Several weeks ago, there was a major culture clash at Zones, the new club downtown. On the fifth floor of the club, in the room featuring swing dancing, a young woman who didn’t know how to dance came face to face with Tom Koerner, D.C.’s swing champion. Although the young, blond Ally McBeal didn’t know how to jitterbug, she was on the dance floor bouncing around New Wave-style, head bobbing, beer splashing on the floor.
“I told her to get off the floor,” the 40-year-old Koerner recalls, munching on a burger at Red Hot & Blue in Arlington, not far from his apartment. “She kind of laughed and mock-threw her beer at me, which could have caused someone to slip and fall. But then she moved. Good thing she didn’t toss that beer, ’cause I would have hit her. I would have hit her in a second.”
When it comes to swing, Koerner doesn’t fuck around. Although swing has achieved orbit in the popular culture in the last few months, thanks largely to the “Khakis Swing” ad that the Gap aired in the spring, Koerner has been Lindy Hopping since the sexual revolution, and right through the lean years of punk, New Wave, and grunge. He’s won major awards, has taught and is shadowed by the best dancers in D.C., and makes Miss Manners look like Bluto Blutarski when it comes to dance etiquette and proper dress. He is, in short, D.C.’s “King of Swing.” Koerner’s a lawyer by trade, but whenever he’s not working he’s easy to spot in zoot suit or the less formal outfit he has on today, saddle shoes, high-waisted pants, and a retro bowling shirt.
For Koerner, as for those of us he’s made dancers (for disclosure’s sake, Koerner was my teacher for several years), the neo-swing movement is about much more than Swingers and Gap ads. It’s nothing short of a counterrevolution, an indefatigable smile and joyful twirl in the face of 30 years of negative, narcissistic, ironic rock culture. Certainly there are other aspects to the revival, the sheer, apolitical joy of dance, for example, but to Koerner, swing is about “America finding its center again” after 30 years of power chords and pot smoke. “A lot of these kids learning swing don’t know a thing about civility and social graces,” Koerner says. “Like that woman spilling her drink at Zones. They can be from the best families in Washington, yet be totally clueless about how to behave.”
When Koerner marshaled that kid off the floor at Zones, it was a highly symbolic and significant act. Unlike swing havens such as Glen Echo and Twist and Shout, Zones is a downtown nightclub that would usually be filled with fake smoke and techno static rather than suspenders and saddle shoes. But the swing revival is now burrowing into the strongholds of rock, and showing no signs of slowing down. The owners of Zones, who struck a deal with Koerner to act as organizer, teacher, and unofficial bouncer on swing nights, are, in Koerner’s phrase, “stunned” at the events’ success. On the nights I’ve been there, the swing floor has been jammed, while the floors dedicated to alternative or other genres remained half-full. Swing is a dance that is innately electrifying and erotic, one that people want to learn the moment they see it.
Koerner’s popularity, he teaches three nights a week to packed halls, is the ultimate revenge of the nerd. He first discovered swing as an undergrad at the University of Virginia during the boogie nights of the mid-’70s. “It was 1976, and the sexual revolution was going to pass me,” he remembers. “I had a bad haircut, bad glasses, bad muscle tone, and hormones surging as only a Catholic’s can.” (He’s since left the church.) Koerner met some girls in his dorm who taught him shag, a kind of quick-step swing, and brought him to a dance marathon. Suddenly, a group of senior citizens showed up at the dance and began to do the jitterbug, a dance considerably more complex than the shag.
“We made them stop what they were doing and do all their routines from the beginning,” Koerner says. “From that moment on, I was like the guy in Close Encounters who gets this image stuck in his head.”
Koerner spent the next 10 years learning Lindy, watching old movies featuring dance greats like Frankie Manning and Jean Veroz, and going to law school. In the mid-’80s, he began to dance at the now-shuttered Joe and Moe’s on Connecticut Avenue, when Doc Scanlon’s swing band played there on Friday and Saturday. “The owner, Moe Sussman, told me I was scaring people off the dance floor because I was so good. So he offered me free dinner if I’d put on a show with Deb [Sternberg, Koerner’s longtime partner]. Unfortunately, my brother also got free dinner as part of the deal, and began eating so much and hamming it up as Mr. Big Shot that Moe offered me a hundred bucks instead of dinner, provided I didn’t bring my brother along.”
As New Wave died and grunge arrived, Koerner’s awards began stacking up: Koerner was champion of the 1994 U.K. Lindy Hop, as well as the ’94, ’95, and ’96 Virginia State Open Lindy Championships.
Then Swingers came out. Then the Gap ad aired during the season finale of ER. “Those things were significant,” Koerner admits, “but the momentum was building even without them. The Derby in L.A., where Swingers was filmed, was making money before the movie. What the Gap ad did was get teenagers into this. People were calling me and coming to class asking about ‘that Gap dance.’”
With the surge of people have come a price, the lines for Saturday swing nights at Glen Echo have driven many of the better dancers to Baltimore where the floors are less crowded, but also new places, like Zones, to dance in D.C. Koerner remarks that the tide of interest has highly significant social value, because when swing comes to a place, the place changes. “What we’re seeing is the revival of the adult playground. People want a place where they can go that’s classy and where they can unwind and not choke on smoke or hang out with grungy people.”
It also might be something of an antidote to the malling of the nation. Last February, Koerner brought swing to a restaurant called America. Located on the ground floor of the Tysons Corner Center, it lies at the epicenter of what the anti-suburban activists like to call a “crudscape.” Far from small-town charm and big-city excitement, surrounded by gas stations, soulless high-rises, and the Beltway, America, although boasting a comfortable atmosphere of candles, white tablecloths, and high ceilings, was stuck in the gut of a mall, that quintessential placeless place. Often, when the mall shut down, so did business.
Then swing arrived. And in a little over a year, something amazing has happened. America has become a vibrant place, with swing events every Friday. Show up on a Friday night and you’ll be greeted not with Muzak, a bored hostess, and a half-filled room of people examining their food, but the blasting horns of the Tom Cunningham big band. People, many of them teenagers, will be practicing moves in aisles, kidding each other, asking adults for pointers. America is no longer a franchise Nowheresville, like Borders, where zombies shuffle along, scanning the merchandise. It’s what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “a great good place,” a spot where people of all ages and classes talk to each other and laugh. A place where people sweat and flirt. A place with style, atmosphere, memories. A place with character.
It’s also become a favorite spot for teenagers. According to Koerner, teens are going to usher swing past the fad stage, where he admits it is now, back into the mainstream of American culture. “This isn’t something that people learn easily or give up easily,” he observes. “They spent money on clothes and lessons. And all these kids who are home for summer vacation have learned Lindy and are going to college next year. When they get there, they’ll show it to their new friends and hold dances. George Mason [University] just gave the Mormon [students’ association] $4,300 to hold a swing dance. I mean, if the Mormons are doing this, there’s no end in sight.”
There may be no end in sight, but there is one barrier that swing hasn’t broken, the color line. Although swing was created by young blacks in places like the legendary Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the ’20s, the neo-swing revival is as white as the snow-blinding background of those Gap ads. “Look, black people know that we’re doing a black dance,” Koerner says. “They’re not stupid.” The problem, he says, isn’t any kind of racial separatism, but simply that whites have rediscovered what blacks never stopped doing. Swing in D.C. evolved into hand dancing, which is done all over the city, or at least east of Rock Creek Park. “Deb and I go down to places like Solar Eclipse where hand dancing is done,” Koerner says, “and everyone knows us there ’cause we’re the only white people. But we watch each other dance, and it’s a mutual admiration society. When people get together to dance, there’s no race, class, anything. It doesn’t matter.”