“Hire good instructors and a top band, mix in a few orangutans, and you get a dance party at the National Zoo.”
By Ellen Ryan
“C’mon baby let the good times roll,” the singer urges, and some 250 people do—hair flying, bodies swirling. The event is Swingin’ With the Primates, a dance party thrown by the Friends of the National Zoo, but the primates couldn’t keep up with this crowd.
You don’t have to be a member of FONZ, the zoo’s benefactor group, to attend. You don’t have to be single either, although most people are. The June event is the first of these “Third Thursday” parties—to be held on the third Thursday for alternating months—and by all the looks, it’s a success.
Early in the evening, the hour-long dance lesson is a perfect icebreaker. On the wide brick walkway near the zoo’s Think Tank building, we form a huge circle—men on the inside, women on the outside. Instructors Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg walk us through triple-step, rock-step, then on to turns and side-by-side Charleston basics. Every two minutes or so, the men rotate to a new partner and introduce themselves. Few neckties are in evidence, and the one guy in a suit jacket soon tosses it over a bench. Most of the women are in slacks or sundresses. Summer in Washington, and the minglin’ is easy.
"We've tried other singles events, but they didn't draw so well," says Pam Bucklinger, the 33-year-old who coordinates Third Thursdays. This time FONZ toned down the "singles" pitch; booked a top band, Swing Speak, and popular instructors; and threw in a couple of orangutan demonstrations to rev up those animal passions.
"This is so much fun," gushes Bev, taking a breather with a $2.25 glass of Chardonnay. She's just met a seer suckered Hugh Grant look-alike and his former housemate, Jim. Between conversations, she dances with each of them—as well as a few other guys.
Even those sitting still are having a good time. Every chair is filled inside Think Tank, where biologist Rob Shumaker is explaining how he's taught the orangutan Indah to communicate via computer screen. He shows her a cup; in response, Indah keeps pressing the screen symbol for "banana." Shumaker wonders why she's getting it wrong. The couple behind me speculates that she really just wants a banana.
"Let's try a little Count Basie," says the emcee, and Swing Speak swings into action. The crowd is comfortably scattered—if not dancing, then chatting beneath the trees or nibbling chicken wings and veggies at tented tables nearby.
The organizers have hit their market: twenties and thirties, well educated, ethnically diverse, no attitude. Women whisper to one another how nice the guys are here. If you smile and sway to the music, you'll probably be asked to dance.
A little past 9, dozens of happy but tired boomers and Xers amble out to Connecticut Avenue, some heading for the Metro, others for Pizzeria Uno's.
With Swing Speak still going in my head, I fall into a Metro seat next to Allison, a pretty grad student from Rockville. "It was great to dance with so many guys who know what they're doing," she said. "I was surprised at how good a time we all had."