Swing, vot­ers!

The in­com­ing mayor is known as a man who loves hand danc­ing — the District’s de­riv­a­tive of swing.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY NIKITA STE­WART

IIn­com­ing D.C. mayor Vin­cent C. Gray doesn’t re­lent­lessly run, bike and swim like the out­go­ing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, whose Marathon Man bent spawned miles of bike lanes and dozens of recre­ation cen­ters and ath­letic fields dur­ing his four years in of­fice. ¶ But, boy, can Vince swing! ¶ At least, that’s what he thinks. ¶ “I learned in the neigh­bor­hood,” de­clares Gray, who grew up in North­east Washington. ¶ Lawrence Brad­ford, an ex­pert in hand danc­ing— D.C.’s de­riv­a­tive of swing— of­fers a suc­cinct ap­praisal of the mayor’s moves: ¶ “He’s okay,” Brad­ford says. ¶ Just as Fenty made fit­ness hip for the District, Gray could put the city’s of­fi­cial dance at cen­ter stage with a kick, step, step and two triple counts.¶ On the cam­paign trail, Gray shared his life­long hobby again and again. He didn’t mind demon­strat­ing, ei­ther, show­ing lo­cal tele­vi­sion host Carol Joynt a thing or two dur­ing an in­ter­viewafter he won the Demo­cratic pri­mary in Septem­ber. Gray, who heads to the Chateau on Ben­ning Road NE when he feels like danc­ing, is ex­pected to

show off at Sun­day’s inaugural ball at the Wal­ter E. Washington Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

In a city that has swelled with thou­sands of new­com­ers over the past decade, there’s plenty of con­fu­sion about hand danc­ing. For one thing, what ex­actly do you do with your hands? (An­swer: Hold your part­ner’s, even when you’re danc­ing apart.)

Over the years, the dis­tinctly D.C. art form, which de­vel­oped its dis­tinc­tion in the 1950s, has been largely eclipsed by the con­gas of home­grown go-go mu­sic. And yet hand danc­ing has ever-so-coolly built a cult fol­low­ing, spread­ing from Bal­ti­more to Rich­mond. In the 1980s, the death of disco and a de­sire to hear oldies sparked the re­birth of a dance that Gray, like oth­ers, learned dur­ing his youth half a cen­tury ago.

The resur­gence has re­vealed a note of dishar­mony. From a mostly light­hearted de­bate that pits old-school vs. new-school dance moves amid the lin­ger­ing seg­re­ga­tion of black and white dancers, hand danc­ing hardly re­flects the “One City” that the 68-yearold Gray has said he wants for the District.

But maybe the city will fol­low the lead of some hand dancers, who hope to take the best of black and white and young and old to pre­serve the tra­di­tion they’ve come to love.

Evo­lu­tion is the only path to sur­vival, says Bev­erly Lind­sayJohn­son, pres­i­dent of the pre­dom­i­nantly black, 400-mem­ber Na­tional Hand Dance As­so­ci­a­tion.

“In or­der to pre­serve the dance, it has to change,” Lind­say-John­son says. “Oth­er­wise, we would still be throw­ing peo­ple in the air.”

De­spite its name, hand danc­ing puts feet first — a six count with the male tak­ing the lead in spin­ning his fe­male part­ner.

“If you want to learn, just watch the feet,” Gray likes to say.

Dis­counted at its start as a mere street ver­sion of swing, D.C. hand danc­ing fol­lowed the pat­tern of other re­gional dances, like the Philly Bop, West Coast Swing and Chicago Step. Peo­ple would visit Har­lem’s fa­mous Savoy Ball­room, then re­turn to their home towns danc­ing the Lindy Hop with a lo­cal twist, ac­cord­ing to a his­tory by Kim L. Frazier, author of “ D.C. Hand Dance: Capi­tol City Swing.”

A form of swing that evolved in Har­lem dur­ing the early 20th cen­tury, the Lindy Hop was a lively in­ter­ra­cial bre­wof jazz, tap, Charleston and other moves that some­times in­cluded the male dancer swinging his fe­male part­ner into the air. The D.C. de­riv­a­tive is less ath­letic. To the un­trained eye, it looks like a slow salsa with­out the salsa mu­sic.

Eti­quette still re­quires men to in­vite women to dance, and good man­ners gen­er­ally guide women to ac­cept. A lit­tle tip: If you can’t dance, say so.

“You tell the guy, ‘Please be gen­tle with me.’ They like to hear that,” says Lind­say-John­son, 57, a for­mer WHUT-TV pro­ducer and doc­u­men­tar­ian who has made films on hand danc­ing.

There’s some­where to dance ev­ery night of the week, ex­cept Mon­day. “We dance Tues­day through Sun­day,” she says. “On Mon­day, we rest.”

At the Coco Ca­bana in Hy­attsville, a neon rain­bow of palm trees makes for an odd sight in a strip mall off Uni­ver­sity Boule­vard. In­side, the mu­sic wasn’t thump­ing but mel­low­ing its way along riffs of blues and doo-wop and the once-re­bel­lious rock-an­droll that could now pass for easy lis­ten­ing.

“ To be hon­est, I think the mu­sic slowed down as we got older,” says Pam Vann, 66, pres­i­dent of the pre­dom­i­nantly white, 700mem­ber D.C. Hand Dance Club.

A thin layer of baby pow­der was sprin­kled across two cor­ners of the hard­wood dance floor. Like gym­nasts rub­bing hands in chalk be­fore com­pe­ti­tion, women wiped their two-inch heels in the pow­der and men rubbed their tas­seled and two-toned dress shoes so they wouldn’t slip. The women were armed with minia­ture, bat­tery-pow­ered fans at their ta­bles to cool them off af­ter they left the floor.

Blacks and whites tend to dance at sep­a­rate venues — the District’s Chateau and Eclipse night­clubs serve largely black clien­te­les, and mostly white crowds make their way to VFWs, Amer­i­can Le­gions and Elks Lodges in Mary­land. But both black and white hand dancers were pa­tron­iz­ing the Coco Ca­bana on this par­tic­u­lar Sun­day night, and the room looked like a high school cafe­te­ria. Blacks sat in a group of ta­bles on one side while whites con­gre­gated on the other.

It wasn’t on pur­pose, black and white dancers say. It just is.

Most older hand dancers learned the moves dur­ing seg­re­ga­tion, or the early days of in­te­gra­tion when whites fled the city to the sub­urbs. Dance shows of the day catered to sep­a­rate crowds. “ The Milt Grant Show,” the District’s ver­sion of “Amer­i­can Band­stand,” was whites-only un­til WTTG was pres­sured to al­low African Amer­i­cans to dance one day a week, dubbed “Black Tues­day.”

Gray re­mem­bers danc­ing on the show. “Johnny Mathis was on the show. I don’t re­mem­ber the song he played,” he says. “I got on be­cause I knew some­body.” African Amer­i­cans were wel­comed at ri­val WOOK-TV’s “ Teenarama,” a show started for black teens in 1963.

Not sur­pris­ingly, white and black dancers de­vel­oped their own moves and so­cial habits.

“Look at the bar, it’s all white,” says Brad­ford, 66, who grewup in Adams Mor­gan. “Black hand dancers take it so se­ri­ously, they don’t want to drink.”

Brad­ford, who is African Amer­i­can, calls the black and white dancers “cousins” — re­lated but not im­me­di­ate fam­ily.

Brad­ford used to teach classes at the Eclipse and now teaches at Mary­gold’s night­club in Lan­ham. He boasts a ros­ter of 10,000 peo­ple of all races with whom he has shared his foot­work over three decades. As he speaks, a white cou­ple he taught walks off the floor and to­ward his ta­ble.

“I saw you over there do­ing that slide skate with a hole,” he tells them, re­fer­ring to a dance move.

White hand dancers tend to use more Euro­pean-style ball­room moves, says Mike Chucci, 66, an olive-skinned Ital­ian wear­ing an ear­ring. “In the black com­mu­nity, it’s more jazz style, soul mu­sic.”

“We were seg­re­gated, so it grav­i­tated like that,” chimes in Andy An­der­son, 68, a two-time pres­i­dent of theD.C. Hand Dance­Club. He looks at his friend. “Mike goes all over. He can go both ways.”

Chucci prides him­self on be­ing able to pass: in com­plex­ion and in dance. He was the only white stu­dent in his class at Cham­ber­lainVo­ca­tional School at 14th and Po­tomac streets SE in the 1950s. Like Brad­ford, Chucci is well known among blacks and whites through­out the hand dance cir­cuit.

“Short ... ear­ring,” Lind­sayJohn­son says. “Oh, yes, he can dance!”

Still, black and white dancers can be out of step with each other.

Bar­bara White, who al­ready knew how to swing but learned hand danc­ing two years ago, had just taken a break. Sit­ting at a ta­ble, with her black slip­pers be­side her feet, White, who is African Amer­i­can, points to a white man on the dance floor.

“He and I were on the same beat, but some of the oth­ers . . . ” White says, trail­ing off.

It might have some­thing to do

“It’s hard to get younger peo­ple into it. . . . The white clubs are a lit­tle sticky with their mu­sic. The black clubs aren’t.”

— Ron Car­roll,

hand danc­ing DJ

with the mu­sic, says Ron Car­roll, 65, who DJs hand danc­ing par­ties with wife Kathy, known as DJ Kathy K.

Whites iden­tify strongly with the ’50s rock-and-roll mu­sic of Myr­tle Beach, S.C., says Car­roll, who is white.

African Amer­i­cans dance to a wider va­ri­ety of mu­sic, Car­roll says, from Mo­town to Stax to blues to jazz. “When I think of Mo­town, I think of the Temp­ta­tions, the Four Tops, but ’50s and ’60s mu­sic goes deeper than that for African Amer­i­cans,” says Car­roll, who lives in Finks­burg.

Car­roll, who was run­ning a dig­i­tal playlist at the Coco Ca­bana, says he shares ideas and mu­sic with black spin doc­tors in the area. “Ju­nior Walker? I didn’t even know he had that many songs.”

He says white hand dancers should take a mu­si­cal page from black hand dancers to pre­serve the art form. Though the D.C. Hand Dance Club has a mem­ber who is 26, the mem­ber­ship leans heav­ily to­ward 60-some­thing and up, he says, while the black groups are at­tract­ing more younger dancers.

“It’s hard to get younger peo­ple into it. If no­body comes in four or five years from now, it’s go­ing to van­ish,” Car­roll says. “ The white clubs are a lit­tle sticky with their mu­sic. The black clubs aren’t.”

In the com­mu­nity room of Christ United Methodist Church in South­west Washington on a Satur­day night, dancers as young as 6 moved their feet to Dirty Money’s “Lov­ing You No More,” the lat­est ven­ture for Diddy, fea­tur­ing red-hot rapper Drake, and to Katy Perry’s “Cal­i­for­nia Gurls.”

Stu­dents from around the re­gion take lessons from Markus Smith, 27, who learned to hand dance 14 years ago at the Eclipse. Brad­ford was his teacher. Smith’s mother, Renita, dragged him and cousin Allen Cop­per to the class. They loved it.

“Chil­dren are sponges. They pick it up,” says Smith, who is African Amer­i­can and com­petes in­ter­na­tion­ally in swing dance com­pe­ti­tions. “ The main thing is to get kids to keep with it.”

Hand dance classes for youths are held on Satur­day morn­ings, but Smith lured them back to the church for a hol­i­day party. Smith says chil­dren whose par­ents dance are the most likely to con­tinue as adults, and some­times par­ents learn from their chil­dren.

Jubril Wil­son, 36, who lives in South­east Washington, took a class with 6-year-old daugh­ter Adaora. “I can barely dance. She’s a star,” he says as the pint-size first-grader puts her own lit­tle twist on the dance.

Wil­son says he started go­ing to hand dance clubs af­ter sep­a­rat­ing from his daugh­ter’s mother. Hand dance par­ties and clubs are known for be­ing safe, drama-free en­vi­ron­ments. Many a hand dancer— rocked by divorce or the death of a spouse — has made a dance part­ner a life part­ner.

Wil­son says he had to learn the dance to have a chance at ro­mance. “I’mtalk­ing [to a woman]. The mu­sic comes on. She says, ‘Oh, this is my song.’ I was just stand­ing there,” Wil­son says, laugh­ing.

The youngest dancers must con­vince their peers that hand danc­ing is just as fun and dif­fi­cult as the Dougie.

Kayla Clay, 10, be­gan danc­ing in Au­gust. “It took me about two or three weeks to re­ally get the rhythm,” says the Bur­rville Ele­men­tary School fifth-grader. “I try to ex­plain to [friends at school] and tell them it’s not bor­ing. If you re­ally like dance, like I do, you’ll like it.”

De­spite her age, Kayla prefers “ the ’50s and ’ 60s mu­sic be­cause it has more of the rhythm for hand dance.”

But Smith and Deonna Ball, an­other Brad­ford pro­tege who teaches hand danc­ing and other dance at Roots Pub­lic Char­ter School in the District, use mod­ern mu­sic and moves to draw in young peo­ple. Ball puts a heavy hip-hop touch on the dance, while Smith has taken the dance into a se­ries of com­pli­cated twists and turns.

“Old school, there’s more of a bounce and [it’s] arm-heavy,” Smith says. “New school is more re­laxed, and the lady has more free­dom.” By that, he means that dancers can im­pro­vise more with their en­tire bod­ies, and women are part­ners, not fol­low­ers.

“Old school is about the guys show­ing off. New school? There’s more of a bal­ance,” Smith says.

New-school­ers, who may throw some West Coast swing and South Carolina shag into the mix, tend to use more of the floor. In the 1950s, District teens learned the dance in base­ments. “Your eti­quette says you have that much room,” says An­der­son, an old-schooler flap­ping up his el­bows.

But old school, new school, black or white, there’s one thing that re­mains the same: trash talkin’.

“We all have egos,” Chucci says. “If some­one comes in front of me show­ing off, I’ll get up and teach them a les­son.”

Gray says he’s been danc­ing since he was 9. He can hang.

Smith, who still hasn’t seen Gray hit the floor, says he’ll de­fer to the city’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive: “Most of the guys from the day can break it down. I’ll vouch for the mayor.”



IN STEP: Above, Mayor-elect Vin­cent C. Gray, who’ll be sworn in Sun­day, demon­strates hand danc­ing with TV host Carol Joynt. At top, a hand danc­ing party in South­west­Wash­ing­ton shows the lo­cal art form’s cross-gen­er­a­tional po­ten­tial.


IT’S LIKE THIS: Trend­lyon Veal teaches ba­sics to Ed­mund Lubega while his cousin Jonathon Senoga looks on dur­ing a hand danc­ing party in South­west­Wash­ing­ton. The dance form, D.C.’s de­riv­a­tive of swing, could get a boost from a high-level fan, in­com­ing mayor Vin­cent C. Gray.

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