- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2000

Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg never fight, but oh, do they bicker. The duo, together off and mostly on since 1987, swap verbal haymakers that would make some married couples turn crimson.
Mr. Koerner pokes fun at his partner's recent face-lift. Ms. Sternberg retaliates with low blows involving his hernia surgery.
In between retorts, the platonic duo teach thousands of Washingtonians the fine art of the Lindy Hop, a joyous offspring of swing dancing. The incessant banter is as much a part of a "Tom & Debra" dance class as is the rock step and triple step, Lindy Hop's core movements.
"It's 'Lucy and Ricky teach swing,' " explains Mr. Koerner, 41, of Fairfax, Va. The couple gives Lindy Hop instruction six nights a week at clubs around the Washington, D.C., area.
"We have to be a lot more outrageous to be heard," says Mr. Koerner of their self-appointed roles as Lindy Hop boosters.
Lindy Hop is a street dance characterized by breakaway routines that allow dancers to strut their individual stuff, explains Ms. Sternberg, 46 of Cleveland Park. Lindy Hop, also referred to as the jitterbug, began in New York City during the 1920s. Legend has it that hoofer George Snowden dubbed it "Lindy Hop" in homage to Charles Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight in 1927.
"It's sensual, but not sexual," Mr. Koerner says of the dance. "It's a high-touch exercise."
The pair began teaching together locally in 1994 with a modest one class per week schedule. Public demand for swing had convinced them the idea might work.
"We would go to dances and people would say, 'show us how to do this,' " he says. "Nobody had put [swing instruction] together as a curriculum. They would do one-night drop-ins ."
In the beginning, swing lovers were few and the class' main attraction was a 16-piece band, which performed on alternate weeks. But a storm of interest was brewing, highlighted by the thunderclap of popularity generated by the Gap's swing dancing commercials.
"Our classes were growing anyway, but then things really took off," Ms. Sternberg says of the ad campaign's impact.
Today, the duo teaches regimented courses four nights a week, plus two nights of beginner drop-in sessions. In 1998 alone, they taught about 3,000 students.
Part of their class' appeal, beyond the verbal pyrotechnics, is that dancers switch partners every few moves.
"It's important that they rotate… . it's a social experience," says Mr. Koerner. The bulk of the dancers fall in the 25-40 age bracket, though older dancers also swing by to revisit the dance craze of their youth.
Interest in couple dancing was ebbing during Ms. Sternberg's formative years.
"By the time I reached adolescence, people were not touch dancing anymore," she says. Years later, she took a job as a cigarette girl with Doc Scantlin's Imperial Palms Orchestra in Northwest, where she was introduced to Mr. Koerner, plus her future husband, Robert Blankenburg, and the dance that would change her career. "I discovered this whole world that I never knew existed," she says of swing.
Mr. Koerner began dancing for more pragmatic reasons. Coed pals at the University of Virginia teased that if he ever wanted to date, he'd better learn to dance. Mr. Koerner obliged, picking up the shag and other trendy steps. But his dancing epiphany came while watching a pair of senior citizens jitterbug to "In the Mood."
"The dance they were doing matched that song perfectly. I knew I wanted to [swing dance] for the rest of my life," he says.
In 1987, the duo met and struck up a tempestuous relationship.
"When we were dating and dancing, we fought constantly," she says. The romance eventually fizzled, but their mutual affection for swing forged a lasting bond between them.
"Washington has always been a pretty good town for swing," says Ms. Sternberg. "There was always a place to go and always people doing it."
But swing pickings, while available, were slim. The duo had to find open dance space wherever they could. "Being the only one with black and white [saddle] shoes in a biker bar was an experience," recalls Mr. Koerner.
Today, swing dancing has allowed Ms. Sternberg to shelve her graphic design career and Mr. Koerner to cut significantly back on his legal practice.
On the dance floor, the couple seems like a match made in movie musical heaven. Close in height and built with sports car precision, they dance with a rhythm and elegance born from endless hours of practice.
At times, Mr. Koerner's enthusiasm spills out in the form of bawdy in-class repartee. Those seeking a politically correct swing class might want to look elsewhere. But he suggests there's a reason for his outrageous shtick. "It keeps people awake in class," he says.
Luan Nguyen, 32, of Tysons Corner, Va., found himself fully alert during his first few beginner's sessions under their tutelage.
At first, "Tom was pretty obnoxious," admits Mr. Nguyen. "But it was tongue-in-cheek, so it was fun… . once you get to know him, he doesn't mean it.
"It was a relaxing atmosphere. There was no tension," he adds.
Mr. Nguyen says the couple has had a meaningful impact on the local swing scene.
"Once you're taught by them, you can tell who's a Tom-and-Debra dancer. They want to do the Charleston and the kicks right away," he says.
Ms. Sternberg says she sometimes looks at fledgling dancers struggle and swears, "this guy's never gonna get it. He's hopeless," she says. "Then, some little switch clicks on …"
Some of the couple's students have gone on to win major dance competitions. A few have met their significant others in class.
"We don't pitch it as a dating thing," Mr. Koerner says. "But to me, meeting people on line is weird. People used to meet at dances."
They derive perhaps the most satisfaction from infecting a new generation with a love for all things swing.
And, the duo isn't surprised by swing's recent resurgence.
"The question people always ask is why did it come back. My question is, 'why did it ever stop?' " Mr. Koerner asks.

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