‘I’ll never stop if I can help it’: why choreographer Toni Basil is still dancing at 80

'Dancing has always been my drug of choice': Toni Basil in 1977
'Dancing has always been my drug of choice': Toni Basil in 1977 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, in June 1974, Toni Basil found herself in a New York rehearsal room with David Bowie, a stack of chairs, a pile of assorted props and a problem. Bowie had hired Basil – the dancer, actress, filmmaker and singer who found global fame eight years later with her chart-topping single Mickey – to choreograph his Diamond Dogs tour, and the pair were struggling to come up with a scene to follow the moment in which two backing singers Bowie had been holding on rope leashes would turn to attack him.

“He’d wrapped himself up in rope and fallen to his knees,” recalls Basil. “As he stood up and started to untangle himself, I saw the lightbulb go on above his head. He grabbed four chairs and stretched the rope around them to make a boxing ring. Then he pulled a pair of boxing gloves from the prop pile and started punching away at the air while singing Panic in Detroit.”

Speaking on a video call from her home in Los Angeles, Basil remembers the thrill she felt watching Bowie (who died aged 69 in 2016) “seizing that dynamic wow-moment of inspiration”. Towards the end of the song, she says, “I was so excited I yelled ‘Go David! Knock yourself out!’… And he actually did!” That was how Bowie would go on to perform the song on stage: launching a punch towards his own jaw and dropping out of the spotlight.

Basil, now 80, is a conversational plasma ball, sending out sparks in all directions as she rattles off stories from her kaleidoscopic career: of dancing with “beautiful” Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas, 1964; stripping naked for 1966’s Breakaway, arguably the world’s first music video; acting with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider in 1969; and with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces the following year.

More recently, she choreographed Playboy bunnies and go-go dancers in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film about the Manson Family murders in the summer of 1969. “I’d been on a couple of dates with Jay Sebring,” she says, referring to a man who became a close friend of Sharon Tate’s, and was murdered alongside her. “He was one of the few straight celebrity hairdressers in Hollywood at that time and a very popular guy…”

Toni Basil last year
Toni Basil last year - Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

As the founder of the pioneering 1970s street dance group The Lockers, Basil has choreographed everyone from Tina Turner to Talking Heads. As we talk, she’s still got her coat on after rushing home from a dance session with former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. Basil has devoted much of her life to making the famous look slick but, she says, she’s “never been starstruck by anyone because I grew up on the side of the stage, you see.”

Born Antonia Christina Basilotta in Philadelphia in 1943, to a vaudevillian acrobat mother and orchestra-leading father, Basil says she “had seen a thousand shows before I grew up and I was always dancing in the wings. I was that kid who couldn’t sit still – and I still am!”

The family moved to New York, Chicago and finally Las Vegas where Basil led her high-school cheerleading squad, falling for the chanting style she’d later use on Mickey – her punchy twist on British band Racey’s 1979 song Kitty.

“Back in the 1950s we didn’t do all the ‘mounts’ you see in cheerleading today, where they’re standing on top of each others’ heads,” she says. “But my group was good – we won competitions.” Across the latter half of the 20th century Basil believes cheerleading evolved into “a great American art form”. That’s what she wanted to celebrate with Mickey. Although Basil was 39 when she recorded the hit, she still fit perfectly into her old Carson High School cheerleading kit for the video that inspired girls around the world to start clambering onto each other’s shoulders.

Toni Basil with David Byrne of Talking Heads
Toni Basil with David Byrne of Talking Heads - Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

“That video was the first time many Europeans had seen real, fierce American cheerleaders on screen,” she says. “In films and TV they usually got jazz dancers to run around with pom poms. But that video showed the strong stuff!”

Although she was dancing professionally from childhood, Basil’s career really took off when she started appearing on the groundbreaking TV pop show Shindig! on which she also served as assistant choreographer, quickly becoming the go-to go-go dancer of the 1960s. Inspired by the funk-snap moves of James Brown, her style was urgent, intense and wide-eyed.

She appeared in three films in 1964 alone: shaking her thing in a bikini opposite Frank Sinatra in Robin and the 7 Hoods; spinning in the sand in Pajama Party, and running wild as “the girl with the red dress on” that Elvis sang about in Viva Las Vegas.

It was perhaps inevitable that free-thinking Basil would gravitate towards the counter-culture set in California’s Topanga Canyon, where she ended up living with the actor Dean Stockwell for 12 years. Although many in that crowd were using drugs at the time, Basil tells me that “dancing has always been my drug of choice. Movement changes your mood, it raises your serotonin levels, y’know? Most dancers are stoned out of their minds on it.”

Did she ever feel vulnerable, as a young female dancer surrounded by famous and powerful men? “No!” She laughs. “There were only around 10-15 girls doing all the go-go dancing in Hollywood at that time. We were always busy working, people were always watching.”

Indeed, the perma-perky Basil says she “didn’t really have a sense of anything murky going on until the Manson murders. I heard about that on the news. It was chilling; I had spent time up at the house where it happened, although that was before Sharon Tate moved in…”

She says that going to work on Tarantino’s set – for which he cordoned off five blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and redressed all the windows – “was like being on an LSD trip back in time to 1969. I used to live just up the street from the Chinese Theatre there. It doesn’t seem that long ago and yet here you are telling me even Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour was 50 years ago…”

During the Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie’s mental and physical health was famously battered by a growing addiction to cocaine. But Basil insists that, during rehearsals, he was always “very hard working, very knowledgeable. He sent me off to watch The Rocky Horror Show in London to get a sense of what he was looking for. I came in on the first day with a little sketch of a gigantic woman lying across a city skyline. I told him: ‘You need to be bigger than the buildings!’ We managed that by having his giant silhouette thrown across the set as he walked on to the stage.”

After her own brief flash of pop stardom with Mickey, Basil returned behind the scenes, reuniting with Bowie for his Glass Spider tour and choreographing films such as Legally Blonde (2001) – for which she created the iconic “bend and snap” man-snagging move. In 2022 she belatedly won the rights to receive royalties for Mickey after a long legal battle that she says “cost a fortune”. Today, she judges street dance competitions and teaches dance classes; a few years ago, a video of her still throwing razor sharp shapes went viral, proving that age cannot  wither her.

“I’ll never stop dancing if I can help it,” she tells me. “If I stopped for two weeks it would take me six months to get back into shape. So I just won’t stop!”