Best places to dance to a live band photo
(Astrid Riecken)

Best places to dance to a live band

Fritz Hahn and Jess Righthand  |  Updated 10/26/2012

Walk by the corner of 14th and U streets NW on a weekend night, and you'll hear bubbly, joyful dance music blasting out of a new nightclub called Tropicalia. What makes this basement bar stand out from other recent arrivals in the neighborhood is that several times a week, the sounds drawing crowds onto the dance floor come from musicians instead of a DJ.

It's easy to understand why bars shy away from live music: It's expensive to install a stage, lights and a sound system, let alone pay a group of musicians, when a DJ can do it all on a laptop for less.

But Tropicalia, which opened Labor Day weekend, bucks that trend, with multiple bands performing every week. "I want people to randomly pop into the club, dance and hear something that blows their mind. That makes me happy," says Jim Thomson, who books Afropop, soul and Latin groups for Tropicalia.

It's also about expanding the idea of what, exactly, constitutes dance music. Traditional Sierra Leonean musician Sorie Kondi, who performed at the club earlier this month, "is something you might see at the Folklife Festival or at the Kennedy Center," Thomson says. "But if you put that music in more of a club setting when the lights are dim, people feel a little looser, and they respond differently."

Video: Tropicalia

 

Tropicalia

Washington, DC

Tropicalia's calendar features wide-ranging musical acts, with 10 to 15 performances every month and DJs spinning on other nights. "Diversity is our mission statement," Thomson says, and it's a charge he takes seriously. The bands that take to the low stage in this dimly lit club vary musically and spiritually: You might hear raw soul from Chicago, a Brazilian samba band, a New Orleans brass band or high-energy bubu from Sierra Leone.

During a recent concert by Samba Do Aviao, some couples take advantage of the dance floor to perform expert samba steps, and others just groove as the spirit moves them. The free shows make it easy for curious music lovers to check out an unfamiliar act.

 

Nick's Nightclub

Alexandria, VA

From the bare light bulbs dotting the rafters to the American flag hanging behind the bandstand, Nick's will make you think you've parked your pickup outside some Southern honky tonk, not in an industrial park near the Beltway. The customers, many of them native Southerners, add to that impression with their cowboy hats and Texas-size belt buckles. They two-step around the dance floor and, by some secret code, sometimes meet in the middle to perform high-kicking precision line dances.

You can join them, too: Instructors offer dance lessons for couples at 7:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and a new line dance is taught at the same time in the back room Friday. Each lesson costs $5, and it's worth it if you want to look like you know what you're doing. And trust us, women will be asked to dance.

Bands are a mix of regional touring acts and local groups. Sometimes you'll get a night with Jason Aldeen and Blake Shelton covers; other nights it's more Waylon and Willie or original material. If you need a break, head to the back room for contemporary country karaoke.

 

Bayou

Washington, DC

Entering this Cajun bar and restaurant is like stepping into a little corner of the French Quarter. The chandeliers, the posters and knickknacks that line the walls are straight from New Orleans, and chef Rusty Holman cooks up a mean jambalaya. On Friday, Saturday and some Thursday nights, after the dinner crowd turns into a drinking crowd, Bayou clears the tables from its second floor and embraces another fundamental element of Louisiana culture: music.

Bayou has been hosting bands since it opened almost two years ago. "With a New Orleans club, we're able to get eclectic with the groups we bring in," says booking agent Sean Gaiser. Each month brings traditional brass bands, but rock, funk, blues and jazz are all fair game. People get moving as soon as the band hits the stage.

 

The State Theatre

Falls Church, VA

Looking to dust off that pink sweatband or Michael Jackson glove? Relive the good old days at the State Theatre, which gets especially crazy at the monthly shows by '80s cover band the Legwarmers. The band's shows are a local institution, drawing people from the District and beyond clad in neon, leather and, yes, neon leather -- even though large sections of the crowd weren't born when the Material Girl had her first hit single. It's like Halloween every time. As soon as the first bass notes of singalong favorite "Livin' on a Prayer" rumble through the speakers, watch out for the stampede to the dance floor.

 

Eighteenth Street Lounge

Washington, DC

Few D.C. DJs share the name recognition of Eric Hilton, a founder of electronic duo Thievery Corporation and Eighteenth Street Lounge. While this Dupont Circle hot spot has a deep tie to DJs, it gives just as much love to live bands. The beauty of housing a club in a Victorian mansion means there can be a different entertainer in every room. In the Gold Room, Wednesdays bring live reggae bands such as local group See-I, and Friday and Saturday nights on the second floor offer live jazz. There's no wrong way to enjoy a night out here, whether you're sitting at the bar sipping a cocktail or jumping to the beat, arms draped around your new friends.

 

Quarry House Tavern

Silver Spring, MD

On Saturday nights, the back room at this Silver Spring watering hole jumps to the sound of slapping bass strings and a steady backbeat. Rockabilly Saturday Night became a fixture soon after Jackie Greenbaum took over the building in 2005, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Musicians move boxes of beer out of the way to make room for drums and the stand-up bass, and they perform songs by Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and Tex Rubinowitz as couples jitterbug on the makeshift dance floor. Garage and surf-rock bands play, too, but rockabilly is the focus.

The music is so infectious that it's not unusual to see people who just came in for a beer at Quarry House's front bar join in the dancing.

 

Glen Echo Park Spanish Ballroom

Glen Echo, MD

Couples have been dancing and falling in love to live music at Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom since 1933. While it was originally built as a venue for dancing to big bands, the gorgeous Art Deco Ballroom – restored in the early 2000s – now welcomes a variety of groups, including contra (Fridays), swing (Saturdays) and ballroom and square dance (Sundays). Hundreds of dancers can fit on the comfortable hardwood dance floor, with Saturdays drawing the largest crowds.

Other forms of dance, including tango, zydeco and blues, are featured in the Ballroom's annex or in the renovated Bumper Car Pavilion nearby.

 

Habana Village

Washington, DC

While go-to venues such as the Salsa Room are dropping live music, this true neighborhood hangout has been carrying the torch for more than a decade. Oscar Allauca and his band, Ritmo y Sabor, continue to play salsa standards and originals every Friday night. Most of the dancers are regulars, but newcomers can take a salsa class at 7:30 p.m., before the music starts, to make friends and learn steps.

Hydration is important if you're dancing, so you may want to indulge in one of Habana's specialty mojitos with real sugar cane.

 

The Carlyle Club

Alexandria, VA

Inspired by the art-deco supper clubs in glamorous 1930s films, the elegant dining room here sports high-backed curved booths, long tables decorated with miniature lamps and a hardwood dance floor that wraps around the bandstand. The setup makes it easy for diners to jump up from their tables for a quick foxtrot if a favorite song comes on, and many do.

When it opened in 2007, the club focused on swingin' big bands, but that has gradually changed. Doc Scantlin and his Imperial Palms Orchestra and the Glenn Miller Orchestra are still regulars on the calendar, but you'll also find Motown legend Martha Reeves pulling couples up for a little "Dancing in the Street," a trio of Rat Pack impersonators performing Vegas standards or local tango and salsa groups.

 

New Vegas Lounge

Washington, DC

Whether you want to dance to classic Motown soul, Chicago-style blues, Memphis funk, smooth '70s R&B or even the occasional pop hit, the New Vegas Lounge and the Out of Town Blues Band fit the bill. The band, led by the venerable Dr. Blues, performs at 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, and the club can sometimes get uncomfortably packed. But visiting this little juke joint – a homey spot on the middle of over-renovated Logan Circle – is usually rewarding.

 

Hilton Washington Dulles Hotel

Herndon, VA

Every Friday night, the Gottaswing dance instructors take over a ballroom at the Hilton near Dulles Airport and bring in bands that play boogie-woogie, jump blues, rockabilly and oldies tunes. A free dance lesson is offered from 8:30 to 9 p.m., and then the live music goes until midnight.

 

Madam's Organ

Washington, DC

This Adams Morgan club has been a nightlife institution on the strip for years. It offers live blues, soul, funk and more seven nights a week and consistently packs in large crowds.

 

Kennedy Center Supersized Jazz Club

Washington, DC

At the Kennedy Center, new jazz adviser Jason Moran recently had the Terrace-level atrium converted into the Supersized Jazz Club, a full-on music hall with concessions, couches and a dance floor at the foot of the stage. At the space's inaugural show two weeks ago, a 20- and 30-something crowd sipped beers and swayed enthusiastically to the complex rhythms and melodies of avant-groove trio Medeski, Martin and Wood.

"There are a lot of ways to enjoy music," Moran says. "And for some concerts, it's beautiful to actually sit down and listen to, you know, an opera. Jazz, its root is in people wanting to move to the music. If the music is making you want to shake, then you should have room to actually shake if you want to."

 

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