Three summers ago, on a mid-July evening, Margaret Batiuchok was teaching the basics of Lindy Hop on an outdoor stage at Lincoln Center when her microphone went dead.
It was the final night of Midsummer Night Swing, a tradition spanning more than 30 years that saw New Yorkers obsessed or just curious about partner dancing flock to a massive dance floor on the Upper West Side.
Batiuchok switched to a megaphone, but it quickly became clear that the problem went beyond technical difficulties: part of Manhattan’s West Side had lost power and would not regain it for several hours.
The dancers were asked to disperse before sunset that night, and some are now joking that the 2019 blackout was a bad omen.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit the city, forcing Lincoln Center to cancel Midsummer Night Swing for the first time since it began in 1989. It was canceled again in 2021.
Lana Turner, 72, a Harlem resident who has been dubbed the doyenne of Lincoln Center’s swing dance community, recalled the days when she and her fellow dancers didn’t have their usual summer spot.
“There was a lot of pent-up energy,” Turner said.
In June, that energy was released again: the dance floor returned to Lincoln Center and regulars reunited with friends and familiar faces. They didn’t necessarily know each other’s last names, but they were long-standing fixtures in each other’s lives.
“You realize you care about them even though they’re semi-strangers,” said Mai Yee, who has danced with Midsummer Night Swing for more than 20 years. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re here — we survived that!'”
One of the people Yee usually only sees dancing is Turner, who started attending Midsummer Night Swing around the same time. Yee remembers Turner hitting the ground running year after year, always wearing something exquisite. (Turner’s flashy fashions once caught the attention of New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.)
On a tango night this summer, Yee and Turner, wearing a floor-length yellow peacock-print dress, chatted with other longtime participants and discussed how far they would go to partner dancing during the pandemic. Some held one end of a ribbon or rope while their partner held the other so they could connect without touching. Some attended classes virtually, and once they were able to dance in person with others, they wore gloves and masks for protection.
“It’s not an addiction; I can stop anytime!” said Anahý Antara as couples hugged and danced the tango around her.
Back when she was dancing five nights a week during Midsummer Night Swing, which typically lasted three weeks, Antara said she had a voicemail message that simply said, “You know where I am.”
The event to which the dancers returned was different from previous times. For years, the Midsummer Night Swing took place in Damrosch Park; This year, the dancing was back in the square where it began 33 years ago when a big band anniversary party at Lincoln Center became an annual tradition. (It moved to Damrosch Park in 2008 due to construction work on the square.)
For the program’s grand return, Lincoln Center hired Clint Ramos, a Broadway costume and set designer, to create a performance in the plaza between the grand buildings that house the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the New York Philharmonic to create eye-catching outdoor dance hall. Dubbed the Oasis, it featured a 10-foot diameter disco ball, a mirrored stage, and an electric blue dance floor that drew passers-by, many of whom preferred to sit on the sidelines sipping wine and watching the spectacle.
“It’s more like a party, like a celebration,” said Batiuchok, the ultimate Midsummer Night Swing veteran, after performing at the first two events with swing dance champion Frankie Manning.
Another important change this year: Admission was free. Originally, visitors who wanted to dance on the ground floor paid an entrance fee, while others could dance salsa and rumba on the sidelines while the band blasted music into the park.
The free dance events, which ended Aug. 6, drew more people than in previous years, not all of them serious dancers, leading to some grumbling among regulars that it was harder to find qualified partners. Lincoln Center estimated this year’s attendance at 54,000. In 2019, Midsummer Night Swing drew around 15,000 ticket holders to the dance floor, with an additional 23,000 people on the periphery, the organization said.
And perhaps the biggest change: the name Midsummer Night Swing has disappeared, at least for the time being. This year, ballroom dancing was part of Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City Festival, which also included workshops for children, orchestral concerts and poetry readings.
The dance styles were still diverse. Among this season’s offerings: Lindy Hop, Afrobeat, House, Salsa, Zydeco, Disco, Merengue, Tango, Flamenco, Freestyle and Ballroom.
The dancers came with all sorts of backstories: a 67-year-old woman who convinced her husband to move away from Paris so she could dance with the salsa greats of New York City; a 24-year-old doorman who began attending events with his church friends; a 53-year-old mother with stage 4 cancer who dances to find joy and calls it a “life force”.
They danced to connect with their cultural history.
“Having a dance created by our community, created by our ancestors, is a form of resilience,” said Taneeka Wilder, 41, a Bronx resident who started dancing lindy hop, a form, about six years ago , who was born in Harlem in the late 1920s .
They danced for their health.
“At 72, my blood pressure is excellent,” said Joanne Swain, who has been dancing since she was 14, as she sneaked into the Palladium nightclub on East 14th Street. “My doctor said to me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.'”
And they danced for human connection, something many felt deprived of during the height of the pandemic. It’s normal here to take a stranger’s hand and let yourself be carried away for a song or two. (Even these reporters were lured onto the dance floor.)
“During Covid, I realized that apart from the human touch, what I missed the most was dancing,” said Veronica Cabezas, 42, who was beaming with excitement at a salsa night last month. “It puts you in a state of readiness to meet a new person.”
Few attendees wore masks at the events, and everyone agreed: Zoom couldn’t compare himself to dancing under the stars, nor could he dance at home with a broomstick as a partner, which Swain recalled doing at their house in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
On one of the final nights of the season, just days before the Oasis was demolished, swing dancers gathered for the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, the same group that was performing in 2019 when the power went out.
WR Tucker, 88, whose dance name is Tommy Tucker, courted partners in a cream linen suit and matching fedora.
After moving to New York from Florida in 1954, he was a regular at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Tucker, who has attended Lincoln Center’s social dance events for about a decade, credits the dancing with keeping him “out of trouble.” He hasn’t stopped during the pandemic, even if he had to do it alone at home.
“New York was dying, but I was dancing in the house,” Tucker said. “Being here now feels like a new life.”