Every weekend from May to October, and sometimes beyond if weather permits, a group of devoted skaters and dancers gather in Central Park. They dance and skate on a bumpy concrete makeshift circle in a little valley just east of Sheep Meadow and west of the Mall, the Naumburg Bandshell and the Literary Walk. A DJ, usually their mainstay DJ Nick at Nite, or another visiting DJ plays the disco, house, funk and freestyle tunes that this eclectic group desires.
They are the Central Park Dance Skaters Association (CPDSA) and they are usually never alone. Every weekend, a crowd of enthused tourists and locals cheer them on from behind blue NYPD barricades, basking in their joy and enthusiasm for dancing, skating and good old school music. Some locals know about this infamous group and come by frequently to watch them, others are fortunate to wander into this little valley. Either way, this infamous group has a joy and enthusiasm that does not seem to melt even in the rain or when it gets a little colder than usual for a Spring or Autumn day.
I have been privy to join in this group from time to time. My father has been a longstanding member of this private bohemian club. Ever since I was about nine years old, I would come down to this makeshift circle and join in the fun. Back then, I would bring my roller skates and join in. These days, I may dance in the middle of the circle or watch from the sidelines.
From what I have gleaned from my father and his friends, the group began informally sometime in the 1970s. New York City was very different then. Some would describe it as being more friendly to a bohemian lifestyle, others would say that it was a very dangerous place. Central Park, a haven in the middle of the city, has always welcomed its natives and tourists from all walks of life, and it was no different then. Sometimes, these differences in lifestyles would often result in clashes between groups. Sometimes like-minded individuals would get together to dance, party, listen to music and roller skate. The group that would formally become the Central Park Dance Skaters was a collection of these like-minded individuals. They has retained many of its older members and has embraced new members over the years.
The need for the Central Park Dance Skaters has increased over the years as many of their roller rinks and old disco clubs have closed or were shut down long ago. For roller skaters and dancers who miss their old havens, the skating circle in Central Park has become their refuge. It is also a community for its members, old and new, with members who have raised their families in the city and in Central Park. My father, who has long since given up his roller skates due to arthritis, but has always remained a member of the club, would bring my sisters and I to the park to see his friends, to roller skate and to enjoy the music.
My father taught me how to skate but, I learned more advanced moves with the Central Park Dance Skaters. Later on, I would take these moves with me when I would venture to the Skate Key in the Bronx with my friends who were all pre-teens. At some point, I became a moody teenager and hung up my skates. It was only during college that I came back to visit the skaters and was reminded of this wonderful community that exists in the middle of Central Park.
What I like most about them is their sense of community and family. They celebrate each other's birthdays, are supportive of one another, have fun together, and life-long friendships have emerged from their circle. I am also amazed at how young and vibrant they are. Age is truly a number in the minds of its members and is visualized when you see them do splits, high kicks, jumps, and intricate skating moves. It's truly inspirational.
Further, they have this wonderful bohemian vibe that recalls an earlier time in New York City. They are true free spirits, living life and sharing a side of themselves to the world that most people would keep hidden. Some would call them eccentric, hippies or bohemians, but I prefer not to use any labels. Personally, I love when people are not afraid to be themselves.
So much of the city has changed in the recent decade, but the Central Park Dance Skaters seemed to have held on to this little piece of time. And every time I visit them, I get a little glimpse of that history and the vibe of an older New York.
The Central Park Dance Skaters close out each year on the Halloween weekend. For that one weekend, all the skaters and dancers come dressed up in a costume. (Some do that during the whole season and wear a special costume for Halloween.) As night falls, a group of dancers and skaters make their way down to the Village and join in the Halloween parade, dancing alongside their own float with a DJ. Last year, I got to join them and rode on the float. Talk about an experience!! It's truly the only kind of thing you can do in New York and what's more amazing is it was my first time at the parade and I got to be a part of it and not just a spectator. (Pictures of the Halloween Day Parade float can be found on my Tumblr.)
They aren't a historical landmark, but I truly believe that the Central Park Dance Skaters is one of our local treasures. They have retained a vibe, a time in history, and a dance culture that is often replicated in the movies and in music videos, but could never be duplicated. To see for yourself, take a stroll through Central Park and wander back into another time and you'll see exactly what I mean. For more of my pictures, go here.