Willie ‘DJ Casper’ Perry keeps Cha-Cha sliding to fight cancer

The Chicago native and creator of the “Casper Slide,” Willie Perry faced both liver and kidney cancer in 2016. His positivity gave him the strength to battle his illness.

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In August 2016, Lisa Alexander called on an old friend to DJ an event she was planning for the American Contract Appliances Association in Chicago. They grew up in Englewood, skated together, stepped together and did pantomime together. When Willie Perry agreed to DJ her event, she knew the crowd would go crazy.

But when Perry started his set, few people noticed — until he started telling people to “slide to the left” and “slide to the right.” That’s when people realized it was the voice of “The Casper Slide.”

Nearly every person that has ever danced at a party knows the familiar commands of “The Casper Slide.” Also known as the “Cha-Cha Slide,” the song debuted in 1998 with Part I, but when Part II dropped in 2000, it became an international phenomenon. Even today, the familiar “Cha-Cha real smooth” plays in TV and radio commercials and on TV shows.

Perry — better known as DJ Casper, Mr. C and the Slide Man — has been a fixture of positivity in the Chicago music scene for decades with a reputation of one who lifts others up. Now after battling two types of cancers, Perry continues to spread his positivity wherever he goes — and he’s got big plans for the slide’s 20th anniversary next year.

DJ Casper (aka Willie Perry) gets a big hug from his wife Kimberly Bradshaw.

DJ Casper (aka Willie Perry) gets a big hug from his wife Kimberly Bradshaw.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

In January 2016, Perry was diagnosed with kidney and liver cancer. He’d survived lead poisoning as a child and a brain aneurism as an adult, but cancer would take some serious positivity.

“I kept myself moving at all times,” he said. “Even when that happened, I was moving.”

Like many of Dr. Courtney Hollowell patients, Perry zoned out a bit when Hollowell, chair of urology at Cook County Health, delivered the diagnosis, Hollowell remembered, but that’s common. Hollowell notes that most patients experience the whole spectrum of emotions — shock, disbelief, anger and fear — which help them develop the skills to cope.

“It’s healthy for all individuals to go through all the emotions,” Hollowell said.

No study thus far has proved that a positive attitude will impact a person’s ability to fight cancer, but Hollowell says mental and emotional support can help strengthen a person’s resolve in fighting the physical challenges of cancer.

Perry’s support system did everything they could to help. Mack Miller, a friend and business partner of Perry’s for over 30 years, attended cancer fundraisers with Perry as he completed chemotherapy. He sang and inspired the crowd, sharing what he had gone through, encouraging others to keep going.

“He’s always been about helping someone,” Miller said.

The RIAA gold record awarded to Willie Perry for “The Cha Cha Slide” is displayed in his home.

The RIAA gold record awarded to Willie Perry for “The Cha Cha Slide” is displayed in his home.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Sadie Star, a radio personality at Windy City Underground, met Perry in 2009 and thinks of him as a mentor. She was shocked when she heard his diagnosis but moved by his attitude.

“He’s not letting anything stop him, and that inspired me,” she said.

Hollowell says a holistic approach to treating cancer focuses not only the disease but also the person’s mental and emotional health. At Cook County Health, he can direct patients to psychologists and support groups as well as social services. Removing barriers such as isolation and lack of transportation can give people with cancer the resolve to keep going.

Perry’s body did change as he went through chemotherapy. His skin lightened, and he couldn’t lift heavy objects, which kept him off the bowling lanes for some time. He nearly lost his eyesight when his retinas detached, but he says his positive attitude and faith in God kept him strong.

“I’m here. If God says he got something else for me to do, he’s going to let me continue to see what I’m doing,” Perry says.

In 2018, Perry’s cancer went into remission, but he didn’t forget where he’d been. He visits hospitals in Chicago to meet with cancer patients and encourage them to keep fighting, and he’s planning a viral moment for “The Cha-Cha Slide’s” 20th anniversary next year.

On May 16, 2020, “Casper Slide” fans will hopefully slide to the right and criss-cross together around the globe while donating a dime apiece to cancer research. Perry hasn’t chosen the time and charity yet, but he’s hoping to break a Guinness World Record.

“I want everybody to really get behind this dime drive that we’re doing and really think about it,” he said.

Perry’s friends have gone all in to help him. Darnell Johnson, one of his business partners for seven years and the owner of Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles, has been helping Perry market the event. Miller and Star plan to help spread the word.

For Alexander, seeing Perry thrive and succeed has made her proud. She could see the physical effect of cancer on his body when she saw him in August 2016, but his “heart of gold,” as she says, never wavered as it hadn’t for the 40 years she’s known him.

When people finally recognized Perry at that 2016 event, they jumped up onto the floor, snapped photos and asked for autographs.

“He still kept the party going because the party was going on inside of him,” Alexander remembered. “It never stops.”

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