Castro & Market “Pop-Up” Lindyhop + Streetcar Ride

Yesterday, my family and I — along with roughly two score Lindyhoppers, Balboans and Jitterbugs — danced al fresco to the dulcet sounds of Gaucho in Jane Warner Plaza at Castro & Market for an hour before boarding a vintage F Market streetcar, band in tow, to take the swingin’ party to the Orbit Room.

Sam Simmons executes an aerial with wild, reckless abandon. (Photo credit: Cathy Kohatsu)
Lindyhoppers at Castro & Market, including an airborne Mr. Simmons. (Photo credit: Cathy Kohatsu)

All around us, the Castro throbbed with some people in full skin suits (think Blue Man Group, but in several different colors) while others galavanted around wearing massive balloon animal anemones on their backs. A few wore nothing but Easy Spirits and floppy hats. A man sat hunched over a bicycle hooked to a differential gear gizmo that turned a sign showing distances to various countries in Africa, advertising that the cyclist was raising money for HIV/AIDS research. Others engaged in a vocal campaign to elect Emma Peel as Empress of the Imperial Council of San Francisco.

Suffice it to say: It was a normal Saturday in the Castro. Except for the swing dance!

So, about this swing dance: Why does this small gathering on a random Saturday deserve a blog post? Because it gives me confidence that Swing 2.0 — unlike the original craze that accompanied big band music of the 40s — won’t be needing a revival of its own, at least not any time soon. Swing is far from dead; in fact, it’s strong and growing stronger as we enter the third decade of swing’s second go-round.

For some background: My wife Allison and I met in San Francisco near the beginning of the great swing revival of the mid-1990s. As Lindy in the Park — one of the many venues we frequented — gets ready to celebrate its 20 year anniversary, we’ve come to realize that dancers of our vintage represent the old guard of new swing.

Chris Bucchere outside Twin Peaks Tavern with his two favorite dance partners. (Photo credit: Cathy Kohatsu)
Chris Bucchere outside Twin Peaks Tavern with his two favorite dance partners. (Photo credit: Cathy Kohatsu)

As we learned from the recent disappearance of one of our most lively venues, it’s incumbent upon us, whether we bring two decades of lindyhop experience with us or not, to take care of the places that offer swing dancing and the bands that make it all possible. (Note: I saw a lot of people tipping Gaucho and noticed many fives, tens and at least one 20 in the kitty yesterday.)

In addition to supporting our local bands and venues, we stewards of swing also need to find new places to dance, especially in front of people who aren’t already lindyhoppers. One woman asked my wife, “Is this whole thing just an accident?” Hardly! It was the result of the efforts of two dancers (Kristin Wojkowski and Idalia Ramos) with the backing of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District’s Live in the Castro series.

While talking with Sam Simmons and Terra Williams, who, along with Monica Lenk, recently opened a fabulous vintage store in Oakland called OverAttired, I noticed Ken Watanabe lindyhopping with Decobelle Katrina Haus Morales, who, according to Facebook, was negative two years old when Ken started swing dancing.

I also danced a few songs with my daughter (including this extended drum break captured on video). She was negative eight years old when Allison and I started swing dancing. Literally a biproduct of lindyhop, she won her first — and only — dance competition in October of last year.

If JFK famously said that children are the best hope for the future, then I have plenty of hope for the future of lindyhop.

Dancers vs. Restaurants

Le Colonial Cancels Live Musiclec

Breaking up is hard to do.

It’s especially hard when so many delightful years of swing outs, lindy circles and sugar pushes suddenly come to a screeching halt like they did last night, when Le Colonial ended its ten-year, four-night-a-week run of free live lindyhop, balboa and swing music.

Evoking colonial Vietnam, this restaurant, bar and dance club featured a slick dance floor where patrons could swing the night away to dance-friendly bands with 15 and 20 year careers behind them (Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers and Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums Featuring Miss Carmin Getit) as well as newer acts (The Cosmo Alleycats and Le Jazz Hot). See ing as how this was the only such venue to boast a lineup this swingin’ in San Francisco, the bittersweet cancelation of live music at Le Colonial is a real loss to dancers, musicians and, perhaps, even the restaurant itself.

desktop1My wife — whom I met 16 years ago this Saturday (you guessed it) lindyhopping — and I have been going steadily to this lovely venue 2–3 times a month since 2011, usually on Wednesday nights. There we’ve cultivated scores of friendships with dancers from age 9 (our daughter, who often accompanied us) to age 85 (Bernie Schindler, an amazing human being who deserves his own blog post, if not a whole book). We’ve celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, engagements; we’ve loved and we’ve lost; and we’ve mourned those who’ve traded in their wingtips for wings.

In light of this news, there’s been significant chatter in the local dance community — both online and off — about why it happened. While it’s easy to point fingers at the management, it’s important for us to consider that there’s more than one side to this (and any) story.

To properly frame this discussion, first I need to offend every lindyhopper on the planet by stereotyping all of us into two broadly generalized groups:

1. People who dance for sport, wear snap pants and headbands, carry towels and water bottles and generally view dance as (fun) exercise

2. People who dance for the scene, wear vintage clothes, drink alcohol and generally view dance as fun per se, but also as a means of socializing

Of course, it’s a spectrum, not a binary system. In fact, I put myself squarely in both groups. There’s a time and a place for both, for me. Everyone’s different.

Back to Le Colonial. They had the beautiful problem of attracting both kinds of dancers (and everything in between). Just as it would be strange if I showed up at Lindy in the Park on Sunday morning in a three piece zoot suit, vintage tie and spectators, it would be just as weird to bring my gym bag, wear shorts, change shoes tableside and eat my own food and drink out of my own water bottle at Le Colonial.

FullSizeRenderWhen all is said and done, both groups of dancers bear some responsibility for Le Colonial’s decision because we didn’t spend enough money on food or drink to justify the ruckus we made (often generating complaints from dinner guests and unwelcome visits from management). Far too many of us dressed like schlubs, carried in way too much luggage and were rude to the staff. Add to that the constant game of musical chairs that happens between songs, which drives the servers — who routinely also get kicked, body checked and stomped on — straight up the wall.

Despite all these problems, live music could one day return to Le Colonial. For it to work, however, the restaurant needs to stop trying to be a restaurant and a lounge and a bar and a dance hall all at the same time. They would need to block off the main staircase leading up to the lounge and turn the whole thing into a proper music venue. Then, they would need to convert the Sutter entrance into box office and — gasp! — sell tickets. Remember, the musicians we love — and who love us back — need to pay the rent, buy food and keep the lights on. With a  $10 or $20 cover, there wouldn’t be so much of a need for dancers to buy food and drink. For Le Colonial and the band, food and drink purchases would be gravy, with the meat and potatoes coming from the cover charge.

Bottom line: we dancers — in either camp — out of respect for the venues and the musicians, need to follow the “When in Rome” principle, saving the shorts and All-Stars for the 9:20 Special and trying to look our best when dancing at classier places like Le Colonial. More importantly, we need to be wiling to put our money where our collective mouths and happy feet are.

Because you get what you pay for. Conversely, you don’t get what you don’t pay for.

We didn’t pay for the world class music we enjoyed for years.

And now it’s gone.