The History of Hand Dance

Culture can be defined as all the behaviors, arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.”

Lindy Hop 1930s

DC Hand Dance is an improvisational form of swing style partner dancing developed in the Washington, DC area in the early 1950s by African Americans as a form of recreation and entertainment.  The dance evolved from the early Lindy Hop and Jitterbug dance styles of the 1930s and 1940s created by George “Shorty” Snowden.  Hand Dance is rooted in the floor version of swing as opposed to the acrobatics and aerials of the Lindy and Jitterbug.  Individual style and interpretation is key in defining and understanding this dance style.

In the 1950s, the dance was called “Jitterbug” and the dance halls and arenas in the DC area where the best dancers honed their dance skills were Turner’s Arena, Lincoln Colonnade and the U-Line Arena.  The tempo of the dance was upbeat and big bands such as Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner fueled the dance. In the 1960s, the tempo slowed down to a “cool” rhythm as the dance became known as “Fast Dancing” and the music was Motown, Chicago Soul and the Stax Records sound.  Teens danced in recreation centers, school gymnasiums, basement parties, in dance halls such as WUST (9th& V Streets, NW), and on the television show “The Teenarama Dance Party” on WOOK-TV Ch. 14. Later in the decade, as free style dancing swept the nation, small numbers of people continued to “fast dance” in and around the area, thereby creating a dance sub-culture.  These dancers continued to keep oldies but goodies music and “fast dancing” alive.

Swing 1940s

In the early 1990’s, the dance was coined “Hand Dance“. In 1993, 2001, and 2011 Hand Dance was included in The Smithsonian Institution’s Folk Life Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  Hand Dance is recognized as a traditional folk form and national treasure by America’s historical institution.  As a result of the Hand Dance inclusion in the Folk Life Festival, popularity began to grow and Hand Dance night clubs and classes were starting up around the area.  However, the first class instruction in the DC Metropolitan area was established in 1992 as the Smooth & EZ Hand Dance Institute.

Today, Hand Dance is experiencing a dance explosion.  It is the Official Dance of the District of Columbia by Resolution of the DC Council.  Hand Dance social clubs,  night clubs, events and Hand Dance instruction can be found six to seven days a week in and around the Washington metropolitan area and as far north as Baltimore, Maryland and as far south as Richmond, Virginia. The youth of today are experiencing the excitement of this dance this generation adds its Hip Hop moves to the traditional Hand Dance form.

Hand Dance is the dance of choice by those who currently embrace it and by those who grew up in this dance culture.  The texture of the dance has gone to another level with the current generation of Hand Dancers, ensuring that it will be continued and preserved for future generations.

Hand Dance 2011