To anyone who's ever pegged Washington as a stiff town, I've got one thing to say: Nobody puts D.C. in the corner.
Just take one look at the city's thriving social-dancing scene. On any given night, you can find a booming bar to fine-tune your salsa, practice your tango or learn a few new zouk steps.
I know because I've done it.
Over the past few weeks, I've done my fair share of fancy footwork in search of the area's most welcoming, high-energy dance nights — one for every day. I've gotten whiplash mid-twirl, wrapped my sneakers in duct tape to reduce traction and stomped on more toes than I care to admit. And I've loved every miscounted second of it.
"Dancing is a beautiful escape," says Earl Rush, 62, a D.C. native and local salsa instructor who has been dancing for more than 30 years. "You don't think about your problems, your bills, your kids. You don't think about any of that."
At these dance nights, you can shake your troubles away, test your rhythm and, above all, make friends. Washington's dance lovers tend to get less attention than its wonks, foodies and fitness fanatics. But if you know where to look, you'll discover a spirited, tightknit community that eschews the stale "So, what do you do?" line of questioning for something far more inviting: "Would you like to dance?"
The key to enjoying Club Cococabana's tango night is to drink caffeine. Lots of it. The dance floor doesn't pick up until about 10 p.m., when couples in suits, sequins and heels congregate beneath a cluster of disco balls and strut their stuff. "Tango is a culture," says Phil Jones, owner of Bienvenido Studio in Takoma Park, who leads an intermediate lesson every Monday at the club. "It's the shoes, it's the clothes, it's the etiquette."
At 9 p.m., newbies can take a free lesson in a secluded corner where they'll learn basic steps, how to navigate the floor and the nuances of the three types of tango. The regulars are an incredibly welcoming bunch, primarily made up of lifelong enthusiasts in their 50s and older. (When she found out I was 32 and single, one woman offered to set me up with her 54-year-old son.) If you're looking for a younger crowd, try Eighteenth Street Lounge or Ozio on Tuesday nights. Thursday night at Eastern Market also draws a late-night crowd. 2031 A University Blvd., Hyattsville. Intermediate lesson, 8 to 9 p.m., $10, $15 for couples; beginner lesson, 9 to 10 p.m., free; open dance, 9 p.m. to midnight, $10.
The first rule of swing dancing is to adjust your expectations. Don't picture yourself swooping between your partner's legs or twirling around their back. "When people see those moves, it's 99 percent of the time a competition or a commercial for the Gap," says Greg Stasiewicz, who leads a free beginner's lesson through the local swing organization the Jam Cellar at Josephine Butler Parks Center on Tuesday nights.
Beginning in a circle, you'll rotate from partner to partner as you learn the basics of a six-count Lindy Hop, a simple dance you can eventually build upon. Toward the end of class, sounds of stomping reverberate through the ceiling as the main event starts in the grand ballroom upstairs. There, you can mingle with dancers practicing East Coast swing — a more fast-paced, informal alternative to West Coast swing — and show off your new skills.
Don't be afraid to come alone or ask a stranger to dance. "This is a no-pressure social situation," Stasiewicz says. "People come here in the hopes of enjoying the music and meeting some awesome people." 2437 15th St. NW.Beginner lesson, 8 to 9 p.m., free.; open dance, 9 to 11:30 p.m., $8.
Held in Cafe Citron's cramped basement, this free, 1½ -hour salsa session is led by Orlando Machuca Jr., an animated salsa veteran with a fondness for humor and cursing. He brings a ton of energy to the popular class — now in its 11th year — which walks dancers through basic steps and turns in front of a wall-length mirror.
On a recent visit, many attendees appeared to be flying solo, so don't rule out a love connection. Just be prepared to break a sweat: The moves are fast-paced and focus on your core.
Luckily, there's a break or two, which most guests use to order a drink to help them loosen up. Stick around after class for open dancing to watch the veterans who've trickled in. 1343 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-530-8844. Beginner lesson, 7:30 to 9 p.m., free; open dance, 9 p.m. to midnight, free.
Billed as the next dance craze, zouk is rooted in the Brazilian lambada. Following a simple slow-quick-quick rhythm, you and a partner can work in spins, hip pops and hair whips. The class at Bravo Bravo, an underground, no-frills nightclub downtown, is set to hip-hop music as you go through basic steps and learn how to hold your partner. "No noodle arms!," yells instructor Terrisa Widener, who co-founded the D.C. Zouk Festival, slated to return to the Hyatt Regency in June.
Widener shows you a few advanced foot patterns and moves, including "wifi," which involves breaking from your partner and leading only with visual cues. Zouk "has a lot of intimate characteristics, but you can be separated, too," she says.
After the hour-long class, the dance floor opens for a party with plenty of eager dance partners. Note: If you're looking for zouk lessons in particular, call the bar in advance; it occasionally hosts bachata classes on Thursdays. 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-223-5330. Beginner lesson, 9 to 10 p.m., free; open dance, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., free.
Contra dancing, Rick DuPuy says, is a cross between square dancing and the kaleidoscopic moves you'd see in a Jane Austen movie. "Looking at it from above, it's got these patterns that form and reform," says the president of the Friday Night Dancers, a local nonprofit group that organizes weekly lessons of the bygone folk dance at Glen Echo Park, followed by a well-attended open dance that has been running for over 30 years.
The booze-free evening draws about 200 participants of a wide range of ages. Held in the grandiose Spanish Ballroom, the dance is accompanied by a band playing cheery, fiddle-heavy tunes and a caller who dictates your next move with the flair of an auctioneer. The pace is fast, and steps can be dizzying at times, but the forgiving crowd is a sea of smiles. Lots of dancers prefer to go barefoot — so cast aside your hang-ups along with your shoes.7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Beginner lesson, 7:30 to 8:15 p.m., included in the price of admission; open dance, 8:30 to 11:30 p.m., $10.
You don't need a pair of cowboy boots to have fun during the line-dancing classes at Nick's Nightclub. "As long as you've got shoes that stay on your feet, you'll do okay," says instructor Renae Kapinus, who has been line-dancing for 12 years. The beginner's lesson opens with a demonstration, followed by a breakdown. Once the band starts playing, you'll know two complete dances.
Dance shepherds stand post throughout the night to lend a hand (or foot) if you need a refresher, although the dancers in the crowd are also eager to show you the way. Newbie note: It's line-dance etiquette to stand near the periphery of the dance floor if you'd like an invitation to dance. If you'd rather observe, stand back. 642 Pickett St., Alexandria, 703-751-8900. Beginner lessons, 7:45 to 8:45 p.m., $10; open dance, 8:45 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., free.
Easier to grasp than salsa but just as sexy, bachata has humble roots in the Dominican Republic. "It's really simple music that was played in clubs and brothels," says Lee El Gringuito, of the dance's origins decades ago. He and his wife have taught bachata classes in more than 800 cities throughout their career — including at Lucky Strike in Chinatown on Sundays. The intimate dance requires as much hip dexterity as a dashboard hula girl, and partners can get really close — if you want to take it there. (In other words, don't forget the deodorant.)
Lee's class won't leave you ready for the big league, but you'll learn enough moves (including how to pull off a fluid body roll) to feel comfortable on the dance floor, often packed with a crowd. Stick around after the lesson for a salsa instruction led by Earl Rush, the local dancing legend who will have you belly laughing as you learn new twists and turns. 701 Seventh St. NW, 202-347-1021. Bachata lesson, 8 to 8:45 p.m.; salsa lesson, 8:45 to 9:30 p.m.; open dance, 9:30 p.m.-1 a.m., $12.
Correction: A previous version of this article said the cover fee for dancing on Sunday night at Lucky Strike was $10. It is $12. This version has been updated.