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D.C. Swing

Movin’ to a different groove gains popularity

(Published July 31, 2000)

By KATE ALEXANDER

Staff Writer

Before hip-hop and go-go stole the scene, the District moved to a different groove. And now hand dancing, a D.C. social tradition for nearly 75 years, is on a comeback in clubs across the city.

Hand dancing, also known as D.C. swing, is a high-energy partner dance derived from the Lindy hop. Indigenous to African-American neighborhoods in the District, hand dancing evolved through the years with the music of the time, such as big band, bebop, doo-wop, rock and roll and Motown, according to Beverly Lindsay, a producer at Howard University television who produced the Emmy-nominated documentary "Swing, Bop & Hand Dance."

Similar dance styles developed in urban centers across the country, including the Philly bop, Norfolk swing, West Coast swing and ballroom in Detroit. But only Chicago stepping can rival hand dance in its current popularity.

"Hand dancing is really a social phenomenon in D.C. It is one of the very few dances that transcends generations. You have whole families that hand dance and it continues on through generations," said Lindsay.

In the District, the primary clubs for hand dancing are the Chateau on Benning Road and Eclipse on Bladensburg Road. Both Northeast Washington clubs sponsor hand dancing classes and spin oldies that cater to the hand dancing crowd.

The appeal of the hand dancing clubs, said Leroy Green, deejay at the Chateau, is that the atmosphere is very conducive to family. "Everybody’s dancing, everybody’s enjoying themselves," he said.

Though hand dancing can be done to any music with a standard 4/4-tempo, Green finds that the dancers like the oldies the best, particularly the Motown selections.

The crowds flock to these clubs from within the District as well as outlying suburbs, attracted to the music and the focus on hand dancing, said Larry Beasley, who has owned Eclipse for 21 years.

Beasley added that the hand dancing clubs provide a much-desired alternative to the hip-hop and go-go music that predominate in the District, and they foster a much different environment than found at more contemporary clubs.

"The culture that comes from hand dancing is always real positive. Between a man and a woman there is due respect…and communication," Beasley said.

In the hand dancing clubs today, many teenagers are being drawn into hand-dancing, said Lindsay, in part because a growing number of contemporary hip-hop songs sample typical hand dancing music, such as Angie Stone’s current sample release of a Gladys Knight favorite.

The recent growth in hand dancing began with an exhibition at the 1993 Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, which introduced the dance to a whole new generation. Since then, Lindsay estimates that thousands of new people have learned the dances, primarily from the classes taught by Smooth and EZ Dance Hand Dance Institute in the clubs.

Lindsay attributes the recent proliferation of hand dancing, in part, to the hand dancing shows on cable television, such as "Breeze Country," which exposed a new generation to the dance style. Produced by Daniel Clayton, owner of Deno’s (also known as Breeze’s Metro Club), on Bladensburg Road, the "oldies but goodies" show is taped at the club on Monday nights and broadcast on Saturday evenings on DCTV channel 25.

"The people who hand dance are passionate about it. It’s charismatic…And it’s our dance, that is exclusive to African-Americans..it’s something that we created," Lindsay said.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator