Mayor on the move: Vince Gray is the No. 1 fan of a D.C. art form, hand dancing

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 7:32 PM

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.

"In order to preserve the dance, it has to change," Lindsay-Johnson says. "Otherwise, we would still be throwing people in the air."

Despite its name, hand dancing puts feet first - a six count with the male taking the lead in spinning his female partner.

"If you want to learn, just watch the feet," Gray likes to say.

Discounted at its start as a mere street version of swing, D.C. hand dancing followed the pattern of other regional dances, like the Philly Bop, West Coast Swing and Chicago Step. People would visit Harlem's famous Savoy Ballroom, then return to their home towns dancing the Lindy Hop with a local twist, according to a history by Kim L. Frazier, author of "D.C. Hand Dance: Capitol City Swing."

A form of swing that evolved in Harlem during the early 20th century, the Lindy Hop was a lively interracial brew of jazz, tap, Charleston and other moves that sometimes included the male dancer swinging his female partner into the air. The D.C. derivative is less athletic. To the untrained eye, it looks like a slow salsa without the salsa music.

Etiquette still requires men to invite women to dance, and good manners generally guide women to accept. A little tip: If you can't dance, say so.

"You tell the guy, 'Please be gentle with me.' They like to hear that," says Lindsay-Johnson, 57, a former WHUT-TV producer and documentarian who has made films on hand dancing.

There's somewhere to dance every night of the week, except Monday. "We dance Tuesday through Sunday," she says. "On Monday, we rest."

At the Coco Cabana in Hyattsville, a neon rainbow of palm trees makes for an odd sight in a strip mall off University Boulevard. Inside, the music wasn't thumping but mellowing its way along riffs of blues and doo-wop and the once-rebellious rock-and-roll that could now pass for easy listening.

"To be honest, I think the music slowed down as we got older," says Pam Vann, 66, president of the predominantly white, 700-member D.C. Hand Dance Club.

A thin layer of baby powder was sprinkled across two corners of the hardwood dance floor. Like gymnasts rubbing hands in chalk before competition, women wiped their two-inch heels in the powder and men rubbed their tasseled and two-toned dress shoes so they wouldn't slip. The women were armed with miniature, battery-powered fans at their tables to cool them off after they left the floor.

Blacks and whites tend to dance at separate venues - the District's Chateau and Eclipse nightclubs serve largely black clienteles, and mostly white crowds make their way to VFWs, American Legions and Elks Lodges in Maryland. But both black and white hand dancers were patronizing the Coco Cabana on this particular Sunday night, and the room looked like a high school cafeteria. Blacks sat in a group of tables on one side while whites congregated on the other.

It wasn't on purpose, black and white dancers say. It just is.

Most older hand dancers learned the moves during segregation, or the early days of integration when whites fled the city to the suburbs. Dance shows of the day catered to separate crowds. "The Milt Grant Show," the District's version of "American Bandstand," was whites-only until WTTG was pressured to allow African Americans to dance one day a week, dubbed "Black Tuesday."

Gray remembers dancing on the show. "Johnny Mathis was on the show. I don't remember the song he played," he says. "I got on because I knew somebody." African Americans were welcomed at rival WOOK-TV's "Teenarama," a show started for black teens in 1963.

Not surprisingly, white and black dancers developed their own moves and social habits.

"Look at the bar, it's all white," says Bradford, 66, who grew up in Adams Morgan. "Black hand dancers take it so seriously, they don't want to drink."

Bradford, who is African American, calls the black and white dancers "cousins" - related but not immediate family.

Bradford used to teach classes at the Eclipse and now teaches at Marygold's nightclub in Lanham. He boasts a roster of 10,000 people of all races with whom he has shared his footwork over three decades. As he speaks, a white couple he taught walks off the floor and toward his table.

"I saw you over there doing that slide skate with a hole," he tells them, referring to a dance move.

White hand dancers tend to use more European-style ballroom moves, says Mike Chucci, 66, an olive-skinned Italian wearing an earring. "In the black community, it's more jazz style, soul music."

"We were segregated, so it gravitated like that," chimes in Andy Anderson, 68, a two-time president of the D.C. Hand Dance Club. He looks at his friend. "Mike goes all over. He can go both ways."

Chucci prides himself on being able to pass: in complexion and in dance. He was the only white student in his class at Chamberlain Vocational School at 14th and Potomac streets SE in the 1950s. Like Bradford, Chucci is well known among blacks and whites throughout the hand dance circuit.

"Short . . . earring," Lindsay-Johnson says. "Oh, yes, he can dance!"

Still, black and white dancers can be out of step with each other.

Barbara White, who already knew how to swing but learned hand dancing two years ago, had just taken a break. Sitting at a table, with her black slippers beside her feet, White, who is African American, points to a white man on the dance floor.

"He and I were on the same beat, but some of the others . . . " White says, trailing off.

It might have something to do with the music, says Ron Carroll, 65, who DJs hand dancing parties with wife Kathy, known as DJ Kathy K.

Whites identify strongly with the '50s rock-and-roll music of Myrtle Beach, S.C., says Carroll, who is white.

African Americans dance to a wider variety of music, Carroll says, from Motown to Stax to blues to jazz. "When I think of Motown, I think of the Temptations, the Four Tops, but '50s and '60s music goes deeper than that for African Americans," says Carroll, who lives in Finksburg.

Carroll, who was running a digital playlist at the Coco Cabana, says he shares ideas and music with black spin doctors in the area. "Junior Walker? I didn't even know he had that many songs."

He says white hand dancers should take a musical page from black hand dancers to preserve the art form. Though the D.C. Hand Dance Club has a member who is 26, the membership leans heavily toward 60-something and up, he says, while the black groups are attracting more younger dancers.

"It's hard to get younger people into it. If nobody comes in four or five years from now, it's going to vanish," Carroll says. "The white clubs are a little sticky with their music. The black clubs aren't."

In the community room of Christ United Methodist Church in Southwest Washington on a Saturday night, dancers as young as 6 moved their feet to Dirty Money's "Loving You No More," the latest venture for Diddy, featuring red-hot rapper Drake, and to Katy Perry's "California Gurls."

Students from around the region take lessons from Markus Smith, 27, who learned to hand dance 14 years ago at the Eclipse. Bradford was his teacher. Smith's mother, Renita, dragged him and cousin Allen Copper to the class. They loved it.

"Children are sponges. They pick it up," says Smith, who is African American and competes internationally in swing dance competitions. "The main thing is to get kids to keep with it."

Hand dance classes for youths are held on Saturday mornings, but Smith lured them back to the church for a holiday party. Smith says children whose parents dance are the most likely to continue as adults, and sometimes parents learn from their children.

Jubril Wilson, 36, who lives in Southeast Washington, took a class with 6-year-old daughter Adaora. "I can barely dance. She's a star," he says as the pint-size first-grader puts her own little twist on the dance.

Wilson says he started going to hand dance clubs after separating from his daughter's mother. Hand dance parties and clubs are known for being safe, drama-free environments. Many a hand dancer - rocked by divorce or the death of a spouse - has made a dance partner a life partner.

Wilson says he had to learn the dance to have a chance at romance. "I'm talking [to a woman]. The music comes on. She says, 'Oh, this is my song.' I was just standing there," Wilson says, laughing.

The youngest dancers must convince their peers that hand dancing is just as fun and difficult as the Dougie.

Kayla Clay, 10, began dancing in August. "It took me about two or three weeks to really get the rhythm," says the Burrville Elementary School fifth-grader. "I try to explain to [friends at school] and tell them it's not boring. If you really like dance, like I do, you'll like it."

Despite her age, Kayla prefers "the '50s and '60s music because it has more of the rhythm for hand dance."

But Smith and Deonna Ball, another Bradford protege who teaches hand dancing and other dance at Roots Public Charter School in the District, use modern music and moves to draw in young people. Ball puts a heavy hip-hop touch on the dance, while Smith has taken the dance into a series of complicated twists and turns.

"Old school, there's more of a bounce and [it's] arm-heavy," Smith says. "New school is more relaxed, and the lady has more freedom." By that, he means that dancers can improvise more with their entire bodies, and women are partners, not followers.

"Old school is about the guys showing off. New school? There's more of a balance," Smith says.

New-schoolers, who may throw some West Coast swing and South Carolina shag into the mix, tend to use more of the floor. In the 1950s, District teens learned the dance in basements. "Your etiquette says you have that much room," says Anderson, an old-schooler flapping up his elbows.

But old school, new school, black or white, there's one thing that remains the same: trash talkin'.

"We all have egos," Chucci says. "If someone comes in front of me showing off, I'll get up and teach them a lesson."

Gray says he's been dancing since he was 9. He can hang.

Smith, who still hasn't seen Gray hit the floor, says he'll defer to the city's new chief executive: "Most of the guys from the day can break it down. I'll vouch for the mayor."

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