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Don Cornelius influenced this kid from a small Downstate town

Updated: March 3, 2012 11:42AM

Don Cornelius was a big influence in my life, not that I’d ever thought it through exactly before Wednesday’s report that the “Soul Train” creator had killed himself.

As I’ve mentioned a time or two, I grew up in a small Downstate town where there were no black people. None.

These days that sounds extreme to the point of being backward, I realize, but I’ve learned through the years that it really wasn’t much different than most white suburban kids and even kids from all-white city neighborhoods who grew up during the same period without ever coming into direct contact with someone of another race.

What I know to be true in my case, and what I suspect to be true in theirs, is that “Soul Train” was our first, best window into the world of African-American culture.

There was nothing else like it when it came on television in the early 1970s.

“Soul Train” was not only where we tuned each weekend to watch the performers playing the music we were hearing on the radio but also where we were influenced in how to dress, walk and talk — sometimes to the consternation of our parents. (I’ve tried to destroy the evidence, but I’m afraid there are still photos out there of me in loud bell-bottom pants and white platform shoes.)

Most important, though, “Soul Train” is where we learned to dance.

That’s a pretty big deal, if you stop and think about it.

The obituaries say “Soul Train” went into national syndication in 1971, and although I can’t say for certain when it was first picked up by a local television station where I lived, it must have been pretty soon after that.

That would have made me somewhere between 16 and 18 when I started watching — an age when I was shy, gangly and extremely awkward around girls.

If you think back on those days, because we’ve all been there to some extent, there was nobody to teach you how to dance.

But here was this great show where you could stand in the privacy of your living room — after you chased off the rest of your family — and try to mimic the best moves of the “Soul Train” dancers.

I think about all the thousands of living rooms where some lonely teenage guy or girl was dancing to “Soul Train” and trying to screw up the courage to invite a date to the next school dance. And after that, maybe they could work up their nerve to actually get out there on the dance floor.

Even after getting that far, it took some extra practice — and courage — to jump into a “Soul Train” line where you’d be called upon to dance your way between two lanes of dancers as if running a gantlet.

If you are of the age to hew to the once widely-held (and completely politically incorrect) view that white people can’t dance, I would just point out that we REALLY couldn’t dance before “Soul Train.”

I won’t claim I ever got to be a good dancer. (A girlfriend and I won a dance contest once, but the competition was weak.)

Still, I learned how to have fun on a dance floor without being quite so self-conscious.

I honestly can’t think of anybody who had more to do with that than Don Cornelius.

Somebody is going to say: What about “American Bandstand?”

The moment “Soul Train” hit the air, Bandstand became a weak imitation. Not only was I taking my cues from “Soul Train,” it quickly became obvious the dancers on “Bandstand” were watching “Soul Train” to improve their game as well.

Cornelius certainly was well aware of his status as an African-American cultural icon, having basked in the attention as recently as that big celebration last year in Chicago.

I wonder though, if before he pulled that trigger, he fully appreciated the profound impact he had on so many people’s lives of all races in such a simple way.

My wife will probably scratch her head while she’s reading this, having long been frustrated that she can’t get me anywhere near a dance floor these days.

What can I say? They took “Soul Train” off the air.

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