A Memphis pool party, me and Shock G — ‘The Humpty Dance’ did not save my life
The summer of 1990 brought some of the illest music. M.C. Hammer hit the scene with U Can’t Touch This. We all fell in love with Mariah Carey’s high note when Vision of Love led the radio airwaves. Public Enemy and Flavor Flav told us 911 Is A Joke. Ice Cube had just hit us with his debut solo album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. And The Humpty Dance from Shock G and Digital Underground was still going strong.
July 1990 was hot. Memphis, Tennessee, hot. The kind of Tennessee heat where the temperature is 105 degrees but it feels like 122. It was a fine time for a dip in the pool, a run through the sprinklers or a skid down the nearest banana slide. It just so happened a dip in the pool became my reality. My good girlfriend was having a birthday party at her aunt’s home. This backyard pool party was perfect for a gang of kids heading into high school. It was perfect and I was ready: I could swim, dance and enjoy the sun with my homies.
I’d learned to swim when I was in the fourth grade. This was my second go-around at gallivanting in the water in an attempt to learn the sport. The learning experience was at Ken’s house. Ken was my little classmate — his family had a swimming pool in its backyard. My class had taken an end-of-the-year field trip to the family’s crib. Ken taught me what I needed to know. He first taught me the dead man’s float. I mastered it on the first try. I then went from floating to swimming. But I could only swim underwater or on my back. Either way, I could do it. The only real missing element was treading water.
Rewind to my very first failed attempt to tread water — at 4 years old. My mother enrolled me in swimming lessons at the local YMCA. I just couldn’t grasp the concept at that age. After young Ken’s lesson, I thought I was all that. I would head to a family member’s pool every Sunday to perfect my glide. And fast-forward to 10 years later, when I got to my homegirl Jamila’s party, I’d built my confidence. As long as my feet could touch the concrete during my swim, I was all good. Who needs to learn how to tread water? Certainly not me.
There was a side of the pool that was 3 to 5 feet deep, and then there was the other side. The deep end. Some of our friends from the neighborhood and from our grade school were there. The DJ was playing those fire ’90s tunes. As my friends started to jump off the diving board, I watched. A jump, then a dive. Some went headfirst, others did a simple leap, feet first. “Yo, Kelley, why don’t you jump off the diving board?” I heard from the shadows.
My heart began to beat fast. I’d never delved into waters in which I couldn’t stop swimming to stand. Two guys who’d invited me to take this big leap got out of the pool to come talk to me. They gave me some simple, solid instructions.
“Jump into the pool. When your feet hit the bottom, push yourself up hard. When you hit the air, swim in your style to the edge of the pool.” I repeated those steps to myself four times. I decided to try it. I asked my mom, who was hanging around as a chaperone and was chatting it up with the other parents. She encouraged me to go for it.
The Humpty Dance is your chance to do the hump … Oh, do me, baby.
Even Digital Underground was urging me. The song played and those who knew the dance began to jump one time and move their arms. The song gave me life. We were grooving. I told myself I could take the best plunge ever, follow the instructions, swim back and catch the end of the song to show off my dance skills. I was ready get my humpty on.
I jumped. My feet hit the bottom. I gave myself a hard push. My face hit the evening air. Then it dawned on me that I couldn’t feel the bottom. I tried to swim with my underwater swag, but it felt as though I was sinking fast. I could not feel the bottom. I panicked. My arms started swinging. As I began to go back above the water, I could hear my name ringing out. It was like a bad dream. As I went back underwater, I heard muffled sounds.
“Go, Kelley! Go, Kelley!”
These fools thought I was doing the humpty dance. But I was fighting for my life! Finally, someone saved me.
Thanks, Shock G, for “puttin’ the satin on my panties.” But I wish you could’ve saved my life.
For you Digital Underground fans and ’90s music lovers, here is The Humpty Dance video. Hope you’ll be thankful for my life when you hear this song.