Have you ever taken a walk on a gorgeous summer day?
Not just any day but one of those days where the weather is so nice that at some point you just have to take a minute to pause and acknowledge it.
You look up into the bright blue sky, close your eyes, take a deep breath and exhale as you feel the warmth of the sun on your face, then a split second later a breeze that is somehow both cool and warm at the same time tickles the hairs on your skin and you can't help but smile.
Well it was just that kind of summer day and I was walking through Central Park in New York City with my camera. The park was both full of energy and people which made it feel less like a place and more like a living breathing thing with a pulse all its own. People were doing what people always do on days like this in Central Park, which is a little of everything. Central Park is so huge that I often forget that I'm in the city at all, I lose track of time and seem to exist only as an aspect of the park. As I walk from area to area with my camera I become a part of each activity I witness, drawn in by the emotions and expressions of the people I photograph. On this day and almost every time I'm in the park during the summer I'm drawn to the area straight across from the Bandshell where music always fills the air. There's a vibe of acceptance and fun there that seems to float in the air. It's extremely comforting in a way that always makes me smile. As I wove my way through the various Dancers , Rollerbladers of all ages and Frolicking kids in the area I caught a glimpse of her sitting alone on a blanket on the grass. she was pretty far away but I knew it was her just because of her hair. There can't possibly be more than one person with hair that looks exactly like hers. On the surface it's the most striking thing about her. A wildly beautiful wooly mane of thick black hair that seems to take on a life all its's own when she moves. Once you combine that with her unique looks and style she becomes a virtual magnet to any person with a camera. I had taken photos of her before and had the pleasure of speaking to her briefly on another occasion. I had even sent her some of the photos I had taken of her once so I felt familiar enough to approach her just to say hello. I walked over to her spot on the grass and spoke to her, she was polite but to my surprise and slight embarrassment she really didn't seem to remember me. When I reminded her that I had sent her some photos a while back she seemed to remember, her eyes twinkled with the light of recognition and she smiled brightly as if she had just met an old friend. We spoke for a couple of minutes and then she got up and we walked toward the music. When we reached the end of the grass she turned to me, smiled, stretched her arms out wide and said in a quiet raspy voice tinged with a Latin accent "WELCOME TO MY HEAVEN" then she literally whirled around and went out to the asphalt area where the music was playing and started dancing.
The main area where people dance is formed around two speakers that face north and there was a crowd of about 20 or 30 people dancing there but for some reason she didn't go directly into the crowd, instead she decided to dance alone in the empty area behind the speakers. That was when I decided to photograph her, I was still standing on the edge of the grass where she had left me and I was close enough to get clear shots with my zoom lens but I decided I needed to get closer. So I went right over to where she was dancing, pointed my camera and started shooting and boy was I glad I did. Street photography is all about opportunity and a day like this with a subject this unique was like finding buried treasure.
I don't know much about formal dancing but as I photographed her I was amazed at how effortlessly she morphed from one dance style to the next with each style merging seamlessly with the rhythm of the music. Hip Hop, Salsa, Freestyle, African Dance you name it and she probably did it. For the most part she danced with her eyes closed and a smile on her face all the while seemingly oblivious to me and my camera and to the growing crowd of people snapping cell phone shots and videos as she danced. Her movements were smooth and graceful yet powerful and athletic, she seemed to be really calm but still emotionally connected to the ebb and flow of the music. She danced by herself for a solid 30 minutes without stopping and I photographed it all. Her joy was both obvious and contagious and as I took shot after shot I got pulled in by her intensity. So even though there were other people dancing out there and at least another 20 or so watching, it felt like we were the only 2 people in the park.
She was rolling now working on pure adrenaline and it seemed like she was almost in a trance, like someone going through an intense workout or having really great sex. At that moment I finally understood what she meant when she had earlier referred to this as her own private heaven. So much so that after about 30 minutes I kind of felt like I was intruding on something personal somehow, even though I knew she clearly didn't mind. So when she finally paused to take a sip from her water bottle I took the opportunity to walk over and say goodbye. She smiled at me, took a another gulp of water,waved goodbye and went right back to dancing.
As I walked away I couldn't resist turning around and taking one more shot which turned into ten more shots before I could pull myself away. What a cool experience it was. I'm not a professional photographer but it really seemed like a photo shoot and she was dancing just for me. I later sent her some of the photos I took that day and she commented that she was amazed that I had captured her the way I did. As if she couldn't believe that she was really looking at herself. I was a bit confused by that so I asked her point blank if she liked the photos or not and her exact words were " I think they are magical" which made me feel pretty good.
A few weeks later I was fortunate enough to meet her again, we sat and talked for a while and I was struck by a few things. This is the age of Social media where sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and cell phone cameras have kind of replaced the Mirror. Why look in a mirror and see your true reflection when you can take a thousand pouty faced "Selfies" and show them to the world. The social media age has caused a lot of people to seem vain and self important. So its very refreshing to come across someone who looks like she does with her wild hair and her unique style of dress who seems to be totally humble yet still very confident and self aware. She's not a professional model or a dancer and even though she clearly could be either one, she just happens to work in a field that gives help and service to others. She's far from ordinary but really doesn't seem to care whether she gets attention or not . She seems to be content with herself and her place in the world which I think is very cool. Her hair and her clothes scream look at me but her spirit seems to be saying I'll be the same whether you look or not.
During our conversation that day I asked her what she did for a living and what she said after she told me will tell you everything you need to know about her. she said and I quote :