You watch Reginald Sullivan and if you’re of a certain age, the Temptations working out their 1964 hit “The Way You Do the Things You Do” comes to mind.
He is smiling. He is smooth. He is stepping in syncopated beats.
So, too, are his protégés, the Southside Steppers, who are all around him.
They have been gathering every Thursday night like this at Grown Folks Café on the city’s south side for nearly five years.
At first, Sullivan said, the owners at Grown Folks simply wanted to build their customer base and saw the love of “stepping,” a partner dance also known as the bop, as a way to bring in folks after a hard day’s work.
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Turns out it was a hard sell. Stepping requires partners and the men weren’t showing up.
“A couple of weeks later, we started line dancing and it just took off,” Sullivan said recently.
The turnaround underscored a renewed interest in line dancing that has grown in popularity since the 1990s. Dancers, perhaps lacking the confidence to grab a partner for a two-step or tango, were running to the dance floor at the first note of a line dance. Think Electric Slide, Cuban shuffle and the Wobble, only better.
Time was, line dancing was associated with country-western music and dance. That image began changing, however, in the 1970’s with the growing popularity of “The Hustle” and the advent of the disco craze.
Sullivan has seen a jump in popularity, both in the South and specifically in Atlanta, in the last five years.
“Believe it or not, when we started line dancing, we didn’t know how popular it was,” he said. “It has really blown my mind in the last two years, just how big this is.”
Now, more than 1,000 dance enthusiasts gather here yearly for what has become the largest line dance event in the Southeast. The 4th Annual Southeast Dance Convention — the next one is scheduled for June 27-30, 2013 — is hosted by Carolyn A. Patterson, president and CEO of Takin’ It Step by Step, a company which promotes better health through dance.
Sullivan, the 51-year-old choreographer of Southside Steppers, mastered his craft while stepping with his Omega Psi Phi fraternity at Northeast Missouri University in the 1980s. He attributes much of the dance’s popularity to the music.
“It’s all about how the music makes you feel, but it’s also culture,” he said. “It’s in our blood. It’s sort of like when you go to church, you have to say, ‘Amen.’”
Dance more, weigh less
If the floor at Grown Folks is any indication, there are plenty of people “touching and agreeing” here.
Since Sullivan formed the Southside Steppers in 2008, the group has grown from a few dozen to nearly 100 members, willing to pay $10 a month for two hours of instruction.
And while line dancing — official definition: choreographed dance consisting of a repeated sequence of synchronized steps — was the initial draw, members have embraced the social and health benefits of their weekly gatherings as well.
Five times a year, for instance, they participate in various walks to help raise awareness and money for such causes as diabetes, breast cancer and HIV-AIDS.
“Everyone in our community is affected by those things,” Sullivan said. “We also volunteer with Hosea Feed the Hungry and sponsor a family or two at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Dance, he said, is the common denominator. And as members turn out to “get their workout on,” the benefits are undeniable
“It’s turned into a formalized fitness program that actually helps people to lose weight and build confidence,” Sullivan said.
Melinda Wilson-Fuller and Ayana Watson are among those who’ve slimmed down, dropping nearly 100 pounds between them.
“My family knows not to ask me to do anything on Thursdays,” Wilson-Fuller said. “I’m dancing.”
The 48-year-old College Park mother of five said she has lost 24 pounds since joining the group two years ago and probably would’ve lost more if she didn’t also join them on jaunts to IHOP when the dancing is over.
Watson by far is the biggest loser. The 39-year-old from McDonough said she has lost 65 pounds since joining her first class last Thanksgiving.
She said by that time, she’d already started “adjusting what I was eating. But I had no idea I’d lose all the weight just from dancing.”
Never slow down
Watson and Wilson-Fuller were recently along with nearly 100 other “steppers,” following Sullivan across an overflowing dance floor. On this night, he runs them through “Days Like This,” a dance he created to a mix of R&B and an Ohio favorite called “Back It Up.”
“Y’all ready for the music?” Sullivan barks into a hand-held microphone.
He hits the “On” button on the sound system and they let it rip. Andre Ford, 30, is feeling it. When he first discovered the group, Ford said he was too shy to join in but then a woman pulled him on the dance floor.
Shortly thereafter, he said, he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and started looking up dances on YouTube to practice.
“When I got back in 2011, I started going regularly,” he said. “I like the family atmosphere. There’s no drama. Just fun.”
As Sullivan begins, Ford seems to move to the rhythm of his own beat.
“One. Two. Three. Right behind, left behind and cha-cha-cha and turn,” Sullivan barks. “If you mess up, catch up. One more. Right behind, left behind, cha-cha-cha. Everbody good? Wonderful.”
And so it was that first hour. And the second hour, devoted to free styling, never slowed down.