It was close to competition time and D.J. Stuart primed himself for battle. He warmed up, adjusted his uniform and put on his game face. His team had placed their faith in the big man. He couldn’t let them down. When his name was called, Stuart bounded into battle like a gladiator. But in this case, the arena was a stage at Penn Social, a downtown Washington, D.C. bar.
When the music came on, Stuart was in his element. He kicked his legs and stamped his feet as the 400 or so people in the crowd cheered him on. The MC standing on the side of the stage doubled over with laughter.
He had some microphone issues in the beginning, but he recovered. His wig perfectly evoked Tina Turner. His legs did, too. Tina would have been proud.
Stuart left it all on the stage, including the wig. He hoped it was enough for the win.
“Tina Turner is all about the legs, so I had to show my legs off,” Stuart said. “That was my schwing it factor. Everything else might not be that great, but I will say I think I have great legs.”
It was up to the judges at the District Karaoke City-Wide Championships to decide how many points Stuart’s performance and his legs were worth. Stuart is part of D.C.’s first and only competitive team karaoke league. His team, 99 Problems But Pitch Ain’t One, was a heavy favorite to take the championship.
District Karaoke is the brainchild of Jesse B. Rauch who started the league in 2012. The top eight teams in the league were at the championship that night to sing for karaoke glory. There’s REO Lushwagon, Call Me Medley, Pitches From the Block and the slightly naughty Hold On, I’m Coming.
Rauch, the “commissioner” of District Karaoke, won’t do any handicapping. But he had some ideas.
“I wouldn’t put an upset out of the question. We have some awesome teams. The performances have been amazingly strong,” Rauch said. “So you know, it’s still anyone’s game.”
Midway through the competition things were heating up. Each team competes three times — two solo rounds and a team round. Cindy Daigle was crushing it for her team, the Song Ponies.
She writhed on the floor in a full wedding dress with a veil and pearls, white tights, satin shoes and of course, lacy fingerless gloves. The crowd ate it up.
Her strategy going into this performance?
“I was actually really nervous, so I was just trying to calm down as much as possible,” Daigle said. “I’ve heard a lot of great things about the other teams on other nights. And I was just hoping I wouldn’t be the worst one.”
Daigle wasn’t the worst by a long shot. Her routine garnered high praise from the celebrity judges. The District Karaoke performances are judged on two criteria: sing it, and schwing it.
“Sing it is that musicality, how did you sound,” Rauch said. “And schwing it is kind of that performance, but sometimes it means a little more. It’s that energy. If people have a good time, they may give you a high schwing it score.”
And there are many ways to schwing it.
Sue O’Hora from REO Lushwagon looked calm and collected in her bald eagle costume. The crowd hooted at her as she took the stage to Lee Greenwood’s rousing ode to patriotism. It was an unconventional karaoke choice, but O’Hora was convinced it would notch some needed points.
“It’s super ridiculous. It’s one of those things everybody knows because they had to sing it at camp or choir,” O’Hora said. “It’s cheesy, but awesome at the same time, so it seemed like it was a good pick for something like this.”
And the bald eagle costume?
“The big bald eagle costume was the schwing factor. We gave the judges some bigger American flags,” O’Hora said. “I looked down and actually saw them waving them while I was singing, which made me happy.”
Sadly, O’Hora’s performance wasn’t enough to bring home the repeat victory for her team. REO Lushwagon ended the night in sixth place. Hold On, I’m Coming steals the show. Their epic group rendition of Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Time Warp” nabbed them the winner’s trophy.
Despite their dedication to singing and schwinging, these karaokers are more about fun than competition.
“We’re really focused on building community,” Rauch said. “That is my top goal to create a community of people who become friends and support each other. As much as individuals can come and do this, it probably wouldn’t bring people together in the same way. The team element adds a certain dynamic that individual karaoke performance and competing probably doesn’t get.”
But don’t think all that community-building talk makes District Karaoke any less competitive than other social sports like kickball or dodgeball. Their unofficial motto says it all: “Anyone can kick a ball, but only ballers can belt a ballad.”