In San Francisco, you don’t have to go to a stuffy night club or a formal classroom to learn how to swing dance. If you want to learn the Lindy Hop, you can learn in the great outdoors.
CAROLINA HIDALGO: It’s late on a sunny morning and people have filled the park. John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to car traffic, as it is every Sunday, and people are biking, skating, jogging, and walking. As I walk west to the de Young Museum, the sounds of music mix with the sounds of people. Lively music – '40s style swing music – and as I get closer to the sound, I realize it’s coming from a gathering.
At the corner of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and JFK, where taxis and tour buses turn toward the de Young and Academy of Sciences, more than a hundred men and women stand together around the source. But they don’t stand still. They’re dancing … or, at least, they’re trying to.
Trish Richman is a regular.
TRISH RICHMAN: I first came to Lindy in the Park, probably almost six years ago.
She’s got dancing in her blood.
RICHMAN: My father was a swing dancer back in the '40s, and we used to dance in the house, after dinner, and I've never thought about it, but all this music is my music that I grew up with. A friend of mine mentioned that there was a group of people dancing in the park, and he walked me by here and that was it. I've never stopped.
Richman and I are standing with others in a circle, surrounding all kinds of dancers. All kinds of people. Casual park-goers in shorts and tee-shirts, serious dancers in sporty clothes. One guy has tattoos and piercings all over his body – and he’s very, very good. All the old ladies want to dance with him.
KEN WATANABE: We want to keep it friendly and accessible to everyone.
That’s Ken Watanabe, the Lindy in the Park co-founder, not the actor.
WATANABE: We started to teach a free lesson about seven years ago. And that helps a lot: People can try and see if they like it, and usually they do.
I’m not so sure. Back home in Chile I love to dance, but in night clubs, or at friends' houses, and probably with a drink in my hand. These people are in a park, in public, in the sunshine. But I decide to give it a try ... I join a big group on the “dancefloor.” We try to follow the steps Watanabe and his partner show us.
I feel ridiculous. And I want to get back in the circle of people watching. But then I look at the other students, all trying, some of them failing, all having fun, and I realize: “This is good.”
RICHMAN: Swing dance is really particularly good for me, because it’s a happy, happy dance.
Partners swing each other around, they throw each other up in the air, they smile and laugh.
RICHMAN: You can't be depressed. Even if you are depressed, when you got there, you are not depressed after one song. It's happy music, and very energetic, so it's good for your spirit and your body.
Still, for self-conscious people like me, and for Richman’s partner, it requires a leap of good-natured faith to get on the floor.
RICHMAN: My partner and I have been together for 12 years, and he was very encouraging to me. But he said, “Oh no, no, no, no. I'll never going to do this, I'll stand there and watch you." So, he was nervous to try, but now he is as committed as I am if not more. He loves it.
After dancing Lindy in the Park for a few songs, the draw is clear: It brings people together. There’s something freeing about it.
RICHMAN: I think that with this dance, maybe with all dances but with partner dancings, there really are connection with another person. So if you work on a computer all day long and you don't connect, this is how ever long the song is, a minute and a half, you're connected with your partner.
Ah, yes. Connecting with a partner. Some men ask me to dance. In a club I’d usually say no, if they’re not my friends or my “type.” But somehow, here, it doesn’t feel flirtatious or threatening. It feels safe, like I can let myself go. So I take a spin with a short, plump guy with blue hair. And even though I keep mistaking salsa steps for swing, the spontaneous joy of the dance keeps me smiling.
After years dancing Lindy, Trish Richman says the feeling she gets here follows her outside Golden Gate Park.
RICHMAN: It's connecting me to the city. I never was in the park on a regular basis, I’m in the park all the time now. I see the city at play and at rest. I see families. I see people that I wandering by, and they just start to dance and it is an encouraging, a spontaneous thing that happens every week. Some stay, some never dance again, but I feel connected to my community, to my physicality and to my partner.
We all wish to feel that connection, somewhere in our lives. Dozens of people find it, every Sunday, at a corner in Golden Gate Park. I found it, simply by following the music, and taking a simple step out of my comfort zone and onto the dance floor.
Find more information about Lindy in the Park here.