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"Aside from football and basketball rivalries, there was always a two-step rivalry. You can dance with a person and know what high school they went to," says Lawrence Johnson Jr., Central class of '70. "The Central Blue Eagles were more flamboyant. Smooth. More considerate of what was going on -- they made sure they were looking good but their partner was looking good, too. At Manual and Lincoln, there was a lot of fighting. The guys didn't have much time for dancing. We had more fun."
Despite the rivalries -- or maybe because of them -- the two-step was a common denominator among the city's high schools. Economics was another, McFadden says. "You might have been broke, but everybody was broke." And then there were race relations. "This was the time of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy. Kansas City was one of the places where the King riots hit hardest. If I went to the Plaza, I was followed around the whole store. The inner city was shut down -- unconsciously, you were trapped."
So you would walk up to J.C. Penney at 30th Street and Troost. You'd catch the bus to Katz Drug Store, Macy's or Rothschild's downtown, because you might not have had any money, but you had to dress stylish. Kids bought their suits from Harold Penner's and Matlaw's on East 18th Street, their shoes from Flagg Brothers at 10th and Main. They bought their music at Foster's Record Salon on 31st Street, right off the corner of Brooklyn, or Tiger's Record Center on Independence Avenue.
"The black community made our own music, made our own dances -- the Motown sound, the Philly sound, the Atlanta sound. We created funk in the '70s," DJ Cool says. "We depended on one another to entertain one another." Until 1984, he says, you couldn't go into a black club where there wasn't live entertainment. "It was the last heyday for the second phase of the big-band era. The soul bands had seven to fifteen members," he says, citing Sly and the Family Stone, the Ohio Players, Earth Wind & Fire, and Kansas City-based bands such as Bloodstone, Lo-Key and Smoke.
For a decade between 1972 and 1982, McFadden played the funky trumpeter as leader of Lonnie and the Band. They gigged at places like the 50 Yard Line, the Inferno Show Lounge at 41st Street and Troost, or the Fancy Dancer on Quindaro. They couldn't get jobs on the Plaza, where white bands were playing the same music, but black bands would battle all night until noon the next day at A.G.'s, the after-hours club in Bonner Springs where Thrower and Turner danced but never met.
"A.G.'s epitomized the nightlife," McFadden recalls. "It wasn't very big, but it was packed, with the lights down low. You would find all kinds of people there -- I met a lot of pimps, streetwalkers, drug dealers, a lot of people who would be doing illegal things. But this was a place where everybody would go hang out, so everybody was cool."
Talk to any two-stepper, and you'll understand it's about more than dancing. It's about history, politics -- hell, all of American culture -- the way black Kansas Citians experienced it during one moment in time.
"Those days were all about peace, stopping the Vietnam War. Everyone wanted to live good, go to college, make $150,000. All of that was expressed in this dance," recalls Anthony Clifton, one of the guys watching two-steppers at a club on a Saturday night. "This is the dance of the black baby boomers. We were the last generation to grow up and actually have fun. There were no drive-bys. The worst thing we had to fear was drunks."