Wednesday, August 3, 2005

It’s 11:30 on a Friday night at the Chevy Chase Ballroom on Wisconsin Avenue and the joint is jumping. Rick Estrin of the Los Angeles band Little Charlie and the Nightcats is singing a fast-paced blues number for an appreciative crowd. He’s resplendent in a sharkskin suit, shades, black shirt and tie and two-tone shoes.

On the dance floor, jitterbugging couples back off from the bandstand as local dance instructors Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg make their swingouts wider, increasing the pace of their turns to a frenzy. The dancers all know what’s coming next, and they create a circle to watch, giving the instructors space to maneuver.

Effortlessly, Ms. Sternberg makes herself into an arrow and slides on slick heels between Mr. Koerner’s legs. He pulls her back out again, catching her in the air as she comes out of her slide. The two complete the aerial as Ms. Sternberg twists her lithe body like a jackknife around his waist, then bounces back to the floor.

It’s swing dance, a throwback to the zoot-suited, saddleshod 1940s and ‘50s. Brought back to fashion here by Washington baby boomers in the 1980s, the dance style probably reached the height of public awareness in the late 1990s when a TV commercial featured attractive couples jitterbugging to the Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer’s version of an old Louis Prima tune, “Jump, Jive and Wail.”

Since then the rage for swing has grown steadily in Washington, becoming today a culture all its own, with favored bands, favored instructors and ballrooms and even favored retro togs.

And, you might say, even a guide to living.

“If everyone contemplating marriage took swing dance lessons together, they would know in advance whether their marriage was going to make it, and we would see less divorce,” says Mr. Koerner, a former divorce lawyer who still practices law in Virginia.

Visiting swing dancers from other states call the District and environs a swing dance mecca, where they can find at least one dance a night every day of the week.

Almost all have danced at the National Park Service’s Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park on Saturday nights, where swing dances are organized by a nonprofit group, the Washington Swing Dance Committee. Dances at the Clarendon Ballroom in Arlington on Tuesdays, at Chevy Chase and the Dulles Hilton on Fridays, and at other venues around the Beltway guarantee a full dance card.

And here at the Chevy Chase Ballroom the couples, inspired by their instructors’ twists, take turns showing their stuff. The kicks and hip-shaking, the swoops and spins, look effortless as a male lead, through some mysterious telepathy, lets his partner know it’s time for her to whip her body away from his. She does, her twirling skirt furling and unfurling until he snaps her back in place.

When the dance ends, the partners politely thank each other, then either seek out a chair and take a long drink from their water bottles, or move off in search of their next dancing companions.

• • •

The swing dance lifestyle in the Washington area attracts established couples in their 40s and 50s, as well as twenty-something singles.

K Street accountants and Crystal City engineering contractors who may be shy or plain by day blossom into hepcats at night on the dance floor, donning 1950s bowling shirts and 1940s-style swing skirts or reasonable modern facsimiles to strut and kick-step their way across the floor.

“It’s easy for a single guy to find partners” at the multitude of dances around town, says Erik Long, a contract engineer from Arlington, as he takes a breather to cool off from a Tuesday night dance at the Clarendon Ballroom.

Different “swing” dances — the Lindy Hop, the Balboa (a California dance in which couples dance closely together and execute a series of shuffle steps), the jitterbug, hand-dancing and East Coast and West Coast swing — all have their proponents, and the dancers’ energy and enthusiasm for their hobby is unmistakable.

At the Chevy Chase Ballroom, for example, Lindy Hopper Stacy Spaulding, a 30-year-old from Gaithersburg who teaches journalism at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, says she just came back from a 10-day “swing dance camp” in Boston and typically dances two or three nights per week.

David Solomon, a 51-year-old Falls Church accountant and Balboa man, says he hits the dance floor an average of four nights a week.

Some dancers are so enamored of the swing era they buy and collect 1940s and 1950s-style clothes, purses, eyeglasses, furniture and even suitcases.

“What’s appealing about the swing dance era is the real sense of style of the times,” says Charlie Hubel of Elkton, Md., leader of the J Street Jumpers, a nine-piece band popular on the swing dance circuit for its late ‘40s and early ‘50s music.

Mr. Hubel has some 1940s pieces of furniture in his house and wears that era’s clothes on stage.

The love of a bygone era extends to a certain musical sound, and while the sound may include some rock ‘n’ roll, it isn’t hard rock or hip-hop.

“Nobody over the age of 20 looks good dancing to hip-hop,” Mr. Koerner says. “Swing dancing provides an alternative for adults.”

Mr. Hubel of the J Street Jumpers describes “swing” music as a mixture of 1930s and 1940s jazz and blues.

“The big bands of that era typically had five saxophones, four trombones, and a trumpet player,” he says.

The swing dance “sound” and dances originated in Harlem, then quickly spread to other parts of the country. In the 1920s, according to Thea Austen, public events coordinator for the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, dancers like “Shorty George” Snowden and Leroy Jones developed a fast dance style, swinging to the sounds of Chick Webb, Count Basie and the Glenn Miller Orchestra at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, one of the first integrated dance clubs in the United States.

Most dance variations take their names from that era. One is credited to “Shorty George” — who, when a reporter at the Savoy asked him the name of the crazy dance he was doing, glanced down at a newspaper headline announcing, “Lindbergh Hops the Atlantic,” and responded, “The Lindy Hop.”

The phrase “jitterbugger” initially was a derogatory term blacks used for alcoholics with delirium tremens; it was later attached to Lindy Hop dancers.

The first “aerials,” Ms. Austen says, were introduced at a dance competition at the Savoy by a young dancer named Frankie Manning and his partner Freda Washington. Mr. Manning still gives demonstration dances today at the age of 91.

Terence McArdle, leader of Terence McArdle and Jumpin’ Tonight, a five-piece jump rhythm & blues band that plays the local swing dance circuit, says that jitterbuggers typically dance to any fast-paced tune in 4/4 time or a bar of music with eight counts.

“Most of the jump blues music we play they can dance to, particularly since a lot of jump R & B revolves around a shuffle beat,” Mr. McArdle says. His band includes two horn players, a guitarist and a bass guitar and drums as the rhythm section.

Andrea Dagmar Brown of Dagmar and The Seductones, a vintage rock ‘n’ roll group playing late 1950s and early 1960s rock at Northern Virginia venues, agrees that 4/4 time is about right, but also fits old rock ‘n’ roll.

“The traditional swing beat actually sounds like rock ‘n’ roll, so our high-voltage, original sound really gets the dancers moving,” Miss Brown says. “But they’ll even swing dance to the ballads. Their energy feeds our energy as performers, making swing dances one of my favorite venues.”

Learning how to swing dance may seem intimi-dating, or limited to couples only, but that’s not so.

Most swing dance instructors offer a one-hour beginner or intermediate lesson, followed by a dance (free for those who have paid for lessons) at the same hall or ballroom where lessons are taught, led by a band or DJ who spins swing dance-type records.

Some dancers join the Washington Swing Dance Committee (WSDC), which organizes swing dances at Glen Echo’s Spanish Ballroom and asks for volunteer support for its organizing efforts. But a dancer doesn’t have to be a committee member to go to the WSDC dances, which cost anywhere from $5 to $15 for those not taking lessons. The fee goes to hire the hall, and the performing band or DJ, for the evening.

Mr. Koerner and Ms. Sternberg, who do business as Gottaswing LLC, teach more than 4,000 Washington-area residents per year in fairly evenly mixed coed classes.

The teaching method makes all dancers switch partners about once every three minutes, so they become accustomed to dancing with anyone. The lessons not only teach the steps, but how leaders (usually men) and followers (usually women) must work together to coordinate their different parts.

Initial start-up costs are low, generally one fee for a package of lessons that works out to about $11 or $12 per class for a set of four, six or eight weekly one-hour lessons, which are held at dance studios, ballrooms and athletic clubs all around the Beltway.

Mr. Koerner and Ms. Sternberg’s charge of $96 for eight lessons is typical. There are no special clothing requirements for beginners, except to dress “comfortably” and to wear shoes with leather soles that permit sliding and turning easily.

More experienced dancers who get hooked on swing frequently want to dress the part, and women will seek out circle skirts or swing skirts with lots of fabric that look good for the spins, or “Rosie the Riveter” 1940s-style swing pants.

Men who want to look sharp might wear high-waisted, cuffed and pleated slacks with 1950s-style bowling shirts, casual shirts with collars, or dress shirts with suspenders.

“Those swing dancers from Glen Echo Ballroom know exactly what accessory pieces they want, and they are very serious about getting them,” says Leann Trowbridge, owner of Meeps, a vintage clothing store on trendy U Street NW in the District.

For those who want to dress up or adopt the 1940s and 1950s lifestyle and keep it authentic, vintage clothing stores such as Ms. Trowbridge’s, Funk and Junk and Remix in Alexandria, or Polly Sue’s Vintage Shop and the Takoma Underground in Takoma Park, are the places to go.

Takoma Underground, for example, has an astonishing array of circle skirts, swing skirts, men’s fedoras, high-waisted pants and furnishings such as 1950s lamps, shoes and gloves.

“But remember, sizes have changed. People were smaller then, and a vintage women’s dress size 16 is sometimes equivalent to a women’s size 8 dress today,” warns Takoma Underground manager Lisa Schneider.

There’s also the issue of the authentic clothes’ fragility, and swing dancers’ need to jump around a lot.

“Because these older dresses are so fragile, customers have asked us for, and we stock, reproductions of the 1940s to 1950s era look,” says Susan Collings, owner of Polly Sue’s.

Another route to retro fashion for vintage-style shoppers is the Internet. An online catalog-only store such as the Dance Store in Baltimore stocks spectator shoes for men and those perfect two-toned dance shoes or black slippers for women.

And then there are online auctions. The Seductones’ Miss Brown says she went to EBay to find “the perfect vintage sequined dress to wear” to Baltimore’s “Night of 100 Elvises” Festival.

While Elvis may have left the building, for swing dance fans the vintage rock of his era and the swinging sounds and style of the big bands of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s live on.

“Let’s face it, a lot of contemporary music is horrible, and you certainly can’t dance to it,” Mr. Koerner says. “Swing dancing provides a great opportunity for adult social integration, fun and glamour in a drug-free, alcohol-free atmosphere.”

Step out for night of swing dancing

So, daddy-o, you ready to cut a rug? Join the hepcats all over Washington for some hot licks. Here’s a guide.

Ballrooms and other joints

• Chevy Chase Ballroom: 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/363-8344 or Swing dance party 9 p.m.-midnight Fridays. $13.

• Clarendon Ballroom: 3185 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703/469-2244 or Dance party 9-11 p.m. Tuesdays. $10.

• Glen Echo Spanish Ballroom: 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301/492-6229.

• Saturday night dances organized by the Washington Swing Dance Committee, a volunteer organization at 9 p.m.-midnight Aug. 6, Sept. 17, Oct. 1, Nov. 5. All dances $12.

• Saturday night dances organized by GottaSwing at 9 p.m.-midnight Aug. 13 and 20, Sept. 10, Nov. 19. Dances $13-18.

• Hilton Washington Dulles Airport Hotel: 13869 Park Center Road, Herndon. 703/478-2900. 9 p.m.-midnight Fridays. $13.

• Other dance venues: For calendars of other scheduled dances around town, see, jitterbuzz .com and


• Eric Jacobson and Helen Tocco: Specialists in West Coast swing and Lindy Hop. Lessons Wednesdays at Glen Echo’s Spanish Ballroom and on other nights at six other local venues. See helenand For rates e-mail

• Heather “The Feather” Coyle: Classes at Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, 16 W. Seventh Street, Frederick, Md. Drop-in, intermediate-level Lindy Hop lessons, $12 per class Monday nights at the FOP Lodge. 410/259-1961 or

• K2Swings Dance Studio: Sunrise Plaza, 10800 E. Rhode Island Ave., Beltsville. $66 for a six-class dance card at the studio in Beltsville. 301/937-7076 or

• Mark Shepanek and Ellen Engle: Flying Feet Enterprises, 4408 Faraday Place NW. $45 per person for four weeks of classes in “Dances of the 1950s,” Monday night at Glen Echo. 301/299-8728 or

• Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg: Gottaswing LLC, 11650 Forest Hills Court, Fairfax. $96 per person for eight-week class series at locations in Merrifield, Va., Chevy Chase, Rockville, Arlington, Herndon, Alexandria, Reston and Washington. 703/359-9882 or

Local swing bands

• J Street Jumpers: Saxophonist Charlie Hubel with vocalist Juanita Williams, drummer Brooks Tegler, bassist John Previti, guitarist Dan Hovvy, pianist Tim Ford, sax Don Lerman, trumpeter Vince McCool, and trombonist John Jensen. 301/261-1447 or

• Terence McArdle and Jumpin’ Tonight: Guitarist/vocalist Terence McArdle with saxophonist Jerry Queene, trumpeter Michael Powell, upright bass Louie Newmyer and drummer Fred Hillyard. 301/460-5010 or

• Dagmar and the Seductones: Vocalist Andrea Dagmar Brown with guitarist Bob Newscaster, bassist Bryan Smith and drummer Dave Elliott. 301/652-4007 or

• The Big Four Combo: Drummer Joe Maher with tenor sax Joe Stanley, bassist John Previtti and pianist John Cocuzzi. 240/350-7133 or

• The Rockin’ Bones: Guitarist Bruce Katsu with bassist Paul Cleary, saxophonist Eddie Day and drummer Dave Elliott. See or

Vintage clothing stores

• Funk and Junk Vintage Clothing: 106 N. Columbus Ave., Alexandria. Clothes, toys, accessories. 1-5 p.m. Monday; 1-6 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 12:30-6 p.m. Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday. 703/836-0749 or

• Meeps: 1520 U St. NW. Vintage clothing. 4-7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, noon-7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday. 202/265-6546 or

• Polly Sue’s Vintage Shop: 6915 Laurel Ave., Takoma Park. Vintage and reproductions. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. 301/270-5511 or e-mail

• Takoma Underground: 7014 Westmoreland Ave., Takoma Park. Vintage clothing. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. 301/270-6380 or

Online vintage clothes, reproductions

• Daddy-O’s: Swing clothes, bowling shirts, ‘50s style retro. 888/900-1950 or

• Shoes, swing pants, swing skirts. 410/849-3700 or

• Swing Kitten: Women’s ‘40s and ‘50s clothing, accessories.

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