An eight-year-old boy fell in love with movement near the intersection of Orleans and Claiborne, where he watched Mardi Gras Indians parade by, chanting the stories of generations. The little boy, born in Charity Hospital and raised around Kentucky Street and N. Rampart, suffered from almost debilitating shyness but admired the bravery in the bodies and spirits of those electrifying the streets with their panache. It was 1975, the year he promised himself to shed himself of reticence.
“And so there I was. I heard the Indians chanting for the first time, and I could feel the spiritual-ness inside of it. That was my earliest experience with hearing the sound of our music,” Darryl “Dancing Man 504” Young recalls, 43 years later. “I wanted to dress up as a cowboy, but my mother used to say ‘Your grandma was a Choctaw Indian, so we’re no cowboys. We’re Indians.’”
That eight-year-old has since grown to become a New Orleans celebrity and international ambassador. Much like the Indians who inspired him as a boy, Young devotes much of his life to preserving the city’s cultural lifeblood, albeit in a less traditional sense. He can be found on dancefloors all around town, tearing it up with locals, tourists, friends and strangers. When asked where he’d send visitors looking to get down, he mentions Blue Nile, Snug Harbor (“especially on Mondays!”), Dragon’s Den and events put on by the NOLA Jitterbugs. But Dancing Man is not bound by the confines of brick and mortar; it’s New Orleans, after all, and we dance in the street.
In spite of his moniker, he says it isn’t his moves people love him for. “The more fun you have, the better you dance. The people love me for the fun more than the dance. My dance is what causes the fun,” he says. “I tell people, ‘They don’t call me Dancing Man ’cause I like to dance. They call me Dancing Man because I make YOU dance.’”
It’s true. Anyone who has shared a room with him knows it’s impossible to escape his ebullience. If you’ve boogied with Dancing Man, you’ve made a friend for life, even if words are never shared. “A lot of the times, when people see me, they’ll do a dance. And that’s our ‘hello.’ Some people give me the 5-0-4 hand sign and when they do that, I know that I’ve made it to where New Orleans sees me as a celebrity, but they don’t crowd me—unless it’s crowding time, at Krewe du Vieux or something. ’Cause when I’m out in the street, they out in the street. When Krewe of Freret made me their Grand Marshal for life, I told them I didn’t want a float. I wanna bring a second line to Mardi Gras every year. So people can step out in the streets and get in the parade.”
Eschewing the rigor of choreography for extemporaneous movement, Young is a proponent of doing what makes you feel good—but he doesn’t limit himself to dancefloors. In 2016, Young received the Positive Vibrations HeartBeat Award in partnership with OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Awards for his work as a culture bearer, teacher and community leader. He’s an example of what happens when the only formal training you need is life in New Orleans, and he imparts to his students the value of pride in one’s self.
“I wanna show [the kids] that we’re all celebrities here. New Orleans is number one in culture because of the people who help grow and nurture that culture. And so, if the kids get a sense of pride, then they wouldn’t do those foolish things, like doing drugs, attacking the tourists, breaking in people’s houses. That’s because they think they are nobodies. When we’re everything.”
He’s been Dancing Man since one particularly meditative moment in 2007. Standing outside of Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street, he was pondering what he wanted to achieve in his hometown, now that he was back. Four years prior, he had moved to Colorado, only to return after Katrina and aid in the rebuilding process. “I said to myself, ‘I did not come back to New Orleans to do anything I’ve ever done before. So I’m gonna do something I never done before.’ And I thought about it, I said, ‘I’ve never danced. I watched it, but I didn’t do it.’”
“So I went home from the Apple Barrel and thought, ‘This makes no sense. I’m not really dancing … what I’m doing is more athleticism, showing off. They say of New Orleans we’re a bunch of show-offs, so I wanted to show off a little. So they wouldn’t be wrong. I was showing off at the basketball court, the football field, even the rap battles in school, I was always showing off. But then, I added the 504. Because it made sense: If I’m gonna dance, I’m gonna dance New Orleans.”
That same year, Young founded his Heel2Toe program (which was changed in 2009 to Heal2Toe as a nod to dance’s healing capabilities). “I wanted to do something for the kids. That’s the reason I came back home, to show them there’s no place like home. My mom said a celebrity can write his or her own ticket. I saw Brad Pitt do that, after Katrina, building houses. So I wanted to write a ticket for New Orleans kids. ’Cause New Orleans kids, they don’t go on vacation—only evacuation. And that’s only if their parents can afford to evacuate. If you’re not here and this city is destroyed, quit whatever you’re doing and come back. And so I did just that.”
The program gave him access to the city’s kids, many of whom had never connected with dance. He began to connect the kids with their teachers, cafeteria workers, janitors and classmates to rebuild a sense of community for them. “I wanted them to feel like they could be inside of this celebration, inside of that second-line music, and make a bond,” he says. In 2008, he launched the BrassXcise initiative in Audubon Park, focusing on getting people of all ages outdoors and active. It’s an invaluable endeavor in a state that once ranked number one in national child-obesity rates. We’ve got people like Young to thank, at least in part, for Louisiana’s slump into the number-eight position.
Heal2Toe’s inaugural classroom introduction took place at Broadmoor School in 2009, when Young worked with a French immersion class. Eventually, the kids performed with him at French Quarter Festival. Shortly thereafter, he performed with the kids of the Freret Street Neighborhood Center, an engagement which brought him overseas a year later. At the Josephine Baker schools in Paris, he taught 300 kids the tenets of the Heal2Toe program: “to savor and respect what sometimes is taken for granted” through the understanding and performance of second-line culture.
One day in 2011, while teaching students at the Freret Center he met an autistic student named Felix. He was quiet and shy, and Young took an immediate liking to him. “I made him my little wild man. I called him up and told the class, ‘This is Felix. Felix is our wild man. That’s the chief’s biggest and strongest warrior. And the tribe takes care of its wild man.’ Those kids took care of him. He would get up and dance and the other kids would say ‘He can do whatever he likes—we’re not going to hit him. We know he’s right there.’” Felix and the rest of his class would go on to perform with Dancing Man at Satchmo Summerfest.
Years later, he and Felix ran into each other at Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette. “This big, tall boy ran up to me and hugged me. Felix and I ended up on the front page of the Times-Picayune together. That was a kid who was able to be confident. So that’s what I want to give these kids, that confidence. Because, my biggest thing is, I’m shy. No one believes that, but I am. That’s why I go out and I do it so big, so my shyness won’t touch me. And so I want those kids to know that, sometimes shyness holds us back.”
The origins of his education work really date back to his eight-year-old self’s exposure to second-line culture. It was during those singular moments that he discovered the relationship between dance and pride as well as the difference between technical skill and cultural practice.
“When I was a teenager, some of my friends were saying they were going to the second line. My mother told me to make sure to be careful—and to be out there with my eyes open. Because things happen at the second line, that don’t always have to do with the second line. So we get there, and see the old guys drinking Mad Dog. I see them getting wasted. The band starts playing and I see them start to dance. To me, they were dancing, but they were actually just drunk. But they were swinging to the beat.
“I’ve noticed that those moves have come to be called ‘the second line moves.’ And that made me happy, understanding that… it’s not what I show anyone, or anyone shows you, that makes you the second line. It’s that thing that comes from inside of you.”
He had dreams of becoming a drum major in high school (at what was then Nicholls High School on St. Claude Avenue) and says dancing wasn’t something he saw as approachable. “I didn’t know how to dance. I didn’t wanna dance like other people,” says Young. “I didn’t want to just be doing choreography. I wanted to just… do whatever the music was telling me to express. But back then, when I was young, you wasn’t dancing unless you were doing the wop, the prep, the triggaman.”
“I would just go to the second lines and eat and have fun with my friends. And then I realized I was dancing. And people laughed, but they didn’t laugh at me. They were laughing ’cause it was kinda funny, kinda smooth… so we would mimic other people we saw that had a ‘little something.’ And that’s when I realized that New Orleans has characters. Like when I used to see Ruthie the Duck Girl or ‘Uncle’ Lionel Batiste, I understood that we had fixtures embedded in our city. My favorite was when I would see Rebirth [Brass Band] at one of those second lines, ’cause they would play the music and people would go crazy. It was like it would never stop.”
His high-school years dovetailed with those of hip-hop’s nascent period, when black youth culture in New York City permeated cities across the country and eventually the world. With its distinctive style came those distinctive dance moves like the wop, and while tepid about joining in, Young says hip-hop made him appreciate the value in showing off one’s moves.
“When rap music came out, it was then I realized the importance of dance—because dance was that visual part of the music. When I watched the second line music, it was just adults acting like kids. To me, that was more fun. But then when dance came with hip-hop, it was seemingly more professional. But I realized that all dance was professional. It’s just what you’re after.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t got some signature moves in his arsenal. “I’m not afraid to act crazy with body movements and turns and twists; I do this spin movement and people say ‘What’s that?’ I say, ‘That’s the Hurricane.’”
“I do another move I call the Helicopter. I saw on the news in Colorado those big choppers going to New Orleans [immediately post-Katrina]. I wanted to bring some of that onto the ground and show them these things didn’t kill us.”
Despite his affinity for a spontaneous take on dance, Young cherishes the way steps punctuated his childhood. He distinctly remembers watching kids learn to do the heel-to-toe kick step, but the queen of all moves was the bounce. “The bounce hit me in a weird way, because there were girls that went to school with me that we would flirt with. And they would cross their legs and look at you and be like, ‘We don’t talk to boys.’ And then when bounce came… all it took was a beat. And then I watched it become like the sun. People of all ages were doing the bounce. It had that show off-ness that New Orleans has. They could move certain parts a certain way and keep the rest still—I still haven’t figured that one out,” he says with a laugh.
Ultimately, he sees no fundamental difference between twerking and, say, dancing the bamboula. “Second line dancing stems from Haitian Ra-Ra in that they walk and play horns,” he explains. He recognizes the connections between all forms of dance in New Orleans, whether that be the swaying induced by dub music or the high-energy steps of swing dancing; whether he’s having a dance party at Blue Nile’s weekly reggae night with DJ T-Roy or putting on a full-fledged production with the NOLA Jitterbugs, Dancing Man, too, is telling the stories of generations, for generations.
“If New Orleans ever goes underwater, the culture ain’t supposed to go with it. And I don’t want to exclude anyone. I want to be able to teach locals, tourists, newbies … I tell the older generation, there’s no statute of limitations on dance.”
When he’s not busting moves, Young says he spends time with his beloved Shih Tzu Rosie, who just turned one. He’s also picked up painting as a hobby. “I started doing art because I wanted to stop watching TV,” he says. “When I’m home I don’t want to be stuck on the TV… except for Lethal Weapon and Taken.”
“Anyway, they were building a house in the neighborhood, and got all these new boards and material all cut up into pieces so I went and asked if I can have what was in the scrap pile. And some of them were made like door-stoppers. So I took them and painted them, because the only door-stoppers are plastic or rubber … so I paint them for my friends.”
As for the future, Young is looking to launch a reality show in which he travels to different cities with his little dancers in tow. “I want them to get paid, know what it’s like to go backstage or be in a green room. I want them to see what it’s like to jump on a tour bus, and all the rest of the things that make second lines work.
“I want to be able to bring people to places they thought they didn’t belong.”