HCWDC Intern Ashley Portillo Interviews A Champion of DC's Native Dance
Visit www.nationalhanddanceassociation.org to learn about Hand Dance, the officially recognized dance of Washington, DC. Find out more about Ms. Lindsay-Johnson's most recent project, "Hand Dance: A Capitol Swing," at our 4th Annual DC Community Heritage Project Showcase on Wednesday, December 8. You are guaranteed to learn something new about DC at this FREE program and reception! RSVP today!.
|Image Courtesy: National Hand Dance|
A: Hand Dance is a contemporary swing-style-partner dance with roots in Lindy Hop and Jitterbug. It has been almost a 60-year social dance form. It has gone through a series of evolutions per generation, but started out as more of a swing-style dance rooted on the ground. Then, in the 1950s, because of the more up-tempo music, the foot dance evolved to a faster pace. Then, in the 60s, the style cooled itself out with the advent of Blues music. The footwork was a cooler style- more “cool”, I guess you could say. Then, during the disco era, the dancing was more freestyle. And in the early 90s, Hand Dance made a comeback. Actually, in 1993 the Smithsonian Institution recognized Hand Dance as an American Art Form. This support really helped revive this type of dance because all of a sudden it just started to explode! Because back then in the 50s and 60s, everyone was doing it- mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, kids and grandparents alike. But then, in the 1990s, a revival started to occur. Yet, this time it was a clash between a more freestyle 90s dance with the more structured form the older generations had learned. The dance that we had in the 90s was all about presentation and choreography and you began to see a clash between the two styles of Hand Dance. This is all very important because it is the official dance of the nation’s capital, which is still practiced today in the swing-dance clubs. In the Hand Dance clubs today, you see an improvised type of Hand Dancing. You see a similar structure, but not as much choreography.
Q: Is the improvised form more difficult than the choreographed Hand Dance?
A: Absolutely not. Once you master the man-to-woman indication by way of the movements he makes with his hand or arm, the woman just has to know what those non-verbal communications indicate. She needs to know what those body movements and motions indicate; but all of these styles, whether choreographed and structured or improvised in the clubs, carry the same rule of thumb.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face in trying to preserve or archive the Hand Dance?
A: Well, they have old-school Hand Dance of the 50s and 60s and there is the contemporary Hand Dance of now. Washington, though, is so unique that you have the older generations at 50 to 60 years old and 70 to 80 years old dancing the Hand Dance. And now, our sociology is so much different than ever before, so the youth is doing it too and they have so much movement. They add to it with their hip-hop twist. The music has changed and the older generation doesn’t always agree with it. But this has taken place in all types of artistic cultures. There’s a pull from the older generation trying to preserve the original Hand Dance. The National Hand Dance Association tries the best that it can to fuse the two together because the older generation understands that change is inevitable. And it respectfully accepts this in order for the dance to continue and not die out. I always say that there has to be change. There has to be an evolution because the music changes and music is what fuels the dance.
Q: Your programs at NHDA have a dual focus: hand dancing as an art form and as a community service. What are some ways in which it is seen as a community service?
A: Well, we’re educating the public on the history of the District of Columbia and African American history and dance. Also, we are teaching the etiquette that comes with the dance and not only that but the cosmic resolution. You have so many young people that have learned it, mastered it, and immersed themselves in the dance. Many have said that this dance has changed their lives completely. I think there has been a social breakdown in contemporary dances- something is missing in them. So we try hard to introduce the Hand Dance to the youth, which is why we have a Youth Chapter.
Q: How did you become interested in and involved with the Hand Dance?
A: Well… (laughs), I’m originally from New York City and have been in DC since 1977. In the 90s, I was introduced to the Hand Dance when I saw it for the first time. I went to this popular Hand Dance club, Eclipse, and saw this dance form I wasn’t familiar with. I was an oldies and boogie fanatic. Not a fan- a FANATIC (laughs)! I saw this dance and noticed it wasn’t just a dance. I was watching the people and it was amazing to see the dancers smiling to each other. The men were asking the women to dance with them, and then they were taking these women back to their seats (when the dance was over)! These clubs are the safest to be at because it’s a community. So I decided to produce a documentary and I featured the Hand Dance. I became ingratiated in the culture. The more you’re in it, the more you see it as a family. This was back in 1996 when I started as a historian for the NHDA and then became vice president. I’ve been with the NHDA ever since and now I am the president (laughs).
All of the 2010 DCCHP grantees will be recognized at a special showcase held at the Tifereth Israel Congregation in Northwest on December 8th. The Council produced three videos, each combining a collection of grantee interviews or documentary clips that will describe the grantee projects and explain how they were developed. These videos will be shown at the Grantee Showcase, and each organization will have the opportunity to set up a display, to further explain their projects to the attendees. The DCCHP Grantee Showcase is a free, public event. Click here to register.
DCCHP project sponsors and partners include: the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service Office of Historic Preservation, the D.C. Office of Planning and Historic Preservation, the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, DC Historic Preservation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.