Dancing Under the Stars

Classic Arts Features   Dancing Under the Stars
Midsummer Night Swing, Lincoln Center's annual outdoor dance extravaganza, revs up for its 18th season.

"No one should come to New York," E.B. White once declared, "unless he is willing to be lucky." During the summer you could add that no one should come to Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night Swing unless he or she is willing to dance.

A custom-built, open-air dance floor rises in the middle of Josie Robertson Plaza. Crowds of well-dressed folks, both young and old, mill about, waiting for the music to start. Musicians assemble on the bandstand. Behind them, the arches of the Metropolitan Opera house glow in the night (during intermission operagoers crowd the balcony, giving the dancers an eager audience). The music starts, the dancers sway, and the stars look down and seem to smile. You feel lucky indeed.

"There's a sense of pure, unadulterated joy out on that dance floor," notes Lincoln Center's Wendy Magro, the producer of the series. "You don't see a whole lot of that in the rest of the city."

Now in its 18th year, Midsummer Night Swing has matured into one of New York's favorite summertime events and is now more popular than ever, thanks in part to the television hit Dancing With the Stars. "That show has reintroduced people to dances they've forgotten," Magro says. "We hope that it stays on the air forever."

As in years past, the schedule for Midsummer Night Swing is fascinatingly varied, with nights of disco, tango, mambo, salsa, and zydeco planned, to name just a few genres. But there are two significant changes. This season, each week starts with the big band sounds of classic swing and ends with Salsa Saturdays. "That's the most popular night," Magro points out. "The Lincoln Center regulars may be out at the Hamptons on the weekend, but salsa music pulls in people from all parts of Manhattan and beyond."

Midsummer Night Swing draws every kind of person, from experienced dancers, who carry their shoes in special bags, to first timers, who carry bemused expressions that are quickly wiped away by the complimentary dance lessons at the start of each evening.

"The important thing for me is to always make sure that whoever comes has a lot of fun," declares Pierre Dulaine, one of the veteran instructors. Dulaine, the teacher from last year's hit documentary Mad Hot Ballroom who was recently portrayed by Antonio Banderas in the feature Take the Lead, adds that his favorite thing about Midsummer Night Swing "is seeing all the happy faces when they finally get it right. You see the penny drop as they 'get it.'"

"The dancers are usually a mixed bag of people," he reports, "normal, ordinary looking people, young and older generations. You will always get the type of guy who knows it all and is 'teaching' his lady partner, and you will always see a wife 'back leading' her husband or doing the leading part. And there is always a joker in the pack." With all the old-timers gliding about, Magro observes, single women have no trouble finding a partner. "You can't remain a wall flower for long," she says.

This year 15 bands are making their Midsummer Night Swing debut, more than in any previous year. "We try to get bands that have never played here before," says Magro. "Some you see all over town, at various other swing spots. But it's also great to start with a band that no one in New York has heard about." The opening act, on June 20, is the Jonathan Stout Orchestra, featuring Hillary Alexander. This Los Angeles-based outfit specializes in the sterling swing material of the 1930s and '40s.

A month later, on July 20, La Timba Loca makes its Midsummer Night Swing debut, and marks another first. Magro discovered the group earlier this year when she saw its leader, the pianist Gonzalo Grau, perform in Lincoln Center's celebration of the Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. "This is the first time that a New Visions artist has crossed over to Midsummer Night Swing," Magro says.

Swing and Latin music dominate the schedule, but the series has its variations. The second night, June 21, celebrates Gay Pride with a disco program featuring Martha Wash, who is known for the dance-floor staple, "It's Raining Men." The song takes on new meaning when it's played at an outdoor party, but no matter what the weather, it's sure to be a good time. "We get everyone from gay and lesbian couples to transgendered ones to straight folk," Magro says. "Disco is always such fun, and it's great for people-watching." Other nights of interest include an Irish program on July 7 with the Liz Carroll & John Doyle Band. "This turns into one big social dance," Magro observes, "almost like a square dance. It can be the most rocking night of the season." June 30 features Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, who defined the genre of Western Swing. Legendary vocalist Leon Rausch fronts the veterans of Wills' band. There's also an all-request night (July 19) with the renowned ensemble and Midsummer Night Swing favorite Brave Combo, whose repertoire boasts more than 700 songs.

As in the past, there will be two events for children and their parents. But this year they are being held in the morning, instead of the more humid afternoon. "It just got too hot," Magro points out. "By the end of the day all the kids were melted into little piles of sugar." The first children's event is on June 24, with a ballroom, tango, and swing program. The second one, on July 8, covers country, western swing, and square dancing.

The rest of the series this summer is devoted to big-band sounds and tropical rhythms. Swing is such a driving force that even the bluegrass night on July 5 features Big Bandjo, a banjo-driven outfit that plays arrangements of big band classics. The premier Latin event is tango night, on June 22, with the chamber ensemble QuinTango. This evening attracts "the best looking audience all season," Magro promises. "The women are in sleek, sexy outfits and the men are in tight-fitting pants."

The alfresco dancing comes to an end on July 22 with a salute to Illinois Jacquet. Up until his death two years ago, the great saxophonist played the last night of every Midsummer Night Swing season since its inception. In fact, his last public appearance was here, just days before he died in 2004. Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton will join the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra for this year's closing-night tribute.

Midsummer Night Swing has a schedule as diverse as the city it serves, but one thing remains constant: "The bands are always incredibly high-quality musicians," Magro says. "And they are here for the dancers."

John Donohue writes frequently about the arts.

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