It is no secret: from the continent of Africa, to the Mississippi Delta and back up to the Cotton Club, pan-African people have danced and danced, throughout every era. Our rhythmic movement, with its myriad of patterns and devices, has been born, reborn, and evolved throughout every region of North America. Dance is such an integral part of our cultural identity, that someone who “can’t dance” is treated as a pariah or an object of jokes. Our affinity to dance is taken for granted.
Fortunately there are people like Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, documentarian and cultural historian, who do not take African American dance for granted. She not only respects and honors this bright hue in the spectrum of African and African American culture, she is also dedicated to its preservation so that future generations will recall how black people have put their rhythmic stamp on American culture throughout its history.
Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Bronx, New York, giggled and shrugged shyly as she reflected on the dance craze of the 1970s “I loved doing the Hustle! I used to call myself the Hustle Queen.”
For those of you who don’t know or remember, the Hustle was the smooth and soulful dance that united dance partners across the nation in hip rhythmic strides and turns to disco music in the 1970s. You could find Beverly hustling at the hip Manhattan discos, Leviticus, Justine’s and The Martinique, during their heyday. Though the Hustle has faded into the history of popular culture, partner dancing and the music that brings people together are still a major part of Beverly’s life work.
The young Hustle dancer, the proud daughter of a 1950s Doo-Wop singer and an African American woman who had accomplished the distinction of becoming a secretary in the 1960s, when few black women earned this position and most who did were hid in the rear of the office. Johnson smiles and clasps her hands together, gazing upward lovingly when speaking of her father and a raises her shoulders a little taller when speaking of her mother.
Beverly followed in the shoes of her ambitious mother and was not satisfied sitting in the rear. Though the young Lindsay was able to snag a secure position as a legal secretary under the inspiration of her mother and “Della Street,” the secretary in the legendary television series, Perry Mason, early in her career, she sought a career that would bring her even further into the forefront, television.
Beverly relocated to Washington, DC, where she was employed at Howard University and received formal training at the Howard University School of Communications. Her drive captured her a position at WHUT, the nation’s first black publicly owned public television station, which was operated by the university. After six years of work as an administrative secretary in the Operations and Engineering Department, the bright-eyed, motivated young woman began to pitch ideas. These ideas ultimately made her the recipient of 26 media awards for excellence in television and video.
Still a dancer at heart, Beverly explored the club scene in DC. She even wrote articles on the DC night club scene for ROUTES MAGAZINE. The Eclipse Night Club was one of the spots she favored. This is where she first saw DC Hand Dancing. Hand Dance is a contemporary swing style partner dance that is indigenous to the African American community in Washington, DC. Something struck her. “This dance was more than a dance,” she thoughtfully reflected. “It’s a way of life.” Lindsay went on to describe the look of enjoyment and community spirit that was communicated as Washingtonians clasped hands, swinging to the sounds of oldies but goodies, as well as contemporary R&B. She also met Bill Johnson, at the Eclipse night club in 1995 and they hand danced their way into marrying in 2000. Her deep appreciation for this phenomenon permeated her nostalgic voice and glistened eyes as she recounted these times with me.
The young Lindsay urged the Production Manager at WHUT, Bill Pratt, to do a documentary on this intriguing dance. He laughed. That didn’t stop Beverly. She went to him again and again. Reluctantly, he gave in. She thought that he would assign an experienced staff producer to make the documentary, but he assigned it to her. She had no documentary experience, but she had passion. As a result, her maiden documentary, Swing, Bop and Hand Dance established Beverly as, not only a documentarian, but also a cultural historian. She received an Emmy nomination and an array of media awards for her first documentary work.
While doing the research for her first film, she discovered the history of a little known African American teen dance show, The Teenarama Dance Party. She was so fascinated by the rich history of this television show, that she was determined to make it the subject of her next creation. For decades, many allowed the legacy of this show to fade—Beverly refused to do so. She prepared to pursue making a documentary, as a totally independent producer. In that scenario, Beverly and her new company, Kendall Productions, would own the rights to this film.
Teenarama aired on Washington, DC’s WOOK television, one of the first television stations during the 1960’s that programmed for African Americans, “long before there was a BET or TV One,“ Lindsay-Johnson stresses. In the era of the teen dance show, Black teens were seldom seen, due to segregation and social injustice that restrained them from appearing with whites. Some shows even instituted a specific day when African American teens could be on the show. Teenarama broke this trend in Washington, DC, showcasing black teens on every show from 1963 until 1970 and featuring a host of American musical royalty, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and an endless list of others.
After years of making history and breaking barriers, WOOK-TV was closed and sold. All recordings of Teenarama were lost. The historic show was a faint memory; however, the dance griot was determined to change that. Dance Party: The Teenarama Story was the brainchild that sprung forth. Beverly reached out to Emmy award winning producer Herb Grimes, who also danced on the Teenarama Dance Party television show as a teenager. He became her Co-Producer and together they assembled original dancers from Teenarama to tell their story. The legendary James Brown even appeared in the film, crediting the show with much of his success. Martha Reeves of Motown’s Martha and the Vandellas, not only shares her Teenarama experience, but also serves as the film’s narrator. The absence of film footage didn’t cripple the project at all. Instead, Beverly made this obstacle an opportunity for creativity. She and her creative team selected and trained teens from the Washington, DC area to Cha-Cha, Bop, and of course Hand Dance as they performed the indigenous “old school” steps, dips and turns that characterize, Washington, DC’s “Official Dance” in time period clothing on a recreated Teenarama set.
Though eight years in the making, this cultural phenomenon boasts an Emmy for “Best Cultural Documentary” from the National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The documentary garnered an Aurora Award (Platinum), the Telly Award and the documentary is permanently archived in the Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles as a “program of historical importance,” Dance Party: The Teenarama Story aired on one hundred PBS stations nationwide.
With many accolades from the community whose story she felt compelled to tell, inquisitive minds asked “how did someone who came from New York City come into DC and tell the story of a history making era in Washington, DC, as if she lived here?” She went on to produce, yet, another documentary on DC Hand Dance, “Hand Dance: A Capitol Swing”, which documents the 60 year evolution of Hand Dance from the Lindy Hop to today’s contemporary Hand Dance styles. She produced the documentary for the National Hand Dance Association, where she also served as President for seven years. Hand Dance: A Capitol Swing was shown for a year on the roof top electronic marquee of the Cotton Club on 125th Street in Harlem. Beverly proudly added, “The manager of the night club said people would come into the club and say, ‘How can I learn that dance you’re showing on the screen on top of the roof?’”
Not only has Beverly continued to celebrate the art of the Hand Dance, but she also sets the stage for the music and artists that make it possible. Johnson has served as an entertainment consultant and booking agent for Doo-Wop groups of the 1950s and R&B groups of the 1960s. Some of her clients through her entertainment company, Kendall Productions, include Kim Weston, Maxine Brown, Baby Washington, Eddie Holman, The Spaniels, The Velons, The Jewels, The Chantels, The Flamingos featuring Terry Johnson, The Swallows, Lenny Welch,The Bobbettes, The Clovers, The Marquees, and many more artists from the 1950s and 60s R&B, in her passion for preserving this genre of music.
The reach of Beverly’s work extends across international waters. “I have been given the pleasure of working with the organization Gure Gauza Soul and R&B Society. The organization is a non-profit group in San Sebastian-Donostia, Spain, whose mission is to preserve Soul and R&B music in Spain.” The organization’s annual “Mojo Workin’ Soul Music Festival” draws soul and R&B lovers from Spain, France and Germany.
The petite, yet passionate “Queen of the Hustle” plans to continue to dedicate her life to a part of our Africentrism that is underappreciated and scarcely explored, partner dancing and Doo Wop. Americans may not dance hand-in-hand and cheek-to-cheek like we once did, but the love affair between Beverly Lindsay-Johnson and hand dancing is stronger than ever and will surely result in many more memorable cultural creations. During the MoJo Workin’ festivals in Spain from 2014-2016, Beverly arranged the performances of music legends Kim Weston, Baby Washington, Dee Dee Sharp, Maxine Brown, The Velvelettes, Mable John, Mitch Ryder, The Flirtations, Darryl Fletcher and William Prince. One of the Gure Gauza organization members published a book in Spanish on the 2014 and 2015 festivals, “Cuentos Y Melodias Del Mojo Workin’, in which they praised Beverly’s work in making these very successful festivals and dubbed her “The MoJo Worker from the USA.”