Toni Basil’s Secret Past

toni2The daughter of an orchestra conductor and an acrobatic comedienne, Toni Basil (born Antonia Basilotta) grew up dancing and leading cheers in Philadelphia. In 1964, at age 21, she landed a job choreographing dances on the hit show “Shindig”. She choreographed several movies and other television shows, and when casting directors began to notice her striking looks, she also won a few small acting parts. By 1966, Toni was a real triple threat; she recorded a single for inclusion on a movie soundtrack. The song, “Breakaway”, failed to chart, but later became a dance floor classic in England’s Northern Soul scene.

After this foray into music, Toni went back to choreography. She worked with The Monkees, appearing as Davy Jones’ dancing partner in their movie, HEAD:

toniThe next year, Toni co-starred in Easy Rider, playing one of the prostitutes picked up by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their way to Mardi Gras. She also appeared with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. As a choreographer, she co-directed Talking Heads videos with David Byrne, worked with David Bowie on his elaborately staged tours, appeared as a dancer on Saturday Night Live, and choreographed films like American Graffiti. Known in the dance world for her truly innovative style, she was a member of The Lockers, a revolutionary street dance group that merged modern and classical styles.

Then, in 1980, Toni directed and starred in a series of music video shorts. One of the videos, “Mickey”, caught fire two years later when MTV began airing it. It was a cover of “Kitty” by Racey, a band from England. Toni changed a few lyrics, and added the cheerleader chant to the song, inspired by her days as a high school cheerleader. The cheer concept shaped the video. One of the major icons of the early video age, “Mickey” made Toni a huge pop star at age 39.

After “Mickey”, Toni had one more hit, “Over My Head”, in 1983. She continued to work as a choreographer, on movies like That Thing You Do!, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Legally Blonde. For all her talent, she continues to be known for “Mickey”, despite her vast contributions to the worlds of dance and film.


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