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A Kansas City singer counts it as 'an honor' to see people two-stepping to his music

Julie Denesha
Musician Kevin Church Johnson’s new single “What If” is a song about the girl who got away. It’s also a celebration of a dance style unique to Kansas City.

Generations of Kansas Citians have grooved to a unique dance style in clubs and ballrooms. The Kansas City two-step is intimate and soulful. Now dancers can move to a song created just for them.

“What If” is a song about missed chances.

“I can relate to it,” says the vocalist and drummer Kevin Church Johnson. “I do remember, there was a young lady I liked in high school, you know? And it's a song you could dance to.”

He also says it's "a song of substance" unlike a lot of other songs these days.

"It's really like from a place of love or longing for love,” says Johnson, who stays busy drumming with soul, gospel and R&B groups around town as well as with jazz artists like Hermon Mehari.

With lyrics by Anthony Harvey, a musician from Kansas City, Kansas (now in Los Angeles) who is best known locally as the founder of Da Truth band, the song strikes at the heart of what Johnson says is the essence of vintage R&B.

It's also a love song to a style of dance that’s unique to Kansas City: The Kansas City two-step, an intimate style of dancing practiced in basements, clubs and ballrooms for generations of Kansas Citians.

“I knew I wanted to get a song for them to dance to," Johnson says. "And the beat is already finger snap because, you know, in two stepping and usually snapping and they fingers and they groove and they step and back and forth then they twirl.”

The song is from the album “Brown Liquor Music. ”

"Somebody says you have a brown liquor voice," Johnson says. "It's very rich and of course you get the soul essence, the gospel, the blues as well as modern R&B."

Johnson started playing drums with a church band when he was 10 years old. People in the neighborhood called him "Church boi" and the nickname stuck.

"The power of being the timekeeper, being the heartbeat of a song, it just stood with me and resonated," Johnson says.

Singing came later and his raspy, soulful voice is packed with nostalgia.

At 35, Johnson says he’s spent a lifetime studying what resonates with people on the dance floor.

“We would be at the Juke House, which is on 18th and Vine,” Johnson remembers. “And the dance floor is packed with all people two-stepping. It was certain songs — like different R&B songs — we would recognize that we had people dancing so we would just pick the right R&B songs to play to keep them dancing.”

Julie Denesha
De Barker shows students her moves as she dances with fellow instructor Lamont Edwards. Barker teaches the Kansas City two-step Tuesday nights at the Linwood YMCA and James B. Nutter Community Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

De Barker teaches this popular dance style every Tuesday night at the Linwood YMCA and James B. Nutter Community Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Around Kansas City, in these parts, I am joyfully known as the KC Queen of two-step and line dance,” Barker says with a laugh.

During the big band era, music was fast and dancing was energetic. In the 1950s, clubs got smaller and the music slowed down. It changed the way people danced.

“They would dance on one square, basically really smooth and controlled and held their partners close,” Barker says. “So the intimacy of the room dictated the smoothness and the steps.”

De Barker's Kansas City two step class

Barker is in her sixties now. She learned two-step in the 1970s.

“It was a way of life. We didn't have technology, we had family,” Barker remembers. “Our main thing was getting together and socializing and being with each other. And so the cool points came from if you knew how to step.”

All of Barker’s students have to learn to communicate without words.

“It’s a conversation in dance,” Barker explains. “The lead is giving the command with his hands and the follower — which is the female — is finishing off that command and showing him by her style and grace that she understands the words that is coming out of his hand.”

Her students learn the basics before stepping out on the dance floor.

“It's supposed to be smooth and charismatic, and it has style and grace and it's not supposed to be big, animated movement,” Barker says. “Once you know the foundation you build upon that foundation and you end up with your own creative moves. ”

Julie Denesha
Learning the steps Will Smith and Kamesha Moore dance together during class.

Each year, Barker hosts a $10,000 two-step contest to encourage a style of dance she's proud of.

"If you if you make some noise and some and have some money towards something, people listen," Barker says. "It's for the sake of passing it on to the younger generation and celebrate it."

Barker says it’s important for musicians like Johnson to find a way to put their stamp on this Kansas City tradition.

“It is everything because they know the beat, they know the synergy, they see the synergy, they see the culture,” Barker says. “Two step is in every generation. They sing about it because we are about it.”

“You definitely can count it an honor if you’re an artist where they’re two-stepping to your music, especially in Kansas City,” Johnson says.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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