The Dancing Never Died in 1979

Thursday, August 24, 2017

This article was originally published in the 1979 December/January issue of AVENUE. For another look back at the disco days, check out our archive of Anton Perich’s Studio 54 photos, published in our July 2017 issue.

Barbara Walters is doing it, and she is doing it fairly well. So are Diane Von Furstenburg, Patrick Shields, Harriet Levine, and Lola Finkelstein, and a host of other notable New Yorkers who got tired of just sitting around and watching whenever they went to the disco.

What they are doing is dancing, and their teacher is Jo Jo Smith, a forty-year-old ball of energy who has emerged as one of Manhattan’s hottest dance teachers since he served as a dance consultant for the film Saturday Night Fever.

Since discos have become the major social gathering places in New York—even the stuffiest of charity events are now held in such places as Studio 54, Xenon, New York, New York, and Regine’s—it was only natural that the perpetual partygoers would want to learn to boogie like John Travolta. And who better to learn from than the man who helped teach Travolta and company?

“After ten years of sitting around at parties and watching other people dance and let go and have fun, I’m now learning John Travolta’s routine from Saturday Night Fever,” says one of Jo Jo’s more enthusiastic students, Lola Finkelstein.

For fifty dollars per hour, Jo Jo will travel in his rented, chauffeured black Austin Princess to a student’s apartment, where the fledgling disco dancer can learn the routines in the privacy of his or her home. Barbara Walters, who moves “pretty well —she doesn’t think she does, but she does,” Jo Jo says, prefers her lessons private.

Other students, including socialite Susan Pignatelli, fashion model Catherine Tolbert, jeweler David Tanner, businessman Allan Weiner, and Karen Lynn Gorney, leading lady of Saturday Night Fever, come to Jo Jo’s Dance Factory, which occupies the entire fourth floor of a building at Broadway and Fifty-fifth Street. If the lesson is private, it costs thirty-five dollars per hour, or fifty dollars for two people. If it is with a group, it costs seven dollars and fifty cents per class.

A typical disco group lesson goes something like this: Jo Jo, wearing a snug-fitting grey spandex body suit, plays one of the currently popular disco albums. Then he faces the mirror, and his students, all wearing street clothes, line up behind him. For the first thirty minutes, the students perform very basic moves, such as moving their heads back and forth, shrugging their shoulders, and twitching their hips. The foot moves look simple: One foot behind the other. One-two, one—two, one-two. “And snap those fingers,” Jo Jo says. “That’s a very important part of disco dancing.”

Not all of the students move like Jo Jo, of course. A few border on being graceful, but others are quite clumsy, with their feet moving either ahead or slightly behind the beat. Often they lose the beat completely. But no matter how awful a student looks at first, the ever-smiling Jo Jo never loses his patience, or criticizes. “I’m a confidence builder,” he explains.

Then come the Travolta moves. Jo Jo, his feet spread wide apart, shows the students how to bring their right arms from their left hips diagonally across their bodies to high above their right shoulders, in the famous Travolta pointing pose. The students love it. This, to them, is disco.

Then, for the remaining thirty minutes, Jo Jo teaches them a somewhat complicated routine that a couple can do to almost any disco song without getting bored. The routing involves intricate twirling movements, a tricky double-shuffle step and some fancy arm movements incorporating the Travolta point, naturally. Miraculously, by the end of the session, even the students who seemed the most awkward at the beginning look like they could fit right in at Studio 54.

When the lesson ends, all of the students applaud, and one woman runs up to Jo Jo and hugs and kisses him. “I really feel like I got it,” she says breathlessly. “Well, good for you,” Jo Jo replies sincerely. “That’s what we’re here for.”

Later, while Jo Jo munches on an apple in his office, I ask him how he likes being one of the darlings of the disco set. “I don’t mind, it’s nice,” he replies. “For one thing, it’s adding to my reputation, and financially, it’s helping me build my Dance Factory. For those reasons I don’t mind being labeled the darling of Park Avenue, or whatever it’s going to be.”

Physically, Jo Jo has what it takes to fit right in at the disco. His compact, five-foot six-inch, one-hundred-and-thirty-four pound body is nearly as perfect as a body can be, a fact made obvious by the tight dance costumes he wears. His handsome face looks much younger than its forty years, and it is fashionably festooned with a mustache and a small goatee.

And yes, he says, he does sometimes encounter female students who have more on their minds that just learning how to dance. “Some have made passes,” he says evenly. “They see my wife and daughter here at the studio, and I let them know I’m very happy. It’s not that I turn them off, exactly. I just don’t turn them on.”

His current wife, Sue Samuels Smith, is a dance instructor who came to Jo Jo’s Dance Factory as a student, and just sort of stayed. They have a one-year-old baby girl, Elka, who often wanders from studio to studio, watching the dancers in various classes.

Jo Jo, who lives with his family in the West Eighties, was born in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. His mother, Anna Grayson, now his business manager, was a dancer with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for nine years, and his father, Joseph, was a tap dancer and a drummer.

“When Jo Jo was thirteen, Miss Dunham taught him a special act to do as a solo artist,” his mother says proudly. “It started him off to want to perform as an artist.”

But first, after graduating from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, Jo Jo had a brief stint working in the garment industry. He had married right out of high school, and had a wife to support. He hated the “hum-drum life,” and finally decided it was worth the risk to try to become a professional dancer. His wife soon left him.

Eventually, Jo Jo landed a part as one of the Puerto Rican gang members in West Side Story, and then he danced opposite Paula Kelly in Something More and had a featured role in Joyful Noise. He has also danced on numerous television shows and traveled to Paris and Rio de Janeiro with his Jo Jo Smith and Company dance group.

He coached Barbara Streisand for her nightclub scene in The Owl and the Pussycat, Joey Heatherton, Karen Lynn Gorney, Karen Burke of Dancin’, Dick Shawn, Paula Kelly, Julie Budd, Melba Moore, Shelley Winters and Barry Manilow. Most of his professional students are very talented, he says,” except Barry Manilow. He has twenty left feet. He was the worst.”

Jo Jo says that he became involved with Saturday Night Fever through an assistant director he met while coaching Joe Namath for an Arrow Shirt commercial. “I played softball with the assistant director, and he remembered me and called me from the coast.” Jo Jo says. “He asked me if I could teach Karen Lynn Gorney how to dance for Saturday Night Fever.”

Jo Jo said yes, even though he initially found Gorney to be awful and stiff. She was very enthusiastic, though, but just an awful dancer.” After several weeks of private and group lessons, however, Gorney was ready for the film.

Jo Jo’s goal in life “is to reach the highest heights I can in recognition.” For the present, however, he wants to be able to complete the remaining thirty-thousand dollars’ worth of renovations for his Dance Factory. He says he already spent seventy thousand dollars in dividing the huge loft into one large studio and four smaller ones, installing multiple-layer wood floors, and carving out locker rooms and office space. About one hundred students a day come to the Dance Factory to take jazz dancing, ballet, tap, body conditioning, voice, and of course, hustle lessons. No one is allowed to smoke in the Dance Factory because of Jo Jo’s rigid dedication to what he calls “the natural way,” which includes a total vegetarian diet of fruits and vegetables, grains and nuts.

“Six years ago I could hardly walk, let alone dance,” he explains. “Doctors found calcium deposits on my hip joints, and they wanted to replace them with plastic. Then a friend of mine sent me to a nutritionist, who put me on this diet. In two weeks, I was back on my feet.”

All in all, Jo Jo’s philosophy seems to boil down to this: if one has to become the darling of the disco set in order to gain recognition, finish his Dance Factor, and spread the gospel about the natural way, then so be it.

After all, it is not so terrible to drive around town in a black Austin Princess, or be on a first-name basis with Barbara Walters. And Jo Jo fit right in when a student asked him and his wife, Sue, for a weekend in the Hamptons last summer. (Another student asked him to fly to St. Thomas for the weekend, but Jo Jo refused, because his wife was not included.) And then there was the dance exhibition he was asked to give at Le Club, “to get the party going,” and he liked that a lot too. Another wealthy student keeps insisting that Jo Jo and Sue join him and his wife for dinner at one of the top discos. “He wants to surprise his wife by asking my wife to dance,” Jo Jo says with a bemused smile. “His wife doesn’t know he’s been taking lessons.”

And that’s the way it is these days for one New York disco prince. As Jo Jo says, “it’s nice.”


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