Freaky Deaky dance sparked passion and gunplay

Editor’s note: This story, which has been slightly edited for clarity and style, appeared in The Way We Live section Dec. 19, 1978. Some details have been added from other Free Press reports.

Until three months ago, Nat Morris used to just produce “The Scene,” a teenage dance show on Detroit’s WGPR-TV.

Today, however, he has become a referee, reminding his young dancers to “keep your freak clean. You will be kicked off the show.”

His admonitions are prompted by the sudden popularity of a disco dance, the Freaky Deaky, or simply the Freak, which has swept the local clubs, has been implicated in at least three jealous-lover killings, and has prompted a Detroit city councilman to ponder banning the moves.

Nobody seems to know where it started, but most believe it came from dance-innovating New York City.

Once it arrived in Detroit about this time last year, though, it took on its own special sexy flavor — which, at its spiciest, “tends to have a lot more funk,” said Morris. “The Freak in Detroit is a little wilder and a little more outrageous.

“The Detroit version is as close to a simulated sex act as I’ve seen anywhere in the country,” he said.

Despite its popularity, however, disco regulars say it has almost played its tune, and is on its way out.

Doing the freak walk

During its stay, it developed not only its own local character, but an etiquette all its own. The Freak is properly danced with a friend instead of a stranger. It is best danced to a song long enough to loose inhibitions.

And women claim they have developed “The Freak Walk” to get away from men who become too carried away with the proximity.

“There are some areas I think shouldn’t be touched,” said Gwendolyn Burks, 28, of Detroit.

“If you are a lady, you find ways of walking away from your partner,” she said. “I would rather walk away than to say something verbally. I’d rather be discreet and move out of reach.”

To dance the Freaky Deaky, dancers bend their knees, spread their legs, move their pelvises back and forth. They bump pelvises and touch each other — anywhere, with various degrees of freedom. It is a combination of several dances, reminding old-timers of the 1960s’ Dirty Dog, but its characterizing movement is pelvic.

At its most expressive, it looks like “sex with your clothes on,” said one observer.

“You stand in front of your partner and do a pelvic movement which looks like it should be done horizontally instead of vertically,” said a dance instructor, who added: “I would never touch the Freak.”

In “cleaner” versions, partners do not touch, and do their pelvic gyrations alone.

Detroit Freak vs. New York Freak

This dance, which one observer calls “a throwback to dancing without partners,” can be done with as many as 40 in a line, in a bumping and grinding step called the train, or it can be done with three — two males and a female in the middle, or two females and a male in the middle — in a movement called the Sandwich.

“When the Freak was really hot back in December and January, people were lying down on the floor,” said Robert Martin, 19, of Detroit, a laid-off automobile worker who is a disco regular.

“It is better to do with someone you know, instead of with a stranger. It is more or less the hand contact that gets out of control,” he said.

Detroit’s Freak emphasizes the undulating torso, but New York Freakers touch each other all over quickly and repeatedly — sometimes in the most personal of places. Los Angeles’ version uses touching, but there, dancers massage each other and their partners, all over.

Ban the Freak?

Though most people say the freak originated in New York, several local disco regulars claim to have invented it. Most agree it stems from several dances popular last year — the Landing, the In and Out and the Spank.

“Me and a friend of mine started it,” said Christopher Hawkins, 19, an unemployed Detroit salesman and disco regular. “We were out one night and decided to put in that little step, and the next thing I knew everybody was doing it.”

Eric Kirkwood claims the same thing.

The best freak dances are those with a heavy disco beat, and these include “Come On and Freak Wth Me,” “Le Freak,” “The Freaky Deaky” and “You Big Freak.” (“Dance with your pants off, you big freak.”) “Get Off” and “Shame” are other popular Freak songs, but with the Rolling Stones’ fast-paced “Sweet Lucy,” “you could kill yourself doing the Freak ,” said Sandy Riley, 19, of Los Angeles.

Despite the fun the Freaky Deaky brought to discos, the dance touched off gunfire at least three times in Detroit in the late 1970s. In each case, a dancer was shot and killed after performing the freak with another man’s wife or girlfriend. One shooting took place at a party on Belle Isle attended by 1,000 people.

Upset by the violence, Councilman Nicholas Hood asked a city lawyer in late 1978 whether the dance could be banned. That led to lively discussion in the local media, including a question in the Free Press daily Sound Off question that asked readers whether the city should outlaw the Freaky Deaky. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said no. “The only ones who want it banned are the ones who don’t know how to do it,” one caller said.

Hood, the pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, was the featured speaker at a conference to discuss the Freaky Deaky at an Inkster church in January 1979. “Freak Out with Nicholas Hood,” declared the event’s flyers.

The shootings did not help Detroit’s international reputation. By early 1979, reporters from some of London’s mass-circulation tabloids were calling around town, asking about the Freak. “What is the origin of the word ‘deaky?’ ” asked one British journalist.

The subsequent story in one paper ran under a headline that screamed, “Dance of Death Sweeps America.”

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