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New Yorkers Revive Old-Style Dancing During 'Midsummer Night Swing'

Swinging and swaying to thriving 1920s musical beats, New Yorkers bring new life to an old-style dance tradition for several weeks every summer.

There is something about dancing in the open air on a hot summer night as the sunlight fades across the Manhattan skyline. Something that hundreds of toe-tapping New Yorkers can't resist.

Heather Berman is one of them. She arrives dressed in a slinky brown dress that complements her red hair. She wears her dancing shoes - high-heels with ankle straps, a style popular with the women dancers. She comes to Lincoln Center for Midsummer Night Swing every year, several times a week. Ms. Berman is a pro.

"I am a professional dancer, meaning ballet jazz, tap, all of that kind of thing," she said. "So not only do I do swing, salsa, mambo, um, rhumba, cha-cha, waltz, everything, foxtrot, yeah."

Luckily for her, she'll get to show off her talents this summer. Many kinds of music get played here, from tango to jump blues to soca, conga and swing, and even Irish waltzes. But swing is the most popular.

Swing music evolved out of jazz music in the 1920s and exploded in the 1930s. The dance comes from an era when syncopated drum beats and screaming brass instruments encouraged a flashy style of partnered dancing. One popular step, called the Lindy hop, is named after aviation icon Charles Lindbergh, because of moves that send dancers flying in the air and partners swinging around each others' bodies in sweeping, pulsing, back-and-forth arcs. Variations in swing include the jitterbug and the jive. Many dance styles grew out of the geographic location in which they were practiced, like East Coast Swing and West Coast Swing.

But wordy definitions are of little interest to the dancers. For the uninitiated, Ms. Berman explains the steps.

"Swing would be slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, slow, quick-quick," she said.

Or if you want to get more advanced.

"Triple step, triple step, back-break," continued Ms. Berman. "Triple step, triple step, back-break."

Midsummer Night Swing beckons all kinds of people, young and old, of every background, such as singles in their early 20s, middle-aged married couples, silver-haired 'foxes'. Many come with partners. Others come to meet people. It doesn't matter if you're a good dancer or not. Plenty of amateurs show up, even people who have never set foot on a dance floor. They dance right alongside the flashy experts.

"You get every level of dancer here," explained Ms. Berman. "You get people who are dying to learn how to dance, and they'll be standing around the sides. You get, you know every once in a while you get some professional dancers in there, some couples that are always used to working together, showing off."

A stage and elevated dance floor are put up every summer in the outdoor plaza of Lincoln Center, New York's main performing arts complex. Admission to the dance floor costs $15. But many people dance for free on the surrounding plaza.

Gillespia Savage shuffles around to her own beat, on the pavement right on the outside edge of the dance floor.

"I think I should get free passes by now," she said. "'Cause I'm a good dancer."

She says she is named after the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who was her godfather. Her grandmother was a dancer at the legendary Harlem Cotton Club. Music is in her blood. In her view, swing just naturally brings people together.

"Swing music just makes you feel good," said Ms. Savage. "Don't you feel good when you hear this? I can't do rap. See, swing makes you feel good."

Of course, not everyone is a natural dancer. For those who would like to perfect the tricky-looking dance moves but have yet to ever try them, a pair of instructors gives a 45-minute group lesson before the band starts to play.

"So our basic pattern if we're back in closed position takes six counts," explained the instructor. "And it happens as such. We have one, two, three and four, five and six. Rock step, triple step…"

The lesson starts at 6:30, an hour before the real dancing begins. And soon enough…

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are swing dancing," announced the instructor. "Now we just need a little bit of music, yes? If you can do that to a beat, if you can find that groove, you're there."

But even the lessons make newcomer Jorge Saavedra feel only slightly better about his dancing skills.

"I hope they have first aid because if I step on their feet they're really gonna hurt," he said.

All kinds of musical acts will perform over the summer - Brazilian bands, jazz orchestras, even blues bands. Some big names, like the Cab Calloway Orchestra, and some less-recognized, like Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie.

Tonight's headlining act is lounge singer Buster Poindexter.

The dance floor comes alive. A hundred couples dance, spin and twirl. The lessons of a moment ago seem entirely lost, no unifying pattern can be seen in the flurry of agile feet. The energy is feverish. Sweating bodies and smiling faces are all around. Everyone's dance is different, the steps unrepeatable.

It's an art form that exists in the moment.

Some partners split after one song, going off in search of new partners.

Near the edge of the stage, a man named Mario scans the crowd for his next partner.

Kerry: You look like you know how to dance.

Mario: Yeah, but the partner also needs to know how to dance! At least the basics!

Mario watches a snaking conga line pass by. The people in it pause on the down beat to display a pointed finger in the air, or two outstretched arms, or whatever the spirit moves them to do.

"That's the conga! That's the conga!" announced Mario.

Next, Buster Poindexter brings his two female backup singers to the front of the stage. He and his band are about to play an old favorite.

The crowd is heating up, but no one's slowing down. These New Yorkers will keep dancing under the stars deep into the night.