For Dancers, This Mansion is Swinging
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, May 19, 2006
A few years ago, you couldn't move at a bar without some guy trying to dip his girlfriend to the sounds of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or getting kicked in the head by someone trying to recreate that really cool move they saw in "Swing Kids."
Once the fad began to wane, the Lindy Hoppers got nudged out of just about every space in town, leaving only one regular venue for practices and weekly live bands: the Chevy Chase Ballroom, which, despite the name, is a dance studio lined with mirrors. It's got a fantastic floor and hosts great bands and DJs, but it really lacks atmosphere.
The problem here is an economic one: many swing dancers are more interested in perfecting their steps than ordering drinks at the bar, and besides, if you have too many gin and tonics, who can keep up to the frantic beat of "Sing, Sing, Sing"? Bars don't make much money by hosting swing dancing nights, so they move on to something else, relegating dancers to drab dance studios through the metro area.
That's why it's such a shock to visit the Jam Cellar, a new Tuesday night event at the Josephine Butler Parks Center, a beautiful mansion that formerly housed the embassies of Brazil and Hungary. The grand staircase leading to the second floor, the columned terrace overlooking Meridian Hill Park -- it's as if a bunch of swing dancers had managed to take over an English country house for the night.
Upstairs, a DJ holds court in a spacious, high-ceilinged room that boasts two fireplaces -- one marble -- and crown molding at the top of sunny yellow walls. Potted plants, Corinthian columns -- you'd expect to see couples in formal dress doing the waltz in here, not Lindy Hoppers whirling across parquet floors.
Across the hall is a smaller drawing room with seats and another fireplace, where beginning dancers can take free 30-minute lessons every week before the main event, and there's outdoor space where dancers take a break from sweating to Count Basie and Duke Ellington before heading back inside for another workout. Compared to other swing dance venues around town, the crowd is younger, the music is faster and the energy levels are much higher.
"We feel like what we have to offer is different than what's offered right now," explains co-organizer Andy Reid. "We want to bring our talent and energy to it."
Founded in 2003 by a group of younger swing dancers looking to give the scene a good kick in the pants, the Jam Cellar was held at the Potomac Swing Dance Club -- formerly the Vienna Grille -- until last fall, when the building was razed to make room for a public park. Left without a venue, the organizers decided to wait until they found the "right" place, with all the essentials: wooden floors, Metro access for non-drivers -- and, of course, somewhere affordable. Jam Cellar co-founder Naomi Uyama discovered the Josephine Butler Center by accident when she came to Meridian Hill Park to check out the weekly drum circle.
Kicking off in February with a mix of DJs and the occasional live band, the Jam Cellar attracts up to 100 dancers every Tuesday. In addition to help for beginners, each week finds a rotating pair of instructors offering sessions on a variety of topics, from spins and turns to "romantic moves for wooing your partner." (A list of upcoming class topics is on www.thejamcellar.com.) Also, in contrast to most other swing venues, the Jam Cellar operates under a strict BYOB policy. "We're not allowed to serve alcohol, but people can bring their own," Reid says.
What sets the Jam Cellar apart, though, is its vitality. "This is our passion," says Nina Gilkenson, who teaches some of the classes at Jam Cellar. "This isn't our day job. We don't do this for a living. I think that shows."