What keeps a robotics engineer, a Carnegie museum paleontologist and Pittsburghers from CMU and Pitt trekking through Oakland once a week to dance the blues?
Hot Metal Blues
has met for about a year in the upstairs of Peter's Pub in Oakland every Tuesday night. There, people whose parents were not yet born when John Lee Hooker was singing about boogie-woogying or Howlin' Wolf was pitching a wang-dang doodle, are helping to revive blues dancing.
"Blues dance is a kind of simple dance, but within it there is a lot of room for improvisation," says Forrest Rogers-Marcovitz, a robotics engineer and one of Hot Metal's organizers. There is "a lot of room for really connecting mentally with a partner."
The blues doesn't have many rules when it spreads to the dance floor, but some latter-day instructors have parsed out some moves that make up "blues dance."
On a recent Tuesday, Rogers-Marcovitz and Kate Foradori started the evening with a lesson, as all Tuesdays in the wide open upstairs of Peter's Pub begin. They started by demonstrating the underlining technique of "slow dragging," moving your hips to the music and allowing the feet to drag or step seamlessly behind them.
Blues dance "essentially starts with the hips and moves on down," explained Rogers-Marcovitz. The newcomers shuffled about in a circle around the two teachers as a slow, saxophone-laced version of "Spoonful" by the San Francisco band HowellDevine played. Much of the crowd is drawn from the swing dance clubs of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University.
Rogers-Marcovitz and Foradori moved on to "riffing," a call and response kind of dancing, where the lead moves and the follow imitates and then adds a move or two to up the ante. The two faced each other, moving in slow, slinky motions.
"It's like a conversation," says Anusha Ramdarshan, another organizer and also a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
From there, dancers can take up such techniques as "fishtail," (two partners stepping outside each other as they criss-cross their legs), "funky butt" (swaying the backside with the knees still), "snake hips" (wild circling of the knees) or "knee rocks." But on this night, the instructors kept to the basics.
Among the newcomers, there was some of the awkwardness that comes with trying new things. In what looked like an attempt to be funny, a college student in a Philadelphia Eagles t-shirt decided to wail his arms wildly, which is not a blues dance move of any kind, forcing his petite partner to mirror him as she giggled.
But after the lesson ended and the dance began in earnest, newcomers and old hands mixed together harmoniously. On Rogers-Marcovitz's laptop, HowellDevine moved onto another classic, "Help Me" (made famous by Sonny Boy Williamson) as two women danced together fast but close, circling the floor. By the next song, they were on to other partners.
"There's a strong ethic of dancing with as many people as possible," says Sarah Regenspan, the chair of the group and an organizer for the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.
She adds: "I feel like I am able to express myself more in blues than in other, more choreographed forms of dance. In salsa, the follow, which — let's face it — is usually the woman, is just getting spun around. Blues dance is much freer."
Beginning with the Blues Festival
In 2007, blues dancing popped up in Pittsburgh in the form of the Steel City Blues Festival, a multi-venue weekend of dancing and workshops that occurs each March.
Regenspan says the 2012 festival was her first exposure to blues dancing and, at the time, she was in a rut. "I was working 10- to 12-hour days and would come home and look at a wall," she says. "I knew someone who was looking for someone [else] to host people for the festival and at the time letting a bunch of strangers sleep on my floor sounded exciting. Then I decided if I was going to have them at my house I might as well get interested in what they are doing."
After the festival came and went, Regenspan and a few other locals started holding house parties, giving their homes codenames like the "S&A's Back Alley Juke Joint," "Château Bleu" and the "Red Panda Speakeasy." Then they founded the evening at Peter's Pub.
Hot Metal Blues gets a lot of crossover attendees from Pittsburgh's other dance events, such as the Steel City Boogie Club and the Pittsburgh Area Jitterbug Club, in addition to the swing dance groups of Pitt and CMU.
Blues dancing originated in the African-American bars and clubs of the early 20th century, according to Heidi Fite, a San Francisco dance teacher and proprietor of the website blues-dance.com. "Eventually, jazz and swing became more popular forms of music, particularly for dancers," she says. "Blues dancing never made the jump to white audiences in the same way," even as blues did and the Chess Records generation of artists, such as Muddy Waters, became the idols of the Yardbirds, Doors and Rolling Stones.
The '90s saw the revival of Lindy Hop and consequently a generation of dance instructors with an interest in the pre-World War II African-American club scene. About a decade into the trend, blues dancing rode back to prominence on the back of swing. Fite and other swing instructors began teaching blues dance workshops as a way to hang on to the trendy kids who came in for Lindy Hop lessons.
"Ours is a reconstructed scene," she says. "No one was in these African-American clubs taking notes. We only know what was passed down." The distinction between blues, swing and related forms is blurry, but Fite says "I don't think it's blues unless it starts with the hips."
Blues dance nights are increasing across the country and beyond. Bluescal.com, another online hub, lists regular events in Atlanta, Boston, Orlando and (of course) Chicago and even international cities like Dublin, Vienna and Berlin. Fite says she taught a workshop in Seoul, South Korea.
The biggest draw of Hot Metal Blues in particular, according to Regenspan, is the music.
"I think blues is the ultimate expression of humanity and the human experience," she says. "The rhythm is a primal expression of longing. It's deeply rooted in the African-American experience but it speaks to so many people around the world."
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen