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From clumsy to classy, learning to dance the blues

Melissa Dribben | 8/27/2009, 11:40 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Through the open doors of the Take the Lead dance studio, strains of Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” sashay out into the rain-splattered streets of West Philadelphia.

Inside, under the light confetti strewn from a silver disco ball, about 60 people pair off — most just long enough to test out their kinetic compatibility and practice a few moves.

There is Anurag, a 35-year-old Indian researcher from the School of Pharmacy at Temple University. Kayla, a blue-haired, home-schooled 16-year-old from Jenkintown, and her 14-year-old sister, Nikiah.

Stuart, 23, a thin, pale graduate student in chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. Noel, 24, a hip-hop artist who works for the YMCA. Jerry, a portly 56-year-old real estate salesman from Wynnewood.

Also a tango teacher. The shy wife of a Penn student who recently arrived from Shanghai and doesn’t speak much English. A guy with Marlon Brando hair, circa 1958, and a tight black T-shirt that showed off his “On the Waterfront” bod. And an out-of-work nurse.

They drape their arms around each other, unhinge their hips, put on their coolest sloe-eyed faces, and begin to dance the blues.

Like the music that inspired it, blues dancing has been around a long time. But only in the last few years has the genre, a sultry version of swing with origins in African American tradition, emerged as something to teach and learn, the subject of Web sites and YouTube videos. And only in the last year and a half has Philadelphia joined the movement.

In May 2006, when Carsie Blanton moved here after living on the West Coast, she was disappointed to find hardly any blues-dancing community.

“San Francisco is the mecca for it,” says Blanton, 22. There you can find a place to blues-dance almost every night.

Blanton, an elfin singer-songwriter with dense dark curls, left home at 16. With her guitar and a voice like Mimi Farina’s, she came to Philadelphia hoping to make her music known, she says, because local station WXPN-FM has made the city “one of the best towns for that in the States right now.”

Her obsession with blues dance, however, was not being fed. She knew of one Philadelphia couple, Greg Avakian and Laurie Zimmerman, who taught it at several colleges, but she could not find a regular dance floor.

So last winter, Blanton organized a workshop, sending out invitations to everyone she knew and posting it on the Web.

“About 40 people showed up. It was heartening,” she says.

Within a few months, a local group of blues dancers had formed. One of them, Jesse Young, helped Blanton start the weekly dance at Take the Lead. Another, Jon Darvill, a 25-year-old engineer, became her boyfriend. They moved to a rowhouse in Northern Liberties, where they occasionally give lessons.

Done right, blues dancing is luscious. Bodies press and swoon. Men lead with a subtle coaxing of the wrist; women respond with equal understatement, shifting and turning. Done poorly, it’s painful to watch. Stiff-armed couples, rocking like brass pendulums.

“Unfortunately, a lot of guys aren’t very good at moving their upper body,” observes Todd Schmenk, 35, of Providence, R.I. “They just mash up against you.”

During the hour-long lesson that precedes the Tuesday night social, Blanton, Darvill and Young teach the basic moves. The rainbow (bend your knees, shift your weight from one foot to the other, rise up and then back down). The smile (same idea but in a reverse arc). The ocho (a figure eight). And the dip (almost self-evident).

They exhort beginners to loosen up. “Imagine sand is pouring out of your rib cage,” Blanton advises.

“People crashing into each other, that’s something that should never, ever happen,” Darvill reminds them, too late.

In its current incarnation, blues dancing is so new that when Take the Lead opened a year ago — last weekend was its first anniversary — the owners had no plans to include it in the lineup with salsa, ballet and ballroom. Then Blanton and company came along.

The steps they teach are as vintage as the songs they dance to. But like the music of Etta James delivered by computers, and like Harlem itself in a revival fueled by money and cool, blues dancing is new and looking fine to those who weren’t there the first time around.

“Calling it ‘blues dancing’ is a new phenomenon,” says Thomas DeFrantz, a professor of music and performing arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But it’s just branding.”

These dances, he says, which have their roots in political resistance, never went away.

“Historically, African Americans didn’t have a way to express coupleness in public,” he explains. “Blues dance became a way to express a comfortableness with a partner in a public space.”

The renewed popularity of couples dancing, both to blues and on shows such as “Dancing With the Stars,” may be a response to increased political tensions in the world, fear of terrorism, and a general anxiety about the future, DeFrantz says.

“People have a need to connect and touch,” he adds.

The swing- and blues-dancing community is mostly white and Asian American. The lack of African Americans, says Blanton, “is hard to address. How do you do outreach?”

African Americans, of course, have the same need and continue to do these dances, DeFrantz says, but they are more focused on innovation.

“If you get caught in the recovery of the past, it makes it difficult to create the future, to come up with the next form that is speaking to the current moment,” he says.

Meanwhile, the beginners at Take the Lead are happily engrossed, practicing their retro ochos. The tango teacher lifts Blanton off her feet and rolls her sinuously over his hip. Marlon Brando looks past his partner to check himself out in the wall of mirrors.

Rock. Pop. Step. Turn.

Jerry, the real estate guy, has a blue-haired teen in his arms. Rhode Island Todd approaches a stranger seated on the couch.

“Wanna dance?” he asks, extending a hand.

“Yes,” she says, and takes it.

(The Philadelphia Inquirer)