Whatever the pitfalls of reality TV, in some ways it seems to have given America back its dancing shoes. When TV network execs created Dancing With The Stars, few could have predicted that the show would lock in nearly 20 million viewers an episode. While the popularity of past shows like Dance Fever and American Bandstand has long since faded, the runaway success of Dancing With The Stars proved there remains a dedicated audience of dance fans waiting in the wings.
In New York City, however, dance culture and its attendant enthusiasm never truly went underground. One of the most telling indications of this is the overwhelming success of Lincoln Center's long-running series Midsummer Night Swing (MSNS), the annual program that has matched top-shelf live bands with dancers for close to a quarter of a century. If MSNS had a motto, it might be "dancing under the stars," which is the best way to describe the happenings on the 1200-capacity open-air dance floor constructed in Damrosch Park three-weeks a year (June 27-July 16). Long a boon for those who lindy hop, tango, two-step, salsa and much, much more, the program is as open to beginners (each evening starts with a dance lesson) as it is to pros. Under the curatorial aegis of producers Bill Bragin and Jill Sternheimer in Lincoln Center's Public Programming department, MSNS continues to draw a cross-generational mix of the City's nimble elite.
The sheer variety of the music in opening week exemplifies the ambitions of this year's program. MSNS carries the name "swing" as a tip-of-the-hat to its earliest loyalists, devotees of ballroom music played by big bands such as the Jonathan Stout Orchestra (June 27) and the Swingtime Big Band (June 29). And yet, a totally different kind of music will be celebrated when Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley, members of funk icon James Brown's legendary horn section, take the stage on June 28. The night harkens back to Brown's inaugural appearance 40 years ago on Soul Train, when the show was beginning to bring R&B and Black pop into homes across America, along with an in-house dance troupe that updated Brown's famous catalog of slides and splits. The night will also feature an extended DJ set by beloved hip-hop star Biz Markie, who will spin classics of the era accompanied by vintage videos from the show. This superbad week at MSNS also includes the expanded version of bandoneon virtuoso Hector del Curto's Eternal Tango ensemble (June 30), the New York debut of Brazilian-music scion Diogo Nogueira's gorgeous, award-winning samba (July 1), and the local Nuyorican soul of Zon del Barrio augmented by cuatro master Yomo Toro and pianist extraordinaire Larry Harlow (July 2).
A couple of Swing's myriad permutations are spotlighted in the next week, as Austin's Hot Club of Cowtown first offers up the twangy variety inspired by the Western swing of Bob Wills (July 6), and then Germany's Ray Collins' Hot Club turns Swing's twobeat parade into raucous four-on-the-floor jump-blues in their New York debut (July 9). It's a week heavy with superstars, both in spirit and in the flesh. Joe McGinty, the keyboardist well-known for the celebrity homages he stages under the "Losers Lounge" umbrella, returns to MSNS on July 7 with a salute to the dancepop music of the '80s, when Madonna, Michael Jackson and a succession of British new-wave bands were the toast of MTV. Original VJ Mark Goodman will be on hand as the night's disc jockey. At that time, Gilberto Santa Rosa (July 5) was an up-and-comer on the salsa scene in his native Puerto Rico. Today he ranks among the most dynamic entertainers in the world, a salsero who transformed himself into a charttopping romantic balladeer after cutting his teeth in bands that ruled the dance floor. Santa Rosa's ascent was concurrent with the rise of RMM Records, the powerhouse New York salsa label whose late founder, Ralph Mercado, will be remembered in grand style on July 8. The virtual who's who of new and veteran talent that was nurtured at RMM (among others, Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, Oscar D' Leon, Tito Nieves, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri ) gets an update from a band of all-stars that includes conguero and musical director Bobby Allende, timbale player Tito Puente, Jr., and singers Ray Sepulveda, MioSotis, and Tony Vega.
Perhaps appropriately, Damrosch Park touches down in Ireland's Galway County during the third week, which zig-zags around the globe. Irish celi music is welcomed back to MSNS when four exponents of the minor-key lyricism of Ireland's East Galway style (Charlie Harris, button accordion; Maeve Donnelly, fiddle; Eamon Cotter, flute; Geraldine Cotter, piano, whistle) meet up for a throwdown on July 13. Rustic cumbia: the squeezebox-drenched polka of South America: is delivered by Lisandro and Juan Jos_ Meza, an iconic, wildly popular father and son team from Colombia, on July 15. The Palmetto Bug Stompers bring the trad street band sounds of New Orleans for their New York debut on July 12, while a Parisian ensemble, Caravan Palace, crosses the Atlantic for Bastille Day on July 14 with what may be the future sound of swing: imagine Django Reinhardt-esque le jazz hot outfitted with the kind of electro-beats that would fit nicely in a rave. Of course, closing night at MSNS belongs to the annual tribute to Illinois Jacquet with the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra: a highlight of the Swing calendar for over a decade: which will be joined by saxophonist Billy Harper. And now, with the addition of the Ambassador Prize Dance Contest, the spectacle of even more elaborate period fashions and the competitive camaraderie has raised the energy bar to a new high. Hundreds of dancers will be stepping out for the contest, when a representative from new season sponsor Macy's will be on hand to present the grand prize to the most inventive lindy-hoppers.
Dance fever is alive and well at Midsummer Night Swing; the dance floor is calling.