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‘Dancin’ Man’ Perry Kanlan, who’d jump onstage at Chicago clubs to perform with stars, dead at 78

He’d dance on his hands, do splits and flips with performers including James Brown, the Jackson 5, Martha Reeves, George Clinton and Sister Sledge.

Perry Kanlan, known in the 1960s and 1970s at Chicago nightclubs as “Dancin’ Man,’ with some of his flamboyant clothing at his Marina City apartment in 2014.
Perry Kanlan, known in the 1960s and 1970s at Chicago nightclubs as “Dancin’ Man,’ with some of his flamboyant clothing at his Marina City apartment in 2014.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Perry Kanlan danced so long and hard on Chicago’s nightlife scene that his nickname evolved from “Dancin’ Boy” to “Dancin’ Man.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, he’d be decked out in custom-made clothing that combined “Superfly” flair and Western wear. Often, he was one of the few Caucasians at some of the hottest Black clubs on the South Side.

If his clothes didn’t draw attention, his can’t-stop-won’t-stop patter would. He’d talk about breaking horses out West or his bit part in the 1975 Blaxploitation classic “Dolemite.”

He’d hold forth about nights he danced with performers including the Jackson 5, George Clinton and Sister Sledge.

“One of the greatest dancers there was,” said Marshall Thompson, the last surviving member of the original Chi-Lites. “He was his own star. When he was young, he would steal the show from somebody, too.”

“Every time James Brown saw him,” said his friend Thomas Spraggins, “he brought him onstage. If you can dance with James Brown, you gotta be a bad man.”

Perry Kanlan with James Brown.
Perry Kanlan with James Brown.
Sun-Times file

Mr. Kanlan once told Urban Grind TV: “I was the white version of James Brown.”

He’d wow crowds with his splits and flips. When he danced on his hands, they’d throw money.

Perry Kanlan was known for splits, flips and dancing on his hands.
Perry Kanlan was known for splits, flips and dancing on his hands.
Provided

“Everybody knew ‘Dancin’ Man,’ ” said BernNadette Stanis, who starred as Thelma on the Chicago-set TV series “Good Times” and was an admirer of his fashion sense. “Everything had to match — and his ponytail.”

“He was a great dancer,” said Motown legend Martha Reeves, recalling how Mr. Kanlan and his friend Tony Wilson — who performs as “Young James Brown” — would “dance on my stage together. I would look around, and there they would be. They were happy, and they added to the show.”

Mr. Kanlan died Dec. 24 at the Carlton at the Lake residences on the North Side, according to his sister Laurel Phillips. He was 78 and was being treated for cancer, she said.

Perry Kanlan (center), known around South Side clubs as the “Dancin’ Man,” danced with members of the Jackson 5.
Perry Kanlan (center), known around South Side clubs as the “Dancin’ Man,” danced with members of the Jackson 5.
Sun-Times file

He grew up in Rogers Park. His mother Norma worked as a secretary for Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, and his father Seymour traveled the country as a sales rep for Maharam textiles.

As a boy, he was “obsessed with trains,” his sister said. He’d slip out of school to ride the L. He did it so often that CTA employees started recognizing him and his mother, and, when he’d slip away, they’d spread the word, “Norma’s looking for Perry.”

Around when he was 10, he entered Chicago’s “O-School.” Now known as the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, it’s a therapeutic school for students with emotional challenges or autism.

In his teens, he ran away from the school and hitchhiked around the country.

“He was a genius,” his sister said. “He was a survivor. He made his way across the United States without any help or money.”

He found work on a ranch, where he had a knack for calming horses. He described himself as “a kosher cowboy” in a 2011 story about his life in the Chicago Reader.

“Riding a horse and dancing is a lot alike,” he told the Sun-Times in 2014. “It’s balance, timing and rhythm.”

Returning to Chicago, he began frequenting nightclubs, where his dancing made him a crowd favorite. On the South Side, he hung out at the High Chaparral, Perv’s House and the Guys and Gals lounge. On the North Side, he’d visit the Cheetah, the Park West and the Kinetic Playground.

“We would just walk in on any show,” Wilson said. “James Brown would say, ‘Dancin’ Boy!’ ”

Mr. Kanlan also performed with Jerry “Iceman” Butler and Curtis Mayfield, according to Sam Chatman, the DJ credited with coining the term “steppin’.”

“Everybody just loved him,” Chatman said. “His trademark was he would do flips, and he would stand on his hands.”

“Black culture just accepted Dancin’ Man,” said rapper-singer Barry Hood, who performs as Rektify. “He just accepted people. He was colorblind in his heart.”

“He had something you couldn’t learn in school,” Spraggins said. “He was gifted from a higher power. He never saw Black or white. He could talk about how Tchaikovsky wrote music, to James Brown.”

Mr. Kanlan liked wearing Italian suits. Iridescent fabrics. Big belt buckles and hats. Turquoise jewelry. He owned more than 60 watches and as many pairs of boots.

“A lotta his stuff, he had made, with imported lamb leather from Argentina,” Wilson said.

Always dapper, Perry Kanlan boasted a collection of more than 60 watches at one point.
Always dapper, Perry Kanlan boasted a collection of more than 60 watches at one point.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

His family would go to see him dance.

“My father was so proud,” Laurel Phillips said. “My brother performed at the Regal Theater. My brother danced with the Jacksons. He met the Jacksons before Diana Ross discovered them. My brother knew the Pointer Sisters.”

Perry Kanlan with members of Sister Sledge.
Perry Kanlan with members of Sister Sledge.
Provided

In an era more segregated than today, “He was [at clubs] on 63rd and 64th in Woodlawn,” said Spraggins, “and this was back-back-back in the day.”

“Dancin’ Man was breaking barriers,” said Lavon Pettis, who helped organize a 2014 fundraiser when Mr. Kanlan was running out of money to pay his rent in Marina City, his home for many years.

He made ends meet with dance gigs, some family money and occasional jobs as an airline courier. In the 1980s, he drove a cab, but his sister said he almost lost his arm when he was shot during a robbery attempt. He also sold clothes at Alcala’s Western Wear.

When he wasn’t selling, “He loved to visit the store and buy new boots to match his many outfits,” co-owner Richard Alcala said. “He danced just like James Brown!”

Perry Kanlan owned 4,300 vinyl records and more than 60 pairs of boots. He liked to buy them at Alcala’s Western Wear to match his outfits.
Perry Kanlan owned 4,300 vinyl records and more than 60 pairs of boots. He liked to buy them at Alcala’s Western Wear to match his outfits.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

After Mr. Kanlan had to leave Marina City, he moved to the Zelda Ormes Apartments.

As age stiffened his joints, it was harder for him to get on the good foot. But self-assurance and his riotously flamboyant clothing continued to open stage doors. Pettis was working the hospitality team at the 2010 African Festival for the Arts in Washington Park when he showed up.

When Chaka Khan heard Mr. Kanlan was asking for her, she said, “Dancin’ Boy! Go get him!”

In 2012, he sailed in to the Jacksons’ dressing room at the Star Plaza, where they welcomed him and remembered him from when they were kids, according to author Jake Austen, the talent booker at Hyde Park’s Promontory club, who wrote the profile of Mr. Kanlan in the Reader.

“He could go in anywhere without a ticket,” his sister said. “He just talked his way in. Everybody loved him.”

A graveside funeral service is planned at 1:30 Tuesday at Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park. Mourners are asked to enter at Gate 59. Also, a future memorial is in the works at The Promontory club.