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The Break Dance

It's still too cold to swim, but the spring rituals are heating up in Virginia Beach -- and not just for students.

By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 24, 2004; Page C02

Inside Peabody's nightclub on a not-quite-spring evening, practically anything goes and just about everything glows. The mugs of Budweiser glimmer, the waitresses' white halter tops shine like neon and smiles gleam almost ghoulishly, like grins in a Crest commercial gone wrong. While black light illuminates the sights, the sound system blares Missy Elliott as people on the dance floor groove, grind and sweat with all the Friday night fervor they can muster.

After all it's March, the beginning of spring break season for college students ready to rid their minds of midterms and let loose. But this party isn't happening at a bacchanal beach resort like Panama City or Daytona. It's in Virginia Beach, a family vacation destination that also attracts its share of revelers who sure know how to work it.

March madness: Spring breakers party at Peabody's in Virginia Beach, where the nightlife is warmer than the water. (D. Kevin Elliott - For The Washington Post)

Virginia Beach is simultaneously known as the home of the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club" and hip-hop hitmakers Timbaland, the Neptunes and the aforementioned Elliott. The city enforces a No Bad Behavior campaign -- an effort to curb public drunkenness and other inappropriate conduct, especially during the summer months -- while Atlantic Avenue, the beach's main strip, overflows with nightlife options for those who want to get their booze on. In fact, summer partying has gotten so hearty that, according to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, city officials are considering broadcasting easy-listening music along Atlantic Avenue after midnight to discourage loiterers. Like a hurricane, Kenny G could send the drunkards fleeing from the shore.

So clearly some summer beachgoers go semiwild here, at least. But does Virginia Beach's party get started in time for spring break? Pam Lengel, spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, says no.

"As far as college students go, the water's too cool here and the weather's too unpredictable" to attract many spring breakers, she said. But bar owners beg to differ. One of them, Matt Falvey, said they see their share of college kids on holiday, some from as far away as Ohio, New York and New England.

"Some of the people at the more northern schools don't want to drive all the way down to Florida," says Falvey, who co-owns Peabody's and Hot Tuna, another bar-restaurant in Virginia Beach. "So they come here or go to Myrtle Beach."

During an early March weekend, as spring break began at many colleges, my girlfriend Kim and I threw a pair of duffel bags into the trunk and kicked off our own pseudo-spring break. Since both of us graduated from college a decade ago, we spend more time these days in Bed, Bath and Beyond than in bars and clubs. But in Virginia Beach, I thought perhaps I -- like Will Ferrell's character in the movie "Old School" -- would reconnect with my inner Frank the Tank.

We checked into the Dolphin Inn, an all-suite hotel in the middle of the Atlantic Avenue action. After settling in, we headed to the Abbey Road Pub & Restaurant, a cozy neighborhood bar with live music and more than 100 kinds of beer on its menu. An acoustic band crooned "Son of a Preacher Man" and "Proud Mary"; at one point, the lead singer even knocked back a shot of tequila. Which reminded me: We couldn't get too comfortable. We had raging to do.

As we departed Abbey Road, I asked a young woman if she had any nightlife suggestions for us. Sizing us up and clearly determining that we were (a) older and (b) not hard-core partiers, she said, "Well, the place you don't want to go is Peabody's."

We thanked her and headed straight to Peabody's, where it was college night: Anyone with a university ID got in free. We graduates paid the $5 cover and donned our pink proof-of-age paper bracelets.

We looked, or at least felt, much older than the miniskirted, ballcap-wearing twentysomethings around us, most of whom were dancing, drinking or playing pool. Yet within minutes, a pair of 22-year-olds named Justin and Jerry introduced themselves. They told us they had just come from New Orleans.

"We heard this was the second-best party place in the country," Justin said.

"You heard this in New Orleans?" I asked disbelievingly. Then they explained that they're traveling cross-country, party town to party town, in an RV. In other words, they were on permanent spring break.

"So basically you're just going to walk the Earth like Caine in 'Kung Fu,' " I said, making a once-removed reference to "Pulp Fiction," the Quentin Tarantino movie that defined hipness back when I was 22.

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