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Gray's election means new attention for D.C. hand dancing

The election of avid hand dancer Vincent Gray as D.C. mayor has created new interest in the city's regional variation of swing.

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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 9:24 AM

Incoming D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray doesn't relentlessly run, bike and swim like the outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, whose Marathon Man bent spawned miles of bike lanes and dozens of recreation centers and athletic fields during his four years in office.

But, boy, can Vince swing!

At least, that's what he thinks.

"I learned in the neighborhood," declares Gray, who grew up in Northeast Washington.

Lawrence Bradford, an expert in hand dancing - D.C.'s derivative of swing - offers a succinct appraisal of the mayor's moves: "He's okay," Bradford says.

Just as Fenty made fitness hip for the District, Gray could put the city's official dance at center stage with a kick, step, step and two triple counts.

On the campaign trail, Gray shared his lifelong hobby again and again. He didn't mind demonstrating, either, showing local television host Carol Joynt a thing or two during an interview after he won the Democratic primary in September. Gray, who heads to the Chateau on Benning Road NE when he feels like dancing, is expected to show off at Sunday's inaugural ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

In a city that has swelled with thousands of newcomers over the past decade, there's plenty of confusion about hand dancing. For one thing, what exactly do you do with your hands? (Answer: Hold your partner's, even when you're dancing apart.)

Over the years, the distinctly D.C. art form, which developed its distinction in the 1950s, has been largely eclipsed by the congas of homegrown go-go music. And yet hand dancing has ever-so-coolly built a cult following, spreading from Baltimore to Richmond. In the 1980s, the death of disco and a desire to hear oldies sparked the rebirth of a dance that Gray, like others, learned during his youth half a century ago.

The resurgence has revealed a note of disharmony. From a mostly lighthearted debate that pits old-school vs. new-school dance moves amid the lingering segregation of black and white dancers, hand dancing hardly reflects the "One City" that the 68-year-old Gray has said he wants for the District.

But maybe the city will follow the lead of some hand dancers, who hope to take the best of black and white and young and old to preserve the tradition they've come to love.

Evolution is the only path to survival, says Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, president of the predominantly black, 400-member National Hand Dance Association.


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