Rooftop Rockstep

After a brief introductory lesson to the structure of basic swing steps, visitors to the skydeck of the hotel on 151 Main St. in Beacon, NY danced past sundown. The venue’s biggest draw, and biggest distraction while dancing, is the glory of a riverfront sunset. The intense fire-and-ice color contrast along the horizon reflects the yin-yang relationship between the leader, traditionally male, and the follower, traditionally female, in a swing partnership.

The experience is extremely social and uniquely vulnerable. The medium is a structured environment for interaction between members of the opposite sex, but allows for the spontaneity and improvisation required to spark an intimate connection with a complete stranger. Temptation to avert one’s gaze from their partner’s eyes towards the sky, their feet, or the river is strong, but must be resisted in order to synchronize movements and alleviate dizziness while spinning.

Sundays and Tuesdays on the roof of the Inn and Spa at Beacon are home to beginner swing dance lessons, accompanied by live music. $15 a person buys entrance to the rooftop, offering sights of the Hudson River and the brick-covered Main Street of Beacon, the Dutchess County version of  Williamsburgh. As long into the autumn as the weather allows, the dancing will persist. Panoramic views, in-depth instruction, and exposure to a myriad of peoples await.

Roger Greenwald, the corduroy-gilded architect of the emerald-elevated ballroom, ditches his worn-down work boots for sleek black sneakers appropriate for dancing 30 minutes before guests arrive. Tall musicians clad in black make their way through the posh lobby of the fourth floor, evading thin doileed tables and marble fireplaces. Greenwald follows them out onto the patio filled with lush vegetation, and up the stairs to the open dance floor, a platform adorned with ornate metal railings and cozy string lights. A few bottles of wine are set in front of the stage. The sun hangs low in the sky. He marches back down the stairs, shouting into the lobby “Alexa, play swing music.”

Swing dancing as a hobby and an outlet for social engagement has been an invaluable part of Greenwald’s life. When he migrated from Washington D.C. after an illustrious career as the founder of a design firm, the Hudson River Valley provided a golden opportunity to achieve the project of his architectural dreams: a rooftop garden terrace.

“In architecture school, the professors always told us to use every part of the pig but the squeal,” said Greenwald. “It always amazed me that every flat roof on Main isn’t bursting with vitality.”

The Inn and Spa at Beacon was conceived out of a “nearly unbuildable lot” left after a fire engulfed the local laundromat 50 years prior. After opening the hotel in the heart of a revived Beacon a year and a half ago, the architect felt driven to incorporate one of his passions. Roger’s Folly, a bi-weekly congregation of new lindy-hoppers, began June 3. Greenwald recruited the best instructors across the Mid-Hudson Valley to introduce novice dancers to the world of swing.

Emily Vanston is among them. Vanston maintained a career in corporate marketing for several years, while developing her skills as a dance teacher at night. Currently, she balances dance instruction and grant writing 50/50. She and Greenwald met on the dance floor, sparking a connection that led to their current collaboration.

“We are lost in a world of phones. No other activity generates the same opportunity to create with another person. There is an immediacy and a vulnerability to dancing in the arms of a stranger,” Vanston said.

Vanston advocates for participation in the swing dance community. In urban centers with access to music halls and musical talent like New York City, the lindy-hop is immensely popular with college students. Partner dancing serves as an outlet for creativity, collaboration, and an alternative to alcohol-fueled interactions. The construct is a safe opportunity for physical intimacy between strangers, and an act of courageous initiation.

It all begins with the rockstep. A step to either side, left to right for the leader, followed by a rapid one-two forward and back. Step, step, step-step, step, step, step-step, spin, rinse, and repeat. This simple usage of the rhythm provided by upright bassists and percussionists is “enough to make you dangerous,” according to Greenwald.

The social component of the activity fosters a tight-knit and diverse community spanning several generations. Regulars are abundant and newcomers are welcome. Couples come together, but aren’t bound to each other, for everyone dances with everyone. The men ask to dance, and the women accept. Within the structure of a formal gesture lies an infinity of improvisations and innovations produced by different combinations of personalities.

Nicole Gerber, a culinary student at Johnson and Wales University, described the experience the same way Greenwald says everyone does.

“Magical. Absolutely magical.”

Raphael BerettaComment