Correction to This Article
This article in the June 17 Magazine misstated the name of a restaurant and the Gaithersburg shopping center in which it is located. It is the New Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant, in the Walnut Hill Shopping Center.

Hidden Pleasures

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hot Doughnuts & Cool Wetlands

Delightfully unexpected fun along Route 1

By Liza Mundy

"Are you sure there's a wetlands here?" asks my mother, gazing dubiously out the passenger window. She is, after all, looking at signs saying Denny's and Chuck E. Cheese's and Hawaiian Pools and Spas. She is looking at traffic zooming toward us, and people waiting to take long exurban bus rides. And yet, minutes later, she is bending to look at: minnows.

And frogs. We have turned from Route 1 onto Lockheed Boulevard, then left and into Huntley Meadows Park, a freshwater wetlands in Fairfax County, carved from an "ancient meander" of the Potomac. Having made our way through a wood sprinkled with wildflowers as well as Tarzan-type vines that my son, who is 8, always finds inspiring, we have emerged onto a boardwalk and headed to where a couple is standing with their toddlers, studying fish and reptiles enjoying a muddy morning. We pass cattails rejuvenating from winter; red-winged blackbirds ecstatically swooping; turtles lurking; and Canada geese daubing so energetically that, watching one goose swallow something especially grubby and wriggling, we start to feel . . . hungry. Eat or be eaten! We decide, after a good walk, to eat.

"What kind of doughnut do you want?" I ask subsequently, all of us standing now in the Krispy Kreme that is five minutes from Huntley Meadows. We are waiting at the counter; behind the cash register is a window through which can be watched the various stages of doughnut metamorphosis: the larval stage, as dough rings; pupa stage, rising and cooking; and the butterfly stage, in which the doughnuts emerge lush and gleaming from the icer. This is our favorite weekend excursion, a trip where every decision involves only good options. Wetland first, or doughnuts? Glazed or filled? My son and daughter, 11, each get two -- glazed and filled -- to avoid committing. And there you have it, hot doughnuts and wet wildlife, the best that commerce and nature have to offer, side by side, implausible and yet sublime amid the cacophony that is Route 1.

Huntley Meadows , Fairfax County Park Authority's largest park, is at 3701 Lockheed Blvd. in Alexandria, 703-768-2525. There is no entrance fee. The nearby Krispy Kreme is at 6328 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria, 703-768-1002.

Rare Duckpins

Maryland is one of the last homes for this diminutive form of bowling, and College Park hosts one of the best

By Jim Haner

"Funky" was the thing we were after. Funky is what brought us to College Park on that miserably hot August afternoon -- the restless quest for something completely different.

The rapidly homogenizing commercial subsector known as "family entertainment" abounds these days with overstimulating Skinner Boxes designed to suck your wallet dry in less than an hour. And the modern American star-child is so jaded by virtual reality that it's hard to get his attention with anything short of a bomb blast.

So what's a dad to do with four sugared-up juvenile hellions -- my two sons, Ben, 13, and Sam, 10, and their friends -- after their fourth straight hour of "Super Mario"? "Funky" was my only hope.

"Duckpin bowling, bay-buh!" shouts Sam.

"Ohhhhh, yeah."

Coming through the doors of the AMF College Park Lanes, we are enveloped in funkiness. The carpeting -- black, with lurid cartoon swirls and triangle patterns, like something out of "Ren and Stimpy"; the scarred, blue plastic benches; the bleached-out American flag hanging over Lane 23; the racks of pitted, brown balls; the endless "THOCK!" of exploding midget pins.

And, oh, that smell: an earthy, leathery aroma, with deep wood notes and hints of citrus foot deodorizer. Somewhere off to the left, a pizza is in the oven at the snack bar (home of the $16.99 "Lotsa Meat" special that will rock your triglycerides for a week).

"Size?" asks manager Ellen Hines, the unsmiling, white-haired lane mistress working the front counter. She shovels six pairs of gum-soled shoes across the Formica, and we're off.

This peculiar variant of the English pin-smashing game was invented at the turn of the 20th century in Baltimore. As if bowling weren't hard enough, the Baltimoreans turned it into an act of contrition by chiseling the ball down to the size of a grapefruit, narrowing the lanes and taking a lathe to the pins -- called "ducks" for their tendency to soar when struck.

The game eventually spread to 10 states, peaking in popularity in the early 1960s at no more than about 300,000 registered players. It has been receding ever since. There are now fewer than 10 duckpin "houses" left in Massachusetts, for example, and only one in the whole of Pennsylvania. Ac-cording to the www.robinsweb.com, the lone venue west of the Mississippi is in Oklahoma (outside Tulsa). Maryland remains the sport's stronghold -- with 31 duckpin joints, including lanes in Silver Spring, Suitland and Bowie.

Sam poises at the top of the lane, four-pound grapefruit in hand, then charges the line and dives to his knees for a skidding delivery. His double-ricochet shot veers like a pinball off the gutter guards.

"THOCK!"

The boys try every approach to improve the odds: the "quarterback snap" (back to the pins, ball released between the legs); the "dead drop" (in which the ball is lightly thumped onto the lane for a slow roll to the targets). In short order, knocking down the pins becomes less important than chalking up "style points" for unusual bowling methods. Ben's buddy Justin takes the prize with a spastic contortion that produces a strike, causing a couple of the boys to laugh so hard they blow soda through their noses.

The adults in our group go with a more upright release. It takes about five frames to get in the groove, that state of Zen "oneness" with the sphere. Since it has no finger holes, the only way to control the ball's path to the pins is with relaxed body mechanics, mental cool and a roll of your pinky finger.

Gradually, you feel the flow, that certain ephemeral clarity that is so hard to come by in stressed-out Washington suburbia. You are freed from your perfectionist impulses by the folklore that no one has ever bowled a "perfect game" in duckpins in more than a century of trying. You smell the pizza. The Sprite tastes better. Sam gets a spare somewhere in his second game, and the world seems perfect.

The College Park Lanes , 9021 Baltimore Blvd., College Park, 301-474-8282.

Match Made in Heaven

How to watch some of the world's best tennis up close and on the cheap

By Tom Shroder

My wife and kids and I were wandering around the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park on the opening Saturday of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Washington's little piece of the U.S. Open tennis series. The first round of the tournament hadn't even begun -- these were just contests between has-been and wannabe qualifiers, hoping for a spot in the main draw. But we came because we knew that this was still incredibly high-level tennis, and it would be overlooked by all but a smattering of hard-core fans. The guy who could beat the guy who could beat the guy who could beat your club tennis pro 6-0, 6-0? He wouldn't stand a chance against any of these players. And though the tournament draws an average of more than 70,000 fans, very few of them show on this day. Which means that we could drive 16th Street with barely a pause, park right beside the entrance to the complex, then act as if we owned the place. We could go to the main stadium court and plop down anywhere we wanted -- either in the shady seats behind the baseline or the courtside seats directly over the net. We could walk over to the grandstand courts and watch from five feet away as 16-year-old phenoms took on veterans with names we recognized trying to make a comeback from injury or misfortune.

And all this -- plus the festival atmosphere surrounding major tennis tournaments, with the food court and merchandise booths, the test-your-skill games, the occasional live music -- would have made a fine day in itself, except . . .

After the main qualifying matches, we once again strolled out of the stadium. As we approached the back courts, we saw a pair of tennis-shoe-clad feet below the windscreen. Someone was waiting for a serve, but the interesting thing about it was how the feet were constantly moving -- bouncing, hopping from one side to the other. Quick, controlled movements that improbably exploded forward at the exact moment we heard the resounding thwack of racquet against ball.

"That looks like Lleyton Hewitt," my wife said, referring to the winner of the 2001 U.S. Open and the 2002 Wimbledon championships.

"I admit it looks like him," I said. "But why would he be playing in the qualifying round?"

It was Hewitt. We looked more closely at his opponent: Tim Henman, the great British hope. Two huge stars worthy of a major championship semifinal having a friendly hit. We found a seat in the stands five feet from the court and watched them smash the ball at each other, grunting and sweating and making their own line calls. When they took breaks, they sat down on lawn chairs and chatted about real estate.

When it was over, we headed back toward the parking lot, then stopped dead at one of the practice courts on the north side of the stadium. James Blake, the second-ranked American player was hitting with Mardy Fish, the silver medalist from the 2004 Olympics. Here we pressed right up against the fence, at times inches from the action.

"Want to play a set?" Blake asked Fish.

And they did, just like any two pals on the city courts. Except they were a million times better. And on the next court over, all-time great Andre Agassi, shirtless, was hitting with upcoming star Andy Murray.

A week later, from our seats high in the stadium, we watched Murray win the semifinal match handily. The stands were full of appreciative fans, most of whom had no idea what they had missed.

This year's tournament's qualifying round is Saturday, July 28, at the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center off 16th Street NW.

Having a Ball

Where the big game never stops

By Tesfaye Negussie

It's 5 o'clock on a warm summer evening. As you jog down the trail in Sligo Creek Park in suburban Silver Spring, a subtle music rises from beyond the trees, the syncopated murmur of voices accompanied by a rhythmic thud . . . thud . . . thud.

The sound grows in volume and pace until you reach a clearing, then explodes all around you in the hustle and dash of a five-on-five basketball game. It's a combination of combat and ballet. A player darts across the court, sending an opponent scuttling on his heels. But a deft pass evades the defender. The darter snares the ball and turns to face his opponent, glaring. Both freeze for a fraction of a second. Then, with a sudden first step, the ball handler blows past, into an opening invisible to all but him, straight to the hoop. He leaps, cries out, "Ahhhh!" then jams the ball fiercely through the rim, a resounding thunk, followed by exhalation.

Welcome to Sligo Creek basketball courts. Though they are actually in Sligo Dennis Avenue Park, the basketball players refer to the courts simply as Sligo Creek. It's one of those public hoop venues known for the quality and quantity of the play.

On a lively day, you'll find all three courts packed with people, all following an unspoken etiquette. One court is designated for the more advanced: college players, some talented high school athletes and a few guys who never played in either place, but have distinguished themselves with years on courts like this. The second is for those who aren't quite good enough to compete on the other, but play just as hard, nonetheless. The third orients sideways to the first two courts. This is reserved for half-court games or shoot-rounds while waiting for a game on the other courts.

The people who come are as diverse as Silver Spring itself. Biagi, born in Gambia, is a 21-year-old player for a local junior college. In the off-season, he finds time, in between his summer league games, to run a few games on the courts he grew up on. Alex, who is Caucasian American and appears to be 30-something, is among

the best players, with a deft outside touch and a hard-charging dunk. Ever, originally from Nicaragua, used the competition at Sligo to enhance his skills as a high school player. Then there's "Pops," an African American who seems about 50. He's fond of shooting outside jumpers and directing other players on the court. As for me, I'm a 23-year-old Ethiopian American who comes simply to stay in shape.

Our love for basketball connects us; we're all chasing a feeling: to be on "fire" and look into your opponent's eyes and know that there's nothing he can do to stop you; to see those on the sidelines nodding their heads in appreciation of your talent; to make that nearly impossible pass to an open man; to hit the winning shot in a fervently heated game.

And we know that we can find that feeling, and each other, at Sligo Creek.

Here are some hot hoops venues in the area : Hardy Recreation Center, 4500 Q St. NW, Washington; Barry Farm Recreation Center, 1230 Sumner Rd. SE, Washington; Sligo Dennis Avenue. Park, 10200 Sligo Creek Pkwy., Silver Spring; Allen Pond Park, 3330 Northview Dr., Bowie; Alcova Heights Park, 901 South George Mason Dr., Arlington; Nottoway Park, 9601 Courthouse Rd., Vienna.

Gone to the Dogs

Congressional Cemetery needed money. The canines had needs, too.

By Gene Weingarten

Do you like old cemeteries? I mean the really ancient kind, with 17th-century soft white marble tombstones that are no thicker than a hand and so whittled by the elements that they are barely readable? But when you finally make them out and reconcile them with those that surround them, you are delivered rich, elegiac stories of love and loss?

Me, too. And if you are also awed by the sepulchral silence of such a place -- the solemn dignity of death and remembrance -- you'll probably want to steer clear of Washington's Congressional Cemetery, where dogs pee on the graves.

Congressional Cemetery is for the secular humanist, the exuberant existentialist, the practitioner of the ironic arts. It is comedy and anarchy and madness set against a backdrop of death. If you find this not just tolerable but also philosophically apt, this place is for you. It really helps if you have a dog.

Congressional is privately owned and funded, and some dozen years ago, its 33 acres were in a disquieting state of neglect and decrepitude. Then, two seemingly incompatible desires found common ground. The preservation group that owns the cemetery wanted money. Capitol Hill dog owners wanted an enormous fenced venue in which to run their pets, and they were willing to pay a yearly fee. It was a marriage made in, well . . . Heaven.

On nice days, dogs are everywhere -- big dogs, little dogs, old dogs, young dogs, handsome dogs with lineage, dogs who appear to have been sewn together from spare parts in some Frankensteinian frenzy -- all in happy consort, running wild. The grounds are clean; poop bags are required.

Some gravestones are new, but most belong to antiquity, and every once in a while you'll run into a familiar name: bandmaster John Philip Sousa; Civil War photographer Mathew Brady; Elbridge Gerry, who was vice president under James Madison; hanged Lincoln conspirator David Herold; Push-ma-ta-ha, the Choctaw chief; and Mary Ann Hall, revered owner of a fancy Civil War-era brothel. Hall's tombstone is the largest of these. It contains a sculpture of her looking like the saint who, to many, she was.

J. Edgar Hoover is here, too, near his ma, his grave surrounded by a fence, with a bench placed so that FBI agents can come and contemplate the great man who held all the secrets and sometimes deployed them extortively: the lifelong bachelor who obsessively hunted homosexuals to purge from the federal workforce; the man who wiretapped such dire threats to national security as Martin Luther King Jr. I've never seen anyone on that bench.

Hoover's grave is just a few dozen feet from that of Leonard Matlovich, the decorated Vietnam vet who was dishonorably discharged for being gay. He fought that discharge up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won. Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988. His headstone reads, "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

There is something defiant, and liberating, about this boneyard that has gone so splendidly to the dogs. The final irony is that the only windows from which anyone can see the full expanse of the cemetery belong to the D.C. Jail. On a crisp night, you can hear some mighty mournful sounds.

Congressional Cemetery is in Southeast Washington, not far from RFK Stadium, not far from my home. I have decided that here is where I want to be buried. I have instructed my children about my wishes: a small stone, bearing only my name, my dates of birth and death, and this inscription: "A funny man who loved dogs." The stone will be in the shape of a fire hydrant.

Historic Congressional Cemetery , 1801 E St. SE. For more information go to www.cemeterydogs.org.

Dim Sum & Tank Hypnosis

Stuff yourself, then dream with the fishes next door

By Elizabeth Chang

A child-centered suburban family needs to take its transporting experiences where it can find them, and since our two kids were small, one of our favorites has been improbably located in a mundane strip mall in Gaithersburg. When an unscheduled weekend day presents itself, we'll pile into the minivan and race to Walnut Creek Shopping Center for the moment of truth: Is there a line? Usually, there is. But that's a testament to the draw of our first stop: dim sum at Good Fortune restaurant.

The cavernous establishment, reminiscent of San Francisco-style dim-sum dining halls and one of the few in this region with rolling carts, has a red-and-gold stage at one end, a few large pieces of China-themed art -- the better to be seen from the other side of the room -- and elegant crystal light fixtures. The dining space reverberates with the din of chattering families and clattering dishware as black-clad servers steer the heavily laden carts through the narrow aisles. They proffer plates and steamer baskets full of delicious Cantonese appetizers, along with a variety of noodles, meat and vegetables, and pause tableside to present their wares and mark what we accept on our menu card -- which lists prices from $2.50 to $10. Soon the pot of tea on the Lazy Susan in the table's center is surrounded by dumplings (har gau, shu mai, fried, etc.), clams in black bean sauce, pork buns, beef chow foon, asparagus and stuffed taro, and that's only a small fraction of what's offered. For dessert, the kids wave down the servers peddling sesame balls and egg custard tarts, and talk us into trying Chinese crullers dipped in soybean milk.

But when the meal is over, our ritual is only half-complete. We journey three doors down to the tranquility of Tropical Fish World, where we happily wander in a tryptophanic trance among the more than 100 tanks in the darkened back room to gaze at the psychedelic, fluttering creatures (often spying fellow dim-sum diners). Being non-experts who have owned only the occasional beta or goldfish, we almost always come across something that surprises -- porcupine puffers, pinktail triggerfish -- and the friendly staff is happy to answer questions or, on occasion, entertain children by feeding worms to the stingrays. I was disappointed, though, when they took away the row of chairs facing the large, hypnotic central tank. There, we dim-sum-stuffed adults would sit and relax while the kids explored. Perhaps it's for the best; those chairs right after all that food sure made it hard to leave.

New Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant , 16515 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg, 301-548-8886; Tropical Fish World, 16529 S. Frederick Ave., 301-921-0000.

Shall We Dance?

A fabulous Washington social event where no one cares what you do for a living

By April Witt

The man offers his hand. I take it expectantly. I know he's so good he's going to make me forget everything but his will. For the next three minutes, I'll try to do whatever he wants. I don't know his name. I have no idea what, if anything, he does for a living. I could not care less. The guy can dance.

So can dozens of other men and women who make Chevy Chase Ballroom -- CCB to regulars -- a swing-dancing mecca Monday and Friday nights. There are more storied dance venues, and hipper ones. But no corner of the region's booming dance world feels more like home to me than this spartan studio set a flight of stairs above Wisconsin Avenue. For more than a decade, the promoters behind Gottaswing ("the largest swing-only dance instruction and promotion company in America") have held dances in a long, narrow space unadorned save for a wooden bench, where people chat and wait to be asked to dance, and a strand of Christmas lights that twinkles year-round. There's no smoking or drinking, unless you count the water fountain in a hallway. Regulars include a 13-year-old girl and a retired minister in his 80s. Pundit Tucker Carlson practiced off-hours at CCB for his appearance on "Dancing With the Stars." Regulars resolutely didn't notice; the only connection most CCB devotees care about on dance nights is the useful tension between the leader's left hand and the follower's right.

Nothing I do all week seems as much like pure schoolyard play as dancing at CCB. When a skilled lead twirls me around in a new and intricate pattern executed at high speed, I'm tempted to say, "Wheeeeeeeeeeeee." Sometimes I do.

CCB dancers play well together. Most are generous to those struggling to master new moves. Almost everyone follows a cardinal rule: Dance with whomever asks you. The rare lech enters the wholesome scene like some poignantly comic weirdo in a Jim Jarmusch movie.

There's a live band at CCB on Fridays from 9 p.m to midnight. But Mondays are my favorite. Only the hardest-core addicts turn out to dance from 9 to 11 p.m. on a Monday. My regular dance partners will be there, stomping and whooping if the music is just right. The mild-mannered lawyer with the Elvis Presley hips will be even smoother this Monday than last. The man who claims to eat only raw food will demur that he needs some new moves, although he always manages to surprise me. The nice young fellow who honed his balance skills on a skateboard will lead in his fluid, laconic style that makes dancing feel like surfing waves of music, and leaves me breathlessly happy.

The Chevy Chase Ballroom is upstairs at 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW in the District. Admission is $5 on Mondays and $15 on Fridays for live music. More information at www.gottaswing.com.

Sweet Memories

Nik-L-Nips and candy cigarettes recall the joy of childhood

By Richard Leiby

Once upon a time, life was so simple that happiness could be found in little wax bottles filled with sickly sweet syrup dyed in primary colors. Remember Nik-L-Nips? When I was a kid, those and other penny candies -- Chick-O-Sticks, Mary Janes and BB Bats -- inspired anxious reveries as I stood at the corner store counter, clutching my coins. Oh, to be 10 years old and unburdened by all the strivings and cravings of adulthood, including an appetite for dollar-apiece Godiva truffles.

"In those days, a penny actually bought something," I heard myself lecturing my kids on U.S. 15 near Thurmont, Md., on the way to visit their grandmother. "We would collect soda bottles from the side of the road, and then take them to the gas station, where they gave you 2 cents each. And --"

Yawns and muffled giggles. Yeah, right: Try preaching thrift and pluck to kids today. But my three teenagers stir from their iPods and Game Boys when they realize that we're about to pull over for their favorite pit stop on the way to Pennslyvania: the Gateway Farm Market, some 50 miles north of the District. It's in a small strip mall whose storefronts bear three signs. One advertises "Liquors." Another says, "Church of Christ." The one in the middle says "Candyland."

Pulling in, I always offer the same homespun wisdom: "If you can't find happiness here, you're not human." And the kids always pretend to be amused, even though they've heard it a hundred times.

Candyland is run by an engaging Thurmont native, Marguerite Doll, 54, who goes by Maggie. Her husband, John, 55, tends the adjoining liquor store. (They rent space to the church.) One of nine kids, Maggie was born in a farmhouse and, like me, remembers collecting bottles and splurging on penny candy. Her dad ran a dairy, orchard and produce stand; 16 years ago, Maggie and John bought the market from him. Today they sell an amazing array of old-fashioned candies and unique confections, such as chocolates crafted by the Amish to look cunningly like deviled eggs.

"We try to stay different and sell the things you can't find anymore," Maggie says. So alongside such staples as peanut brittle, chocolate-dipped pretzels and licorice twists (flavors include green apple and blue raspberry), you'll find bins of Black Jacks, Kits, Long Boys and anything else "I remember loving as a kid," she says. There are hand-packed bags labeled "Boston Baked Beans," "Rainbow

Coconut Slices" and "French Burnt Peanuts," all of which look as though they came from Grandma's cupboard.

Even candy cigarettes. "People say, 'I can't believe you still have these,'" Maggie says.

The penny candies now sell for $3.99 a pound. Most of them don't taste anywhere near as good as I remember, but the pleasure is in the ritual, stopping at Candyland, finding something new -- or old. The sweets will melt away, as will the years. As my homespun mother puts it: "Children grow up."

But right now, we're as happy as kids in a candy store.

Gateway Farm Market & Candyland , 14802 N. Franklinville Rd. (at U.S. 15), Thurmont, Md., 301-271-2322.

Cafe Whoareyou

The perfect perch for people-watching in Washington

By Tom Sietsema

One of the souvenirs I always wish I could bring home from my foreign travels is a sidewalk cafe: a restaurant with tables that offer a view of the people who bring a city to life, and the chance to take in the scene with a cup of true espresso or a glass of local wine. Rome has such cheap thrills in spades. So does Paris. But Washington -- with its must-get-to-work-ethic -- lags seriously behind. A few chairs parked outside Starbucks just don't cut it.

A notable exception is 701, which is one of six restaurants owned by Ashok Bajaj and is a pioneer of fine dining in Penn Quarter. As much as I anticipate the cotton candy colors of the cherry blossoms, a truer sign of spring for me is the reemergence of tables outside this contemporary supper club.

The location is a day dreamer's idyll. The seating looks onto the Navy Memorial, which is set off with flags from around the globe, tall plumes and short cascades of water from a circular fountain, a map of the world etched on the plaza and the occasional performance by a military band. Across the street looms the imposing National Archives. Nearby is a Metro escalator that sucks riders in and spits riders out in seemingly equal numbers.

Fenced in with low hedges and pansies, an outdoor perch at 701 allows a patron to be both audience and actor. The voyeur in me is fascinated by the random snatches of conversation I overhear. "You slept with him?" a woman cries into her cellphone. In the time it takes me to swallow a sip of pinot gris, she and her story are history. "He's getting canned on Monday," a man tells a companion as they stroll by my linen-draped table one Friday. I wonder whom the man is talking about, how he knows this information, if he's friend or foe of the soon-to-be-fired. By the time I finish my wine, I am wondering what all the passersby are thinking about me, the lone man with the empty glass in front of him. ("It's Friday. Happy hour. Where are his friends? Does he have any friends?") The unwilling exhibitionist -- me -- asks for his check.

Yet I'm always drawn back, eager to pick up where I've left off.

During the closing years of the Clinton administration, I once watched as a clutch of tourists approached the most dapper man on the plaza to ask for directions. Dressed in an exquisitely tailored suit, the gentleman paused while walking a dog. His inquisitors were oblivious to the somber men in dark shades and earpieces positioned just a few feet away. The fashion plate listened attentively, pointed the strangers toward their destination and wished them a pleasant stay.

From my perch at 701, then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen struck me as the kind of tour guide every city should be so lucky to claim.

701 Restaurant , 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington; 202-393-0701.

Potomac Confidential

Canoeing, camping and a chance to reconnect

By Tom Shroder

We put in just west of the Loudoun County line and paddled the two-man kayak into the hot breath of an August breeze. Sea-Doos buzzed around us like gigantic flies. We pulled against the wind and the weight of the camping gear and the irritating whine of gas engines for about 20 minutes until we saw the river end in a puzzling straight line and heard a resonant hum, like a deeper, more powerful wind rising under the breeze.

A few more strokes, and the hum turned into an unmistakable roar as the line of water resolved into a white froth between a series of black rocks.

"Rapids," I yelled ahead of me, and my son nodded but kept his eyes on the white water, growing ever more alive before us. And then we were in it, and the Sea-Doos -- and the world they represented -- were a distant memory. We yelled and dug and narrowly skidded between and over the rocks, dipping down into a brown curl of water, then splashing into the breaking white rollers.

When the rapids released us, we shipped our paddles and floated into a growing silence. The channel had narrowed as the river split between the Virginia bank and a turtle-shaped island, both forested in deep green, the leaves flipping silver in the wind. We were not more than 20 miles from the Washington Monument, yet we may as well have been 2,000, alone in a wilderness with neither sight nor sound of human presence.

For three years, my 16-year-old son and I have been making this astonishing 12-mile kayak trek down the Potomac, between Algonkian and Riverbend parks. If we paddle vigorously, we can make the trip in not much more than three hours. But that would be foolish. Instead, we alternate gliding past the banked shores and careening through cataracts until we find a likely spit of sand rising above the current. Then, with another stroke or two, our laden hull scrapes onto the shore, and we scramble out.

We usually leave home in midafternoon, make camp with hours until sunset, then build a sand pit and start a fire with driftwood. We toss around a football, put on our life jackets and float in the current, throw out a fishing line, make an inexplicably delicious meal of burgers and beans, watch the sunset, take one more swim in the magenta afterglow as the fish jump in the eddies and the hawks soar overhead, sit by the fire, play cards for shells and pebbles, talk philosophy and physics, then sleep as you can only sleep in a tent on a sand island with the water gushing and gurgling five feet from your pillow and someone you love breathing softly beside you.

One year, we didn't pay enough attention to the weather report, and we awoke to a torrential rain battering the thin skin of our budget tent. It was almost comforting, except for the rivulets starting to course between our air mattresses. At dawn, we broke camp in the still-steady downpour, stowed our soggy gear and pushed off into the rain-swollen river. A mist rose off the tippled surface as we flowed into a small rapids, then parted before us to reveal a six-point stag shank-deep in the foaming water. It turned its heavy, majestic head and considered us with clear, brown eyes. We all froze for an indeterminate moment as the kayak accelerated toward him. Suddenly, he launched himself forward, up and nearly clear of the current, then crashed back down. Two, three more fantastic leaps, and he was up the bank of an island and into the trees.

I can't imagine I'll ever lose that image. As for how my son regards these trips . . . A few months ago, I read a short story he wrote for high school English about a now-solitary man camping on the river, remembering with longing the trips he had taken with his son. An excerpt: "When his son was little, the man could remember lying next to him on the river's beaches. As they lay there, neither would speak, but would merely admire the insanity of the sky."

Algonkian Regional Park is at 47001 Fairway Dr. in Sterling, 703-352-5900. Riverbend Park is at 8700 Potomac Hills St. in Great Falls, 703-759-9018.

Off to the Races

Where even the losingest track junkie can win the (plush toy) trophy

By David Rowell

I've got money on the No. 4 horse, but the No. 4 is on his way to extending my long string of losing bets. He fades and quickly falls to the back of the pack. Within seconds, the No. 11 horse reaches the finish line, and a brief yelp of celebration rings out down the way. I eye my horse and stern-faced jockey with disillusionment, but, in truth, the loss -- and all my losses of the day -- are my own failing.

The horse in question is a mechanical one, about 16 inches high, 18 inches long, and resides at the front facade of Funland, an amusement park on the boardwalk of Rehoboth Beach (the pavilion also houses a slew of kiddie rides, various swooping and spinning rides for bigger kids, Skee-Ball, shooting galleries and video games). Funland faces Rehoboth's picturesque seaside, where it's common to catch sight of dolphins frolicking by, and is near the end of a long stretch of establishments offering such beach staples as funnel cake, Italian Water Ice, frozen custard, buckets of remarkably tasty Boardwalk Fries, rooftop mini-golf, live hermit crabs whose shells have been painted Day-Glo colors, and racks of ubiquitous, supposedly funny T-shirts that somehow are more tempting when you're on vacation than in the confines of your local mall.

The derby's dozen jockeys, smartly dressed in sundry colored caps and jackets, sitting atop disparate colored horses, race across a 20-foot field of green before a painted backdrop of a packed grandstand. Risking a dollar for a prize consisting of a small or large stuffed horse, you roll a little, wooden ball up a slightly elevated ramp. At the head of the ramp are 11 holes that make up a reverse triangular pattern: yellow holes on the edges, blue holes at the core and two red holes in the very back. Get your ball in a red hole, and your horse gallops; the blue hole registers a more mild canter, and the yellow but a trot.

Over the years, I have somehow honed the ability to roll the ball right over a hole without dropping in. More often than not, it spins in a befuddled dance along a hole's plastic rim before rolling listlessly back down the ramp to me. In short, I am a perennial loser at the game. And it's the losing that fuels my obsession.

The derby only gets more crowded at night, and the range of those who are content to spectate is impressive: surfer dudes, parents no longer encumbered by young children, parents who have kept their young children out too late and are now reduced to crankiness, kids in hip-hop attire, Eastern European beauties in their short shorts, the American rotund. These spectators tend to take their ponies seriously. One evening, I sidle up to a fellow standing behind the player of the No. 5 horse who is calling out gentle encouragement: "No pressure! No pressure!" But as the No. 5 horse remains fixed by the starting gate, the man's calm dissipates. "Get it in the hole!" he shouts.

The next day, the young attendant watches me manically fish out dollar after dollar in vain, and as others wander away and I stay parked, he shoots me a quizzical look that says, You're still here? I shrug. There is only a crew-cutted boy of about 11 down at the far end. The attendant asks if we want to wait for others, or do we want to race now, just our two horses? I try not to show my eagerness -- pathetic as it is, I suddenly like my chances -- and nod nonchalantly.

The tinny sound of trumpet fanfare comes through the speakers; then the bell sounds. On my second roll, I manage to drop the ball in red, then blue. Crew Cut can't get going. My 5-year-old has his arm tucked around mine and watches with guarded hope. (He is aware of my career record.) I'm a good two lengths ahead, but I try to remain cool. Smooth and steady, I tell myself. My rolls aren't dropping, and Crew Cut's horse is gaining ground, about to pass. In the nick of time, I get another ball to drop in blue, then another. My horse gets the bell. I make a point -- with difficulty -- not to hold my arms up in triumph. The amused attendant offers us a choice: a light or dark plush horse, and my son picks the dark. For a few sun-dappled moments, we stroll down the boardwalk, reveling in victory.

Funland , 6 Delaware Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del. For more information, visit www. funlandrehoboth.com, or call 302-227-1921.

Sandy Springs Eternal

Finding solace at the historic waters that gave a town its name

By Caitlin Gibson

Meeting House Road in Sandy Spring ends at the doorway of the historic 19th-century Quaker meeting house, a brick building with a long wooden porch and a crown of Union stars beneath the roofline. This is where the path to the actual Sandy Spring begins, past the porch steps, beyond the cemetery and the centuries-old tulip poplar with its gapped foliage spilling mottled light over the headstones.

To find the spring, follow the road to the left. Go past the horses and the beekeepers, past the flood plains and the broken-down fences, past the few old estates set back among the trees.

It's roughly a half-mile walk. I have seen the path through the selective gaze of a camera, and I know the precise angles and fragments of scenery that probably look the same as they did almost 300 years ago, when Quaker settlers first found the spring. But few places have remained untouched by the ever-expanding suburbia outside Washington, and here is no exception. The identical facades of a new housing development interrupt the landscape, rows of white-shuttered windows peering over the crest of field along the final stretch of the road.

But when you arrive at that one perfect acre, fenced and tucked into the crook of a hill at the edge of the trees, the modern world retreats to its rightful place just beyond your field of vision. Steps lead down to the water -- a small, shallow pool partly shaded beneath an engraved concrete arch. Small frogs and water striders skim the surface, trailing broken reflections of trees and sky.

A plaque outside the lopsided gate tells an abbreviated history of the spring and the small town named in its honor. This underground reservoir was the primary source of fresh water to the farmers who settled in the area in the 1720s. Over time, it has become a protected historical and environmental landmark, one of the headwaters of the Anacostia River.

The spring, states the plaque, "has long been a source of contemplative thought." It is true that there is a presence in this place, an almost tangible weight to unknown lives who have paused here over the centuries. There are still occasional visitors who stray from the nearby series of trails built by the county; but often, the fenced acre -- which is owned by the Sandy Spring Museum -- is filled only with the voices of birds or crickets.

My friend and I come here when we find ourselves in need of solace or perspective. We sit on the stone bench beneath the trees, and we talk or don't. Sometimes we pluck fat, round seeds from the fallen pods littering the grass and toss them into the spring. There is a simple but oddly deep satisfaction in the musical plunk of a seed or stone gulped down by water, concentric circles of light rippling outward on the surface.

The magic of the spring is its agelessness, the way it conveys both its own long history and the pure immediacy of childlike experience. On certain days, the escape feels absolute, the only sound the shiver of leaves. Other times, a humid breeze may carry the faint melodies of an ice cream truck meandering through the new neighborhoods nearby.

Returning to the meeting house after a recent visit, I passed a woman and her two young daughters. She stopped to ask me if I was from the area, explaining that she grew up here but had not returned in many years.

"Is the spring still there?" she asked.

I told her that it was.

"Good," she said. Her younger daughter -- maybe 4 years old -- grinned up at me, twirling a buttercup pinched between two fingers.

I listened to the sound of their shoes on the gravel path as they continued toward the spring, the crunch of steady footsteps, stones scattering as the children ran ahead.

Sandy Spring is always accessible, and there's no entry fee. Visitors may park in front of the Quaker meeting house 17715 Meeting House Rd.

Hearing Ghosts

It's hard to feel alone while walking the Manassas National Battlefield Park at night

By Michael Leahy

The Manassas National Battlefield Park, where thousands of men died in two Civil War battles, evokes sensations that I don't get elsewhere. I sometimes run here at dusk in fields where guns fired and men fell, and where tourists nowadays wince while contemplating the horrors. But I always feel like I'm in an idyll. By the time I finish running, the tourists are gone. The battlefield is pitch-black and dead quiet -- no city streetlights or car horns to mar the peace -- and I always feel the eerie sense of the Other Side, that place to which the dead have crossed over. I walk the blackness, treading fields where thousands perished far from their loved ones. I suppose that, once in a while, I get the cheap thrill that comes from feeling as though you're tempting fate and getting away with it. But that wouldn't account for the serenity that comes over me.

A source of mine, a quite reasonable woman who frequently walks the grounds of the battlefield, experiences a different sensation. She sheepishly tells me that she feels invisible "presences" during her strolls here, hears whispers on the winds, perceives rustlings around trees that sound like -- dare she say it? -- footsteps.

"You must think I'm crazy," she says to me.

"No." I know from personal experience that the battlefield could do weird things to a head. "So, exactly what is it that you --"

"I mean, it has to be the power of suggestion," she blurts. "Must be."

Perhaps, but her ghosts are going nowhere. If anything, she says, they've multiplied as she has learned more about what happened here on a warm day on July 21, 1861, during the bloody Battle of First Manassas in the early days of the Civil War.

The Union's leaders were supremely confident, historians say. Union Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell had marched 28,000 troops down from Washington, and was intent on capturing the Manassas railroad junction before moving on to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond. Union supporters had traveled to the nearby town of Centreville, where they picnicked while looking forward to watching a swift rout.

Things did not go as planned. At the end of July 21, nearly 900 soldiers from the two sides lay dead, and Union soldiers were beating a retreat toward Washington.

My acquaintance reads histories of war carnage, and hears more ghosts. I, however, come here to stare at the fields and clear my head. Some years back, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I began dropping by a little more often, not really knowing why, other than that the place seemed to quiet my mind in moments when I couldn't turn it off. I would walk by Stone House -- which was a 19th-century tavern converted by the Union into a makeshift field hospital -- and then up a gentle incline called Buck Hill. It is not much of a climb, but it is enough to get away from whatever is bothering you, to stare down on a patch of ground where men dreamed and died, and to put your own problems into perspective.

It isn't as if you can ever forget the slaughter that occurred here, which included a second battle in 1862 even more horrific than the first, with more than 3,000 soldiers dying. Still, one of the incongruities of famed battlefields is how much tranquility comes to you from pristine grounds once soaked in blood, grounds that bore witness to so much shock and desperation, so many whistling shells and cries of death. To climb up Buck Hill -- which looks down on a part of Manassas -- is to feel the balm of a gentle breeze on spring and autumn evenings. It is a window to some quiet place deep inside you. That whisper you hear is not a ghost's but your own.

Manassas National Battlefield Park , at 12521 Lee Hwy., is open daily from dawn to dusk. For more information, call 703-361-1339.

The Very Hungry Tarantula

Fortunately, you're too big for it

By Christina Ianzito

Probably the most transfixing few seconds you can offer a kid in Washington can be found at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. At a recent tarantula feeding in the museum's Bug Corner -- soon to be back in the refurbished O. Orkin Insect Zoo on the second floor -- a crowd of families huddles around a small rug, where a museum volunteer places a clear plastic box featuring a very hairy, black five-inch Mexican redknee tarantula named Olivia next to a vial containing a large cricket. In the box with Olivia is what looks like her twin, but is actually her molted old skin, volunteer Matthew Kweskin explains. Just then a girl of about 10 interrupts.

"That cricket has no idea its life is gonna end!" she exclaims.

"No idea," Kweskin agrees. He proceeds to dump the ignorant bug in front of Olivia, who senses its movement -- tarantulas have eight eyes but can hardly see -- and, in a flash, uses her front legs to reach out and pull the cricket to her mouth. Her bite injects a toxin that turns the inside of the cricket to liquid, we learn. "It's like a cricket Slurpee," another bug-savvy volunteer explains, eliciting a few "eewwws" and a sarcastic "yummy!" from the audience.

Of course, if an expert weren't on hand to explain the biological back story here, and if you'd blinked, it would look as though the spider had remained immobile and the cricket had magically evaporated. The younger kids, including my 2- and 4-year-olds, are too young to appreciate how fascinatingly gross the spider's digestive process really is, but a handful of older boys gather around Olivia's box for 10 or 15 minutes afterward to marvel at the cricket's thin legs still poking from the tarantula's jaws. After a half-hour or so, a small, brown pea -- what's left of the cricket -- is ejected.

Olivia is just one of the museum's roughly 35 tarantulas, whose bite isn't usually deadly to humans, says the insect zoo manager, Nathan Erwin, but they have venom and long fangs, "so if you were bit, I think it would hurt." And, as with a bee's sting, some people are highly allergic.

Bug Corner rotates the spiders for the thrice-daily public feedings, as each tarantula is fed only once a week. (Upon hearing this, one woman exclaims wryly to a friend, "Imagine going an hour without food?!") Sometimes the tarantula isn't hungry and will ignore the cricket or flick it away, Erwin reports -- not too exciting for observers. And the mostly motionless spiders seem to have no other perceptible tricks in their repertoires. But the staff offers visitors other live enticements, such as the chance to feel the soft skin of a bright-green tomato worm or rub the back of a walnut-size Madagascar hissing cockroach.

National Museum of Natural History , on the Mall. Feedings are Tuesday through Friday at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Taste of Ethiopia

At this U Street restaurant, you can skip the coffee and still leave feeling energized

By Tiffany Harness

We are missing the coffee ceremony. A willowy young woman wearing a full-length gauze dress and holding a tray is already moving between the tables when we open the door. The newcomers in the crowd watch as she offers a tiny porcelain cup to each patron. But those who have been here before know what's coming and keep their eyes on the stage.

Up front, three male musicians in white tunics trimmed in turquoise form a semicircle around a female singer with shiny dark eyes and a mass of chocolate-brown spiral curls. The lights are low as the slow thump-thump of an electronic drum melds with what sounds like an ultra-modern violin solo. This gloomy adagio, my friend says in my ear, is a love song.

Finally, we are seated, close enough to the performers to see the strings of the traditional instruments in their hands. Next to the stage, steam rises from a coffee pot perched on a stool in a bed of Kelly green plastic grass.

It's true, most of us probably come to Dukem, an Ethiopian restaurant on U Street NW, for the food: chunks of beef and lamb sauteed with turmeric and onions, mounds of lentils and tomatoes served with a stretchy flatbread. But on Monday and Wednesday nights, we also come for the show.

I come, too, to appreciate the faces in the crowd: Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians; locals and tourists; families with energetic kids; couples at small tables for two; women in bejeweled tops and strappy sandals; guys in khakis and T-shirts. We have all found our way here.

The "cultural programs" -- the music, dancing and coffee ceremony -- were started because Monday and Wednesday nights tended to be slow, Dukem's manager explains. On those nights, the performers go through several songs and costume changes that represent a handful of Ethiopia's ethnic groups and languages. Even most Ethiopians can't understand all the lyrics, I'm told, but we all feel the sadness, heartache, whimsy and elation they embody.

From a room back near the kitchen, three dancers glide through the audience to the dance floor. They leap and turn in unison to the quick, sharp musical bursts of joy. A pivot, and now they are shaking their backsides at us as they playfully greet the other side of the room. Someone snaps a picture.

Tonight's finale: a dancers' duel, two against one; women take on the man. He shows off his steps then cockily offers the floor to the next dancer. We fall for it all and root for the women! The music turns faster, the jumps higher, the feet quicker. No one is eating or talking. A toddler moves just out of his mother's reach, clapping excitedly as he watches the dancers' gigantic shadows on the ceiling.

Just minutes later, the show is over. Through a window, I see three of the performers, back in their jeans and knit tops, walking down a side street. The room is half-empty now, the brew station dismantled by the host in two quick trips to the kitchen. We pay and head out, the aroma of smoky coffee on our clothes.

Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant , 1114-1118 U St. NW; 202-667-8735.

Baltimore Paradiso

Where the food's so good your hands can't stop talking about it

By Steve Hendrix

A word of advice, paisan: When you go to Baltimore and stroll along Albermarle and South High streets, keep your hands in your pockets. Otherwise, they'll get away from you as you read aloud from sidewalk menus. It starts with a jerky flap of the wrist with the fungi farciti at Rocco's Capriccio. Maybe a little palms-out shrug with the impepata di cozze at Germano's. You pass a syllable-rich family restaurant here every 40 feet or so, all the while inhaling the tomato steam that floats above the streets like an ethnic inversion layer. By the time you get to the melanzane timbalo at Della Notte, you'll be waving both hands, kissing your pinched finger tips and speaking with a souped-up arrivederci accent.

Pomodori alla caprese! Mmwwaa!

We're all gesticulators in Baltimore's Little Italy, a dozen-square-block enclave of passionate words and gorgeous food tucked between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. This is Balto Bellissimo, where Formstone meets fettuccine and a rich sausage sizzle floats among the metal awnings and plastic flowers. And it's the densest pocket of Old Country ethnicity within easy reach of Washington, a city too Southern to grow the kind of straight-from-Ellis-Island immigrant 'hoods that flourished farther north. Sure, you can get cannoli in Bethesda. Episcopal cannoli. Franchise gelato. Focus-grouped cappuccino. But if you want Italian in its natural habitat, you gotta do a little time on Interstate 95, up to where front stoops make perches for gossiping old women and ego shots of Tony Bennett fade in cluttered trattoria windows.

And where bocce lives. Local folks play Italy's version of bowling just about every evening on a pair of authentic courts squeezed between Saint Leo's catholic church and the biggest Sons of Italy lodge in Maryland. Walk over before your antipasto or after your dolcetto, and most nights you'll find a game in progress. Come Wednesdays or Fridays to see some serious match play. Come other nights, watch for more than 15 minutes, and you'll likely be invited to roll a few of your own. Italian Americans are like training wheels for shy people.

"Giana, give your brother a turn," calls a raven-haired young mother to a group of kids knocking the heavy wooden balls haphazardly along a court on a recent Sunday evening. The bambinos are playing a lawless version of the game on the left court, but on the right court, it's bocce by the book. Joe Arcilesi, a 63-year-old bricklayer with the swept-back gray hair of a shipping magnate, hitches up the leg of his gray slacks and takes two steps toward the foul line. His black, tasseled loafers carry a faint patina of the fine white marble dust that coats the court.

"C'mon, don't die. C'mon, baby doll," he murmurs as the green, 4 1/2 -inch ball stutters crisply down the gritty lane, curving ever so slightly from the spin of Arcilesi's weathered fingers. It banks off the wooden rail and comes to rest an eggplant's length from a smaller, white ball, the pallino. A winner.

The basic point of bocce is to roll your ball as close as possible to the pallino; all the better if you knock an opponent's ball out of the way getting there. It takes three or four years to perfect your throw, Arcilesi says.

Two blocks away, the after-dinner line is only 10 yards out the door at Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop. Not bad. It can be twice as long. Pretty much universally accepted about Vaccaro's is this: It's worth the wait.

Inside is the boiler room hiss of the cappuccino rigs and the sultry air of hot sugar, cheese and chocolate. A wall of cabinets is filled with precious cookies, napoleons, pasticiotti, sfogliatelli. Mmwwaaa! Turn the corner for banks of gelato, the sublime Italian ice cream with the airy texture of chilled Fluffernutter.

But mostly what the harried clerks shovel over the countertop and sling onto the cafe tables is cannoli: miles and miles of pastry tube stuffed with whipped ricotta and chocolate chips. Your teeth crush the forgiving shell, detonating the dense filling and flooding your soul with fat and sugar and just a whiff of sunburned olive groves and sexy shoes.

There's a wait, always, for tables, and many of the pilgrims just take it to the sidewalks, savoring their indulgence of choice within the ample bosom of the neighborhood. Two beauties-turned-grandmothers share the news in white plastic chairs on the corner. Old men, weathered by the suns of two continents, talk baseball and bocce.

An evening in Baltimore's Little Italy. It's just so very . . . American.

Baltimore's Little Italy is just east of the Inner Harbor, roughly bounded by East Pratt Street, South Central Avenue, Eastern Avenue and President Street. Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop, 222 Albemarle St., 410-685-4905.

Hot for Hip-Hop

Three left feet? Here's a dance studio a newbie can fall in love with

By Ylan Mui

I am Mean Mug.

Forget the wool trousers, the faux crocodile pumps, the telephone headset, the carpal-tunnel-preventing wrist brace and the steno pad that are the trappings of my life as a journalist. When I step into the dance studio at Joy of Motion, I am straight-up thug.

At least for an hour or so.

"If you're not from the 'hood, you need to pretend," the instructor, Aysha Upchurch, says to the class on a recent evening before we start dancing to the Rick James song "Ghetto Life." "Even if your 'hood is like . . ."

"Dupont Circle?" pipes up a student, Eliza Brinkmeyer.

She works for a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group. Another student works for NASA to implement new business systems. Others dream of becoming Janet Jackson's backup dancers. But every Monday night, we shed those labels and come to the studio in Friendship Heights to just dance.

"You have the sickest booty pop," Jamie Stagel, a recent graduate of American University, tells Eliza as we warm up.

The studio is not a glamorous place. It sits above a liquor store, and the room we are in is basically a refurbished garage. Rolling on the floor can leave black streaks of dirt on our clothes. The speakers frequently break down. Ventilation seems nonexistent.

We come to dance, yes, but we also come because we are a family. Joy of Motion's motto is "Dance Is for Everyone." Anyone can sign up for a class, and there are more options for adult beginners than advanced, ranging from yoga to belly dancing, Latin hip-hop to salsa for gays and lesbians. At Joy of Motion -- or, as we call it, just Joy -- we dance with heart.

I started as a self-conscious newbie four years ago with no dance experience, except for the semester of Ballet 1 that I took in college to pad my schedule. I quickly became addicted. I've watched the women in my class go through pregnancy, graduate from law school and change careers.

They were there when I broke down while planning my wedding, and they hijacked the sound system on the big day to blast Justin Timberlake, much to my delight and my husband's chagrin. There have been tears -- of frustration on bad dancing days and laughter at our 801,723,487 inside jokes. It's like "Making the Band 3," er, only without the singing. (By the way, I'm Aubrey.)

Inside the glorified garage, all talking stops as soon as the song "Ghetto Life" starts blaring. Within 15 minutes, sweat is dripping off my face, my eyebrows are knit and my jaw is set as I top-rock the daily grind out of my system. I look so angry that the teacher once asked me, "Girl, who stole your bike?" Hence, the nickname Mean Mug.

"Bring your own funk," Aysha says, as we run through the choreography she taught us. We cock our heads and drop down low. Our moves are hard, aggressive but fluid as we buck our legs, whip out turns and stomp the floor.

"You do you. Be influenced by other people, but you do you."

I do me. High-heel-wearin', notepad-totin', showstoppin' me -- with a little thug sprinkled on top.

You got a problem with that?

Aysha nods in approval. "Mean Mug-a-licious," she proclaims.

Joy of Motion Dance Center , 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-362-3042.

Magazine editor Tom Shroder will be fielding questions and comments about this issue Monday at noon.


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