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Vintage Vamping at a (Literally) Underground Swing Festival

Culture

Scott Lynch | December 18, 2017
For 10 years, jazz and transit enthusiasts have come together to dance the day away aboard a beautiful antique subway train.

For five winter Sundays each year, the New York Transit Museum dusts off and oils up eight of its beautiful vintage R1-9 subway cars from the 1930s, running the Holiday Train up and down one of the MTA’s regular lines in Manhattan. The cars have been wonderfully preserved, complete with their original rattan seats, working ceiling fans, incandescent bulb lighting, drop-sash windows, vintage maps and roll signs, and bizarre old advertisements.

Unsurprisingly, this rolling historical wonder is extremely popular, and folks travel to either end of the five-mile, 13-station route to get good seats, though there are always plenty of unsuspecting New Yorkers who have just shown up to get from one place to another and are surprised and delighted when this strange, glorious train arrives to pick them up.

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About 10 years ago, a group of vintage fanciers decided to use the attraction as an excuse for a party, dressing up in period clothing and, later, adding music to the mix by bringing instruments into the cars. This, too, has become a beloved holiday-season tradition: a full-blown underground swing and jazz festival featuring more than a dozen bands performing in the train and on the platform, with swarms of like-minded nostalgists showing up to flaunt their finery and, especially, to dance.

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Amy Winn, who organized this year’s festival, explains: “The rogue Holiday Train party got real big a few years ago. We started it as a totally unofficial event; a lot of organizations were taking advantage of the Holiday Train by selling tickets as part of a tour or whatever, but we’ve never charged anyone for anything. Our party is volunteer-driven and volunteer-run, and the bands — who are all working and touring professionals —play for tips from the crowd, as they would by busking anywhere.”

When asked if they’ve ever run into any problems from officials for basically hijacking the Transit Museum’s day, Winn insists that the opposite has been true: The MTA loves the fact that all these “reenactors,” bands, and swing dancers come to liven up the joint. “The NYPD has been supportive, too,” she says, “because we are very respectful of the trains, of the artifacts, and of the employees. We take our marching orders from the train crew, and we just try to create a fun, free public happening. When everyone is dressed so beautifully and the music is so nice and everyone’s dancing, how can anyone resist?”


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Scott Lynch is a freelance photojournalist and food writer. More importantly, he has two amazing daughters and an inexhaustible love for New York City and its people.

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