Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg are on a mission: They want to make swing cool again. So far, they’ve been pretty successful. The duo runs Gottaswing, a dance group that teaches more than 4,000 students annually how to dance the jitterbug and lindy hop.
They organize classes everywhere from Reston to Germantown and perform all over the place, whether it’s at the recent Arsenal of Democracy Flyover or their upcoming gig on June 6 for the Kennedy Center’s tribute to Frank Sinatra, Let’s Be Frank. Most important, they make it clear that swing isn’t just for grandparents.
“Swing was really unhip in the ’60s and ’70s. It was an old-people dance,” Koerner says. Now, he says, it’s on the rise–and part of that has to do with the younger generation’s desire to go beyond the boom-boom beats of David Guetta. “Contemporary music is pretty awful. When you see young kids digging Benny Goodman, I guess Usher didn’t work so well for them,” he says.
Koerner first started dancing in the late ’70s while studying at the University of Virginia. “The girls in my dorm said I wouldn’t get a date until I learned to dance, and I said, ‘I’ll be right back,'” he jokes. Once he caught a glimpse of some folks dancing the jitterbug, he was hooked. In 1987, he performed with Doc Scantlin’s Imperial Palms Orchestra, where Deb was working as a cigarette girl. “I saw [Tom] dancing and thought that was pretty groovy,” she says.
They dated for about a year before deciding they were better off as friends. Soon, they began performing together and teaching people how to dance swing.
Now Koerner, who is 57, works as a criminal defense attorney in Fairfax County by day and swing dancer by night. Sternberg is 61. Together, the pair is doing aerials like they’re still in their early 30s. That might not seem too crazy compared to Jean Veloz, a 91-year-old swing dancer. (“I can still flip Jean over my shoulder!” Koerner says.) But for those of us in our twenties who can’t even muster up a simple waltz, Koerner and Sternberg’s moves are very impressive.
What might be even more impressive is how they’ve managed to do aerials for all these years without any serious injury. They’ve banged heads, bumped into each other, gotten a few black and blues, but that’s about it. “We’re pretty injury-free!” Sternberg says.
Their secret? According to Koerner, people get hurt because they think aerials look easy. The trick is getting Sternberg to jump up and using momentum instead of lifting to do the moves.
Whatever they’re doing, one thing’s for sure: It most definitely looks cool.