by Lynn Peril
Let me set the scene for you. It's 1967. There is no internet or social networking sites, and what passes for a computer fills an entire room. Richard Nixon is president, and according to no less an authority than Newsweek magazine, "the going thing in American nightspots" was the go-go girl. From New York to "to the teenybopper joints on the Sunset Strip" the scene was much the same, reported the magazine, "a handful of girls in false eyelashes and fishnet stockings lost in a world of … music, faces blank, bodies bopping in perpetual motion."
The go-go phenomenon had both French and American roots. In postwar Paris, hipsters truncated the American jazz musician's cry of "go, man, go" into a modifier meaning "more than enough" or "to spare." But go-go's shake-it-up-baby roots were in New York's Peppermint Lounge, where waitresses moved to abandon by the dance phenomenon of the early 1960s jumped on a wrought iron railing and did the Twist. It all came together in 1964, when four businessmen opened a nightclub named after Paris's Whisky-a-Go-Go on Los Angeles's Sunset Strip. In addition to its dance floor and stereo sound system, the Whisky featured lightly clad young women who danced in a glassed-in booth over the crowd below. These were the world's first official go-go dancers.
A year after the Whisky's debut in Los Angeles, the television show Hullabaloo introduced the rest of the country to the go-go girl (and boy) when it brought its mixed gender, multicultural troupe of dancers into American households every week. Rival show Shindig also had a troupe of dancers, but what set Hullabaloo apart was its special "Hullabaloo a Go-Go" segment. At the end of the program, musical guests performed in a nightclub-like set, with go-go girls clad in fringed dresses dancing in elevated cages on either side.
Hullabaloo was probably closest many teenage viewers ever got to the Sunset Strip, but go go was everywhere as manufacturers and marketers jumped on the bandwagon. Local nightclubs quickly added the magic syllables to their names; there was even a song (by Buzz & Bucky) about the Tiger a Go Go at the San Francisco Airport Hilton Hotel. Short vinyl go-go boots became a fashion fad in their own right, available in a variety of colors to fit teenagers and little girls at stores like Sears and Montgomery Wards. Gary Lewis & the Playboys sang about "Little Miss Go-Go" (1965), while the Miracles were "Going to a Go-Go" (1965), and Joanne Neel explored the trauma that resulted when "Daddy Was a Preacher; Mama Was A Go-Go Girl" (1969; it's just one example of an entire sub-genre of country-a-go-go). A film, "Winter a Go-Go"(1965) transported the beach party premise to a ski lodge, while Herschell Gordon Lewis's "Monster a Go Go" (1965) wasn't really about go-going at all. On the small screen, Batman did the Batusi, while Rob and Laura Petrie did the twist in their perfect middleclass living room on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
By 1967, Newsweek estimated there were 8,000 go-go girls in the United States. Ebony magazine told readers that "any girl who can dance to the big beat sound of rock 'n' roll can become an a-go-go dancer. She need only be willing to work long, hard hours, and wear a variety of costumes from fancy slacks to frilly skirts or form-fitting tights and calf-high a-go-go boots." According to one such girl, go-go dancing was "good, clean fun. It provides an outlet for the emotions and keeps you in shape." For others, the decent money made by dancers was an inspiration.
But life in the go-go cage wasn't all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Newsweek reported that many of the girls were attention seekers "from loveless homes." Go-go girls were also vulnerable to strained necks, dislocated ribs and eyestrain "from squinting into the spotlights." "The life of a go-go dancer is very lonely," noted a girl who worked at the Whisky, "you don't know whether the boy you met likes you because of the way you dance or because he wants to go to bed with you. It bars you from finding a husband, almost."
Many young women hoped go-go dancing would be the starting point for a career in entertainment. While fame remained a pipe dream for most, go-go girls who went on to bigger things include actresses Teri Garr and Goldie Hawn, choreographer Toni Basil, topless queen Carol Doda, and convicted murderer and Charles Manson disciple, Susan Atkins.
Lynn Peril is the author of Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons(W.W. Norton & Co.; October 2002).