Cheryl had a long career with Soul Train from the 70’s to the 90’s and BackBeat R&B caught up with her recently. She updated me about her life, career and what’s in store for the future.
BackBeat R&B was quite honored to be given this exclusive interview!
BackBeat R&B: How did you get your start on Soul Train and what year?
Cheryl: Soul Train originally started in Chicago before Don Cornelius took it to Los Angeles. In the early 70’s, Pam Brown, the dance coordinator went to the local parks in Los Angeles to recruit dancers. After that, she transitioned from the parks to the local, mostly Black high schools in Los Angeles. At the time, I went to Dorsey High School (which was a predominantly Black high school in Los Angeles) and I knew a lot of people from Dorsey danced on Soul Train (such as Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, who became part of the singing group Shalamar). My high school friends knew I liked to dance, and one day we were outside and I saw a few of them talking and pointing to me. They came over and said, “We’re going to take you on Soul Train”. I NEVER thought I would ever get the chance to go on the show because I wasn’t Black, but I LOVED watching the Soul Train on TV (just like everybody else). So, in 1976, I went on Soul Train and stayed on the show until 1990.
BackBeat R&B: Did you always want to be a Dancer and who taught you to dance?
Cheryl: Actually, I never thought I would be a dancer because my family was very strict and they insisted that I pursue a field in math or science (although deep down inside I had other ideas). Besides the strict upbringing, we were raised with the mentality that “children should be seen and not heard”. I was never allowed to voice my opinion or speak up, in fact, if I ever did, I usually faced the backlash from my parents and ended up regretting it. But when I heard music, I felt this enormous feeling of freedom because I could for once express myself without speaking, and it was sort of a “safe haven” for me.
BackBeat R&B: Did you face any challenges on the show being that you were in the minority?
Cheryl: I remember when I first came onto the show, there was dead silence. I’m sure when everyone saw me they thought “What in the world is SHE doing here?”. I was extremely nervous, and I knew I had to prove myself. Eventually, I was accepted by the regulars on the show. But when I first became popular, some of the dancers resented it and I remember once, there was talk that people were going to jump me after the show, so I had to be escorted to my car after the taping. There were some who were jealous of the attention I got, but on the whole, I was accepted as a “regular” on the show and forged great friendships with a lot of the dancers.
BackBeat R&B: Was the showed choreographed and how long were rehearsals if any?
Cheryl: The show was not a choreographed show, per say. We would show up on the set on taping days, and when they played the music, we just danced! However, some of the dancers (like myself) did rehearse outside of the show to make up dance routines and a lot of the dancers made up steps during the lunch break.
BackBeat R&B: I remembered when you were in Micheal Jackson’s “Beat It ” video! How did that come to be?
Cheryl: I got to know Michael through his manager, and I met with him a few times (he always told me that I was one of his favorite dancers) and even spoke on the phone with him several times. I assisted him as the audience coordinator when he filmed the television special with Diana Ross. Michael also invited me to watch him film the music video “Billie Jean” and after that, he asked me to find him some pop-lock dancers for “Beat It”. I was there on the set for the filming of the “Beat It” video, and Michael and the director decided to put me in the bar scene as one of the gang member’s girlfriend. In my scene, where I’m with the gang members who are being rounded up, Tony (my gang member boyfriend) got up, grabbed me by my hair and kissed me. It was totally unplanned, but Michael and the director loved it, so they kept it in the video.
BackBeat R&B: What was it like getting to dance with “The King of Pop”?
Cheryl: Working with Michael was simply magical. I mean, how often does someone get to work with someone they’ve idolized from the very start? I consider that one of the best experiences of my life. Knowing him was just one of God’s Blessings. He was always so kind and had a very nurturing way about him (I think he got that from his mother). I still remember having conversations with him where he was genuinely interested in how I was doing and always told me to be good and stay in school. That was the nurturing side that I will never forget.
BackBeat R&B: Prior to Soul Train, had you been a dancer anywhere else?
Cheryl: Actually, no; I had never danced anywhere or performed anywhere in public before that. Soul Train was my very first induction into show business! I was one of the fortunate ones who was able to pursue this business and use Soul Train as a starting point. For that, I will always be grateful to Don Cornelius.
BackBeat R&B When did you leave Soul Train and why?
Cheryl: Well, after being on the show for 14 years, my dance partner thought we should leave while we were on top. At the time, I really didn’t want to, but looking back, it was probably the best thing to do. Some of the dancers who had also been there for a long time were asked not to come back, so I’m just glad that I didn’t fall into that category! But I will always consider myself very Blessed and fortunate that I was able to come on the show as the first Asian dancer and that Don Cornelius had the foresight to let me continue on as one of the regularly featured dancers.
BackBeat R&B: So what is Cheryl Song doing now?
Cheryl: I am still pursuing ventures in the entertainment field. Earlier this year, I appeared on the new version of “To Tell the Truth” hosted by Anthony Anderson. I appeared as one of the “Original Soul Train Dancers” and yes, I managed to fool all panel members except one! I also did a guest appearance on Marlon Wayans new NBC comedy, “Marlon”. I do a lot of special appearances representing Soul Train and often teach dance classes when I can.
BackBeat R&B: Do you ever think you’ll write a memoir about your journey on Soul Train?
Cheryl: Yes, I plan to write a book about my life’s journey which will certainly include my time on Soul Train. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs that most people wouldn’t believe, but I believe that everything that happens to us, happens for a reason, the good and the bad. I’m just grateful that with all the things I’ve been through, I’m still here and happy to still be able to experience the joy that life can bring.
BackBeat R&B: Lastly, Do you keep in touch with any of the original “Soul Train” dancers?
Cheryl: Oh, I absolutely keep in touch with several of the Soul Train dancers. I am very close to many of them – and we will be friends for life. Soul Train was an amazing experience for all of us, and that’s what we have in common. We often get together at Christmas and often, many of them will plan events during the year.