Living An American Dream

Bunny Gibson


For me, as a teenage dancer, NO MATTER WHAT meant that, because I kept on dancing, I was an outcast in my neighborhood.  It meant no friends at school and eating lunch by myself.  It meant leaving St. Hubert Catholic High School in Philadelphia and changing to Northeast High in my senior year because of a death threat.  The threat was waiting for me on my school desk. It was my final warning.  But nothing could keep me from dancing.  Dancing made me feel free inside.

The years were 1959 to 1962, and I was one of the original dancers on American Bandstand.  I was part of a group of kids called The Regulars and we dared to dance on television to rock  'n' roll  which was referred to, back then, as  the devil's music. Parents hated rock  'n' roll.  They thought it would turn us into juvenile delinquents.  Churches condemned it as evil and said it would give us impure thoughts. 

What I felt as a kid was that it made me happy to dance.  It made me feel special inside.  It made me feel the joy of life. It made me feel the joy that I existed which was something I didn't feel at home with my parents. 

My first dance partners were the living room banister and my refrigerator door that I could swing in and out just like a real partner who jitterbugged.   After school, I'd put on American Bandstand and dance along with my favorite Regulars, Kenny & Arlene.  When the show was over, I'd put on a stack of ten 45rpm records on my record player.  After my parents came home from work, I'd go up to my bedroom and create my own world with my music.  I'd dance with all my heroes.  Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Bobby Darin, Danny & the Juniors, The Dovells, Brenda Lee, Annette Funicello, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon and James Darren were part of my own personal neighborhood.

I didn't come into this world dancing.   In 1946, my Mom, Betty Klein, gave birth to me at the Margaret Hague Institute for Unwed Mothers at a time when some women were put into mental institutions for having a child out of wedlock.  My Mom had to fight hard to keep the Judge from giving her only child up for adoption. 

When I was three years old, my Mother thought she found a solution to make us legitimate and married Joe who adopted me.  We all lived to regret that decision.  In Joe's eyes, I would always be another man's child.  I felt his hate and scorn everyday of my life and when my Mother wasn't around, I felt his physical abuse.   Family life at 511 Chestnut Street in Darby, Pennsylvania was the Police coming to our house to stop my parent's weekly fights.

At ten years old, I have two great memories.  The first was when I discovered Elvis, rock n roll and dancing.   I was walking past this little soda shop and I saw all these teenagers inside having fun.  So, I went in, stood by the counter, and tried to pretend that I was older and mature so it would look like I belonged there.  All the kids were talking and laughing and having a good time when all of a sudden this music came on from a jukebox.  Everybody immediately stopped what they were doing and starting dancing and jumping around.  I'll never forget the electric energy in that place.  It was something that I had never felt before.  It was fantastic.  After the song ended, I turned to the girl next to me and asked Who was that? She looked at me as if I was from another planet and said just one word, Elvissssssss. Elvis said When I hear music, I gotta dance. I understood what he meant that day.

The second great memory was when I found my adoption papers and discovered that Joe wasn't really my father.  I finally saw hope that I could free my Mom and me from Joe's abuse.  Running to my Mom, I told her how happy I was that Joe wasn't really my father, and, now that I knew, we could leave him and be happy together.  None of my pleas worked.  It was 1956 and she still felt I needed a father.  She'd leave him when I got married.  Shame that I existed was a new burden I took on.  It was my fault that my Mom lived such a horrible life.  This is what I believed.  Dancing saved me from those feelings of shame that I was illegitimate and no good.  From the first day I danced, a smile would come on my face and I had no problems at home.   In fact, I had no problems at all. 

American Bandstand was all about dancing, it became a home to me and the Regulars became my new family.  Dancing on Bandstand became a shining light to a child whose light had grown dim.  When I look at pictures of myself dancing during my Bandstand days, I see complete joy on my face. 

My rise to fame as a teenage dancer came as quite a surprise to me.  Being in 16  Magazine in Popularity Contests with all my rock n roll heroes, and having fan clubs listed alongside Elvis was a reality I had never thought of as a possibility for this little girl from Darby. 
And as an extra bonus, through dancing, through working together as a dance team, Eddie Kelly (my Bandstand dance partner) and I forged a friendship that we still enjoy today, forty-two years later.  Hand in hand, leading and following in our dance steps, the roots of our friendship were sealed with The Jitterbug, The Stroll, The Bristol Stomp, The Mashed Potatoes, and The Pony.

All of us have hurdles in our life that can take us down.  I look at these hurdles as life's challenges now.  I look at them as tests.  Dance through your heartaches, dance through your dreams, dance, no matter what!  For when you do, you can feel your love inside.  And, when you feel that love, all things are possible.
Behind my smile when I danced was a young girl searching to belong somewhere.  Home was waiting for me.  My real home was inside of me.  I danced until I found that door.  Today, in my fifties, I still dance.  Sometimes you can find me at Venice Beach dancing in the drum circle still with that smile on my face.