Midsummer Night Swing
Lincoln Center, New York
June 26 - July 14 2012
By Tom Phillips
Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips
What could be more romantic than seeing a stranger across a crowded room, walking over and sweeping her up in your arms, the two of you dancing away as a big band plays, a singer croons, and half a moon rises over the skyline on a midsummer night in Manhattan?
The only thing I can imagine that would be more romantic would be to do this over and over, with one beautiful stranger after another, all evening long. And that is exactly what can happen at Midsummer Night Swing, now in its 24th summer at Lincoln Center, bigger and fancier and more romantic than ever.
When I say romantic, I use the word in its primary sense: exotic and unreal, having no basis in fact. Full disclosure: as a happily married senior citizen, who even likes to dance with his wife, I am not looking for a mate or a significant other. But if I were, I probably wouldn’t focus here, because this is no place for serious courting. The multiple relationships one forms in a single night here are mere sketches of love, abstractions: two bodies finding a single rhythm in a four-minute whirl, accompanied only by a breathless exchange of names, compliments, a giggle and goodbye.
The setting has much to do with the romance: It’s a make-believe ballroom that appears for a few weeks every summer, a faux parquet floor lit by magic lanterns that change color as the night deepens. It’s an eminently practical illusion. The dance floor is huge, accommodating hundreds of couples. Damrosch Park takes up the southwest corner of Lincoln Center, so the midsummer sun sets over the Hudson River behind the band shell, often followed by glowing sunsets, with colors that match the pinks and purples projected in the lightshow above the band.
There’s no place to sit and no food, drinks or bags are allowed on the dance floor, but the amenities are all close by – snack bars, beer and wine, restrooms, bag check, and a comfortable new pavilion overlooking the floor where dancers can take a break, eat and drink. And the price is right – four hours on the dance floor, including a dance lesson, a DJ and a live band, for $15, even less if you buy a multiple-night pass. Or you can dance for free on the stone plaza outside.
Not every night is ecstatic. The downsides include the inevitable threat of rain, but also the inevitable confusion among a mixed crowd of mostly strangers. There’s a high percentage of beginners and inexperienced dancers on the floor, and collisions are common, especially in the first part of the evening.
The music is generally terrific – a different band in a different style every night –from ballroom orchestras to hot Latin bands, to New Orleans-style traditional jazz. The sound system is finely tuned to fill the big outdoor space, but occasionally a band seems out of touch with the occasion. A good dance band plays for dancers – varying tempos and rhythms, keeping each number to a danceable length, not playing faster than people can step. Some bands seem to like it when people stop dancing and just listen, but it usually means they're exhausted, or finding it difficult to dance.
MNS over the years has had something for everyone: besides swing and salsa, this year’s schedule features evenings of tango, Cajun and Zydeco, Indian bhangra, and Brazilian forro. Some of my favorite evenings from the past include Irish sets with a ceili band, polkas and waltzes with the party band Brave Combo, a honky-tonk with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Dancers are constantly arguing over the mix of programs, swing dancers complaining about the increase in Latin dances. As for me, me gustan todas, I like ‘em all, especially because the Latin dances may be the only events that draw a large crowd of Hispanics to Lincoln Center. It’s a reminder of what Lincoln Center was intended to be – an arts center for the people.
In the steamy days of summer, while the elites are rubbing elbows and clinking margaritas in the Hamptons, ordinary New Yorkers are going “back to back, belly to belly” in Damrosch Park, and romance is in the air. See you there.
Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips
Photos by Kevin Yatarola (top) and Brian Stanton