DJ Casper, born Willie Perry Jr. in Chicago, has passed away at age 58. The musician, DJ, hype jockey and songwriter, who also went by Mr. C. and the Slide Man, was diagnosed with kidney and liver cancer in 2016. He was perhaps best known for his hit song, “Cha-Cha Slide,” which was accompanied by a beloved line dance.
Casper wasn’t Jewish — but he had a place of honor at many a Jewish celebration, especially bar and bat mitzvahs. Emma Lowe, in Hey Alma, called the “Cha-Cha Slide” the second most iconic dance at ’90s (and late ’80s!) kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs, and she’s not wrong. It was rare for anyone to pass up the order to “get funky” and “cha cha real smooth,” and the dance is still popular at celebrations today.
When the video of the song came out in 2000, it featured diverse city crowds in downtown Chicago doing the line dance together, and even included several shots of people dancing outside a synagogue, donning kippahs and modest garb.
Casper first came up with the song to help his nephew, who was teaching an aerobics class at Bally Total Fitness Health Club in Hyde Park, infuse more music into his lessons. It originally incorporated the song “Plastic Dreams” by Jaydee.
The slide quickly seeped into the streets and the clubs where DJ Casper played, and then to the Chicago radio station WGCI-FM, which played the “Cha-Cha Slide Part 2” version of the song we all know and love. It earned Casper, who got his DJ moniker because of his love for wearing all white outfits, a contract with Universal Records. The song spent five weeks in the Billboard 100, and probably an eternity in our collective muscle memory. When it was released in the UK in 2004, it topped the charts, dethroning Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” according to Casper.
In the decades since it has come out, it has been a staple at celebrations of all kinds and denominations. Yet for bat and bar mitzvah celebrants in the U.S., it was the source of some pretty joyful memories. At parties, after the more subdued and serious synagogue ceremony, people young and old could be seen letting loose to the slide — sometimes kicking off their shoes, perhaps with an inflatable saxophone in hand.
The “Cha-Cha Slide” also became a pop culture staple. It was featured in “Saturday Night Live” and “Orange Is the New Black,” and in viral TikTok videos. The song’s lyrics and rousing spirit were also recently centered in the 2022 film “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” about a non-Jewish bar and bat mitzvah hype jockey.
“Line dancing attracts me because when you go out to a party you can actually do it by yourself,” Casper said in 2017. “You don’t need a partner; you can get up and have fun. You don’t feel out of place because you have no one to dance with.”
That’s the true magic of the “Cha-Cha Slide” — it’s an equalizer. Especially at the awkward age of 12 and 13, it’s a dance that most kids can do, one that makes them feel joyful and connected. And that’s what b’nai mitzvahs are all about that: initiating children into their communities, transitioning from childhood to adulthood, making them feel a part of something bigger. No one is too cool or not cool enough, too young or too old, for the infectious joy of the “Cha-Cha Slide.”
That sense of joy, unity and community was also important to Casper himself, who believed that his dance was truly for everyone. “Anybody that’s going through cancer, know that you have cancer and cancer does not have you,” he said back in May, after opening up about his health struggles. “So, keep on doing the ‘Cha Cha Slide.’”
His death was announced by his wife, Kim, this Monday, who said in a statement: “Casper was a fun-loving, giving person. He was a genuine, family oriented man. He loved Chicago with all his heart. He will be greatly missed.”
Thank you, DJ Casper, for all these years of joy on the dance floor. Your music continues to be a blessing for us all.