Not your grandma’s dance scene: A look at Blues Dance Nashville
By Rhiannon Gilbert, Studio M staff
Johnny Jones a local blues legend said, “its the man not the guitar,” while standing in front of the Elks Lodge which used to be Club Baron where he played years ago on Jefferson Ave. Aug. 13, 2003. (Photo by Leah L. Jones)
It’s midnight in Nashville. The traffic lights on Charlotte Avenue flash a lazy yellow. In the quiet, the back door of the Global Education Center opens and the unmistakable thump of blues music comes rolling out like smoke.
Inside, dancers of all ages and experience levels feel their way around the beat. Shoes slide to the rocking rhythm of one-man blues band Eli Cook. Couples bob, sway, twist and spin, their laughing faces illuminated by blue lowlights. No one meets a stranger.
This is Blues Dance Nashville on a Saturday night.
Blues Dance Nashville, or BDN, has been the blues dance outlet for the city and surrounding areas since 2013. The group gathers every Thursday for a lesson and a dance, and every second Saturday they bring in a live band.
The group got started when its president, Kenneth Shipp, a professional dancer, discovered blues dancing as a bit of a slowdown from the Lindy Hop. He quickly realized he loved it, and spent two years traveling and learning the dance so he could instruct it in Nashville.
“If I wanted to dance with people here, I had to learn how to teach so there would be people I could dance with,” Shipp, 28, explained.
From there, Blues Dance Nashville grew into a steady scene of regular dancers, with 10 to 15 people attending the lesson each week.
“We are seeing more and more new people who are staying and having a good time,” said Ruthie Bradt, a regular dancer and BDN volunteer.
The idea that blues is alive and well in Music City isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the recent birth of a blues dance scene in the era of pop and twerking is notable. Counter that with the fact that the founding members and most of the dancers fall between the ages of 18 and 35, and critics of millennials are sure to raise an eyebrow.
“It’s a different form of dancing that you can sink your teeth into,” explained Heather Adkins, 27, vice president of BDN. “It isn’t grinding or pop-and-lock, but it isn’t ballroom either. It’s something that’s down-to-earth feeling. It’s the grassroots flavor that really gets people, too.”
Being deeply rooted in African-American history and culture, blues dancing holds a historical attraction that most mainstream dance scenes don’t. The preservation of the dance is one of the reasons why Shipp started the group and why people continue to come see what it’s all about.
“This dance almost died,” Adkins said. “It kind of came from the memories of grandparents talking to grandchildren, and the grandchildren going, ‘Hey! That sounds cool. Let’s try it, and let’s grow it.’”
“Having live music also helps keep it alive,” said Bradt. “It’s cool to have the authentic music and be doing the authentic dance, and you’re really having the fun like they used to have.”
The difference now is that even more people can have that kind of fun. BDN dancers agree that the scene is diverse and open to people with all types of values and backgrounds – a characteristic that was mostly unheard of in the earlier days.
Blues music is often fast, fun and even sensual, but the genre earned its name for its lyrics about hardship, heartaches and regrets. It seems that modern young adults are drawn to the subject matter just as much, if not more, than the catchy sound.
“A lot of young people have had some of that blues experience, especially college students – if you want to use school debt as an example,” Shipp said. “College students no longer get to just jump straight out of school and start living life. They’ve been stunted, to an extent. So I’d say it’s a struggle that many of us identify with, and I’m not surprised that people are getting attracted to blues.”
Many people appreciate the blues, and listening is one thing, but the dance scene also has a social impact on its patrons that draws most of them in for the long haul.
“It’s an emotional outlet that people don’t really realize they need,” said Adkins. “I think everyone here has a passion and a way that they need to emote, whether that’s through dancing or simply having social contact with another person.”
Since its establishment, the group has grown into a close-knit community. It pairs for events with the dance scene in Huntsville, Alabama, their “sister dance city,” as well as Memphis, Chattanooga, Cookeville and Louisville. Local dancers host travelers in their homes as well, so it’s easier for more people to get out of town and connect with other dancers.
“When you have a common goal of proliferating dance and proliferating a culture, you tend to band together,” said Adkins. “So we basically just make friends where we can … and we’re all in that two-hour pocket travel time where we can get to each other easily.”
Some Nashvillians may be apprehensive about the city’s rapid growth pace, but BDN dancers see it as an opportunity to share their passion with new people.
“If you’re in Nashville, you know that we have a large list of venues where you can find your music niche,” Shipp said. “Sometimes people outside of Nashville don’t realize that, so people who have moved into Nashville recently are experiencing that too, which may be contributing to our growth some.”
Whether they’re moving to the city or just passing through, anyone who loves the blues is welcome at Blues Dance Nashville. They might find an unexpected home for socializing, learning and self-expression.
“I’m hoping that as the music scene grows, the more people realize there’s also a blues dancing scene,” Bradt said. “They can come listen to their music and dance to it, too.”
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, is made possible through generous grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. Rhiannon Gilbert is a senior journalism major at MTSU. Follow her on Twitter at @careyrhiannon.