Robert Johnson, Jr., microphone in hand, steps down from the DJ booth and heads to the dance floor.
“If you want to learn this line dance, come on down to the dance floor,” he said.
People get up from the tables at Sam Sylk’s restaurant in Maple Heights and file onto the dance floor. Now, there are about 50 there. Nearly all are women. Nearly all are seniors. This is Johnson’s 2:30 p.m. Wednesday line dance class. It’s one of several classes he holds weekly in his Side Hustle as The Line Dance King. His other position, as a job coordinator at a staffing and recruitment agency, doesn’t carry such a royal title.
Johnson teaches what is known as urban contemporary line dance, in which steps are usually choreographed to R&B, hip-hop and even some Jazz or Reggae music. The music often reflects the type of crowd. For example, you’re more likely to hear hip-hop during his 7 p.m. Wednesday class at the restaurant than the R&B afternoon one.
“Here we go from the top, y’all,” he said. “Nice and easy. You’re going to start with your rock. You’re going to rock your body from the right side.”
Feet start moving as the students follow Johnson’s command. Kitten heel pumps. All-weather boots. Sensible shoes, in an orthopedic vein. Their moves are as diverse as their footwear. Some are a little sassy as they rock. Others steadily sway. Several miss the beat a few times as they try to get the steps. This they share in common: Everybody looks as though they’re having fun.
“Teaching line dance brings me joy because I like to see the smiles on people’s faces,” he said.
Johnson, who has taught line dance for 33 years, is inarguably the best-known instructor in Greater Cleveland. He taught at JACK Thistledown Racino for several years, where he said his classes regularly drew 600 people weekly. Johnson said an event honoring his 25th anniversary as an instructor drew 500. He hosts the “Line Dance Cleveland” show at 1:30 a.m. Saturdays on Fox 8 WJW-TV.
“He is absolutely The Line Dance King,” said Cynthia Weston of Solon. “He’s different from others. He engages everybody. He’s very personable. He knows when people are struggling. He slows it down. When they get it, he picks it up.”
On the dance floor
Johnson has the aurora of an entertainer. You can even tell this from his promotional materials. One shows him wearing a blue fedora and a blue and white paisley shirt. His head is slightly cocked to the side as he offers an expression somewhere between confidence and “don’t you even think about messing with me.”
Johnson is jovial as he enters Sylk’s, wearing a mod denim shirt with an intricate weave. He addresses everyone in his path by name and never misses the beat in responding to those sending greetings from across the room. After he says their names, he follows it up with a “How you doing?” or “Good to see you!” Most in the crowd, like Weston, are regulars.
“Knowing everybody’s name makes it more personal,” Johnson said. ”I can tell you, for at least half of everyone in my class, what their favorite songs are.”
The Line Dance King keeps the class lively by interspersing humor between teaching dance steps. On this day, he tells of his experiences at lobster night several days earlier on a cruise ship, where he taught line dance.
“I had four plates of lobster,” he said grinning. “I’m not going to lie to you. I was so ashamed, but that didn’t stop me. I said, ‘I don’t know none of the people on this ship.’”
A chorus of belly laughs, cackles and howls erupted from the dance floor. After they died down, Johnson began showing his students dance steps.
“Rock, two, three,” he said rhythmically. ”Lift. Cha-cha. Step up…”
“Summer Rain” by Carl Thomas fills the restaurant. The students follow Johnson as he calls the steps out and demonstrates them.
“The only part of this line dance that some of y’all are going to have difficulty with is lifting the wrong leg, and some of y’all are not going to lift your leg high enough,” he said.
Though Johnson wasn’t facing his students, he was spot on. He goes over the steps with them some more, and, soon, what was a challenging lift for some, is conquered.
From target of laughs to dance king
It was embarrassment as a young adult in the late 1980s that would eventually lead to Johnson’s Side Hustle. His cousin took him out to dance at a club in Cleveland’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Johnson said he was a “church boy who knew nothing about dancing.”
It showed his first time on the dance floor.
“I was just clapping like I was in church and moving from side to side,” Johnson said. “People were laughing at me. I said then that no one would ever laugh at me again.”
About that time, line dances such as the “Electric Slide” were becoming popular. Johnson mastered all of them. He also learned how to dance by watching music videos on television and methodically analyzing them. He started creating his own dances, making sure that the steps were simple enough for most dancers to pick up. Soon Johnson was teaching others how to dance. A manager at a local club took notice and hired him to teach line dance. Then other clubs called, asking him to teach.
When Johnson saw how he was packing clubs with patrons, he realized he was losing money by charging a flat fee. He then started negotiating compensation based on attendance, such as receiving a take of the cover charge collected. Establishments still benefited by the arrangement because of selling more food and drink with the higher number of patrons Johnson drew. His popularity at clubs brought other gigs, ranging from teaching at birthday parties, on cruise ships and at publicly funded events such as festivals.
Johnson doesn’t just rely on prospective clients to seek him out. Have even a brief conversation with him, and he’s bound to give you a flier to an upcoming event or class, or, at the very least, offer the details.
In 2016, he said he approached management at the racino, guaranteeing them he could draw crowds of several hundred dancers. Johnson believes his gig there became a casualty of the pandemic and then the trend among gaming houses to dedicate more space to sports betting.
“It was the best job I ever had,” he said.
Johnson shows no lament. He’s trying to make a full-time career out of teaching line dance, which will entail consistently doing events in other cities.
“When I go to a different city and people hear my voice and see my interaction with them, ‘It’s like, wow, this guy’s good!’” he said. “I say this very humbly. They don’t get to see this every day like people here in Cleveland do.”
More than dancing
Johnson doesn’t deny liking the showmanship aspect of being The Line Dance King. However, he said it doesn’t give his work purpose. He likes seeing how some of the seniors, who regularly attend, have become more spry and focused from the mind and body coordination required to line dance. Line dance can provide good exercise – Johnson aims for 20-minute intervals of up-tempo music. He said line dance has sparked a health and wellness journey for many of his attendees, in which they have lost 40 or more pounds. Johnson said over the years attendees, especially seniors, have confided in him that the exercise and socialization his classes provide have helped in fighting depression.
Johnson often has speakers during his 2 ½-hour classes, who inform attendees about community resources. At a January class, Sydney Beeman of The Gathering Place, which offers services to “individuals and families currently coping with the impact of cancer,” tells attendees about programs specifically designed for Black participants. Johnson offers the mic to some in his class, who spontaneously want to share personal or family members’ experiences with the disease.
While Johnson teaches all ages, he says the seniors are his favorite. He shows his appreciation by holding special events for them. This includes a senior luncheon from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. March 2 at the DoubleTree Hilton in Independence. By getting sponsors, Johnson said he was able to keep tickets affordable at $20 and $25.
“There is no drama,” he said of why seniors are the teacher’s pet. “They’re fun. They come to have a good time.”
Virginia Gist, who lives on Cleveland’s West Side, and Dianne Bailey of Parma say they come to have a good time – and they always do. The friends have been coming to The Line Dance King’s classes since 2013. They like the way he simplifies steps. They like his humor. They like the music he plays.
“He is what you call a crowd pleaser,” Gist said.