“I was asked one time: ‘Dancing Man, what is your signature move?’
“I told them, ‘A smile.’” Darryl Young, known (literally) the world over as Dancing Man 504, says this in recalling his response while sharing that story—and many more, all told with equal parts panache, purpose and humility—over coffee at Café Rose Nicaud. “Because once you kick the smile, then they’re smiling. So that’s the best move you got.”
Young is recognized by the barista behind the counter at Rose Nicaud, along with pretty much all the other faces he shares his signature smile with on a wet, cold Monday afternoon last month on Frenchmen Street. The bustling downtown corridor is just one of countless places—festivals, Carnival parades and schoolrooms among them—where smiles and rooms alike light up at the familiar sight of Dancing Man 504. This impact—born of pure intention, made of positive action—helped place Young among the 2016 class of Award recipients. Dancing Man 504 will be honored at an invitation-only event at the Orpheum Theater January 11, when the Positive Vibrations Foundation, in partnership with OffBeat’s Best of the Beat awards, will bestow upon him the HeartBeat Award, an honor reserved for a culture bearer, teacher or community leader—which, in the case of Young, is a mix of all three.
“After Katrina, I needed to be healed,” the 49-year-old explains, while Bill Withers’ “Use Me” oozes from the café’s speakers, the genesis of a self-made path cleared the way to his current status as icon in the city. “So I went to the medicine. And that medicine was inside the second line.”
Not affiliated with any particular social aid and pleasure club—though this Carnival season marks his fourth as grand marshal in the Krewe of Freret—Young’s rise to prominence on the parade-ready streets of New Orleans came about from the court. The basketball court, that is.
“After the storm, everybody was screaming, ‘Bring the music back! Bring the food back!’” he remembers. “Well, I was sad because I couldn’t play ball. So, what about bringing the athlete back?”
Born in Charity Hospital and a graduate of then-Nicholls High School on St. Claude Avenue, Young grew up playing basketball and football in the Ninth Ward.
“We were really talented, really competitive, growing up in the Ninth Ward,” says Young. “I’d watch people dribble the basketball and take off with it, or catch the football and run with it. To me, that’s dance. That’s what I think I’m doing when I’m out there doing what I do. To make people see that nobody moves like we move—especially when we’re moving around here. On our terrain.
“Because living in the Ninth Ward, I did a lot of walking,” he continues. “I did a lot of bike riding, too. And I drove around. But there was nothing like putting my feet on the ground. That is how I experienced New Orleans.”
Young’s passion for movement and the healing, liberating magic it holds, after transforming him in the city’s tough times following Katrina, over the next few years would evolve into a bigger mission. He formed his BrassXcise initiative in 2008 in Audubon Park. “BrassXcise is a regimen that I wanted to share with people to get them moving and feeling good,” he explains. “But I wanted them to get something from it—really get something from it. I wanted them to think about their breathing, about how to connect your hands, feet and eyes. And do it all while holding your stomach in, back straight, chest forward. And not thinking with your mind, but begin thinking here [pounds chest over his heart three times with left fist] because here is where it all happens.”
After establishing BrassXcise, Young went on to start the Heal2Toe program. A blend of exercise, cultural awareness and self-expression, Heal2Toe finds Dancing Man in front of schoolchildren all over the city talking about brass bands and their music. “I do it so these kids will know that tourists don’t come to town to—like bad people in the hood will say to them—to look down on them. The tourists come to hear this music and see these bands. The kids should know that.”
For 2017, Young looks to launch a bicyclist safety/awareness campaign, Bike4Life. Moving through life in a graceful swagger led by his heart, such forward momentum is par for the course for Dancing Man 504, an inspiration as much as an individual, who seems inspired by challenge, dared by the impossible.
“Second-line culture means to me the life of a city,” Young says. “One that is meant to float in every city and every country. I want to tap into something inside of me that I can share with everyone. So I never have to hear someone come up to me, watching me move, and say, ‘I can’t do that.’ Because if you get into the music and let the life and the healing go through you as you move, then you can actually design the way you move.”