The beat speaks through his feet.
Nelson Spires twists his body, slides to the right and then to the left. He’s moving in unison with more than a dozen other dancers. It’s soul line-dancing night at a community center in Jessup, Md.
What exactly is soul line dancing? The simplest explanation is that it is line dancing to R&B and hip-hop songs. You know, those group dances — the electric slide, the cupid shuffle, the wobble — in which participants seem to magically know the choreography and do flash mob-style dance routines at picnics and weddings and on cruises.
But soul line dancing goes deeper.
Many soul line devotees — nearly all of whom are African American — take classes, attend socials and even travel together in line-dancing groups. For many of them, the dancing brings a cultural connection that traces its roots to Africa and the Caribbean. Such synchronized movements were a staple of the Harlem Renaissance and have recurred again and again through the decades at sock hops, disco soul lines and choreographed hip-hop dance routines.
Spires, 27, who drives for a local paratransit service, was invited to his first line-dancing event by his mom’s friend. When he is dancing, he does it knowing the steps can be traced back to his ancestors.
“Those types of movements,” he said, have “cultural influence.”
Plus, he said, it’s just plain fun, and it’s not intimidating.
“In my early 20s, I noticed I wasn’t a clubgoer and I was cool with that — I would only do lame dancing before this, and then I had the nerve to be shy sometimes,” Spires said, while toweling off in between dance numbers during a Friday-night social. “But line dancing just kinda brought it out in me.”
The trend has been growing in the D.C. metro area and across the country. Since 2010, the number of certified soul line-dancing instructors has quadrupled in the region. Sharon Lynn Holmes, a local instructor who started a line-dance certification program that year, said only eight soul line teachers joined the ranks then. Today, there are 32 area instructors. People dance to stay fit, stay social and stay current with the latest in popular music.
“I used to dance in college, and that was 20 years ago, but dancing never left my spirit,” said Emel Lyons, a Bowie, Md., resident who works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and started taking classes in 2014 at the urging of a North Carolina friend. “I love it — it’s addictive, that’s for sure.”
The tradition of group dance instruction songs stretches back to a time when African Americans were enslaved and when spirituals were used to help find the Underground Railroad, said Thomas F. DeFrantz, a Duke University African and African American studies professor who specializes in black dance customs.
African Americans also maintained a tradition of dances with “callers,” he said, where a leader announces what to do next. And that evolved into traditions like the “Soul Train” line and soul line dancing.
“They tell us about black lives, black faith, black transcendence and black resistance,” he said of the dances.
In the soul dances from the 1960s during the Black Power era, DeFrantz said, dancing bodies were held tight, and hands were balled in fists — a metaphor for the era. Then came disco, he said, and black social dances were about mobility with partners and featured lots of swing, circular gestures and free energy.
“We’re looking for places to congregate, to gather, to celebrate together, to feel safe, to feel empowered, to feel like we can express ourselves,” he said.
Shawn Short, who runs two dance centers in Northeast Washington, said country line dancing came first, but soul line dancers took it and made it their own. Not all the dancers know the history, but they still feel the cultural connection, he said.
“Soul line dance is soul line dance because it’s rooted in blackness — it’s rooted in the African American experience,” Short said.
When asked which song she likes best during one recent soul line-dancing social, 62-year-old Darnese Nicholson of Glenarden, Md., shouted, “They’re all my favorites.”
Nicholson, who began soul line dancing in 2013 while searching for a way to stay healthy, said, “I’m pretty much a newbie, but it’s good exercise, and it challenges the mind because there’s a lot of memorization to all of these steps. And the rule is, if you mess up, catch up.”
And her fellow dancers have become family, she said. They eat together, learn together, and there’s even a local annual awards ceremony (named the Union Crew Star Awards; people call it the “Academy Awards of line dancing”). She said the people she meets in the community have two interests in common: dancing and fellowship.
“It’s just wholesome,” said Nicholson, a retired transportation director who now attends weekly classes in Capitol Heights led by Saundra Richardson, the director of Style & Rhythm, another area line-dancing group. Even as a young girl, Nicholson loved dance — she would sit on the steps of her childhood home and peek around the corner to the living room, where her parents and their friends were doing the jitterbug.
Line dancing is her secret to staying hip; on any day of the week, you can find Nicholson practicing or watching videos of her favorite new dances, just in case she needs to brush up on a step or two.
“People are dancing everywhere,” she said, smiling.
And she may only be exaggerating a little bit, particularly if the popularity of the dance continues to grow as it has in recent years.
It’s happening at youth centers, gyms and churches around the nation. And the group names are endless, including All Something New and Poppin Out of California, InStep from North Carolina (whose youngest member is under 10 and has already choreographed a dance) and Between the Lines of Lanham.
A few members of Between the Lines (also known as BTL) ended up finding one another at an unlikely place: work. Some of them spend their days together at a U.S Census Bureau office in Suitland, Md., and at night, they line dance together.
They say the dance floor is the great equalizer: It doesn’t matter where you come from, how much you make, how old or young you are or whether you know the steps. You just get out there and lean on your fellow dancers. The crowd protects you. And if you don’t get it the first time, you have a chance to do it all over again at the end of the sequence, when everyone turns to the next wall.
“You practice on the floor, learn on the floor — it’s like a camaraderie,” said Lisa Paige, 49, of Morningside, Md., who choreographed a line dance to a 2015 R&B song with a fellow group member. “If they see you struggling, they’ll come over there and say, ‘Come on,’ and help you. They’ll call the steps out and everything so you can fit in.”
Holmes, the instructor who tracks the growth of soul line groups through her certification program, said the dance routines soothes participants on many levels.
“It’s a social outlet, it’s a stress buster, and it’s just basically fun,” Holmes said. “And you don’t need a partner to get on the floor — that’s liberating in itself. You dance when you want to dance.”
That sense of spontaneity may be just what the man many call the “godfather of line dancing” sought to tap into.
Dave Bush, who choreographed soul line dances, started teaching in his Philadelphia basement in the 1990s. Soon after, he formed a group that performed three times at amateur night at the Apollo Theater of New York in April 1997. They won twice.
Deborah Willis, 57, remembers that first performance like it was yesterday.
“A lot of us were nervous,” said Willis, who danced in the original group and planned events for Bush. He died in May 2013.
“Dave’s famous words were, ‘If you don’t have it now, you got to go out there and get it,’ ” Willis said. “He always said, ‘Your first step is your first impression.’ ”