'Hands to the Sky' Puts the Outdoor Dance Party Tradition in the Spotlight

Hands to the Sky

How to describe New York City’s scintillating summertime outdoor house music scene? Start by explaining the soulful music itself. “It’s like sacred and profane at the same time,” says dancer Brian Polite in Hands to the Sky, an exceptional, independently produced new documentary examining over a decade of public park parties in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “But in a manner where neither one completely impinges upon the other, and both are allowed to exist in a strange kind of harmony.” Co-directors Angelo Boyke and Jean-Paul Noel bring that harmony into focus through interviews with DJs, promoters and longtime clubhead veterans, making plain the link between the legendary Paradise Garage club and modern-day events like the Sundae Sermon dance series of Harlem’s Morningside Park.

The communal Paradise Garage and its renowned DJ Larry Levan made an incalculable influence on countless dancers who trudged down to Manhattan’s 84 King Street from 1976-1987. Hands to the Sky producer Domingo Canate remembers firsthand the Garage’s unmatchable sound system, its blazing torches of flame and tight-knit LGBT nightlife culture. The Garage’s spirit infused and inspired the creation of the documentary. In the film, house singer and club vet Carolyn Harding recalls the dawning of AIDS and the Garage welcoming the Black community’s infected, who were shunned even by many Black churches at the time (not to mention their own families).

Acceptance is one of the themes throughout Hands to the Sky. Freedom is another. Largely unpretentious when compared to other nightclub scenes, outdoor park jams like Sundae Sermon and the annual Soul Summit rave-ups in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park center on a more ancestral, tribal sentiment. “Music heals people,” mentions Redness Hayes, founding promoter of In2Deep NYC. “Music brings light, and people need to know that.” House fans in particular seem drawn to the spiritual elements in the lyrics and rhythms of dance music, a point Hands to the Sky returns to over and over.

As NYC clubheads from the days of Paradise Garage and The Loft began slipping into middle age, their children started to figure into the mix, and outdoor dance celebrations started to spring up around the city. In the 1990s, Prospect Park, Morningside Park, Fort Greene Park and the Coney Island boardwalk hosted DJs Stormin’ Norman, Duce Martinez and others in the beginning of a brand-new phase of house dancing. Now the next generation of house lovers is getting a direct education in dance culture from their parents, lending even more of an African tribal flavor to the entire scene.

Hands to the Sky will be screened in Boston this Sunday, July 15, at Machine. As the production team seeks major distribution for the film, various screenings are sprouting around the country. (Check the official MyHouseRocs.com website for details.)