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Brown was dressed in a skintight, red-sequined dress and strappy, spiked heels, and when the two of them finally took over the floor for their showcase performance, Johnson -- spinning and grabbing his crotch -- seemed disconnected from Brown. Still, their dancing that night made it onto an early compilation video of Thompson and McClendon's footage, and there it looked dramatic and climactic.
The floor had been gummy that night, Brown said later. They danced much better at the next Grace's showcase, when she was able to get into her zone.
"We are the Fred and Ginger of two-step," Brown says, her comment revealing what may be one of Thompson and McClendon's most surprising discoveries: That many of Kansas City's best two-steppers have been inspired by oh-so-white -- but oh-so-smooth -- Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. "Central was all about being cool and looking good. Some dance steps you don't see the Central guys do, because it's not cool."
"Because my shirt might come out of my pants," Johnson explains. "I'm not saying I'm not going to break a sweat ... "
"He'll do a spin with me, and I'll think, OK, I'm in my zone -- and sometimes we get there together," Brown says. "It's on. There's nothing else you can say. I hate to stop dancing. If the two-step were taken out of my life, it'd be like a crack addict going off of drugs cold turkey."
By November, some insiders were saying that Thrower and Turner were the crowd favorites. But Johnson and Brown were leading the online voting on Barker's Web site, manual74.com (named after her high school and graduation year).
They presented a significant threat to Thrower and Turner's chance at the $5,000 grand prize.
Johnson had been dancing since he was five years old. He'd grown up on a block of two-stepping families -- the Andersons, the Johnsons, the Stanleys -- at 34th Street and Montgall. "My sister used to make me dance," he says. "You never want to dance with your sister, but she always said, 'You'll thank me someday.' And I do."
Johnson had gone on to be a track star; running the quarter-mile and sprint relays, he'd been a six-time Junior College All-American at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona. At one time, his name hung on a banner in the University of Missouri-Columbia's Brewer Fieldhouse, honoring his record for the indoor 600-yard run. "I wonder if it's still hanging there. It stayed up there for a little while," he says.
"I got a lot of recognition and accolades, and I miss that," Johnson says. But the two-step competition has re-energized him, and he's getting that kind of attention again. "It's like being at the top of the food chain. At showcases, we're usually the last people scheduled to dance, because people stay all night until we dance. They want to know when we're going to dance, because they have to get to work in the morning."
For Johnson, this restored recognition has done something more than earn him $100 cash prizes at Grace's new Saturday-night contests. "It's brought back that vigor I've been missing all my life," he says.
But as the finals approach, the dancers are getting more and more stressed. Among the men, Johnson says, the vibe is cutthroat. "We talk a lot to each other and about each other -- to each other's face."
It's different for the women. "With the women, you can see that nod of approval, like they like your style," Brown says. But she also sees something else. "Do I want to say envy? Because I'm really smooth."