The Big Dipper

August 14, 1994|By Glenn McNatt Hand-dancing contest: A tale of two cities Glenn McNatt

It's 1 o'clock in the morning at the New Haven nightclub in Northeast Baltimore and Reggie Thomas is busy doing his thing on the dance floor.

This man can really dance. He is twirling his partner now with his right hand while his feet beat out an intricate little tattoo on the polished floor.

Then he switches hands and spins her the other way from the waist before catching her in a classic ballroom pose that immediately segues into something that looks like a combination jitterbug and Lindy Hop.

And the guy never misses a step. It's like he's got his own little cesium clock ticking away somewhere inside his brain, an incredibly accurate mechanism that divides each musical beat into maybe a billion tiny slivers, then adds them all up so that every rhythmic nuance is allocated its own nanosecond of expressive movement.

"Reggie really has his own unique style," says Sharon Holly, one of Reggie's regular partners at the New Haven on Thursday nights, when the music is mostly a mix of '60s oldies and urban contemporary.

"I like to hand dance," she says, "and Reggie's so energetic you really get a good workout."

Indeed, "hand dancing" is Reggie's specialty. That's where the two partners actually try to move together instead of drifting along separately in their own rhythmic bubbles. It's what people used to call "jitterbug" or "swing," except today's version incorporates elements of all the older dances plus new movements from hip-hop style.

"Basically, hand dancing has always been around," Reggie says during a break between songs. "It's what we grew up with during the '60s and '70s, when most of the people who come here were younger.

"It sorta went out in the 1980s, 'cause everybody was doing freestyle, which is like doing your own thing," he says, sipping on a Coke. "But I guess it's fashion or something, because now people are starting to hand dance again."

And Reggie Thomas is right in the middle of the revival locally. Right now, for example, there's a group in Baltimore, Stepping Out Productions, that is organizing a series of hand-dancing contests, just like those that were so popular years ago.

Hand dancing is also being revived in cities like Washington, where it's been popular for years at clubs like the Eclipse. This Friday, Stepping Out Productions will sponsor a contest at Morgan State University between Baltimore- and Washington-area couples. (See box on Page 14.) Reggie has been tapped to be one of the judges.

"I rate Reggie very highly as a dancer," says Yvonne Stewart, organizer of the Stepping Out Productions contest. "We wanted judges who know how to hand dance themselves, and Reggie is well-known around town as a fine dancer."

Moreover, there are signs that younger people in their 20s and 30s are beginning to look back on the '70s as a kind of golden era of pop music and dance. If that trend keeps up, hand dancing could take hold among Generation Xers as well.

Though Reggie is far too modest to say so himself, the fact is women come to the New Haven from all over just to dance with him. He's a good-looking guy, a still-trim fortysomething with nice eyes and a naturally pleasant manner that wouldn't discourage anyone from walking right up and asking for a dance.

"Mostly we just all know each other from coming here over the years," says Teresa Epps, another Thursday-night regular and one of Reggie's dance partners.

"Everybody here is pretty down-to-earth, lots of fun, lots of laughs, so it's a good place to break the ice after a long day," she says.

Ms. Epps enjoys hand dancing, but what she really likes is what's called "Fred Astaire," which takes its name from the famous dancing actor of the 1930s and '40s. It's a style that emphasizes elegance over athleticism, refinement over sheer energy and speed.

"You don't do as much spinning around as in regular hand dancing," Ms. Epps says. "It's more like steps -- cha-cha, fox trot and things like that."

Of course, Reggie is a master of "Fred Astaire," too.

"I can do all those styles," he says. And he's not boasting either, just acknowledging what appears to be a very uncomplicated truth about himself.

"I really like to dance," he says simply. "It's one of the ways I express myself." BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS REGGIE THOMAS EXPRESSING? What, you might ask, is all that virtuoso footwork and split-second timing really about?

"I guess it's really about survival," Reggie says. "I mean, I'm fortysomething now and I've made it just because I've managed to survive. Because there's so many other guys I came up with who didn't."

Reggie is sitting in a Charles Street restaurant eating brunch on a Saturday afternoon.

"I've been dancing since I was a kid," he says. "We lived on Howard Street until I was about 6 or 7, then we moved to Guilford Avenue and then to St. Annes Avenue.

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