Friends rally to help Chicago’s iconic ‘Dancin’ Man’
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter February 23, 2014 2:06PM
Perry Kanlan, 70, known as the "Dancing Man," has hundreds of outfits from the 60s and 70s at his downtown Marina City apartment on Feb. 19. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 23, 2014 8:16PM
For a man who has spent 50 years dancing, Perry Craig Kanlan should not find moving such a daunting task.
Kanlan is known as “Dancin’ Man” to generations of Chicago rhythm and blues fans. In the ’60s, he was a fixture in South Side lounges, dancing on stage at the original Regal Theatre and showing the Jackson 5 a couple of steps at the legendary High Chapparal. More recently he gave up the funk in February 2011 with George Clinton at the Congress Theater.
Kanlan, who turns 71 on Feb. 28, doesn’t dance anymore. He has arthritis in his knees and recently had brain surgery for lesions. But the man who is as known for his colorful outfits as his music may soon have no place for his lifetime of memories — and racks of stage outfits as well as 4,380 record albums — as he is facing eviction from his Marina City apartment.
Chicago has been his dancing partner, and now the turntables will be turned as a benefit for Kanlan takes place at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the House of Blues Foundation Room, featuring Andrea McNeal and the Hip City Band. Organizers hope to raise enough to keep Kanlan in his apartment.
Kanlan’s sister Laurel Phillips lives with her son in the northwest suburbs. She is recovering from a blood clot and is unlikely to attend the benefit. “We’re almost as bad off as he is,” the 66-year-old Phillips says in a phone interview. “We are hanging on by our fingernails.”
Lavon Pettis, who has produced shows like the 2008 Phil Cohran tribute to Sun Ra at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, assembled the benefit. “People on Chicago’s cultural scene know him,” she says in a phone interview. “He’s lost a lot of weight these past few months. He’s been falling a lot.”
“People on Chicago’s cultural scene know him,” she says in a phone interview. “He’s eccentric but he’s an amazing person. He’s lost a lot of weight these past few months. He’s been falling a lot. I’m worried about his whole impending thought of the sheriff coming to the door. It makes him panic.”
“Some of the players call me ‘The ‘D’ Man,’ ” Kanlan says during a conversation in his apartment. Kanlan is wearing a satin navy blue and cream western suit adorned with stylized yokes. “I tell everybody I’m ‘d’ man with ‘d’ plan because I know I can.”
Kanlan is spending his time packing up his clothes, books and records. “The sheriff said something like March 10,” he says. His friend, Chicago author Jake Austen has already stored 25 boxes of archives and more than 100 caps in the basement of his South Side house.
Pettis met Dancin’ Man when she was a project manager for the African Festival of the Arts in Washington Park. She placed the 5-foot-7 Dancin’ Man at the side of the stage for Chaka Khan’s 2010 Labor Day performance. “As soon as Chaka came out she got very excited about seeing him,” Pettis says. “She goes ‘That’s Dancin’ Boy!’ He then helped me bring in Bootsy Collins (to the African Festival). He also set up the relationship between Bootsy’s foundation and myself. Bootsy’s Girls is a foundation about the empowerment of young women.
“People care about Dancin’ Man.”
Perry Craig Kanlan was born in Rogers Park. His father, Seymour, was a traveling salesman for Maharam Fabric in the Merchandise Mart. Kanlan’s mother, Norma, became Hugh Hefner’s pre-Playboy magazine secretary in his storefront Empire News office at Devon and Western. As Kanlan entered his early teens his parents split.
“His mother put him at a school for conditionally autistic children at the University of Chicago,” Pettis says. While there, Phillips said, he was physically and emotionally abused by a school director.
Kanlan ran away and hitchhiked to southern Arizona. As a young boy his parents had sent him to Arizona for a year to relieve his asthma.
“I always wanted to be a cowboy,” he says. “I did bull riding and a little bareback bronc. I was a horse whisperer, but they didn’t have a name for it. Riding a horse and dancing is a lot alike. It’s balance, timing and rhythm.”
In the early to mid-1960s, there was no better soul dance scene in America than in Chicago. People were moving to “The Monkey Time” by Major Lance, “Bossa Nova Bird” by the Dells, Dee Clark’s “Crossfire Time” and many others. These tunes gave birth to the classic “Soul Train” television series. Kanlan danced in an early version of the show too.
Chicago was good as gold to Kanlan.
He says he was married. He has no children. Pettis says, “His family had some accumulated wealth. His great aunt took care of him. Once he got older, he worked odd jobs as a cab driver and entertainer.” During the mid-1980s he was a clerk at Alcala’s western store on Chicago Avenue. “But his family always made sure his housing was taken care of. Then his great aunt died. She promised his mother he would be taken care of the rest of his life.”
The surviving members of Kanlan’s family could no longer pay Kanlan’s rent. “Only cousins are left,” Phillips says. “I almost killed myself trying to help my brother. Thank god for Jake and Levon.” Kanlan’s health issues are covered by Medicare and Medicaid.
Kanlan has rented the apartment for 14 years. “His rent hasn’t been paid for about nine months,” Pettis explains. “The rent is over $1,000 a month. We’re also paying for a lawyer. He ended up going to court. The landlord cannot have him there without paying, which is understandable. She is lenient enough to say if he found another place to move she would give him money toward moving. But people were denying him places to move because of his income. He’s on the (CHA) list for housing, but nothing has come through. I have a three-bedroom apartment that I rent. I’m a single mom but I told him I would let him stay in one of the rooms until we find something.
“All this is weighing on him mentally. He has the lesions. He couldn’t walk a few years ago.
“His neurologist said any kind of homelessness could kill him.”
The first time Kanlan danced in Chicago was in 1965 to Alvin Cash & the Registers at the Place Lounge, 63rd and St. Lawrence. Cash had a nationwide 1965 dance hit with “Twine Time.” “I was the only white person in the club,” Kanlan says. “I fell right in. And you better be as good as you look.”
In 1968, Kanlan and his late partner Shane McCall won the Regal Theater talent show as Night and Day. Kanlan was “day” because he was white, and McCall was “night” because he was black.“We beat out 26 acts,” Kanlan recalls. “They let the audience decide. Marshall (Thompson) of the Chi-Lites was playing drums with white gloves. We had white, satin turtlenecks with cufflinks. White pants, white nylon socks and white loafers. We borrowed the outfits from the (vocal group) Manhattans. I went up on my partner’s shoulders doing the boogaloo while he was doing the ‘James Brown Shuffle.’ We were doing flips and splits. I used to be able to flip off a stage 6 feet below, hit my splits and come up as fast as you could blink your eye!” Kanlan looks at two visitors in his apartment and smiles.
He remains an audience favorite.
His apartment is filled with clothes. But deep in the darkness of a bedroom closet filled with colorful threads there sits a 40-pound brown leather roping saddle. In 1986, Kanlan was driving a Chicago cab and was shot in the arm during a holdup. “He only has one good arm,” his sister says. “He still has the buckshot lead in him. It messed up his career.”
Kanlan sued the cab company and settled out of court. He bought the saddle with his settlement. Kanlan looks at the saddle and says, “That’s a $1,000 saddle but I paid $400 for it. I want to get back with the horses.”
Dancin’ Man is too weak to pick up the saddle.
He slowly turns around and apologetically peers out of a corridor of cowboy shirts and funky jackets — ornaments from one of Chicago’s most colorful lives. He asks, “You’re going to say he rode off in the sunset, aren’t you?”