September 25, 2021

David-gigliotti

Entertainment

I can’t dance, but I learned how to Lindy Hop in Golden Gate Park

As I follow the distant, brassy trill of a saxophone emanating from John F. Kennedy Drive, I take a deep breath, attempting to quell a feeling of mounting nervousness. 

It’s just before noon on a foggy Sunday, and dozens of people have already taken over the makeshift outdoor dance hall in Golden Gate Park, effortlessly twirling, dipping, and jiving across the asphalt. A man in a cutoff yellow hoodie and sunglasses is playing an upright bass, nodding his head in time to the music. In the midst of a sea of cantering, toe-tapping bodies, Lindy in the Park co-founder Ken Watanabe and longtime instructor “Hep” Jen Holland chant a series of commands:

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

“Kick ball change, step, slide!”  


“That’s it, everyone, keep it moving!”

Joggers, bicyclists, dog walkers and Segway tours alike pause to observe the spectacle as they pass, just as I have on countless walks through the park before.

But this time, I meekly make my way over to join them. 

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t dreading it. The extent of my dance experience traces back to clumsy childhood ballet lessons, high school show choir performances laden with errant jazz hands and, occasionally, an overzealous performance at a karaoke bar. My mom can’t even convince me to attend a Zumba class with her.

Let’s just say at worst, I presumed I would twist an ankle. At best, I thought I might make a fool out of myself.


However, I discovered leaving your ego behind is kind of the point of Lindy in the Park, the longest-running venue of its kind in the Bay Area, best known for its lively tradition of outdoor swing dancing lessons, which kicked off again in June for the first time in more than a year. 

“The general attitude of the dance is very, ‘Whee, I’m having so much fun! I don’t care how stupid I look,’” explains LaurieAnn Lepoff, a 71-year-old dance instructor from Oakland who has been a regular at these events since they began in the bandshell nearly 25 years ago. “It’s an incredibly joyful way to connect with another person, and that’s what makes it so catchy. In many ways, it’s about the community more than it is about the dance itself.” 

The first event took place in 1995, with nothing more than a boom box, a few CDs and 13 of Watanabe’s friends, whom he had convinced to join him and fellow co-founder Chad Kubo at the park to learn a few moves amid the swing dancing revival of the decade. What started out as monthly meet-ups swiftly turned into weekly sessions as more people caught onto the craze, and the group began hosting free lessons to encourage more dancers to join in 2004. 

“It just exploded after that,” says Watanabe, who now counts Lucy Lawless, or Xena the Warrior Princess, among the many swing dancing students he’s had since then. “It’s kind of known in the swing scene that this is the place to go, if you want to dance in San Francisco.” 

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Prior to my arrival, I’m instructed to wear comfortable shoes — “No high heels,” Watanabe warns me ahead of today’s lesson, to my covert relief — so I slip on a pair of well-worn Chucks and make my way over to a foldout table adjacent to the dance floor. Because the event does not require proof of vaccination to attend, guests are encouraged to wear masks. You can, however, show your vaccination card and a photo ID in exchange for a lime green Lindy in the Park button that reads “I’m vaccinated!” I’m told wearing one will make others feel more comfortable dancing with me, so I fasten one to the collar of my denim jacket just as Watanabe and Holland make a few preliminary announcements.

The free dance lesson is about to begin — no experience or partner required.

In social dancing, there’s a leader and a follower, and we’re told to join one of two groups to learn the steps of our chosen role. I swallow my pride and make my way to the group of followers, which I assume will be more my speed.

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

The crowd has grown to nearly 100 people. We form a cluster of five or six rows, with Jen standing at the front to guide our steps. I choose a spot off to the side in the second row, where I hope I can observe her movements without anyone noticing my own. 

“We’re going to be doing some East Coast swing today,” she says with a wide smile. “Just some basic steps. Let’s keep it simple.” 

Her vocal cadence reminds me of a gregarious spin class instructor as she tells us to start moving by bouncing on the balls of our feet. When the thrum of the bass kicks in and the big band music plays over the speakers, she instructs us to sway from side to side, rhythmically shifting our weight.

My self-awareness kicks in. I feel as if I have the robotic stance of someone on the character select screen of a video game, but I manage to follow along. Surely, I can do this without screwing up. 

That’s when Holland announces it’s time for everyone to switch places, and gestures for my row to move to the front. I cautiously make my way up as she begins to demonstrate a basic six-count step. 

“Rock, rock, step, step, step,” she calls out in time with her movements. 

Her footwork is flawless, and when I try to follow, mouthing the same mantra to myself, I’m about half a beat behind. 

“Ow,” the man behind me says when I rock backward a little too enthusiastically, crushing his toe with my heel in the process. 

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Watanabe announces it’s time for us to try our first partner dance, so we form a single row over a white line etched into the pavement — leaders on the outside, followers standing in front of them. I had tried to rope my boyfriend into joining me for this exact moment — unexpectedly, he was all for it — but Watanabe insisted I’d fare better if I came on my own. 

“We find that people learn faster when they dance with a variety of partners (and it’s often better for their relationships!)” he told me in our first email correspondence.

We take turns moving from partner to partner, swiveling our feet. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m part of some type of silent speed dating ritual, and it lends a certain stiffness to my movements, almost like I’m learning how to ride a bike for the first time. However, with each person, I learn something new. 

First is James, a balding man in his 40s with unblinking blue eyes. I tell him it’s my first time here, and he tells me it’s his, too. “Well, first time this year,” he quickly clarifies. “Before that I’ve been coming here for the last decade!” He steps a bit more quickly than I’m comfortable with, but it encourages me to focus on the choreographed sequence. 

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Then I’m whisked over to my next companion, an older gentleman wearing a crisp gray button down shirt and thick glasses. As we follow the steps, he politely asks me to loosen my grip, and I oblige, unclenching my claw-like hold on his palms. I inform him I’ve never been here before by way of apology. “It’s a beginners’ class!” he warmly responds, twirling me with a flourish. “You’ll pick it up!”

It’s not like a dimly lit club or bar, where I might feel creeped out if a stranger appeared out of nowhere and suddenly started dancing at my side. Each individual asks for my permission before taking my hand, and by my fifth or sixth partner, I start to relax and settle into the familiar rhythm of the steps. “You’re a natural!” one of my partners tells me, a man in his 20s with a long ponytail. Somehow, it feels like the best compliment I’ve received all year.

Then, another step is added on — a move Watanabe and Holland call a “belly roll.” It is not a Shakira-inspired undulation as I initially predicted; rather, it’s a move in which the leader guides the follower into their arms before the follower spins around, lightly grazing the partner’s stomach. I dawdle, focusing on my feet, but my partner grins knowingly and I realize he’s doing the same thing. 

“The nice thing is that the rhythm will always be there to catch you,” he jokes before offering me a deep bow. I halfway expect him to reveal a single rose from his suit jacket before disappearing into thin air.

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Before I know it, our half hour lesson is up, though it feels like only five minutes have passed. I’ve even memorized a few steps, which is more than I can say I expected when I arrived earlier that day. 

I catch up with the instructors, who are now dancing together on their own to a Frank Sinatra song, wearing coordinated blue T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. As it comes to an end, a few people cheer and run over to them for a long embrace.

“We’re back, and it feels surreal, but it’s wonderful. It’s a huge reunion of people that we haven’t seen in over a year at least,” Holland says with the unwavering enthusiasm of a Disney cast member. “There really is no substitute, and we’ve been hurting inside during this past year, not being able to do what we love, and to not have it be safe or allowed. To do this now feels like a gift.”

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Lepoff, the longtime participant I spoke with earlier, expressed a similar sentiment.

“When I dance with someone now, I don’t want to let go. You just can’t stop hugging each other,” she says. “When I came back for the first time last week, it was like a miracle. I feel like my life is back again.” 

I disclose my initial apprehension of today’s lesson to Watanabe and Holland, but they seem unfazed. It’s just part of trying out a new experience, and they want first-timers to feel welcome. 

Though Lindy in the Park originally started out in the music concourse, it has a new longtime home on a stretch of JFK Drive adjacent to the de Young Museum. Watanabe likes the location: on Sunday afternoons, it’s teeming with curious passersby, who frequently stop and decide to give it a try. 

“I think it helps keep the community growing because of that, you know?” he says. “And you can’t just have experienced dancers. You need a constant influx of new people, otherwise, the scene will die. Here, they might see it for a while, they might take a lesson, then eventually, they get hooked.”

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

But there’s also no pressure for those who decide it’s not their thing, after all.

“You could just walk out halfway through and no one would notice,” adds Watanabe, laughing. 

However, many decide to return — for another week, or a few months, or even decades. While my first lesson may have been a little intimidating at the start, that unease quickly gave way to amusement. I often laughed in spite of myself once I realized I wasn’t the only one messing up. If you’re willing to put yourself out there, the experience can be sort of freeing. 

For Watanabe, the feeling is a bit more nostalgic. 

“It’s like being a kid again,” he says.  

Lindy in the Park takes place in Golden Gate Park every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with free swing dance lessons for beginners starting at noon. 

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to

We joined dancers in Golden Gate Park this past Sunday, June 27, 2021, to learn how to “Lindy Hop.” Beginner swing dance lessons are offered every Sunday at noon in Golden Gate Park. Oh! And they’re free!

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE