“Swing dancing. Centennial Park. Free. Big band. Lots of people. You in?” Those were the six texts I got in a row from my only friend in Nashville the first weekend I moved here. And they aptly described the experience I had on my first Saturday night in Music City.
For the months of June, July, and August, Centennial Park hosts the Big Band Dance, a modern dance hall style event complete with live music and dancing lessons. On Saturday nights from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., people of all ages and backgrounds come to the pavilion behind the Parthenon and get their grove on. Dance World Nashville teaches two ballroom dancing lessons at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m and the band plays musical counterparts to whatever has been taught. The tango, waltz, foxtrot and more have been covered, but expertise is definitely not required. The rest of the night, the band plays a mix of fast and slow songs, line dances and swing music.
Started in 1983, Big Band Dance began with the opening of Riverfront Park downtown. Though it has since moved to Centennial, the objective is the same – bring people together through music. Through the generous support of the Metro Parks Music Department, the TN Arts Commission, the Musicians Performance Trust Fund, Corner Music, Arts in the Parks, and Dance World, the special summertime event has seen tremendous success for the past 32 years. This local treasure would not be possible without the support of the generous sponsors, but also relies heavily on its loyal attendees. The families and couples and friends who come to Big Band Dance on summer Saturday nights reassure those making contributions to the event that is a worthwhile program.
We chatted with Mike Teaney, the Performing Arts Program Coordinator for Nashville Metro Parks. He told us that the “summertime staple” has grown considerably in the last 10 years, with 2015 having the highest and most consistent attendance yet. More than 1400 Nashvillians have shown up every weekend to dance, watch, and enjoy fantastic live music in the summer air. Teaney said that he sees the Big Band Dance as “keeping alive the culture of America,” instilling an appreciation for a classic genre and style of music in younger generations.
The beauty of the evening lies in its variety. The variety of the music, yes, but also in the people attending. Children run around the perimeter of the pavilion catching fireflies while their parents dance. Middle school age pre-teens dance with someone besides their mom or dad for the first time. Young couples take the floor and twirl to the music. Older community members relax in folding chairs or on blankets. Plenty of girls and guys show up just with friends and try their luck dancing with people they do and don’t know. It is truly good old fashioned fun for every age.
Pulling into the parking area, you can hear the trumpets blaring and other instruments warming up. The colored hanging lanterns and twinkling lights in the pavilion make you feel miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city surrounding the park. As the evening darkens and cools, let the 20 musician band carry you away to a simpler time. Twirling dresses, shuffling feet, pretzeling arms – it may all derive from a distant era, but it is still alive and well in Music City today.