Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Ultimate dance party

Unrestrained dancing. Ridiculous costumes. Joke-telling rat puppets. Have I got a show for you.

Chic-A-Go-Go, a quirky public access dance program, encourages “kids of all ages,” according to its Web site (, to forget their differences and connect with those around them through dance.

“It’s a rush of insanity,” says Weinberg sophomore Lindsay Shapray, explaining the thrill of dancing for the camera. All are welcome to shake their stuff on the program, which will be taping its next show this Saturday, Jan. 22, from 3 to 6 p.m. at Chicago Access Network Studios at 322 S. Green St.

Chic-A-Go-Go straddles the line between the ultra-hip and the irreparably dorky, which gives the show its charming appeal. Its intentional calling to all ages, all races, the unique and the diverse, helps the show to create a fun-loving community held together by the simple principle that no one is too cool to let go of their inhibitions and just dance for the love of dancing. “It’s everything really fun about the shows ‘Soul Train’ and ‘American Bandstand,’ but without any boundaries — without any appeal to one group,” says producer Jake Austen. “There’s no era it fits into.”

Since it began taping in 1996, Chic-A-Go-Go has been the safe house for all things wacky and kooky. Austen was inspired to start the dance show while on a journalistic photo hunt. “I was working at a magazine and my editor sent me to the couple’s house who ran the show ‘Kiddie-A-Go-Go’ in the 1960s of little kids dancing,” Austen says. “I thought it was pretty remarkable.” The show has since been featured in local publications such as the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Tribune, as well as in national and international reports on MTV. And now with almost 400 episodes under its belt, but still being one of Chicago’s best kept secrets … what attracts people to go?

One obvious reason is the hosts. Ratso, a smart-talking, joke-telling rat puppet and Miss Mia, a 20-something tattooed scenester with a heart of gold — who looks more like a Belmont thrift store employee than a children’s TV show host — hold the show together, introducing songs and dance segments while exchanging corny yet edgy banter. They’re the ones who draw in the crowd — from the children who want to joke around with Ratso to the art school boys who want to shake it with Miss Mia — and the ones who keep the dancers enthusiastic about their three-hour dance-a-thon.

While the crowd at Chic-A-Go-Go can consist of the most unusual mix of Wicker Park hipsters, little kids and parents of all races, scout troops, 30- and 40-year-olds, cliques from high schools and colleges and groups of friends who have been loyal to the program for years, the average passerby is also welcome to come join the ultimate dance party, says Weinberg sophomore Christian Appel. “Anyone random can walk in and be on the show.”

But those who wander into the low budget cable-access world of Chic-A-Go-Go in jeans and a t-shirt beware — costumes are both welcomed and worn. “It’s festive, ya know, the little kids dig the idea of dressing up because they only get to do it once a year (at Halloween),” Austen says.

It’s not only the little boys and girls who get decked out as pirates and princesses, Appel says. The older kids play dress up as well. “Before the last taping my friends went to a thrift store and we bought children’s Halloween Pokemon tops and orange and green pleather pants that say ‘serious’ on the butt to wear on the show,” Appel says. “It’s really all about letting go and being as wacky as you want to be, so if you have reservations you might not enjoy it as much.”

“Some people don’t dress up,” says Shapray of her experience dancing at last year’s Chic-A-Go-Go Halloween show taping. “But others have really elaborate costumes, like one guy was a piece of pizza, and others just buy crazy colored things and wear different odd combinations.”

This is the type of show where even Napoleon Dynamite — moon boots, ‘fro and all — can bust out his sweet dance moves and still blend in with the crowd. The foundation for the show’s popularity is its accepting attitude of all music lovers and dance fiends, Austen says. “It’s gotten a lot of response and enthusiasm because it’s not linked to trends — it’s just people dancing to records, having a good time.”

Dancers are left to groove with whoever they want in whatever formation they feel expresses themselves best. There are a few contrived segments that include the “El Train Line,” a formation much like the dance line at the prom in “Grease,” where a couple struts down the middle of two lines of dancers cheering them on. There’s also “Fantasy Dance,” a favorite of both Shapray and Appel, where a group of four dancers is placed in front of a green screen and instructed to dance without knowledge of the background, which usually turns out to be scenes from outer space or under the sea.

Chic-A-Go-Go’s cult following is largely dependent upon the show’s eclectic music. Not only does the program play everything from the latest rap, hip-hop and R&B to rock, punk and soul, but the show also hosts a variety of musical guests. More than 300 local and national touring bands — including Bobby Conn, Le Tigre, Neko Case, Fugazi and Cheap Trick — have requested to perform on the show.

But in the quirky world of Chic-A-Go-Go, performing translates into lip synching. “We provide this weird opportunity to let go,” Austen says. “Bands get to play live all the time, and even though most look at lip synching as an impurity, it’s such a novelty that bands get excited about it and get incredibly creative.”

This additional creativity allows the bands an extra push that leads to a rise in fame. “There’s a straight connection from being on this stupid show to getting label contracts,” Austen says. The biggest Chic-A-Go-Go success story comes from the local Chicago band OK Go, whose members choreographed their own boy band dance to one of their tracks for their appearance in 2000. “They teamed up with NPR for ‘This American Life’ tour, appeared on Chic-A-Go-Go and were then almost immediately signed to Capitol Records,” Austen says of the band, known for its radio hit, “Get Over It.”

Along with the hosts and music, the most convincing argument to dance on the show is the one Appel gives after appearing on the program twice: “It’s like, ‘Why do you keep dancing naked in your room?’ It’s the same thing, just with a bunch of different people.”

Ok. Now I’m pretty much sold.

But in the end, if we take a deeper, Mr. Rogers-like approach to the show’s continuous following, Chic-A-Go-Go is really about the unlimited fun you are able to share with others. Its combination of edginess and unpredictability with innocence and sincerity makes it a program for anyone and everyone who shares a passion for music and dance. “The appeal is timeless,” Austen says. “It’s about being joyful, not just for one group, but for all demographics.”

Which includes of course, kids, teens, young adults, aging hipsters, grandparents and — most importantly — rats.

Chic-A-Go-Go airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. on Chicago Access Network cable channel 19.4

Medill freshman Kate Puhala is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Ultimate dance party