Steps In Time
By M.J. McAteer Friday, August 11, 2006; Page WE25
No one would ever call Washington a footloose kind of place. To the contrary, people who want to get ahead here usually toe the line for way more than 40 hours a week. Call it the necessary footwork of ambition.
When their daily slog is finally done, however, some people still have enough kick left in them to go dancing. Not competitive dancing, like those ballroom extravaganzas on TV -- in which contestants look about as carefree as corporate lawyers -- but social dancing, which is about taking pleasure in the movement, the music and the company.
Social dancers in this area specialize in moves with names like the hey, the teacup chain, the boogie back, the hair comb and the groove step. It just depends on what era they find appropriate -- and choose to appropriate.
Some social dances, such as contra dance and the waltz, go back centuries. Other dances -- the black bottom, the jitterbug and the hustle -- lived largest in various decades of the 20th. Still others, such as hip-hop, continue to evolve in the 21st.
Regardless of what kind of dance intrigues you, rest assured that someone is out there ready to reveal the secrets of doing it well. Even better, many instructors appear to work for love as much as for money, so learning a social dance doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. In most cases, for little more than the price of an apple martini, you can dance the night away.
What follows are five samples of the many types of social dancing in the Washington area, presented in the chronological order of their birth.
Regency Dance, or Mr. Darcy Rules
"Do you think people will be doing the Macarena 400 years from now?" Karen Follett asks in a tone that leaves no doubt as to her answer. But then a pianist whose songbook includes "Tythe Pig" (1695) and "Black Bess" (1696) is unlikely to embrace a dance craze that blazed hot for a couple of years in the mid-'90s and then flamed out, while contra, or country, dance is still spry after, lo, these many centuries.
Follett, musical coordinator of dance for Shenandoah University in Winchester, often provides the accompaniment for the Piedmont Regency Dancers, an amateur group that embraces a style of English country dance that was popular from about 1780 to 1825. Erica Helm, chairman of Shenandoah's dance department, is one of the group's instructors.
Many Regency dances, Helm explains, are performed in "longways sets," meaning men and women line up facing one another and then execute interwoven patterns as they progress through the line with their partners. Other dances are configured in rounds and squares. The use of a prompter, or caller, shows square dancing's clear descent from contra dancing.
Contra dance can be vigorous, but some of the staples of the Regency repertoire are quite stately, involving as much graceful walking as aerobic conditioning. These dances, which in their heyday were performed in ballrooms rather than in barns, often are no more than five minutes long, too, which makes a night on the dance floor sustainable for the baby boomers who are heavily represented in the Piedmont group. Nor are twinkling toes a prerequisite -- the steps rarely seem more complicated than sliding, skipping, prancing and gliding.
The Piedmont Regency Dancers practice once a month in Upperville. The current focus of the group, which has about 50 active members, is learning the dances that will be performed at an October ball. The candlelit, costumed affair will be held at Ayreshire, a nearby estate owned by the dance group's founder, Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems. The event will feature dances from the 2005 film "Pride & Prejudice." (Gadsby's Tavern in Alexandria is holding a similarly themed ball Saturday in Alexandria. But, alas, it's sold out.)
"It's kind of like a club," says regular Bill Endorf of Winchester about the Piedmont Regency Dancers, "and the ball is our playtime."
PIEDMONT REGENCY DANCERS Membership is open and free. Those who want to go to the ball are expected to attend practice regularly. No partner required. The next practice is Aug. 26 at 7:30 at the Trinity Episcopal Church parish house, 9114 John S. Mosby Hwy. (Route 50), Upperville. Call Susan Richards at 540-554-8570.
THE GOVERNOR'S BANQUET AND BALL Nov. 18. Reception and banquet at 5:30; ball at 8. Gadsby's Tavern, 134 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Reservations required. Banquet and ball, $90; ball only, $30. English country dance classes, 7:30 to 9:30 Nov. 2, 9 and 16. $12 a class, $30 for series.703-838-4242 or http://www.gadsbystavern.org.
Information on contra dancing venues and classes:
FOLK DANCE ASSOCIATIONhttp://www.folkdancing.org.
COUNTRY DANCE AND SONG SOCIETYhttp://www.cdss.org.
Square Dancing, or All Tips Welcome
"If you can march, you can square-dance," says Gary Gardner, as a "yee-haw" goes up from the floor beside him. "It's like a close-order drill."
Except that the boots in this camp would be of the cowboy, not combat, variety, and the ID tag worn by the man issuing the marching orders spells out "Butch" in rhinestones.
Butch Adams is the caller for the Stompers & Strutters, one of about 80 square dance clubs in the D.C. area. The Sterling group gets together twice a month for an evening of "tips," or square dances, with usually enough couples showing up to make three squares -- that's 24 people, mostly older than 50. The preponderance of the dancers are club members, but guests are welcome, too.
The Stompers & Strutters, says longtime member John Jensen, is a modern, western-style, plus-level club. The "modern" means that the music can be Abba or country-western; the "plus level" means that members have mastered more than 120 moves. Square dancers are ranked in levels from "mainstream" (70 moves) to "challenge" (350).
So while the footwork may not be fancy, the mind must be nimble and must be quick. Dances aren't choreographed, so it's all about learning the body language.
"Load the boat," Adams might command, in a smooth patter that sometimes crosses the line into song, and the couples pass each other, turn, trade partners and pass again, but already Adams is issuing more orders:
"Spin, chain and exchange the gears."
With a single tip lasting 10 or 15 minutes, a dancer's brain-foot connection sometimes shorts out, and the square "breaks down," the biggest faux pas in square dancing.
"Put your hands up" if you get confused, advises Gardner, a club member for 15 years. "Somebody probably is going to grab you."
Square dancing "is like a big 'Simon Says' game," says Juanita Fernandez, a guest at a Stompers & Strutters dance last month.
Fernandez is a member of the D.C. Lambda Squares, a gay square dance club based near Dupont Circle, and she is in Sterling on a Saturday night because she's just gotta dance. The Lambda Squares, she says, who dance on Thursdays, attract a younger crowd than most square dance clubs, and many more singles, including "straights."
Like the Stompers & Strutters, the Lambda Squares are a "dance by definition" club, which means that the members know how to do the moves from any position, not just gender-specific ones. An arm extended, palm up, means "I'll be the gent for this tip," while an arm extended palm down means "Treat me like a lady."
STOMPERS & STRUTTERS Meets at 8 on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Sterling Annex Community Center, 22084 Shaw Rd., Sterling. $6. 703-437-0374.
D.C. LAMBDA SQUARES Meets Thursdays at 7:30. First
Baptist Church, 1328 16th St. NW. $8. 301-257-0517.http://www.dclambdasquares.org.
Information on square dancing venues and classes:
VIRGINIA SQUARE AND ROUND DANCE ASSOCIATION http://www.vasquaredance.com.
WASHINGTON (DC) AREA SQUARE DANCERS ASSOCIATIONhttp://members.aol.com/wascaclubs.
Swing Dancing, or All That Jive
Like the fractured light from a prism, swing dance spans the spectrum, from the frenetic jitterbug to the laid-back Carolina shag. Swing dance can be as silky as D.C. hand dancing or as acrobatic as the Lindy Hop. The hustle, line dancing, the Balboa and the boogie-woogie all swing.
The common denominator is the syncopated sound of the jazzy music, a mix of blues, Dixieland and gospel that burst out of New Orleans, Kansas City and other points south in the 1920s. The music first got Harlem hoofing, then kept mainstream America hopping and bopping for the next 20 years. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington -- they gave the meat to the motion, although these days, pop and country music sometimes are made to serve.
Almost anyone can swing dance, says Donna Barker, dance program manager and instructor at Glen Echo Park. You just have to able to "hear that beat and stay on it." Otherwise, the only requirement, she says, is "not to hurt your partner" by yanking him or her around the dance floor.
On a Tuesday night in Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom (built in 1933 to accommodate 1,800 dancers and renovated in 1983), a score of would-be swingers encircles Barker and her teaching partner, Mike Marcotte. The students are diverse, old and young, racially mixed. Like swing dance itself, they seem to have no common denominator other than a connection to the music. They arrived singly and in pairs, men outnumbering women. A few are holdovers from the previous waltz class.
The nearly empty ballroom soon echoes with the beat of their feet as they practice the basics: rock step, rock step and triple step, kick. The rhythmic sound is infectious. "A little lighter," Marcotte says, and the volume instantly diminishes.
Next come simple turns. "Don't run at her. Stand your ground," Marcotte tells the men.
It helps "to be able to touch strangers," Barker points out as the student dancers are asked to change partners every couple of minutes. That certainly is true of the Saturday night swing dances at the ballroom, a staple of the Washington social scene for two decades.
Go an hour early and take a swing dance lesson, which is included in the admission. Or, if you're running late, sit on the sidelines beneath the ballroom's Moorish arches and learn a trick or two by watching the regulars, to quote Brian Setzer, "jump, jive an' wail."
Steps In Time
SWING AND LINDY HOP CLASSES A series of five one-hour weekly lessons, about $55. 301-634-2226 or e-mail Donna Barker firstname.lastname@example.org. Glen Echo Park Spanish Ballroom, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-2226 orhttp://www.glenechopark.org.
SWING DANCES Saturdays from 9 to midnight. Featuring live music. $12-$18 and includes an hour-long lesson at 8. Specially scheduled swing dances also on other nights. Glen Echo Park Spanish Ballroom, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-2226 or http://www.glenechopark.org.
JAMMIN' THE BLUES, Aug. 18-20. Two days of workshops and three nights of dancing to live music, mostly at Glen Echo Park. Price varies from $30-$85.http://www.jammintheblues.com.
Information on swing dance venues and classes:
D.C. HAND DANCE CLUB 301-460-0800.http://www.dchanddanceclub.com.
SWING OUT DC http://www.swingoutdc.com.http://thejamcellar.com.
WASHINGTON SWING DANCE COMMITTEE 301-340-9732.http://www.wsdc.org.
Salsa, or Please, Bug Me
"Mata la cucaracha," commands the caller, and the dancers stomp the floor as though dispatching a cockroach to its misguided maker.
"Dame," he calls out, and they change partners.
"Caminamos," and the couples perform a provocative promenade.
It's 8:30 on a Friday night at the Rendezvous Social Dance and Fitness Club in Rockville, and this is an intermediate-level lesson in salsa rueda, a sort of sexy Latin square dance. The club is air-conditioned, but the dance is as sultry as the evening outside.
On the far side of a room divider, where a beginner salsa class is in progress, it's more like sweater weather, though. Steamy moves take practice.
"Side step, side step, step behind, step diagonal."
Instructor Steve Zaloga is sticking to English with his beginners. He rolls his shoulders and whirls his arms in an eggbeater motion that should look awkward but doesn't. The class more or less follows. Zaloga's beginner students span the ages from pre-boomer to post-Generation X.
Then, Zaloga, one of the owners of Rendezvous, demonstrates the all-important "Cuban motion." Cuban motion is what puts the spice in the salsa.
He shifts his weight from foot to foot and undulates his hips, which seem to have declared independence from the rest of his body. His pelvis circles, swivels, sways and bumps. Small surprise that salsa has roots in African fertility dances.
"Ballroom is seen as stuffy by younger people," says Rachelle Schiffli, another Rendezvous owner and instructor. Certainly, that charge would be hard to make stick against salsa. Unlike sometimes heavily choreographed ballroom dances, salsa offers "lots of freedom of expression," Schiffli says, which probably contributes to its popularity in this land of individualism. A salsa staple, for example, is the "shine," freestyle movements dancers do in front of their partners. Most of the beginners in Zaloga's class lack the polish to shine just yet, but if they opt to stay on for the Latin dance party, which follows the lessons on most Friday nights, they will have a chance to take a brush to their moves.
When the partition gets folded back, the lights go low and the mirror ball glints, the exercise and dance studio is transformed into a dance hall, minus the alcohol and cigarette smoke.
The party starts at 10, which is unfashionably early, says Barry Durand, the third owner of Rendezvous. Salsa dancers keep night-owl hours, often not stepping out until midnight. Siesta, anyone?
RENDEZVOUS SOCIAL DANCE AND FITNESS CLUB 11910 Parklawn Dr., Rockville. Latin Nights are Fridays from 8 to 1. Two lessons in salsa and rueda and open dancing for salsa, merengue, rueda, cha-cha, etc. $12; open dancing only, $10. The club also offers classes and parties in swing, country and line dancing. 301-468-2582. http://www.dance911.com.
Information on salsa or Latin dance venues and classes:
Hip-Hop, or Get It Off Your Chest
Hip-hop dance is the un-ballet: Feelings trump technique, style stomps choreography and movement bursts out of the chest instead of extruding through the limbs. Steps are emphatic and angular, not elegant and elongated, but like ballet, hip-hop dance is eloquent on its own terms.
"Hip-hop is about who you want to be and where you've been," says Jonathan "J" Dudley, a teenager from District Heights. "When I started, I looked stupid. You've got to play with it and put your own style on the movements."
Dudley, 16, was at the Strathmore arts center in North Bethesda on a recent Thursday night for a hip-hop dance class featuring a guest instructor from the West Coast, birthplace of innovations both old, such as "locking," in which robotic and wild moves are punctuated with exact starts and stops, and more recent developments such as "krumping," a rapid, rhythmic, jerking dance that pantomimes aggression. Break dancing, an acrobatic form of hip-hop dance in which "b-boys" and "b-girls" "floor rock," or touch the ground with various body parts, is not on the evening's agenda. Break dancing's "power moves," such as the "1990," a one-handed spin with legs extended straight in the air, require advanced athletic skills. These apprentice hip-hop dancers will be able to get down while staying on their feet.
The class is multicultural, although skewed toward African American, and young. One student still seems to be in his wonder years, and no one looks older than 30.
People "put limitations on themselves," says Joseph Nontanovan, about this class demographic, and he's right. The workout seems no more strenuous than step aerobics.
Nontanovan is the artistic director of Culture Shock, D.C., a nonprofit community outreach organization and dance troupe, which co-sponsors these classes at Strathmore with CityDance Ensemble, a professional dance group that works with young people.
High-fives and hugs precede class, but once the music commences to its thumping beat, the students keep their hands to themselves. Hip-hop dancers are more likely to have mock "battles," or dance duels, than to join forces as partners, Dudley says. At D.C. clubs such as Modern, Dragonfly and Five, hip-hop dancers "freestyle" or improvise to the music individually.
Although hip-hop dancers "can bring almost anything to the table," Nontanovan says -- including gymnastics, martial arts, jazz, even a Brazilian fight dance called capoeira -- the most important ingredient in the mix of motion is emotion.
You "vent," says Dudley, who aspires to be a professional dancer. "You're on your own, and you make it into something of your own."
HIP-HOP DANCE CLASSES Beginner hip-hop, Thursdays from 7 to 8; intermediate-advanced hip-hop Thursdays from 8:15 to 9:30. CityDance Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. $14 drop-in fee. 301-581-5204. http://www.citydance.netand click on "CityDance Center at Strathmore."
METRO D.C. DANCES Saturday at 7:30. Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW. Featuring dance groups Culture Shock, D.C., BosmaDance, CrossCurrents Dance Company, Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh and Jazzdanz/dc. Free.http://www.mdcda.org. http://www.nps.gov/rocr/cbarron.
Information on hip-hop venues and classes:
JOY OF MOTION DANCE CENTERhttp://www.joyofmotion.org.
Freelance writer M.J. McAteer is an occasional contributor to Weekend.
Heying: A weaving pattern in which the dancers move in single file and in opposite directions.
Teacup chain: The head ladies move to the center of the square and walk in a circle. When the men do it, it's called a Beer Mug Chain.
Boogie backs: A backs-together and kick move used in the jitterbug and the Lindy hop.
Carino, or haircomb: The man guides his partner's hands over her head, as though combing her hair, then releases her. Partners also can reverse roles or self-comb.
Groove step: A move in response to the deep, inner beat or soulful part of the music.
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