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Up on the Rooftop, Swinging to the Beat

September 08, 1996|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a warm summer night on a rooftop in downtown's gritty loft district, an incongruously elegant ritual is about to begin. There's a long, candlelit table set for a formal dinner for 40. Oases of potted plants in each corner of the roof form an organic barrier separating this scene from the urban visual drama beyond.

To the west, under a crescent moon, there is downtown's imposing skyline. Farther north, a ring of lights outlines the upper perimeter of Dodger Stadium. Turn again, and guests see a camera mounted on a cherry picker and the harsh white glow of 20k lights as a film crew shoots a cops-and-robbers scene in front of the American Hotel.

Up here, meanwhile, gentlemen in jackets and ties and ladies in evening dresses drink champagne and dine on gourmet potluck fare--blackened chicken salad, pastas of all varieties, and plenty of chocolate cake and other desserts. As the blazing orange sunset fades, strains of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" waft into the air. The guests rise, find a partner and fan out over this wide tar-covered surface a hundred or so feet above street level to dance.

"When you're up on the roof, looking down over Los Angeles, it gives you the feeling that we're taking this city in the right direction," says artist Tod Lychkoff, who, for the past year and a half has been holding occasional swing dances above the loft where he lives and works. The events draw a crowd of actors, artists, a smattering of Europeans as well as more ordinary types from all over the city. "Downtown is a microcosm of greater Los Angeles where you have so many different types of people," he says. "We're trying to reflect that with everybody getting together and dancing."

The idea was born last year when Lychkoff ventured into the Derby in Los Feliz for one of its weekly swing nights. "I saw all the young people out there dancing to the old music," he says. "I really got a kick out of it and I've always wanted to do that."

One day, he mentioned this dream to a friend, Teresa Wellman, who offered to teach him how. Because it was so hot in the loft, he and Wellman decided to have the dancing lesson on the roof. "Some people from down below happened to see us," he recalls. "By the end of the evening, I'd say there were about eight or nine people up there dancing. So we thought, 'Well, let's try it again next weekend.' We called some more people and it turned into a party."

"I just wanted everyone to be able to swing dance so that we could have parties like this and get dressed up," says Wellman, decked out in a purple rayon dress with white beading. She makes the trek here from her home in Brentwood.

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Although she's an artist, not a dancer, Wellman says, "Getting a bunch of people together and teaching them how to dance was kind of a fantasy of mine." She used to swing dance with her father and grandmother, a professional dancer and wife of maverick film director William Wellman. Along with putting together a dozen flower bowls of fresh flowers from her garden, Wellman is responsible for the music. She's brought a stack of tapes, from vintage Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Count Basie to neo-swing artists Royal Crown Revue and Mighty Blue Kings.

Swing music, she explains, gave birth to a variety of dance styles, including the East Coast Lindy, West Coast Lindy, Lindy Hop and jitterbug. "The dances all change depending on the music," she explains. "As the music got faster, the younger kids created these really fast steps because the regular Lindy was a little bit slow." For the most part, though, Wellman pares the lessons down to a few basic steps, leaving the rest to improvisation.

"It's easy to pick up," says party regular Leslie Kazadi, who close-captions television during the week. "It's also very tactile, so if you kind of know the basic steps and somebody pushes you, you can follow along. It's sort of like skiing. If you have rhythm, you can flow with it."

"It's just a beautiful way to end the week," says Kazadi's partner of the moment, actor Harold Loren, who has been coming here since these events started. He believes that "swing music frees you up. See, the tango is a very sexual dance. Salsa, merengue, they're very proud dances. But swing, essentially, is like a silly, happy dance. There's nothing sexy about swing. It's frivolous."

Adding an even more comic touch is the fact that the coarse, sandpaper-like quality of the rooftop causes the dancers to make a rhythmic skritcha skritcha sound as they shuffle along to such numbers as Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll."

Not all of Lychkoff's dances are this formal. Usually, they're just a casual barbecue and swing music. Soon after he began doing those, word spread and his Sunday night soirees were drawing more than 100 to do the Lindy under the stars. In fact, the parties were getting so big that the reason for the get-togethers was getting lost in all the rooftop revelry.

"The parties started getting too big last year," Litchkopf says. "They started losing the flavor of getting together to dance. It started getting more like let's get together and look for girls." The weather had also begun to turn cold, so Lychkoff took a hiatus before reviving the parties early this summer. For this particular affair, Litchkopf decided to make it invitation-only and formal dress, thus restricting the evening to the faithful and the motivated.

"I think it's a good idea because when do you get to dress up in L.A. anymore?" says TV writer Betsy Powell, who's dressed in a tea-length evening dress, with black flowing skirt and pink feather boa. "Everybody these days is into jeans. And here we get to wear beautiful ball gowns and twirl in the moonlight. I mean, what's better than that?"

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