Every Wednesday evening, some of the smoothest conversationalists in the city convene at the KC Juke House on 18th and Vine to speak a language that requires no words.
As the toils of hump day come to a close, the patrons saunter into the local lounge in the heart of the historic district, ready to engage in a silky dialogue of dance familiar solely to Kansas Citians.
It’s called “two-stepping.” More specifically, “Kansas City two-stepping,” a distinct ballroom-style dance that, to the local black community, is as intrinsic to the city as jazz or slow-cooked brisket.
You’ll find all proficiency levels at the Juke: the fluent who has been dancing the language for decades, the amateur trying to learn and every level in-between.
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The types of linguists you’ll encounter are boundless, too.
Downtown-area lawyers in sharp business suits and crisp line-ups, and college grads in sweats, sneakers and twisted out mini-Afros. Financial workers from Leawood in expensive heels, and Parade Park sexagenarian retirees in bargain-priced Stacy Adams hard bottoms and silk button-downs. There are battle-weary city council politicians and wide-eyed Hot 103 Jamz DJ East Coast transplants.
They might begin things with a basket of the famous fried wings or a round of the notoriously stiff happy hour cocktails.
But these are all just appetizers, really. They’re here to step. To see and be seen. To show off and show down. To learn the dance’s basics or discover a few new tricks. To spin, twirl and dip deep into the night in a way that only Kansas Citians can.
“Two-stepping is uniquely KC,” says filmmaker Rodney Thompson, who has made a documentary about the dance. “I don’t know if there’s anything else like it. You could say barbecue or jazz, but everybody doesn’t have a barbecue joint. Everybody isn’t a musician. But two-stepping? Damn near all black folks can take ownership of two-stepping.”
Sophisticated and sexy
Kansas City two-stepping’s roots took hold in the mid-1950s as the flamboyant big band and swing eras of jazz that once dominated the nightclubs of New York, Chicago and KC began to wane in favor of the new, slower sound of R&B.
Suddenly big club spaces and the rowdy dances that accompanied them, like the jitterbug and lindy hop — high octane jigs that called for outlandish flips and high-energy acrobatics — were toned down in favor of more subtle moves that better suited the intimate spaces of basement parties and juke joints.
“They had to come up with something a little more low key, something with a little more cool,” says De Barker, 60, a local line dance and two-step instructor recognized around town as an unofficial two-step expert and the “Queen of the KC Two-Step.”
Barker has graduated more than 1,000 steppers from her line dance and two-step classes around town and estimates that she has taught or introduced the dance to thousands more. But don’t call her a legend or anything like that: “I just try to keep stepping in the light. Nobody owns two-step,” she says. “How you gonna be bigger than the game?”
A number of black communities around the country have developed their own variations of smoothed out swing-style derivatives over the last 60 years or so. In Washington, D.C., they call their version “hand dancing.” In St. Louis and North Carolina it’s “the bop.” They “ballroom” in Detroit. Chicago, with probably the most recognizable version (due in large part to R. Kelly and his 2004 No. 1 hit “Step in the Name of Love”) has what they call “Chicago-stepping.”
Technically, the closest mainstream dance to the Kansas City two-step is the country-western two-step (advance apologies for mentioning country music, but it’s the truth). Both are partner dances that require a leader, who directs the movement and flow of the dance, and a follower.
But this is where the similarities end. While the country-western iteration is based in rules — dancers traditionally follow the same quick-quick-slow-slow steps and travel in a counterclockwise pattern — the KC two-step has more of a free-flowing style that encourages spontaneity and flamboyance.
The dance is executed, actually, in five steps. The initial movements require a step forward-close, step backward-close (two initial steps, hence the name). Next comes a three-part side step before returning back to the first two steps. This sounds about as confusing as calculus, but even for the rhythmically challenged, the dance’s basics aren’t hard to grasp.
Mastering it, however? That might take a little time.
Talk to any two-stepper and they’ll tell you the dance is at its best when the partners reach a synergy, when the leading man can spontaneously direct his partner’s movements with no hesitation or confusion.
You’ll rarely see a seasoned KC two-stepper doing just the basic five-step step. They creep within the crevices of those steps and find time for spins, double spins, half turns and synchronized walks. Partners might separate for a moment and have their own little personal bop before returning, seamlessly, in step.
Stay long enough at the Juke House (or the Epicurean Lounge on 75th Street and Prospect Avenue, recognized as the “home of the KC two-steppers” and perhaps the most popular two-step stop in the city) and you might witness show-off men stepping with two women at once, or women so skilled at following the mind-boggling whims of their partners (did he really just spin her four times in a row?) that it almost appears as if she’s leading.
There’s also the fact that two-stepping is sexy. Its sultriness is informed largely by the soundtrack of R&B and soul music.
“Two-stepping is an act of grace and class, an act of love,” Barker says. “It’s sensual but not raunchy.”
Two-stepping is predicated on the idea of “cool” and the respectful relationship between the man and woman. A gentleman doesn’t just grab a lady to step, he asks for the pleasure of her dance.
You’ll step for hours and will never hear salacious or profane lyrics. Instead, it’s the slow sensuality of the Chi-lites, the smooth cool of Marvin Gaye or the contemporary sexy of artists like Usher, Mary J. Blige or Ro James.
You also won’t see many breaking a sweat — that’s not “cool.” When the perspiration comes, it’s an unwritten gospel to take a break, a sip, and get back on the floor once you’ve cooled and returned to peak prettiness.
The rules are simple: Once you know the rules, there really aren’t many.
A measure of cool
Barker has been a dancer for as long as she can remember. When she was a kid, her father would bring friends over to watch her do the hot dances of the time like the watusi, mashed potato and the twist. It wasn’t until she was a teen growing up on the city’s East Side in the ’70s that she was introduced to the dance that would, in a way, define a significant portion of her life.
The memory is still fresh. The dread she felt the moment her cousins dished out the warning the summer before her freshman year at Paseo Academy: “You better not come to this school not knowing how to two-step,” Barker recalls, laughing.
In the Kansas City school district in the 1960s and ’70s, when schools like Lincoln Prep, Central, Manual and East boasted powerhouse sports teams and student bodies numbering in the thousands, school pride and ego transferred from the gridiron to the dance floor.
Each school had its distinctive style — and fancied itself as having the city’s best two-steppers.
“If you didn’t know how to two-step when you went to high school, you could not be a part of the cool kids. You could get shunned,” Barker says. “Guys would even get beat up if they didn’t know how to two-step. Seriously! It wasn’t about the nice clothes or who had the fancy shoes. It was about the two-step.”
This would begin to change after the ’70s. Though two-stepping never disappeared from the local culture, its prominence gradually waned as hip-hop overtook R&B as the dominant musical force in the black community. That, along with the closing of a number of popular dance joints along Prospect Avenue, sent the two-step into perhaps its lowest point of cultural cognizance in the ’90s.
But then in 2003, a chance late-night conversation between Thompson and his filmmaking partner Stinson McClendon planted the seed for what would lead to a two-step renaissance.
The Big Step Off
While in the offices of their nonprofit film company Reel Images Film and Video Group, Thompson and McClendon struck up a conversation on two-stepping and decided to produce a documentary celebrating the dance, its history and place in local culture. The title? “A Conversation in Dance.”
To drum up interest, they linked with Barker and Anita Dixon, executive director of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, to create a two-step competition with stakes so high that it would attract the city’s best steppers to battle for the title of King and Queen of the KC Two-Step.
In 2003, the $10,000 Big Step Off competition was born.
Community response was tremendous. For nine months Thompson and McClendon documented the road to the Big Step Off, as steppers from throughout the metro flocked to whatever nightclub was hosting the competition’s preliminary rounds.
Normally sleepy weekdays at clubs like Pete’s Place in Grandview, The Green Duck on Prospect, and the now-closed Bodyworks Phase II Lounge transformed into bustling nights befitting a Friday or Saturday as steppers came to dance and be judged in categories like “technique and style,” “timing and rhythm” and “overall presentation.” All for the chance to be one of the final 25 couples to advance to the Step Off championships for a shot at the $5,000 first place, $3,000 second place and $2,000 third place prizes.
The documentary was finished in 2004 but was never released because of music copyright issues. Still, the fact the film was made is celebrated by the step community.
“People took pride in the fact that we pushed two-stepping up there to be something,” McClendon says.
In addition to the Step Off, the documentarians, both with master’s degrees in film and a 30-plus-year history of working together on more than 50 visual projects, dug deep to uncover the history of two-step, interviewing historians like former KPRS DJ Chris King and Kansas City scholar Elvis “Sonny” Gibson.
“We gave a weight and seriousness to something that was a big part of people’s lives,” McClendon says. “If something is important to you, you have to champion it. If it’s your history, you have to champion it. Because otherwise, people might not champion your culture.”
Indeed the two-step awareness around town is as starkly divided by race as the “Troost Wall.” Mention two-stepping to the average white person in town and they’re more likely to envision the country-western version.
Black folks though? No way.
“It’s something that belongs to us,” Barker says. “It’s a part of our history and our community and it communicates ‘this is ours.’ They didn’t give it to us. We did this, we started this, we have passed this on as a tradition. We devised everything about two-stepping.”
“This is my life,” one lady stepper says in “A Conversation in Dance.” “I dream about it, I talk about it, I get mad when I can’t do it.”
“It’s two things I can do, and both of them is two-stepping!” says another gentlemen.
“If you can’t two-step you don’t even need to be in Kansas City!” says one DJ.
A love affair
Barker mentions the ways she has seen two-step evolve into a transcendent force in her community. How the competitions and social draw of “two-step nights” boost local businesses. Or how the dance gets people active.
Heck, even the music. Two-step concerts help support the artistry of lesser-known R&B artists like Sam Bostic and Lyfe Jennings (who performed at the KPRS-sponsored 14th annual White Linen party on Sept. 4).
For some people, two-step has even been life-saving. Take Derrick “Mr. D-Man” Thompson.
Two years ago, Thompson, a 2008 and 2009 Big Step Off champion, was diagnosed with an infected kidney and given an ultimatum: lose his leg or lose his life. A year later, on the August night before his amputation, he remembers how he and his wife, Bridgett, two-stepped for four hours straight in his St. Luke’s Medical Center room, enjoying the last time he’d ever dance on his own two legs.
“A lot of people love to dance,” Thompson, 53, says at the Juke House. “I live to dance.”
A prosthetic leg hasn’t stopped D-Man’s show. He props himself against the wine-colored column near the dance floor and scouts potential partners: He’ll take a spin with a newbie half-impressed, half-intimidated by moves he’s already displayed earlier in the night, then with a Step Off judge with just as many tricks up her sleeve as he has. But D-Man is at his best when dancing with Bridgett. They exude that synchronistic synergy all great steppers strive for, one born from 15 years of support and companionship. Their conversation is unfaltering and beautiful.
“Two-stepping keeps me in good spirits and out of depression,” he says. “I didn’t want to go through depression, so I started dancing even more (after the operation).”
For Warren “Stylez” Harvey, 29, and his partner Vanessa Robinson, 30, two-stepping is as much about having fun as pushing the dance into new realms.
Harvey and Robinson represent what Barker hopes will become the next generation of two-steppers.
The couple were the youngest participants in this year’s Step Off, dancing a unique style that blended traditional two-stepping with hip-hop elements. They took second. Harvey, with another partner, won the Step Off in 2012 at the age of 25.
“I love the challenge of seeing what we can do. How far we can push the boundaries of two-stepping,” he says.
There’s a moment every week at the Juke, around about 9:30, when the drinks have taken effect and the shoulders have loosened. The ladies have gotten into formation and the men, fueled by a little liquid courage, have worked up the gall to spark a conversation with them.
And then, on a dime, resident jockey DJ Footz realizes it’s the perfect time to throw on a crowd favorite. Maybe it’s the latest from R&B newcomer Ro James or an old Mary J. Blige cut. Suddenly hands outstretch as gentlemen around the lounge ask women to dance. The boisterous clamor becomes a low hum as conversations swerve from verbal to physical.
It brings to mind the words of McClendon: “If people aren’t familiar with two-stepping, it can sometimes be hard to explain how great it can make you feel. The vibe it can give. But two-stepping in Kansas City, it’s special. It’s a love affair,” he says.
“Kansas City love, for a Kansas City thing.”
Frederick “Freddy” Sherman, founder and president of the KC Elite 2-Steppers club, says “we’re the only city that steps Monday to Sunday!”
You can attend Freddy’s two-step class every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the KC Juke House, 1700 E. 18th St.
De Barker teaches two-stepping at 7 p.m. Mondays at the Lonnie Bush Fitness Center at 6715 Blue Ridge Blvd., Raytown, at 7 p.m.; , at 7 p.m. Wednesdays at the Mary L. Kelly Center at 2803 E. 51st St.; and at 8 p.m. Thursdays at the Southeast Community Center at 4201 E. 63rd St. Classes cost $6. Beginners and steppers of all levels welcome. Dance partner not required.