Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Last Saturday Julie and I went down to Providence, Rhode Island to check out Waterfire. As a side benefit, there was a swing dance in the plaza. It took us about an hour to drive there and, as we were a little early, getting there near to 5:30 p.m., we got an excellent street parking spot.

Providence is an old New England city, the home of both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. As did most old cities, it fell into disrepair in the 1970's and continued on unabated into the 80's. In the early 1990's came the urban renaissance and Providence started cleaning up it's image. One of the things they did was to start First Mondays, an effort to lure people into the downtown area after dark for at least one evening.

As part of the First Monday's effort, in 1995, an artist came up with the idea of building a small bonfire on the river, which looks like a canal, that cuts through the downtown. Almost immediately it became an attraction of its own. The next year he built several more fires on the river and, a few years later, the project took on a life of its own.

Now, there are over 40 fires that stretch along the river in downtown Providence. We were there for the now weekly, at least in the summer, Saturday night lighting. In addition, there were activities such as a jazz band on one of the river crosswalks and, in the plaza, a live band playing swing music. There were food, beer and wine vendors, and street theater. By 9 p.m., I'll bet there were more than a few thousand people of all ages milling around.

After eating Indian food and wandering around the city for an hour or so, we stood on one of the temporarily blocked off roadways that crossed over the river to see the lighting of the fires. While we waited we watched gondolas passing underneath, oarsmen in black and white striped shirts ferrying tourists along that conjured up, for me, images of when I was in Venice, Italy.

The sun began to set, the shadows grew long and lights set up at the bases of the downtown buildings came on, casting colors up their sides that illuminated and bathed the buildings in reds, yellows and greens. As the twilight led into evening, the downtown area became a panapoly of color playing amongst shadows. The sounds of people talking and laughing mixed with the sounds of live music and, in counterpoint, the dissonance of the noise of traffic.

The fires were set up in a long line down the center of the river. They each looked like the bottoms of a large, circular, weber grill on a post. In the grill part were stacked chunks of wood, about a quarter of a cord of which were in each grill bottom. The fires reminded me of an evening's campfire, not too small but not a huge bonfire, either.

In an almost too long moment, stretched out for dramatic effect which, after a while, became anti -climatic (Just light the damn things, okay? We've been here for over an hour already and it's starting to get old.), black longboats came along with people also dressed in black, one person in each longboat carrying a long torch and lighting the bundles of wood. Once lit, the long procession of fires blazed into the night. It was very cool. And romantic.

There's something primal about fire. It conjures up life, warmth, light. It reaches, stretches, both dangerous and protective at the same time, into the night.

We stood there and watched the flames lick and dance. As entwined as two people can be in public, we pressed against each other and watched its orange and yellow reflection against the opaqueness of the water. The flames put us, and all the others around us, into a trance-like state as the fire's light shone us all off each other as we, this large crowd, stared at the fires.

After a while, we walked over to the plaza where a zillion people were dancing on the makeshift outdoor dance floor. We melded with the other dancers on the dance floor and gyrated in syncopated rythmns. It all became erotic in the humid, multi-colored, evening air.

As it was so crowded, we dancers, dressed in summer's undress, had to dance closely, even though swing, a partner dance, is not a close together dance. Our bodies touching, bumping against each other, merging, pulling apart, coming back together, sweating, breathing heavily in time with the beat of the live music that was urging us on, allowing us to express ourselves physically.

After dancing to several numbers, we gave up being on the over-crowded dance floor and wandered through the rest of the evening, meandering with the crowds taking in the play of light and dark, the festival colors against the black of night, the sounds and noises of people having fun. It was as good a street festival as I've ever been in.

We're thinking of going back again.


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