Enchantment Under the Stars
Each June, after the opera, ballet, and classical music seasons end, a magical transformation of the Lincoln Center campus begins. A dance floor materializes around the bandshell in Damrosch Park, framed by hundreds of twinkling lights. And when Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night Swing strikes up the band, New York's favorite outdoor dance party awakens the timeless romantic spirit of summer in the city.
From June 26 to July 14, live bands will play vibrant sets of swing, salsa, disco, rock 'n' roll, and more for crowds of enthusiastic dancers, some channeling Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and others learning their first swing or salsa combos at the pre-party, professionally led dance lessons that take place each night.
"Our job is to keep people dancing," says Lincoln Center's director of public programming Jill Sternheimer, who always has her dancers in mind when she's scouting bands. But for this year's season opener on June 26, a tribute to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm—the first integrated, all-female swing band—there was an additional motivator.
"A while back, I had a conversation with DJ Ryan Swift about a night honoring the International Sweethearts of Rhythm," says Sternheimer. "This year, hearing the discussions that have been occurring around equity and representation, I went from thinking about what a fun night it would be to thinking how necessary it is."
Bria Skonberg, a critically acclaimed trumpet player and bandleader who has played Midsummer Night Swing in the past, was Sternheimer's first call to lead an all-female band to open the 2018 season. Up for the challenge, Skonberg brought together an all-star big band, plus jazz violinist Regina Carter and clarinetist Anat Cohen as special guests. They call themselves the Sisterhood of Swing, and Skonberg says that every person she called was thrilled to be a part of it: "Everybody's been in. Maybe it's the climate that we're in right now, but I think we all feel that it's time to step up and make some statements."
And while these statements are important, Skonberg insists that the band isn't a gimmick. "This is not the first all-female band. It's just a totally bad-ass band focused on what the music is about, which is synergy with the dancers," she explains. "It's not a concert. It's an interactive, immersive experience: a celebration of 100-plus years of women in jazz."
"Bria didn't just put any band together, she put together a band of powerhouse women," says Sternheimer. "Regina Carter and Anat Cohen? I almost dropped the phone when she told me! It's an important conversation, but one that's happening on the dance floor and that's really fantastic. It's going to be a great night."
Starting with the Sisterhood, authentic big-band swing is the thing for many nights across the three-week season. Specialists in '30s and '40s-era music, the Glenn Crytzer Orchestra leads the party on June 30. Naomi Uyama, who has the unique distinction of being a bandleader and a Lindy hop champion, brings her Handsome Devils to the bandshell on July 6. The Harlem Renaissance Orchestra returns on July 14 for a season finale that will bring the city's best dancers to Damrosch Park to compete for the Ambassador Prize in a dance contest inspired by Lindy hop icon Frankie Manning and the Savoy style he invented.
For those that like their swing with a dash of the blues, the Brianna Thomas Band on July 11 offers up a set of jump blues, swing, and R&B, perfect for Lindy hop and solo showmanship alike. On July 13, U.K. soul man James Hunter and his band, The James Hunter Six, tap into the energy of early rock 'n' roll at a party that spotlights the sultry side of shag and swing.
Waltzes, foxtrots, and cha-chas make a comeback on June 29 with the classic ballroom stylings of Gerard Carelli and His Orchestra. Adding more magic to the evening (and to Instagram) is the annual Midsummer Night Swing Fashion Contest. This year's theme invites vintage clothing collectors and cosplayers alike to don their best "summer soirée" attire, a style that Sternheimer sums up as "Fred and Ginger on the boardwalk."
Swing and ballroom are only a part of this midsummer story. The other major part is Latin dance, and the Damrosch Park salsa nights are ecstatic happenings. This season highlights the musical traditions of Puerto Rico beginning on June 27 with San Juan–born salsa star Joe Quijano y Su Conjunto Cachana. The Mambo Legends Orchestra, made up of former members of Tito Puente's band, are the all-star house band for a Fourth of July celebration that crackles with the spirit of fabled 1960s nightclub The Palladium, which stood just a few blocks down Broadway from Lincoln Center. A new generation of Puerto Rican salseros takes command of the dance floor on July 10 when the 11-piece Orquesta El Macabeo comes to town for a show co-produced by Lincoln Center and the Latin Alternative Music Conference.
Havana-style salsa takes centerstage on July 12 when Orquesta Akokán—the Cuban supergroup that just released its first album on Daptone Records—plays the bandshell. Hailing from Buenos Aires, Tanghetto adds a twist to tango night on July 5, blending classic tango rhythms and attitude with electronic and pop music into what it calls "electrotango."
And for something completely different, New Yorkers of all ages are taking over the dance floor on July 3 for a festive night called Garba in the Park. Featuring live music by Kashyap Jani and Friends, the evening showcases two energetic group dances from western India, garba and raas, with dance lessons and demonstrations making it easy for anyone to experience Indian social dance culture.
The season is completed by the perennially popular disco night with The Loser's Lounge on June 28; an evening of Texas two-step on July 7 featuring one of Austin's hottest honkytonk bands, the supergroup Heybale; a free adaptive lesson for people with limited mobility before Joe Quijano's show on June 27; the annual LC Kids Dance with Dancing Classrooms for children ages 6–10 on the afternoon of July 14; and Silent Disco after-parties, where DJs broadcast straight to dancers' headphones.
Sternheimer encourages everyone, regardless of skill level, to get up and dance. "You can sit back and watch magic happen on the dance floor and get a kick out of the characters, colors, costumes, and the incredible dancing and great music," she says, "but that thrill will live on inside of you longer if you step onto that dance floor and have the courage to ask somebody to dance. I know it can be intimidating, but dancers want you to ask them, they want to share the joy of partner dancing. The scene thrives with new people."
Amanda MacBlane is senior writer and editor for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Midsummer Night Swing is presented by NewYork-Presbyterian.
Major support provided by Janice Savin Williams and Christopher J. Williams/The Williams Capital Group, LP
For more information, visit MidsummerNightSwing.org.