San Francisco Chronicle

Party in the park in full swing

- Beth Spotswood’s column appears Thursdays in Datebook. Email: datebook@sfchronicl­

Located in glorious proximity to a gourmet hot dog stand, 200 swing dancers and dance hopefuls converge on a small stretch of Golden Gate Park every Sunday. Over the last 20 years, these dippers and twirlers have formed a welcoming community of Lindy in the Park regulars who’ve found their own holy grail — while the rest of us walk right past them, slightly confused.

“The park is the friendlies­t place to dance,” said John Starsnick, who started chatting with me unprompted. “It’s cool because it’s a nice mix.”

Starsnick was encouraged to take up dancing over a decade ago by his wife, Trish Richman. Since moving from San Francisco to Pacifica, the couple still make regular Sunday trips to Golden Gate Park just to dance. “It’s 50 percent dancing,” said Starsnick, explaining his devotion to Lindy in the Park, “and 50 percent being part of this community.”

I’d raced past the de Young Museum in the Father’s Day sun, making it to 10th and John F. Kennedy Drive just in time for Lindy in the Park’s free beginners’ lesson at noon. On the sidewalk off the main drag that’s closed to traffic anyway, hundreds of dancers in every shape, size, color and age bracket form two lines into a long oval.

Led by co-founder Ken Watanabe, who calls out instructio­ns with his Garth Brooks-esque ear-mounted microphone, dancers face a partner and learn a simple swing dance move. After a few quick practices of the steps, the dancers in the inner oval step down one spot and face new partners.

“You’ve got maybe 90 seconds of feeling awkward,” warned Richman.

Once the half-hour dance lesson was finished, the rookies in the crowd seemed more comfortabl­e partnering off with talented regulars. Most Sundays feature a handful of repeat DJs who play perfect swing songs from a laptop, although this past weekend hosted Jacob Miller and the Bridge City Crooners, a Portland, Ore., band that included a banjo.

By 12:45, the sun-soaked dance party was in full — forgive me — swing.

Both the diversity in the crowd and the general joyfulness of all involved were remarkable. “This community is amazing,” said Richman, taking a break on a concrete wall where many spectators drank in the scene. “It’s age-diverse, income diverse. It’s a happy place.”

Lindy in the Park is also very laid back when it comes to people asking each other to dance. Old folks asked younger ones, women asked men, and unlike my eighth-grade graduation night party, everyone responded with a cheerful yes when asked to the dance floor. “Here in the park,” said Richman as she motioned to the strollers and bicyclers on JFK Drive, “there’s a sort of liberty about it.”

Eventually my paranoid attention was drawn to a middle-aged man that I deemed slightly creepy as he repeatedly approached attractive younger women. There wasn’t anything specifical­ly wrong with Lecherous Dancer, other than the human heads undoubtedl­y stored in his freezer. But a bigsisterl­y instinct emerged within me as I watched him slither from young woman to young woman. He’d hold their hand too long and maintain eye contact too intensely. Lecherous Dancer did not contain the friendly, harmless, easygoing vibe of everyone else.

Richman confirmed my suspicions, but assured me that the community of dancers, and most especially the women, keep an eye on anyone who’s a bit off. “Hey, it’s an opportunit­y to touch a woman,” said Richman of the occasional weirdo. “But it’s rare.”

Watanabe started Lindy in the Park in August 1996, co-organizing a Lindy Hop dance party in the Band Shell that garnered 13 attendees. “The next Sunday had even less people,” Watanabe confessed. “We were just doing it for ourselves because we thought it was fun.”

Two decades later, people now come from all over the world to cut a concrete rug in Golden Gate Park. In fact, organizers gathered visitors and birthday celebrator­s for their own fiveminute “jam.” Dancers from San Diego and Stockholm happily twirled alongside anyone who claimed a birthday. Starsnick’s sense of community (and sense of humor) was right on.

“I was dancing with a woman and she was about 90,” Starsnick grinned, still tapping his toes to the band. “She had one of those old wooden legs that screw in. I spun her the wrong way and she got taller.”

By 2 p.m., Lindy in the Park wound down. Straw hats and sweaty limbs hit nearby patches of cool grass, while a cheery refrain of “See you next week!” drowned out the band’s final tune.

Unlike my eighthgrad­e graduation night party, everyone responded with a cheerful yes when asked to the dance floor.

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