Interview with a ex-Soul Dancer
Here is a interview with a former Soul Train personnel name Ervin Bernard Thompson. Here he talks to Soul Train about his life.
There have been many great dancers on Soul Train. But one of the best–if not the best–dance couples in the history of Soul Train was Erwin Bernard Thompson and Diane Thompson, who happened to be the only married couple who ever danced on the program. Their routines and moves were always perfectly coordinated and timed and they were always a treat to watch down the Soul Train line. They were even featured in an exclusive interview in Right On magazine. Here is the story behind the couple known as Soul Train’s dancing duo and who should be inducted into the Soul Train Dancer Hall of Fame as told by Erwin Bernard Thompson.
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Right here in Los Angeles.
Soultrain.com: Did you love to dance when you were a child?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: As a child, I loved dancing, ever since I was too young to know what dancing was. (Laughs) Everyone knew I could dance. I was at every dance hop when I was a teenager. Prior to that, from first to sixth grade, May Day dances would be held and kids from all the schools in the area would attend them.
Soultrain.com: How did you get on Soul Train?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: I was at a club called the Citadel which, along with the Climax and Maverick’s Flat, was one of the biggest clubs in Los Angeles. Pam Brown (then dance coordinator of Soul Train) was there that night and she saw me dancing and invited me to come to a taping. This was around the time when the national version of Soul Train was just getting off the ground.
Soultrain.com: Before you went on, had you seen the show?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: I think I saw one or two episodes of the show before Pat invited me to the show.
Soultrain.com: What are your memories of being at that first taping?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: The first time I went to Soul Train was with Pat Davis. I met her at the Citadel and she needed a partner for the show that weekend, so she invited me and it was such a fun day.
Soultrain.com: What were your impressions of Don Cornelius seeing him in person for the first time?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: I was very impressed. I was so happy for him and for the show promoting good, clean fun for black teens and helping to give them exposure. I was elated that this was an all Black thing. It was an exciting time for Black people, a time of brotherhood and we all had common interests. Those were times I will never forget.
Soultrain.com: Did you get recognized after being on Soul Train that first time?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes. After the airing of my first time on the show, I went to the store for my mom and I went down Broadway and people recognized me and applauded!
Soultrain.com: Sometimes Don doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for giving young people the opportunity for being exposed on nationwide television, nor does he get credit for helping them.
Erwin Bernard Thompson: That is true. I remember one time he made it possible for me and other dancers from the show to go to a grammar school to meet and greet fans of ours. The kids treated us like superstars and we signed autographs. Some of us also worked for him in the sense that he made it possible for us to go to places like Long Beach and Inglewood to pass out fliers about Soul Train and to talk to people and spread the word about this new dance show. We weren’t on his payroll, but we helped him out and we all had a stake in letting many people know about Soul Train and he appreciated that.
Soultrain.com: This was when you got to know fellow Soul Train dancer Tyrone Proctor, right?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes. One of the times after we had finished distributing fliers, he didn’t have a way to get back to Hollywood. So I gave him a ride since I didn’t live that far from there. When I saw him a few years ago at a Soul Train Gang reunion, he told me he would never forget what I did for him that day.
Soultrain.com: Were you involved in the entertainment industry before you went to Soul Train?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes. Prior to Soul Train, Eddie Cole, and a girl named Valencia (two other dancers from Soul Train), and I had formed a dance group called The Natural Three. We got an agent and were booked to dance at colleges and schools.
Soultrain.com: Why didn’t the Natural Three continue?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: The group just phased out and we just jumped on the Soul Train bandwagon.
Soultrain.com: After that first weekend appearing on Soul Train, did you become a regular?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: No, not yet. I still had to audition so my name would be on a list for the regular dancers. Me, Eddie Cole, Wanda Fuller and Diane Thompson went to a park in Los Angeles where they would hold auditions. Five Soul Train lines were done and this is how Pam Brown would choose the dancers she wanted on the show. We all got picked to become regulars.
Soultrain.com: Did you and your future dance partner and wife Diane meet at this audition?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: We actually fist met at the Citadel. We just clicked. We both loved to dance and we just started conversing, then we began dating and we got married in June 1973.
Soultrain.com: Did Don Cornelius know you and Diane were a married couple?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes, he did. In fact, when we did the Scramble Board, he acknowledged that we were married. He even joked that the reason we didn’t have any kids yet was because we danced too much! (Laughs)
Soultrain.com: I have to say that you and Diane are, in my opinion, the tightest dance couple in Soul Train’s history. Your moves were always together and you were always in sync and you both epitomized what the joy of dance was all about. In fact, Essence magazine used to run an ad for Soul Train every month in the seventies featuring a drawing of a couple dancing, and I really believe that couple was modeled after you and Diane.
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Wow! Thanks! (Laughs)
Soultrain.com: I’m sure it took a lot of rehearsals for you two to get your moves down pat.
Erwin Bernard Thompson: When I would get home from work, Diane and I rehearsed every day. She had rhythm but I had to teach her and help her with the steps, but she eventually picked up on the beat. Her main drive was school and her energies were focused on that.
Soultrain.com: Did you and Diane ever dance on American Bandstand?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes. We went on Bandstand and had a lot of fun.
Soultrain.com: Did you two ever appear on Soul Unlimited, which was produced by Dick Clark?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes. Don Cornelius was mad about that program. He had his show–which was only a few years old–and this new show was taking most of his dancers.
Soultrain.com: Did Don ban any of the dancers who danced on Soul Unlimited from dancing on Soul Train again?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Well, he didn’t actually come out and say that you would be banned from Soul Train, but we picked up on his demeanor about the whole situation. But I enjoyed going to Soul Unlimited as well as Soul Train. Dick Clark also did a lot in giving young people television exposure also.
Soultrain.com: Do you have any OMG moments from Soul Train?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes! Several. I remember when Michael Jackson was on the show and during a break in taping he was standing on the stage dangling his microphone–which had a very long cord. Without him knowing, the microphone hit me on the head by accident! (Laughs) Another moment was when Gladys Knight and the Pips were on the show. I was standing close by the stage and during a break in taping Gladys came to the side of the stage and reached out to me and said, “Hi. How are you?” We had an instant connection and she was just the nicest person. When Diana Ross came to the show to do an interview with Don, she signed her autograph for me during a break. She signed it “Bernardo.” (Laughs). I still have the autograph. She was so nice. Smokey Robinson was another great and wonderful person. He and I took a picture together.
Soultrain.com: When the Godfather of Soul, James Brown came on Soul Train with the JBs, that had to be one of the most memorable experiences of seeing an artist on the show.
Erwin Bernard Thompson: It was definitely an experience to see how his production was made and put together! We got to see all the breaks in between and how they rehearsed. James Brown really had it together.
Soultrain.com: I can imagine that when artists like the JBs came on to perform live, the dancers and production staff had to obviously wait around on set while the instruments and sound checks were set up.
Erwin Bernard Thompson: With James Brown, we never had to wait on set and watch him and his band set up. When the dancers had lunch, his band set up all their instruments so by the time we got back on the set, they were ready to perform.
Soultrain.com: It must have been a memorable experience to see new artists come on Soul Train, such as when the late, great Minnie Riperton first came to the show.
Erwin Bernard Thompson: She sang with class. It was like listening to a bird. She had no strain whatsoever in her voice. Artistry was definitely at its highest during that time.
Soultrain.com: You and Diane eventually divorced. Could you explain what led to you two no longer being together?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: I was putting in a 40-hour work week along with spending time with Diane and rehearsing our routines. I was winding down. I needed a change. I wanted to go in a different direction as well as she. Something had to give. I stopped dancing on Soul Train but she was still going to the show since she had gotten “the camera bug.” I had to break away and get out of the dance scene for a while and find some me time. So Diane and I grew apart and went our separate ways.
Soultrain.com: What did you do after that situation?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: I got a new job and started making a decent living and taking classes. I still danced at clubs, but I needed to concentrate on me.
Soultrain.com: You have since remarried, right?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes. In 1992, I got remarried. Between the both of us, we have three adult children, seven grandchildren and one great grandson.
Soultrain.com: Have your kids and grandkids seen any footage of you dancing on Soul Train?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Yes. They get a trip out of seeing that footage. They always compliment their grandpa! (Laughs)
Soultrain.com: Considering your background in dance, do you ever see yourself teaching dance or being involved in the entertainment industry again?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: In 2006, I was looking to work in some capacity with Soul Train when I found out it was cancelled! But I would love to teach dance. Since I am a former Soul Train dancer, I wouldn’t mind going on “Dancing With The Stars.”
Soultrain.com: Do you have a special message you want to share with the readers?
Erwin Bernard Thompson: I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Mr. Don Cornelius for opening doors and providing a sense of a dream come true, for many. However, words can’t really express one of the most important highlighting moments of my life as a young adult. I have a lot to be thankful for. To this day, dancing is still like second nature to me in some regards. But, being a part of history is certainly something to be proud of and I really appreciate that. I would encourage everybody, no matter how young or old, to still follow your dreams; walk the straight and narrow pathway until mission is accomplished; bypassing all distractions. To the Dancers on the show whom I’ve come to know, love, and respect all of these years, I’d like to also thank you for being a special part of my life!
Soultrain.com: By the way, you had the most together Afro back in the day! You must have used a lot of Afro Sheen to hold it up. Right on brother! (Laughs)
Erwin Bernard Thompson: Thanks! (Laughs) I look at old pictures of myself now and I ask myself, what was I thinking? (Laughs)