“When Chris [Stamey, of alt-pop group The dBs] and I first drove up [to New York City], I didn’t even go to my apartment,” recalls performance artist Jamie Sims. This was 1977 and Sims, who grew up in Asheville, had decided to try her luck at moving her dance group — the North Carolina Progressive Dance Troop — to Manhattan. But while a new life on Bleeker Street beckoned, Sims had more important things to do than set up house.
“We went straight to Blondie’s opening for their first album on Chrysalis,” Sims reminisces. “We walked right into it.”
“It” wasn’t merely Debbie Harry’s record-release party: The dancer had marched headlong into the late punk and burgeoning New Wave scene that rocked New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Although Sims — then a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill — had moved to New York hoping to make it as a modern dancer, fate had other plans. Her troupe, renamed the Cosmopolitan Dance Troop (part joke, part homage to Sims’ new digs), ended up reinventing itself as a gag band with a repetoire of swinging dance steps. The Cosmpolitans’ wacky takes on ’60s-era party staples like the Frug and the Swim found a receptive audience at CBGB’s, where the performers shared a stage with the likes of The Fleshtones, the dBs and Big Help — collaborations Sims is currently reliving with the recent reissue of the Cosmopolitans’ catalogue.
“The ‘older groups’ — Patti Smith, Television, Lou Reed — were just getting out of the local CBGB’s scene,” Sims explains, “as the next groups — Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads — were coming into their prime, and we were kinda the younger group intersecting them.”
How to make a cosmopolitan
“At the end of our version of “Wooly Bully,” [co-front woman] Nel [Moore] and I lie on the floor and make a bridge with our legs,” Sims told Oui in 1981. “Then the guitar player does the limbo under it. It sounds a little naughty, but it’s really not.”
Antics like these brought the Cosmopolitans fame — of sorts — in the early ’80s.
Struggling to make it as a dancer, Sims was coming up short. “The Dance Theater Workshop put out a book called The Poor Dancer’s Almanac that told you how to live in New York really cheaply, and that’s what most of us did,” the dancer recalls. “You could have a part-time job and then your [dancing].”
Of course, Sims and her troupe weren’t exactly performing Swan Lake. Think, instead, of choreographed go-go dancing, cheerleading and baton twirling. And even though it was what Sims calls “the height of the dance-support time,” she had a difficult time getting funding for her project. Cash flow was so short, in fact, that friends like the Fleshtones and the dBs held a fund-raiser for the Cosmopolitan Dance Troop at CBGB. At the end of the evening, the dancers performed one of their own routines to a quirky song they’d put together. It was an instant hit.
“In a way, doing the band was so much easier [than the dance company],” Sims admits. “We thought ‘Wow, we’ve been working really hard and not making any money.’ With the band, we could do much of the same stuff and get paid for it — and the audience loved it.”
So the Cosmopolitans were born, with Sims and Moore fronting the group with charmingly off-key, ironic vocals and costumed dance routines. The band consisted of David Itch on guitar and drummer Evan Davies, though sometimes the dBs’ Will Rigby played percussion, and Mitch Easter helped out on keys in the studio.
As The Village Voice summed it up in 1980, “Part go-go, part cheerleader, with a dose of professional and a dab of slapdash … They’re new wave pom-pom girls with brains.”
On the way to the reunion
“I’ve been doing [this] forever,” Sims laughs. “When I was 8, living in Kenilworth, I’d have shows and invite [people from the neighborhood]. I’d sing songs for the cats.”
She continues, “When my mom saw my senior recital [at college], she said, ‘Oh, that’s just Jamie. She’s doing what she’s always done.'”
Sims’ quirky B-52s-esque songs and choreographed dance routines are following her still. Though the Cosmopolitans only lasted for a few years, with three singles — the irony-filled “(How To) Keep Your Husband Happy,” “Wild Moose Party,” which lead to moose-call contests at shows, and “Dancin’ Lesson,” featuring the group’s first calling — racking up radio play, the group’s influence had never really faded away.
“It is startling to me how much attention there is on that time and place right now,” the performer reports by e-mail. “New York was broke and creativity flourished in the dearth of money. We were all just having fun and expressing ourselves.”
“It was amazing to me that radio stations were still playing “Husband Happy”,” she adds.
Lee Joseph, owner of Dionysus Records, must have been similarly surprised by the song’s longevity, because he decided to release a Cosmopolitans retrospective CD. So, on the heels of Wild Moose Party, an 11-track disc with video footage, Sims returns to Asheville to share Cosmopolitans tales, talk about the ’70s and ’80s music scene in New York and generate enthusiasm for a future reunion.
“This is not the reunion show,” she points out, “but this is a stop on the way to the reunion show.”
“Since the CD came out,” she continues, “it’s like I’ve been meeting friends I never knew before.”
Jamie Sims hosts a Cosmopolitans night at the Westville Pub on Friday, Sept. 15, 9 p.m. The event includes backstories of the songs, a moose-calling contest, a “Husband Happy” tips contest, a Q&A and a ’60s go-go dance lesson. Call 225-9782 for info.