Swing High, Swing Low

By April Witt
Sunday, January 29, 2006

The mystic poet's words ring true: Dancing is when you rise above the world, "tearing your heart to pieces and giving up your soul"

The tall man clasps the woman's right hand in his left and draws her to him. He encircles her waist with his right arm. It is late. They are tired and sweaty, but exhilarated.

He hopes the band will strike up a swingy rendition of the tune he likes to think of as their song: Heaven. I'm in Heaven. And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak. And I seem to find the happiness I seek, when we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.

It doesn't, but once the music starts he feels as if he's in Heaven anyway. He extends his left arm slightly to swing his favorite dance partner out away from him before pulling her close again and lifting their clasped hands to set her spinning. The pair whirl together effortlessly, as if she is reading his mind instead of the subtle gestures and weight shifts he uses to signal new moves.

He swivels, she swivels. She keeps on swiveling until he lightly touches her slender waist to stop her motion. As they face each other, he distributes his weight evenly on both his feet. He then pulls his feet slightly apart -- setting up a Lindy Hop move called Maxie's Stop Step. She matches his movements as he does the splits, hops to cross his feet and then uncrosses them. They both know he's preparing to launch a slide, which will end with a dramatic stomp. He strikes a pose and freezes, playfully delaying the denouement. She listens to the music, trying to predict when he'll unleash that stomp. She intuits correctly. They slide, stomp and laugh, in unison.

The dancers mirror each other uncannily with one exception.

Frances Gail Courtney is a natural beauty whose wholesome, symmetrical features are lit by a perpetual smile.

Steve Terry's face is a ruined landscape of unexpected planes and proportions. One eye is higher and deeper set than the other. From the tip of his ear down, his face is improbably small. His mouth is twisted and gnarled. Yet, as he glides across the dance floor with Frances Gail, amusing her with his quick, clever moves, he manages to look rakish.

It is a fall Saturday night at the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park, the storied venue for dance and romance that opened its doors in 1933. The band is taking a break. Hundreds of swing dancers sit on the 7,500-square-foot spruce-maple dance floor. They watch as a troupe of middle-aged people wearing sailor suits files out before them and lines up in formation.

The dance team is called the Eight Week Wonders. For the next 2 minutes 4 seconds, team members perform, more or less in unison, an exuberant series of swing-dancing moves with names like the whip, the lawn mower and the jazz box. Their broad smiles are even more striking than their moves. As they twist, turn, jump and strain at the screaming-fast pace of 240 beats per minute, they look euphoric.

"We're all a bunch of repressed technocrats leading a double life," says Tony Nesky, a member of the dance team who is an environmental consultant. "You've got the assistant deputy undersecretary of soybean policy by day. By night, he's Jim Carrey. By night, we're throwing women over our backs."

The team -- whose members include a basement-waterproofing salesman, a dentist, two scientists, several lawyers and an expert on State Department protocol -- is the creation of local swing-dance instructors and impresarios Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg of Gottaswing.com. "I feel like a drug lord," jokes Koerner. "Only the drug I sell is swing. The Eight Week Wonders are some of my crack babies."

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