On the night of Oct. 10, the Eclipse nightclub on Bladensburg Road in Northeast D.C. looked like an early-’60s prom. Decked out with balloons and banners, and replete with tables full of food, the room came alive with some 300 dancers twirling and stepping in sequins, satin, and stiletto heels. Only the dancers’ ages betrayed the fantasy: Most were in their 50s. They had gathered at the Eclipse to mark the 35th anniversary of Teenarama Dance Party, a local TV program that ran from 1963 to 1970 on WOOK, Channel 14, one of the country’s first TV stations owned and programmed by blacks.
The gala, a re-creation of a typical Teenarama episode, served as a kind of living museum. DJ Robert “Captain Fly” Frye of radio station WPFW stood in for the late Teenarama host Bob King, spinning the records of Mary Wells, Jerry Butler, the Temptations, and “introducing” dances such as the Horse and the Jerk. After a re-enactment of an apparently beloved commercial for Miles Long Sandwiches, the original members of girl group the Jewels, resplendent in yards of red fringe, reprised their 1964 hit, “Opportunity,” harmonizing, some said, even more beautifully than they did 34 years ago to delighted whoops from the audience.
At the helm of this time machine stood producer and documentary filmmaker Beverly Lindsay, who at one point read aloud Mayor Marion Barry’s proclamation of Oct. 10 as Teenarama Dance Party Day. Lindsay was, for the most part, too busy to join the fun. But when Frye played Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato,” Lindsay dropped her clipboard and jumped onto the dance floor. It would be her only break from a night attending to gala details.
For the past several months, Lindsay, who is filming a documentary about Teenarama, has immersed herself in lore about the show, collecting photos and stories, and filming those alumni who still dance regularly. She had several cameramen taping the event at the Eclipse, which was one of two huge parties she has thrown for its dancers (the other was a picnic with a DJ and dance contest in August). She’s filming the Teenarama reunions in part to compensate for one glaring problem: Lindsay has no footage of the original show.
She has tapes of similar shows of the eraD.C’s Milt Grant Show and Baltimore’s Buddy Deane Showbut no Teenarama. The former dancers are glad to help, though; several people at the gala said they’d wanted to reunite members of the show for years, but it took Lindsay’s documentary to make it happen. Like thickened ghosts of their teenage selves, the dancers at the Eclipse obeyed Captain Fly’s exhortation “to dance for the cameras like you used to.”
Teenarama Dance Party was American Bandstand for the last D.C. teenagers to grow up under Jim Crow. In 1963, neither Bandstand nor its local equivalent, The Milt Grant Show, put black dancers on TV regularly, and Soul Train was still years in the future. Teenarama followed the Bandstand template, enlisting the teenagers who danced on camerastudents from McKinley, Coolidge, and other D.C. high schoolsto help produce the daily broadcast.
Teenarama regular James Preston remembers that the Milt Grant Show did allow blacks on camera a few times a month, always on a Tuesday and never paired with white dancers. “We all called it Black Tuesday,” says Preston, 50. Attempts to integrate the white Buddy Deane Show resulted in bomb threats (and, in 1988, inspired John Waters to make his movie Hairspray). But Preston and the other Washingtonians who danced on Teenarama 35 years ago prefer not to dwell on the ugly roots. “My parents sheltered me,” says Preston, now a management analyst for the Treasury Department. “Until I saw Martin Luther King [Jr.] get arrested on TV, I didn’t really know I was segregated.”
What Preston and fellow former dancers remember best about Teenarama is the glamour of having been TV celebrities in their high schools, and of meeting guest performers such as James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and Otis Redding. Many of the stars of the “chitlin circuit” who played the Howard Theater made routine stops at the Teenarama studio at 5321 First Place NE.
Though the show ran for 7 years, Lindsay, 45, is focusing her research on the program’s first two, when teenagers did the dances she grew up withthe Boogaloo, the Twist, and the Mashed Potato. Several Teenarama vets have bragged that Major Lance, who sang “Monkey Time,” didn’t know there was a dance called Monkey Time, Lindsay says, “and it was the Teenarama kids who taught it to him.” Besides these “freestyle”no touchingdances, the teens also did the couples steps known here as “DC hand dancing,” in both its fast and slow varieties (the slow version is known as bopping). Because Teenarama wanted to project dignity, the show had rules: “No gyrating,” Lindsay explains. “You could bop, but you couldn’t grind.”
Lindsay has worked at Howard University for 16 years, the past eight with Howard University Television. Teenarama Dance Party will be her second documentary, expanding on segments of her first, Swing, Bop, and Hand Dance, which premiered on Howard University television last year and earned a nomination for a local Emmy. Many of the D.C. hand dancers Lindsay interviewed for Swing, Bop wanted to talk about their glory days on Teenarama.
Swing, Bop explains that what people call “hand dancing” in the District is called “stepping” in Chicago, “the shag” in the Carolinas, and the “Philly bop” in Philadelphia (not to be confused with the slow-dance bop). All the regional variations, according to the show, can be traced to George “Shorty” Snowden, the dancer at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1920s and ’30s who invented the Lindy Hop. That dance evolved down several tracks over the years to become hand dancing and its recently revived white cousin, swing dancing.
Swing, which traces back to the 1930s and ’40s, retains more moves from the Lindy Hop than does hand dancing, which most closely resembles the way teenagers danced to R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s and early ’60s. After bebop displaced big band as jazz’s cutting edge, Lindsay says, hand dancing grew out of the Lindy Hop to accompany rhythm and blues. “Hand dancing now [includes] a little bit of those dances from the ’60s, as well as new movements based on more contemporary music,” she says. While the swing set dances mostly to jump blues from the ’40s (and their modern imitators), hand dancers move to anything with a 4/4 beat. Early Motown predominates, but some surprising songs get taken up: Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About,” for example, is in regular rotation at D.C. hand dances.
The footwork at the Oct. 10 gala looked nothing like the “1, 2, 3, rock step” taught in many swing lessons today. For the uninitiated, hand-dance teacher Antonio Bruton was on hand to break it downa four-count weight shift leading into a three-step twirl. Hand dancing looks more relaxed and contained, more rock-steady than swing dancing. Many of the dancers went for hours without a break.
But what sets this hand dance apart the most from, say, a Squirrel Nut Zippers show at the Black Cat, isn’t the moves, the music, or the dancers’ race or age: It’s the seamlessness between the dancers and the dance. Preston, along with Dorothy “Totsie” Clannigan, Reginald “Lucky” Luckett, and other Teenarama dancers had their moment of fame in high school, yet, remarkably, they relive the glory of those days dancing several times a week to music they’ve continued to like for 35 years.
Today’s young and mostly white swing arrivistes experience a more nervous kind of fun. Many wandered, dissatisfied, to swing from the lounge or disco revivals, all in the space of the past several years, reflecting rock ‘n’ roll’s midlife crisis more than 40 years after Elvis stole it from African-Americans. White rock keeps contracting into ever-smaller recycled loops of self-reference; most of its vigor today comes from hiphop, a genre that currently does what pop is supposed tocapture the historical moment, generate new dances, and piss off parents.
Music wasn’t an intergenerational weapon among blacks until hiphop took hold in the 1980s. Before then, while white parents condemned the Rolling Stones and Alice Cooper, black kids danced to Marvin Gaye and P-Funk in the basement with their aunts and uncles. Lindsay and her fellow members of the National Hand Dance Association find rap music and break dancing appalling, and respond to the offending culture with evangelism. The association lobbies, for instance, to have hand dancing taught in the public schools. Lindsay buttresses that argument by quoting a July 1965 Washington Post article titled “Rocking and Rolling Road to Respectability.” Nan Randall wrote in the primly approving piece that “For some, Teenarama has been the road to respectability, away from a life of juvenile delinquency.”
Lindsay’s activist agenda occasionally pushes her first documentary into public- service announcement territory. In Swing, Bop, Diana Parker, director of the American Folklife Division at the Smithsonian Institution, and sociologist Katrina Hazzard-Donald mummify hand dancing as a “national art form” (hand dancing had a tent in the Smithsonian’s Folk Life Festival in 1993) with academic jargon such as “folk forms” and “localisms.” Hazzard-Donald lectures on how the old ways taught respect and manners: “The boy led the girl through the community. Now the kids don’t even dance together,” she scolds. “Do you think people are going to get down on their behinds and break dance when they’re 60?”
Lindsay, in an interview, states her own quasi-political case for hand dancing: “You personally interact with your partnerit’s body communication, it’s all that social exchange,” she observes. “The young kids [today] don’t have that etiquette in dancing, and everyone’s out for themselves.”
Lindsay’s not the first to look for ways to counter the misogyny and nihilism that runs through so much rap, and encouraging boys and girls to touch when they dance is an appealingly simple solution. Perhaps she’s right that hand dancing could soften the relations between the sexes and among generations.
Lindsay shows scant interest, however, in using dance to bring the races together. Ever since her own youth in the ’70s dancing in New York discos, she says, she’s always preferred self-segregated clubs. “Our style of Hustle was a little different from white people’s Hustle,” she says. “It was nothing like what you saw on American Bandstand or Saturday Night Fever….I don’t want to sound racist or segregationist, but I always say that we dance on the 4/4, and that whites dance on the one.”
Segregation, to hear Lindsay’s recollection, is something people get used toand ultimately prefer. Occasionally, she refers back to “my era, the oldies-but-goodies era,” and a wistfulness creeps into her voice. “Washington was segregated then, teens went to predominantly black schools,” she says. “They lived in all-black communities. And when you’re a teen, you want to be with your peers….As long as you can go to school and parties, and you can shop and get the clothes you want, that’s what their world is. That and dance.”CP