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Dancers Come Out Swinging

Area swing dance group gets their groove on in Vienna.

A swirl of a red skirt and a jazz riff on the trumpet. That's what awaited people as they descended down a long staircase into a spacious, subterranean room with a large dance floor. Although recorded music hummed through the air-conditioned room that evening--the live bands are what really draw the crowds--that didn't deter people from spinning and strutting their stuff.

Triple step, triple step, rock step. Swing dance instructor Donna Barker could say that effortlessly even though more than a dozen eyes were staring at her feet. Every Wednesday, she gives the beginners' lesson before the evening swing dance begins and before more people trickle in from all over northern Virginia and Maryland to spend a couple of hours in dancing bliss.

For almost every day of the week, the downstairs room that used to hold the Vienna Tap Room restaurant gets busy with dancers doing the lindy hop or some country line dance. Since 1995, the Potomac Swing Dance Club has been hosting swing, tango and country western dances in the room whose upstairs neighbors include a mattress shop and a wedding gown boutique.

"I've tried to provide an inexpensive venue for people to learn how to dance," said Potomac Swing Dance Club founder Craig Hutchinson, who has taught swing dance and lindy hop to hundreds of area residents for years.

Hutchinson began teaching dance lessons in Springfield. A military man for 23 years, Hutchinson himself started dancing in 1954, when rock n' roll started to hit big. Hutchinson was in eighth or ninth grade in Cleveland, Ohio.

As interest in swing dancing grew in the region in the 1980s, Hutchinson founded the Potomac Swing Dance Club, whose dances have been attended by roughly 1,000 people each year, with all ages from 16 to 80 represented. The group has also sponsored the Virginia State Swing Dance Championships for 13 years.

"The more people who dance, the better for the community," said swing dance instructor Donna Barker.

Barker didn't start out as one of the Washington area's premiere swing dance instructors. The Annandale resident was a piano teacher who had to take a folk music class to teach in elementary schools. The folk music then led to an interest contra dancing, a form of folk dance.

It turned out that the contra dancers, of which she was one, couldn't stop dancing. Whenever the band accompanying the contra dance took a break, someone would break out a rock 'n' roll record, so they could continue dancing, in couples. After dances, they would go to the Zoo Bar and play the jukebox. Soon they began hosting all-night parties at people's houses, dancing until the wee hours of the morning. It was there that Barker learned some swing dance moves, and people began asking her to teach them the steps.

"We just loved it. It was just passion," said Barker, who also teaches in Arlington and at Glen Echo Park in Md.

Barker's daughter, Meredith, 24, recalled she and her sister accompanying their mother to the various dance events.

"D.C. has a very strong dance community, in my opinion," Meredith Barker said. "There's something happening every night of the week."

But not only do dances happen every night of the week, they can run at different times. After spending some hours in Vienna, Barker planned to go to a swing dance in College Park.

"I've been in it for a long time, so I'm not leaving anytime soon," Barker said.

What attracts people to come to swing dances several times a week? Barker said people like the exercise and the sociability. They also like the music. Swing music, a form of jazz, originated in the 1920s, but swing dancing can use any kind of music that employs syncopation and improvisation. Swing dancers can jive to music infused with or influenced by jazz, rock 'n' roll, or ska.

Tonja Ducrest, a secretary who lives in Arlington who's been swing dancing for five years said the teachers also influence where and how often she dances.

"I just love dancing. And the people you see who are good at it, they love it," Ducrest said.

Indeed, people often see the same people at dances every week. It was that aspect of community that drew Jack Doherty in. Doherty lives an hour and a half away, in Great Mills, Md., but makes it to swing dances whenever he can. An engineer who works for the Navy, Doherty saw a newspaper article about swing dancing at Glen Echo.

"Everybody was having such a good time. The music was so much fun. Very friendly people, very good teacher," Doherty said. "Once it gets in your blood, it's a tremendous, tremendous source of pleasure and relaxation. It's wonderful exercise, the music is great."

As the evening progressed in the venue off of Maple Avenue, couples, many of whom come by themselves and dance with different partners for each dance, get on and off the dance floor depending on the song and their energy level. While invigorating, sometimes they need to take a break to catch their breath or chat with friends about their day or about specific dance steps. As patters of conversations drift softly through the air, it's punctuated by the melodies of slow blues, traditional big band and rock 'n' roll ditties.

During a dance break, Denise Conner, an outgoing chiropractor who lives in Silver Spring, Md., explained why she started swing dancing. She started it eight years ago, when she and her husband had to learn how to swing dance for a wedding reception. Since then, the couple has been swing dancing wherever they travel, from Amsterdam to Chicago to Milwaukee. One Valentine's Day, they danced at Lincoln Center in New York City with musician Wynton Marsalis playing in the band.

"I tell my husband, he has gained millions of husband points," Conner said.

Conner likes dancing because it lifts her spirits. Even if she doesn't stay for the whole evening, the dancing affects her.

"All it takes is two or three dances, and the bad day is gone," Conner said.

Nearby, Richard Madlener of McLean agreed. Although it was his first time to come to the former Vienna Tap Room on Wednesday's swing nights, he's been to other dances where Barker has instructed. He's also been to the Friday night country western dances that the Potomac Swing Dance Club also hosts in the same venue. He goes swing dancing four to five times a week.

"It's good exercise. The people are wonderful. Dancing is very good for your health., both in terms of the exercise and the endorphins," Madlener said. "If you're in a funk, you're quickly out of a funk."