Revolutionary Lessons in De-Feet: A Conversation with Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones

For most people, the name Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones is synonymous with the film Breakin’ and its lead character Ozone. But for street dance enthusiasts the world over, Shabba-Doo, 53, is the link between street dance as art and street dance as big business, between the rise of soul dancing and the explosion of b-boying/girling across the world. First as a member of the pioneering dance troupe, the Lockers in the early to late ‘70s. Then as a solo artists, taking his brand of locking to the Broadway stage to major network television to film. In the late 70’s, as a kid growing up in Newark, NJ, I was used to hearing the name Shabba-Doo tagged to any light-skinned cat who could rock a dance floor with unconventional moves. I recently caught up with him to have a conversation about his journey.

Anarchist Graffiti: When and how did you get into locking and street-style dancing, in general?
Shabba-Doo: I started, professionally, circa 1971. It was a sort of happenstance meeting between me and Campbell Lock Jr. (No relation to Don Campbell, who pioneered lock dancing) at what was called the BSU or the Black Student Union at Fullerton College in Fullerton California. I’d just moved out from Chicago. Me, my two sisters and my mom came to stay with my cousin, who was a staff sergeant. And one night, my sister, Fawn, saw there was a dance contest at the BSU and suggested we get into it. So, to be blunt about it, we stole my mother’s car and drove to the dance contest. We took second place and Campbell Lock Jr. took first. He was an original member of the Lockers, and he told us how good of dancers we were. And he brought us on the show Soul Train. Me and my sister became one of the original Soul Train gang. That was the beginning.

Actually, when the Lockers were formed by Toni Basil, as a professional dance troupe, my sister was an early member. Before Toni, the Lockers weren’t formally a dance group by name. It was just by association until Toni—being a choreographer for the Roberta Flack Television Special, produced by Dick Clark—hired my sister, along with eight to ten other (lock) dancers, which included Campbell Lock Jr. and Don Campbell. Afterwards, it was such a smash that Toni realized that she should form a group. That became the Lockers.

What year was this?
It was around 1972. The Campbell Lockers were formed in ’72 as a professional dance troupe. That was Toni’s idea. That wasn’t really Don Campbell’s idea. So—and it must be told—there would be no Lockers, as we know it, and there wouldn’t be a Shabba-Doo, if there wasn’t a Toni Basil.

When did you join the Lockers, and how did you get into the group?
I joined in ’72. When Toni formed the group, I was made a member.

How did you get the name, Shabba-Doo?
I originally had the name Sir Lance-a-Lock, which was giving to me by Campbell Lock Jr. Eventually I would change it because of an inspiration I got from the R&B band Bloodstone. I grew up in a time when bands were playing clubs. There was no such thing as DJs. The only time they would play records was in between the band’s set so they could rest. But you danced to a live band. Well, during Bloodstone’s set, the band would say, “Shabba dabba doo bop! Shabba dabba doo!” So, I thought my name should be Shabba Dabba Doo Bop. There was another gentleman by the name of Scooby-Doo. And Campbell Lock Jr. said to me, “You should call your self Shabba-Doo.” He thought the other name was bit too long, and I agreed.

Most people either don't remember or don't know how huge you and the Lockers became in the mid to late 1970's. How fast was that journey upward, and how did the popularity/success grow?
Well, the popularity was instantaneous. We were literally stars over night. I’ve often been asked in conversations, if the Lockers were starting off today, and they were at the top there popularity, how big were they? What would you compare their success to? And I would say that the group was on the level of any popular boy band (laughs). You probably could say, pound for pound, we were on the level of a New Edition. And, keep in mind, we were doing this without record sales. It was purely on our dancing ability. No hit movies. No television series. Just on dancing ability alone. It was pretty remarkable that we could demand the kind of salaries we were getting.

Also, the kind of marquee value we had with our performances. Opening for Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby, John Davidson, all at the MGM’s main show room, on title marquee out front. In Las Vegas. You would drive down the main strip and see, on the main marquee—not in the lounge, not in the hallway (laughs), not dancing out front or in the court by the restaurant—that in the main show room you were going to see Dean Martin and the Lockers.

Our first gig, formally as the Lockers or the Campbell Lock Dancers—as we were also called— was The Carol Burnett Show. It just snowballed after that. We blew up like…like…like Jiffy Pop Popcorn (laughs).

When did you leave the Lockers and why?
People started leaving the group to pursue their individual goals. First it happened with Rerun (from the TV show What’s Happening!!) or Fred Berry, who we used to call “Mr. Penguin.” After he left the group, Toni left shortly thereafter to pursue getting a recording contract, which was a dream of hers. She eventually had the hit “Mickey.” I started going back and forth between working with the Lockers and working with Toni as her choreography assistant and starring in her shows. By the time she’d had left the Lockers, I had grown up in the ranks and was now the leader of the group. When I joined the group I was 16, the little guy amongst men. I was the little Michael Jackson of the group. And they were the older guys.

But while working with Toni, I’d learned some valuable skills. And it was Campbell Lock Jr.’s idea. He’d approached Don Campbell and the rest of the guys during rehearsals at my house and said, Shabba-Doo should manage and lead the group. His argument was that I’d been doing all the management work since Toni left. Anyway, this didn’t sit well with Don Campbell. Don and I were polar opposite members of the group, the epitome of old school vs. new school. Don led the group with an iron fist. He wasn’t a nice person, per se. Very intimidating. Very scary guy, especially from a 16-year-old’s perspective. Well, he said he should be leader, and the rest of the group said no, Shabba should. Then one thing lead to another, and he was like, “F---- you and f---- this, and Shabba, you should go form your own f----in group. This is my group.” He said, “You should call them the Shabba-Doos.”

And a light bulb went off. I said, “I think your right.” By then I was like 22 or on the verge being 22. At that time we were rehearsing for The Dick Van Dyke Show. When we did the show, that was our closing moment on a fantastic, almost magical time in my life, and in all of our lives. That was in 1977.

After you left The Lockers, how was your transition into a solo career? What did you do afterwards?
My son, Vashawn, was just born. It was a very trying time for me. Again, I love the Lockers, and I loved the camaraderie of the guys. What we were able to achieve, as a group, was pretty intoxicating. Then, suddenly, to be without them, I found it to be very sobering and not a very pleasant experience as a soloist, initially. I quickly found out that I was just a guy who used to be in an incredible group, as most soloist find out when they leave groups. So I had to reinvent Shabba-Doo. I often thank Don, though a bit facetiously, for encouraging me to form my own group and be my own man.

After I left the group, I became a professional dance contestant. I would go all over the United States or wherever, and dance against who ever for money. So I won a bunch of really high profile championships in Los Angeles and Orange County. By then I had encountered what I considered the sister act to the break dance movement. This was happening with the whole locker, Soul Train thing. And it was in the gay community. I came across it when I was in a dance contest. I had to go up against this kid name Andrew, who was doing a really flamboyant dance called Garbo.

He came in first. I took second. It was the first time I’d ever been beaten in my own club (laughs). And I was like, what is this dance? This guy beat me in full drag and make-up and platform shoes, and he was fearless enough to be in this hardcore, pimp, gang member kind of joint. And you know in the ‘70s folks weren’t really too friendly to gay people. He was brave to come in there. And to flaunt his sexuality…And for these hardcore people to recognize that he could dance. It was testimony to this kid’s ability. Anyway, he told me about the dance. Then he and his friends taught me how to do the dance called Garboing, which eventually became known, the world over, as wacking. Not voguing. Wacking.

I then took this Garbo dance and infused it with locking. And where, in the gay dance community, it was about imitating a famous female—Greta Garbo—or whatever the case may be. My idea, since I grew up watching silent films or older films, was to be like Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn or Zorro. So my style of wacking took a more swashbuckler approach. It’s what you would call debonair or like a player attitude. And that became the Shabba-Doo style. And that’s the style I popularized in films like Breakin’ or in music videos like Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.”

So now you’d re-established yourself on the dance scene. When did work in the media begin to pick up again?
Once I gained a lot of popularity on the grassroots level, then I received a phone call one night from Kenny Ortega. He was choreographing a show for Bette Midler, and he called me up for the show. Midler was actually on the phone with him. He asked how much I charged, and I quoted him some astronomical price.

I didn’t know who Bette Midler was, and I think she’d just finished filming The Rose He said let me call you back. He called back and said, “She (Midler) wants to know why are you that electrifying that you can ask for that kind of money.” And I said: “You tell that broad (laughs) this and this and that.” So she’s on the phone and she says, “motherfucker, come down then.” I went down to meet her, and I don’t know what she looks like. I’m waiting around and waiting around. Finally, I get impatient. I’m dressed in a full zoot suit. I say I’m about to go. Then Kenny tells me she’s here, and points. And here’s this little white lady sitting there with these big Gazelle-like glasses. I’m not impressed. She slams her book down, stops everybody from doing what they’re doing, and says let’s all see what Shabba-Doo is doing. I dance for her, and she’s like, “that was fantastic. When can we start work?” I say whenever. She asked could I start that day, and I said yes. I rolled up my sleeves and started that day. That show, Bette Midler’s Divine Madness, was my first job as a solo dancer after the Lockers.

Did that lead to other work?
During one of the performances, Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC at the time, was in the audience and cast me in their his program called The Big Show, which was skits and performances. Aside from starring on the show, I was in charge of putting together the huge production numbers every week, choreographing them, envisioning them, and starring in them.

The way my name began to get out into the public was from a skit I did when Flip Wilson was a guest. I did a dance/song number with his character Geraldine where she rapped a song called “Do the Shabba-Doo.” Gerladine would ask, “Can I call you Shabba?” And I said, “Doo!”

What did you think when you began to see street-dance, in the form of b-boying and electric boogeying, blowing up in the form of hip-hop in the mid-80s?
Actually, we knew about it a little bit earlier. During my time with the Lockers, we were in New York opening for Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. One night we went out to a club, and we encountered, I felt, the east coast version of the Lockers. But they had their own style. The group was called the Brooklyn Rockers. This was 1974, before the Rock Steady Crew. This crew was doing a style of dance called "applejacking.” It was less ground moves and more footwork and uprocking—what they used to call boyoinging. They would bounce down and touch the ground, do a couple of moves then bounce back up. But they were wearing applejack caps, baggy pants with vests and t-shirts. The whole baggy suit thing.

So here we were with the knickers and the striped socks with a west coast look. And we went head-up against the Brooklyn Rockers. It was a non-threatening, non-malicious kind of one-upsmanship sort of competition that happened in the moment.

Who won?
In my opinion, it was a draw. I didn’t feel like the Lockers beat them or they beat us. I felt we both put it down.

So you weren’t surprised when you saw b-boying blowing up in the 1980’s?
No, I was surprised when I saw b-boying. I wasn’t able to connect the two until later. I mean, again, we encountered these east coast counterparts putting it down. And we didn’t think anything of it. Then some years go by, and now we’re in the ‘80s. And I see this super version of what we saw in ’74. I couldn’t connect the two. It just looked like a whole new dance in the way they were doing it. They were dancing on their heads. I had never seen that before (laughs), spinning on their heads or on their back like a top. That was pretty unique. I couldn’t liken that to anything.

As you know, street dance is all about the battle, and you're recognized as a pioneer. Did you have to battle any young-guns back then?
Before b-boying came about, I came up in a different mindset in the 1970’s. It was a different in Los Angeles during that time than what was to come out of New York later. The mine set in LA, back then, was more about love, peace, and Soul Train. We certainly engaged in friendly competition. But the New York dancers brought a bit more aggressiveness, in terms of anger. That wasn’t prevalent on the Los Angeles side. We weren’t angry like that. We’d actually dance and hug each other. New Yorkers dance and act like they’re hitting each other in the mouth. When LA dancers encountered the first New York invasion, if you will, it was like a bunch of thugs showed up. We were acting like a bunch of Hari Krishnas (laughs), and they were acting like a bunch of gangsters when it came to dancing.

How did you become a part of the movie Breakin’? Did you have any say in pickin' the dancers? Did you have any say in the story?
Well, I’d done the Lionel Richie stuff and the tours and…I actually wasn’t supposed to be in Breakin’. It was, again, a series of happenstances. One was I that I was pegged to do this other movie for New World Pictures called Body Rock. But I was taken off that picture because they wanted a guy the girls would like, a heartthrob—that’s what they told me. So they hired Lorenzo Lamas for the role.

Then my agent told me they needed a choreographer for this new movie at Cannon Films called Breakin’. So I went over there to meet with them about choreographing the movie. And while I was there, I was dressed with a bone earring in my ear—kind of like I was in the movie. And Menahem Golan, one of the producers, looks at me and says, “Uh, can you act?” And I replied, “I’m from Chicago.” Don’t know why I said that, but I did. And he says, “OK, Shabba-Doo, from Chicago. Can you go over to the casting persons office.” So I went over there, and I had the hat on and the whole thing. Got there, smoked a cigarette, and stood there until someone said, “You can start now.” And all I had to say was one line. Some one asked, “Who’s next?” And I said, “Ozone. Street Dancer!” Then it got quiet in the room. Well, after I left, I got about two or three blocks in my car when I got a phone call. (Laughs) It was on one of those big old car phones that look like suit cases. And they told me they wanted me for the part of Ozone.

At that time, I was about 30 years old, and I was gonna play an 18-year-old in the movie (laughs). I guess I looked young for my age.

But for people who knew of Shabba-Doo before the media explosion of b-boying or hip-hop, you were the reason a lot of us, on the east coast, saw the film. As an OG, so to speak, you lent the film credibility.
Yeah, and the producers knew that after the fact. They had to eventually realize that. Recently, I was meeting with the writers—because they’re talking to me about doing a Breakin’ 3—and the writer for the film said to me: “You know how that whole thing came down? Although we thought you had a presence and real leadership qualities for the film, you know we had to ask Ice-T what he thought. We’d actually thought about Ice-T being Ozone.” Then the writer said that Ice-T told them that the role should go to Shabba-Doo. They asked why, and Ice said because he IS that role. And that’s how they gave me the part.

Did you have any say in picking the dancers for the film?
Yeah, of course. After that, I got to pick almost all of them. Ana Sanchez. Pop N’ Taco. Poppin’ Pete. All of these guys were a part of my dance crew at that time.

After Breakin’ you parleyed your dancing career into a pretty hefty career as a choreographer. What were some of the huge tours and videos and shows you worked on or choreographed?
I started touring with everybody. Whodini. The Fat Boys. Lionel Richie. Madonna. I danced for Madonna and choreographed for her world tour and her videos. I also did fashion videos for designers—cutting edge stuff—like Norma Kamali.

What do you think of the 21st Century's version of street-style dancing (locking, b-boying, Electric boogeying, etc.)?
Hmm. Let me see. Well, I’ll first ask you this question: Are you aware that fruits and vegetables, today, lack the nutritional value they had 60 years ago?

Nope, was not aware of that.
It’s due to how messed up the oxygen in the air is, and that air is not oxygenating the soil properly. So while you can go out and eat lots of fruits and vegetables, you’re still going to lack those nutrients. So you’re going to need supplements. And what we’re also doing is “super growing” or trying to feed lots of people in a short amount of time. And not I’m saying this to give a science lesson, but to make a point.

We do have some dancers, today, that are doing some pretty spectacular things. You look and think, wow, look at that guy fly. Or, wow, that guy can do 50 head spins as opposed to the little Puerto Rican guy who could only do three back in the day. The big difference is the guy doing 50 head spins lacks the nutritional value. And that nutritional value can only come with time. We’re not allowing the soil time enough to repair itself, organically. If you have people who are viewing dance steps on YouTube so readily and quickly. What you have is people just copying from one another. Just copying, copying, copying. And we never get a sense of your own neighborhood.

That’s what I talked about earlier. Back then, you had east coast going on and you had the west coast going on. We didn’t know what you guys were doing.You’d seen some of the stuff we were doing because we were on TV, we had Soul Train. But we had time to let it settle and sink in. That’s no longer the case now. Now you got YouTube, which is a big problem. True art needs time to reflect. It needs time for these feelings and thoughts to inculcate themselves in our minds and our bodies. With technology, there’s no way for art to grow properly. Arts needs to be allowed to mature and enrich itself. Life can only be reflected in art if it has time to grow.

So that’s what you have out there: a lot of junk, a lot of cotton candy. And YouTube is the McDonald’s of art and culture. Anybody with a camera can put anything they want on there, and it doesn’t have to be tested.

It’s like break dancing now. You don’t have break dancing. You have break flying. What made it beautiful back then was that they were bringing their experiences and those frustrations from the boroughs to the dance. Not the high flying stuff. It was organic, rich, my-momma’s-whooping-my-ass- I’mma-go-out-in-the-street-and-let-out-this-frustration kind of dancing. All that other stuff, based on tricks and flips, is Olympic dancing.

What stuff are you working on now?
Now I have my House of Shway. Basically, Shway is short for Shabba-Doo’s way. In it is my urban workshop and performance workshop program that I market all over the world.