Life’s a Dance – Quincy’s Dancing Man is More Than Just Happy Feet
It was a beautiful day for a stroll a couple of years ago, so we set out with my then three-year-old daughter for a walk on Quincy’s northeast side. In a flash, a man approached us from his house. I recognized him right away. The nice man handed my daughter a Beanie Baby doll, politely chit-chatted for a moment, and almost as quickly disappeared back into his house.
My daughter cherished that little doll, and still does to this day. Who was the nice man? It was none other than Larry Toolate, Quincy’s very own “Dancing Man.” I sat down to interview Toolate to learn more about him.
If you live in Quincy or even just visit the city occasionally I’m sure you've seen him. He frequents the streets of the city and the Quincy Mall and does what he does best -- dance. I’m sure you've heard the phrase “dance like no one is watching”. Well, that’s Larry. But the people DO watch and it’s usually in amazement at the refreshingly carefree spirit of a fellow human being.
“I do what I do to take my mind off the stressful things,” Toolate said. “It’s fun to be followed. If it puts a smile on somebody’s face, it’s worth it.”
Toolate, 63, learned to dance as a child growing up in Hannibal, MO. He loved going to teen dances at the American Legion Hall. If his signature dance moves look familiar it’s because he emulated the one and only James Brown. When 'American Bandstand' and 'Soul Train' were on TV, Toolate was glued to the set. “I learned to dance by watching those shows,” he said.
In his younger years, Toolate had another love – baseball. He played in various baseball and softball leagues. He even compiled a 15-3 record as a pitcher one season. He also played catcher. “My favorite player is Yadier Molina,” he said. “Because he has a gun (for a throwing arm) and so did I.”
Toolate’s local dancing fame hasn't come easy. He used to occasionally get stopped by the police, suspicious of his “unusual” behavior. “They leave me alone now,” he laughs. He also deals with occasional hecklers. “When they harass me I simply tell them to move along. I’m not hurting them, there’s no reason for them to hurt me.”
You might think that’s an iPod in his ear as he merrily dances away. Not even close. It’s a Sony Walkman, wildly popular in the early 1980s. “ I've been through about 25-30 Walkman’s in my life,” Toolate said. Why a Walkman? “I can play my cassettes and also switch to traditional FM radio.” The music he listens to is as varied as the formats available. “I listen to rock, country, hip hop, classic rock. If it has a beat, I’ll dance to it.” Some of his favorites include AC/DC (which he proudly pulled out of his Walkman to show me) and REO Speedwagon.
There were rumors recently of an effort to get Toolate on the “Ellen” show, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, who is known for her comedic dancing exploits. “No one from ‘Ellen’ has ever contacted me,” he said. Would he go if they called? “Oh, yeah”, Toolate said, with a sly grin and beaming like a teenager. Dancing is in his blood, as evidenced by the impromptu dance he shared with a little boy who happened to be dancing in the aisle of the local restaurant we met in. After the shared dance, the little boy couldn't contain the grin on his face and he continued dancing in his seat. “I’m blessed with rhythm,” Toolate said. “I love the smiles I get from little kids.”
Toolate has been in Quincy since 1968. Among the many jobs he’s had, he’s worked for Woodlawn Cemetery (dancing while cutting their grass), U.S. Cooler and various construction jobs. He is currently unemployed. He talks glowingly about a program he has from the 1964 Miss Quincy Pageant. Inside is a picture of a contestant in that year’s pageant, the love of his life, Marilyn, whom he married in 1982. They were married for 23 years before, sadly, she lost a battle with leukemia in 2005.
“She collected Beanie Babies,” Toolate said with pride. “So now if I see someone pushing a baby stroller, I’ll run out and give them a Beanie Baby from her collection.” It’s just one more way for Quincy’s “Dancing Man”, Larry Toolate, to put a smile on someone’s face.