Locking is one of the oldest modern American street dances with a history spanning over 45 years. The dance has become a worldwide phenomenon and is a featured category in many of the major annual street dance competitions, including Juste Debout, KOD and the UK Champs. It has been featured in countless music videos, TV shows, books, magazines and even video games. With a rich history and many key individuals in the dance’s development there is one fact no one can debate. This dance started with ONE man. He is the creator, inventor and originator of Locking and his name is Don “Campbellock” Campbell.
Born January 8, 1951 in St. Louis, Missouri, Don Campbell and his family moved to South Central Los Angeles in 1961. Growing up, Don was convinced he wanted to do something positive in his life. Initially Don was not a dancer but gravitated towards art. He studied atLos Angeles Trade Technical College in the 1960’s and spent most of his days sketching and drawing. Don was a shy and quiet individual and he would spend his free time in the cafeteria drawing sketches of students dancing during breaks. Some of the students he drew were actually well known local dancers who were recognized for dancing on popular Los Angeles television shows like Boss City (KHJ TV) and Shebang (KTLA).
Eventually, one of those students, Sam Williams, introduced Don to some other dancers including Sweet T and Doozer Ray and they all proceeded to show Don some of the popular dance steps at the time. While attempting these dances, Don would lock his hands and tighten up his shoulders with his elbows stuck outward. It may not have been the way the dances were supposed to be done but Sam saw what Don was doing and encouraged him to “do that lock, Campbell!”, eventually coining the name of the dance he did as “The Campbellock”. There was something about the way Don danced that attracted the attention of his peers. He wouldn’t freeze his body completely while dancing but would momentarily lock his joints, stop, and then continue dancing within the rhythm of the music. There was a visual percussion to the way Don moved that could be felt by those watching him. It was a very powerful way to interpret the popular Funk and Soul music at the time, which was commonly danced to in a steady groove.
Don enjoyed going to the local dance clubs to watch people dance. Initially shy and hesitant, Don was asked by some friends to enter into a dance contest with a girl whose partner did not show up. In the contest couples would dance with one another and when the music stopped some couples would be pulled off until a winning duo was determined. Don danced the Campbellock with his partner and although he didn’t win that night he was one of the few remaining on the floor at the end of the contest. It boosted his confidence and he soon became hooked on going to other clubs like Maverick’s Flat, The Citadel and Climax 2 to dance and enter their contests. He enjoyed the competition and with his Campbellock dance, he soon began winning all the local contests. Don developed a reputation of being untouchable on the dancefloor to the point that one club owner actually paid him NOT to enter a contest just so other dancers could win!
In a contest, Don would do whatever was necessary to win which could include: sliding under tables, diving or jumping off a stage and landing in the splits, giving himself five, dropping on his knees, slapping the floor or using chairs and other items as props. He did all this while “locking” his body and joints. His dance started and ended with the Lock and to him nothing was more important. For Don, Campbellocking was more than just a dance, it was a style. The way he wore his striped socks, derby or apple hat, handkerchief and even the way he crossed his suspenders set him apart from everyone else. Eventually others began to dress like him and emulating his dance steps in order to win contests. Although that upset Don at first, his mother wisely convinced him that he should be happy others were wanting to learn his dance because it would keep his dance alive forever.
As soon as Don got to a club he went straight for the dancefloor. In the 1970’s there were no dance classes in South Central LA. According to Don, in an interview by Soultrain.com, “The learning happened whenever you went out to dance in a club and you would watch and pick up on what others were doing.” Don never had to ‘practice’ because for him he was at the club almost every night of the week dancing. He also never relied on the count of the music but listened to the drums and horns of a song and instinctively knew how to move.
Word spread on the streets of LA about the Campbellock dance and in 1971 Don was invited on to Soul Train, a fairly new syndicated show that people across the US would watch on a weekly basis to pick up the hot new trends in fashion, music and dance. This was Don’s breakthrough opportunity to showcase his dance nationwide and within his first week on the show won a dance contest with Damita Jo Freeman, who became his partner the day he joined the show. Don became a regular on Soul Train, Campbellocking as he danced down the Soul Train line, or whenever the camera was on him.Within 5 months of joining Soul Train, Don released a 7” record to promote the Campbellock dance. Many of the young dancers on the show became quite popular and soon a select group of them, including Don, began to tour the US performing as the Soul Train Gang. For Don, stepping on a stage to perform on tour in North Carolina and seeing half the crowd dressed like him made him feel that it was important that dancers should be paid while dancing on Soul Train.
In an attempt to organize a walk out in support of dancers rights, Don was kicked off Soul Train in 1973. He gathered together some of the best lockers in the area with the help of his manager, Toni Basil, to form The Campbellock Dancers and began touring as a professional group. The group shortened their name to The Lockers (for legal reasons pertaining to Don’s aforementioned record) and performed with some of the biggest celebrities of the time including Aretha Franklin, Carol Burnett, Dean Martin, Dick Van Dyke and Frank Sinatra. The Lockers revolutionized street dance, breaking new ground for dance professionals and crossed racial barriers. A more detailed story of The Lockers will be discussed in a future article.
For the moment it is all about Don “Campbellock” Campbell, the man who created such a beautiful, positive dance form. His dance has spread to countries all over the world and continues to inspire new generations of street dancers. Don once had a chance to meet Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, who bowed down in front of Don proclaiming how much of an inspiration he had been on him. A truly humbling experience.
Despite all the accolades Don has received over his lifetime, he still continues to teach and stresses the importance of how Locking is based on an individual’s creativity. He always says “once you learn the dance, make it your own!” Don still keeps true to his roots and his message is clear, “the next time you see that shy kid in the corner, those quiet people. Remember, that’s Don Campbell!”
Thank you Don for everything.