Sunday 4 December 2016

The devilish dances of Flick Colby

Published 04/06/2011 | 05:00

Flick Colby, who died aged 65, was the driving force behind the dance troupe Pan's People, which appeared for eight years on BBC's chart show Top of the Pops and carved its own distinctive niche in pop culture.

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A trained ballet dancer from New York, Colby formed Pan's People in 1966 and originally performed with the group herself. But she preferred to remain out of the limelight and concentrated on choreographing.

Before the age of the music video, Pan's People furnished visual entertainment when artists could not appear on the show. They were not the first such group to appear on the programme -- they were preceded by the Go-Jos -- but they were the first dancers to perform exclusively on Top of the Pops.

Clad in skimpy miniskirts, hot pants, bikinis or eye-catching bell-bottoms, the girls' gyrations ranged from disco moves to balletic and lyrical routines. Colby's own free dance solo to accompany Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' in 1970 attracted particular critical acclaim.

But Pan's People were best known for strutting their stuff in an overtly sexual way never before seen on TV. The group triggered what Ian Gittins, in his history of Top of the Pops (2007), described as a "national hormonal tsunami".

He added: "It's hard to overstate the effect that the spectacularly nubile Pan's People had on the UK's pop-loving pubescent males."

Colby agreed that the group flaunted their sexuality, but said that attractiveness was a showbiz commodity. "Personally" she said, "I was always flattered to be called a dolly bird."

Not everyone, however, was enthusiastic: an outraged Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association wanted their risqué costumes banned, while feminists vilified Pan's People as soft porn.

Even Tony Blackburn, one of the Radio 1 disc jockeys who presented Top of the Pops, considered them little more than "a dodgy dance act".

Nevertheless, under her direction, Pan's People came to be as synonymous with the programme as the cigar-chomping Jimmy Savile and the pounding Led Zeppelin theme tune.

Felicity Colby was born in the US on March 23 1946, the daughter of a university professor, and grew up at Clinton, in upstate New York. Educated at Andover, New Hampshire, she took ballet lessons in Boston before joining a repertory theatre company, where she met her first husband.

Anxious to experience "swinging London", the couple moved to England. When her marriage failed, Colby found work on the BBC show The Beat Room. She also worked as a go-go dancer in a Soho club.

In 1966 Colby formed an all-girl troupe with five other dancers -- Babs Lord, Ruth Pearson, Dee Dee Wilde, Louise Clarke and Andi Rutherford. But when they appeared on Dutch and Belgian television, the presenters were defeated by the name Dionysius' Darlings, and they became Pan's People instead.

The girls based themselves on The Beatles, each member having a different look and personality. When they returned to Britain in 1968 they were booked on Top of the Pops and soon became a weekly fixture on the show.

When the Prince of Wales visited the Top of the Pops studio, they were ordered to hide because their costumes -- they were dressed as mermaids in gossamer -- were considered too skimpy for the royal eye.

The weekly pop chart was published on a Tuesday and Top of the Pops was recorded on Wednesdays, leaving Colby just one day to devise and rehearse a six-handed dance routine. As a result, their range was limited.

"They weren't Broadway-standard routines," Colby confessed. "We were definitely doing watercolours, not oil paintings."

Shortage of time also explains the clunkily literal moves the group sometimes included. During the Osmonds' 1974 hit 'I Can't Stop', Pan's People danced beneath four sets of traffic lights, which turned red on the word "stop".

Although at first Colby was both choreographing the routines and dancing, she later retreated behind the scenes, directing the girls from the studio gallery. The group's last appearance on the iconic show was in 1976.

When the group split, Ruth Pearson joined Colby to run and choreograph Ruby Flipper, a mixed-gender troupe that danced on Top of the Pops until a BBC boss complained that he wanted another all-girl group.

Colby finally persuaded Top of the Pops to let her include some men, and she formed Zoo, a group of 20 dancers, which appeared irregularly until the early 1980s.

By then, with record companies offering free promo videos, dance troupes seemed superfluous.

Returning to the US in 1984, Colby bought a farm in New York State and worked part-time in a novelty shop.

When her second husband, George, died earlier this year, she was already seriously ill with cancer.

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