No White Meat

Last Thursday in Kansas City marked the 44th year for one of the greatest Thanksgiving Day traditions in the known universe. No, it wasn’t Bryan Busby‘s ritual act of sneaking to Starbucks to take a dump between appearances on KMBC Channel 9’s Plaza lighting-ceremony broadcast — though a noble tradition that is, indeed.

It wasn’t the Plaza lighting ceremony itself, either, and it had nothing to do with the Chiefs or Liberty Memorial being lit up red like a big, bloody finger.

The best turkey-day tradition ever went down at the National Guard Armory in Kansas City, Kansas, a vast, gymlike building, which, for the past 12 years, has hosted the famous Thanksgiving Breakfast Dance.

The gist of it is this: Dress in your finest, bring hella liquor, get drunk, dance to soul.

That’s what about 800 people did last Thursday. It was my first time there. My on-the-town friend Scott Burnett, owner of Minnow Records (Super Black Market, Jon Yeager), invited me. He works with dance organizer and former Grand Emporium owner Roger Naber, assisting with Naber’s Blues Cruise enterprise.

The dance floor was full when we arrived at about 10:30 a.m., with folks jumping to local bluesman D.C. Bellamy’s band. We caught the tail end of the set, unfortunately, and the floor cleared. A man stepped to the mic and delivered a kind of perverse sermon in rhyming couplets. “The First Freakshow” contained lines such as Was Eve the first woman to ask for head? I don’t think I heard a single laugh from the crowd, but it was still pretty awesome. Meanwhile, the audience displayed eye-ravishing pageantry. As we stood looking for our table, Scott’s date, Kristin, cooed, “I have never seen so many fantaaastic suuuits in my life.”

Of course, we were white, and most of the attendees were older black people, splendidly dressed.

The typical male outfit skewed either Godfather or Grand Ole Opry — magnificent suits of blue or red or snakeskin, punctuated by either a Homburg or a cowboy hat. Couples coordinated their outfits, looking sexy-cute rather than dorky-cute.

More than anything, the Thanksgiving Breakfast Dance feels like a celebration of black Kansas City, which has more soul in one ring-clad, cigar-gripping hand than the entire history of the Country Club Plaza.

We sat down amid rows of tables decked with imported liquor and food. To my chagrin, admission did not include a free meal.

Scott began emptying his bags, producing a giant bottle of vodka, bloody-Mary mix and a salad bar to-go box full of olives, pepperoni, baby corn and gherkins. I stuck to cans of Bud. Some friends showed up with a mini-cooler of Jell-O shots, which would end up being the only solid food I’d eat for breakfast.

Elsewhere, the preferred libation combination seemed to be expensive liquor and cheap wine. Nearby, a bottle of Grey Goose vodka stood next to a bottle of Yellow Tail chardonnay — on another table Beringer zin next to Hennessy.

Naber moved among the crowd, looking oddly like the guy who played the president on the latest season of 24, but with a soul patch and awesome white-jacket, ’80s-shirt combination. It was his 30th dance since 1974, and he knew how to do it up right.

A band in matching gold jackets took the stage, led by the charismatic, peroxide-haired Southern bluesman Mel Waiters, whose recurring lyrical motif was I got my money!/I got my whiskey!

Headliner Martin Sease, another Southern soul slayer famous for bawdy lyrics — in particular the song “Candy Licker” — glided onstage in a custom black suit, his curly hair spilling down his shoulders like a king lion. The drummer laid down a groove, and Sease began belting his heart out.

Being in a gym full of smoke and sunlight on Thanksgiving morning, dancing to a soul band, was beyond surreal. Though much of the crowd sat down, seemingly too drunk or tired to dance by then, a handful of us raged on, movin’ and hollerin’ and raisin’ our hands as though it were Sunday. And the woman who’d brought the Jell-O shots ended up onstage in a chorus line directed by Sease. That gave most everyone something to be thankful for.

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