By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
By day, Desi Keith is a full-time caretaker at Arrington Funeral Home Inc. in southwest Birmingham. By night, he leads one of Alabama’s most recognizable line-dance teams. Sometimes the two intersect.
The founder of D2 Line Dancing by Desi Keith recalled when a longtime class member attended a session despite preparing to bury her 35-year-old son. It happened in early April of this year.
“Her son was murdered [the previous weekend], and she [was on] the dance floor [the following week]. This class helps you find love, joy, and comfort … even if it’s only for a short while,” said Keith, who consoles families as they make funeral arrangements.
When the same dance class member laid her mother to rest in 2017, Keith was there to help the family as caregiver for her mother’s homegoing services; he was there this year for her son’s services, as well.
After spending the day supporting grieving loved ones, Keith knows the importance of mentally preparing for his dance classes.
“Most days I’m working multiple jobs,” he said. “I’m exhausted and emotionally drained from seeing people cry over their loved ones. On the drive from work to the dance floor, I get to start shedding that layer of grief, stress, pain, anxiety. I have to shake off that energy not only for myself but for the 60 to 100 people waiting for me to get [to class]. They are excited, eager, and ready to dance off their hard day.”
The 46-year-old East Lake native has an impressive resume, to say the least. Aside from his role at Arrington Funeral Home, he is a MAC-certified makeup artist, specialty event caterer, event planner, certified fitness trainer, dance instructor, choreographer, and ordained minister. He has led fitness boot camps and line dances at major health and wellness events around the Magic City; raised money for myriad causes, including breast cancer and sickle cell anemia awareness; and regularly volunteered for community service.
In addition to teaching four classes a week, each of which includes six different line dances, downtown Birmingham at The Dannon Project’s recreational facility, he and the D2 line dancers have opened for Birmingham native Rickey Smiley’s Karaoke Night on Monday nights at the StarDome comedy club in Hoover.
The Woodlawn High School graduate has more than nine years of experience as a certified fitness trainer, and he is so passionate about his work that some describe it as a ministry.
“When you’re touching groups as large as 3,500 at one time, you understand the gravity of what you’ve been given,” he said.
Last month, D2 celebrated its sixth anniversary at the Boutwell Municipal Auditorium’s exhibition hall. Keith never envisioned this, but his skills as a fitness trainer, dance enthusiast, and underground Zumba instructor ultimately led to its creation.
“A friend of mine was putting together a health and wellness event, and she asked me to conduct a line-dancing class,” he said. “I told her, ‘No. You want Zumba at your fitness event, not line dancing.’ She told me, ‘No, that’s not what I want. I want them to party, and you can’t switch into party mode doing Zumba.’ The rest is history.”
Afterward, Keith said, “It grew and developed this whole life-form and changed my life, as well as the lives of thousands of people.”
Before becoming a dance aficionado, Keith spent more than 20 years as a loan originator specializing in credit repair. He also used the Bachelor of Science degree in marketing that he earned from Grand Canyon University, in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2012, as a foundation for his career in club and party promotions, as well as his other entrepreneurial endeavors.
Known nationally for his choreography, Keith has collaborated with line-dance legend DJ Casper, best known for the hit “Cupid Shuffle” and the early 2000’s jam “Cha Cha Slide.” Keith visited Casper in Chicago, where the two recorded “D2 Slide,” a single scheduled for release later this year.
“I am now officially a recording artist in the genre of soul-line dancing,” said Keith, who is also renowned for his culinary and catering skills—which he also acquired from experts.
“My mother, grandmother, and godmothers taught me how to cook, and I picked up [techniques] from each of them,” he said. “I can create a soul food menu or [more exotic] cuisine. Either way, it’s going to be delicious and nutritious.”
Keith has catered large events in Phoenix, Detroit, Nashville, and Atlanta. And his nutritional advice has helped members of his dance team lose weight.
Keith feels his work is a calling. It’s not a “pulpit ministry” but a “people ministry,” he said.
“I’ve been called to the ministry my whole life, and I’ve been an ordained minister since 1998,” he said. “Everyone does not have a pulpit ministry, but everything that we do in life is about ministry. … Everything I do, I do it with love.”
The formation of D2 was God inspired, he said. After the death of his mother in June 2016, the growing dance program helped him avoid slipping into deep depression. The group started with eight members in 2012 and has since grown to 100 members.
D2 is more than a place to learn the latest line dances and burn calories, though.
“Twice a year, we [conduct a program called] Bags to Blessings,” said Keith. “We fill those bags with toiletries, hygiene products, and snacks, and we take them to homeless shelters for Christmas Day and Valentine’s Day. Most people don’t think about the homeless on Valentine’s Day, but D2 does.”
The group has a sponsorship at the Birmingham Ronald McDonald House and does outreach with the organization four times a year: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and two other days during the year. D2 also raises awareness about and money for several other organizations.
“We do all kinds of city health awareness walks and rallies, and we host awareness parties. We’ve done them for breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and colon cancer, as well as for the Sickle Cell Foundation, the American Heart Association, and other causes,” said Keith, who received the Man of Distinction Award for Dedicated Community Service from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 2016.
Greatest Loves of All
As if his future music releases with Casper don’t yield enough possibilities, he’s been in talks with two fellow Alabamians: American Idol winner Taylor Hicks and jazz flutist Kim Scott.
Though Keith is passionate about all of his endeavors, his greatest loves of all are his 26-year-old daughter DeOndria Keith and 5-year-old granddaughter Aubre Keith.
“Music and dance may be the beat of my life, but my daughter and granddaughter are the beat of my heart,” he said.