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Don Campbell, Hip-Hop Dance Innovator, Is Dead at 69

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Don Campbell, Hip-Hop Dance Innovator, Is Dead at 69

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Don Campbell invented locking, a style that eventually permeated hip-hop dance, because he had a hard time doing the robot.

He was practicing it with friends in his college cafeteria in 1970 when he forgot the next step. He locked his joints and froze for an instant, dramatically accentuating the dance and captivating his spectators.

That move became the cornerstone of Campbellocking, later shortened to locking, a form of dance that presaged popping, b-boying and other styles often collected under the label hip-hop.

Mr. Campbell went on to form a dance troupe, the Lockers, which performed in support of artists like Sammy Davis Jr. and Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Saturday Night Live.” Moves like those he pioneered have since appeared in dance routines by Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, ’NSync, the Backstreet Boys and many others.

Mr. Campbell died on March 30 at his home in Santa Clarita, Calif. He was 69.

His son Dennis Danehy, a dance teacher, performer and locking expert in his own right, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Campbell did not go straight from the cafeteria to center stage; he spent 1970 and much of 1971 honing his technique in discos and nightclubs in Southern California, clad in colorful attire that helped him stand out in the crowd. Night after night, he developed a flair that wowed spectators, dominated dance contests and in time attracted a group of talented dancers who adopted his style.

Locking, based on several central movements including Mr. Campbell’s signature locking of his joints, is a personal expression with moves that can vary from dancer to dancer. Mr. Campbell’s style involved interacting with the audience through stylized hand slaps, pointing and tricks with his hat; intricate footwork and rapid, sinuous upper body motions; and acrobatics, like knee drops and perilous swan dives, performed seemingly without effort.

One of the dancers who joined Mr. Campbell was Fred Berry, who told The Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1995 that Mr. Campbell took him to every dance contest in Los Angeles, but eventually “they’d just give him money because no one would dance against him.”

“Don taught me how to use the light, to dance in front of the judges, to slap the floor like you’re trying to break the wood, the showmanship,” Mr. Berry said. “Once you did that, you couldn’t help but win.”

In 1971 Mr. Campbell appeared for the first time on “Soul Train,” shortly after the show moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. He danced with Damita Jo Freeman, and they stole the show.

Mr. Campbell became a “Soul Train” regular, more dancers took up locking, and the style became an audience favorite. In 1972 Mr. Campbell recorded a funk single, “Campbell Lock,” as Don (Soul Train) Campbell, to capitalize on his growing recognition. The song achieved some popularity in nightclubs, and Mr. Campbell briefly toured in support of it, but it did not receive widespread radio play.

Dancing became Mr. Campbell’s full-time pursuit, and his parents asked him to leave their home because he did not have a paying job. He was homeless for a time, and often sneaked into a movie theater to sleep.

Mr. Campbell hoped to make a living from locking, but that desire cost him “Soul Train.” Mr. Berry said that lockers were effectively banned from the show after they asked to be paid.

Mr. Campbell did not have a next step in mind, but Toni Basil, a choreographer and dancer he knew from the club scene, suggested that he form a dance troupe.

In 1973 Mr. Campbell, Mr. Berry and Ms. Basil formed the Campbellockers with Adolfo Quinones, Bill Williams, Leo Williamson and Greg Pope. Their first television appearance was that year on “Roberta Flack: The First Time Ever,” an ABC special.

More TV shows and live performances followed. The group shortened its name to the Lockers after Stanton Records, the label that released Mr. Campbell’s single, threatened to take legal action against him for using the longer name.

The Lockers became one of the first street dance groups to gain widespread commercial success. They appeared at the Grammys with Aretha Franklin and opened for Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall; performed at Radio City Music Hall and Disneyland; and were animated in Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon feature “Hey Good Lookin’” (1982).

The original Lockers broke up in 1977 when the other members left to pursue other opportunities. (Mr. Berry played Rerun on the sitcom “What’s Happening!!”; Ms. Basil, who was also a singer, recorded a version of the song “Mickey” that became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1982.)

Mr. Campbell toured with different dancers under the Lockers name until 1984, then worked as an exotic dancer before falling on hard times. He largely receded from professional dance and spent much of his time caring for his children until the 1990s, when dancers and choreographers recognized him as an innovator and he became more involved in the hip-hop dance scene. He appeared in choreographed shows about the history of street dancing directed by Rennie Harris, one of which, “Legends of Hip-Hop,” was on Broadway in 2004. Mr. Danehy, Mr. Campbell’s son, said that for roughly the last 15 years the two of them taught classes in the basics and history of locking in New Zealand, China, Russia, Japan, Mexico and elsewhere, with Mr. Danehy demonstrating locking and Mr. Campbell offering instruction.

Donald Odell Campbell was born in St. Louis on Jan. 8, 1951, to James and Amanda (Reed) Campbell. His father was a mechanic, his mother was a homemaker, and as a young man he was an avid painter and portraitist.

The family moved to California in the early 1960s, and Mr. Campbell went to Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles.

He discovered dance as a student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, first approaching dancers as subjects for sketches and then joining their ranks himself.

“He was so terrible at all the dances he tried to learn that he created his own,” his son said.

In addition to his son Dennis, he is survived by his wife, MaryAnne Danehy; another son, Donny Jr.; a daughter, Delorianne Campbell; three brothers, James Jr., Reggie and Virgil; a sister, Shelia Campbell; and five grandchildren.

Even as Mr. Campbell sought to teach his dance to the world, he emphasized that it should be a form of personal expression rather than the rote copying of specific steps.

He explained his philosophy in a video interview in 2015. “I want you to take my dance,” he said, “and make it yours.”

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