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San Francisco’s roller disco godfather furious with giant ‘No Dancing’ sign

A person with a top hat and red sweater stands with a "No Dancing" sign in the back.
David Miles Jr., San Francisco's godfather of roller skating, isn't happy with the installation of a giant sign reading "NO DANCING" just across JFK Drive from the roller disco at Skatin' Place. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

When a giant sign reading “NO DANCING” was unveiled in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park just before Halloween, it was accompanied by a Burning Man-style dance party with hundreds of revelers in costume.

The choice of the site, right along JFK Drive’s “Golden Mile,” a public art-lined section of the park that’s closed off to cars, was deliberate. And while the 12-foot-tall red capital letters would seem to prohibit booty-shaking, the sign’s message is a little more complicated than that. 

Cody Smith of Looking Up Arts originally installed the sign—technically titled “Over Ruled”—on the playa at Burning Man this year and brought it to Golden Gate Park in partnership with San Francisco public art nonprofit Illuminate. For him, the artwork is about joy. It’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, an attraction for people who like to flout the rules a little. 

Further, each individual letter has another, more serious snippet of text written across it. 

“There’s the story of someone’s life who’s been affected by rules of oppression: banished, expelled, incarcerated, outcast,” Smith told The Standard in October.

People walk pas a huge red sign that says "No Dancing" in Golden Gate Park.
Pedestrians pass by the sign, technically titled "Over Ruled," in Golden Gate Park on Tuesday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

However, not everyone’s on board with having to look at a 115-foot-long scarlet-red work of art that, superficially at least, puts the kibosh on any choreographed moves for the remainder of its yearlong tenure. Specifically, some of San Francisco’s feisty and long-standing community of roller skaters, who have been hanging out and throwing free roller discos at the park’s Skatin’ Place every Sunday for decades, are miffed. 

The sign is directly across JFK Drive from the rink—practically on top of the skaters.

For decades, David Miles Jr. has been the city’s patron saint of roller skating, both outdoors at Skatin’ Place and indoors at Fillmore Street’s Church of 8 Wheels, whose website lists the contact email as sk8godfather@earthlink.net. For weeks, people have been blowing up his phone and inbox, asking who put that sign there, and why. He feels he wasn’t given a proper heads-up.

“Why am I walking up here one day, a fantastic day, going, ‘What’s that?’ Right across the street from the happiest place in Golden Gate Park?” Miles told The Standard. “Just stand up there on a Sunday. Ain’t nobody looking at the message of that sign. They’re all coming up to me: ‘Hey D! Hey D! What’s this sign?’”

People roller skate with a big red sign that reads "No Dancing"
Roller skaters danced and exercised at Skatin’ Place in Golden Gate Park on Tuesday, with the sign displayed prominently just opposite the rink. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Miles is a veteran burner who saw the sign at Black Rock City, where he all but ignored it.

“I just thought, ‘Well, I ain’t gotta go over there. What would I go there for?” he said.

Although he called it “the biggest, hugest negative message,” and one that he now has to look at every Sunday for a year, Miles insisted he doesn’t want the whole thing taken down. He said he respects the intention behind it and how it can be read as honoring his work. Still, he’d be on board with removing the “NO.”

More to the point, very little happens in San Francisco without first going through a multistep process, and he expressed disbelief that he wasn’t part of the discussion.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department said that the sign “was unanimously approved by the San Francisco Arts Commission at its public meeting Aug. 16. There were no complaints prior to its approval and only a handful since its installation.”

A person with a top hat and red sweater sits on a green bench with a "No Dancing" sign in the back.
"Ain’t nobody looking at the message of that sign," Miles said. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

On a recent Monday afternoon with temperatures brushing 60 degrees, Skatin’ Place had a dozen or so people twirling and executing tricks as they moved counterclockwise around the rink. Skater and San Francisco resident Susie Loua said she found the sign to be inconsiderate.

“I don’t get the point of it,” she said. “It’s also very ironic, with the whole point of it being that it’s trying to uplift communities that are marginalized and, in the process, putting up something that’s kind of an objection, and, to be honest, not very pleasing to look at.” 

Cody Smith acknowledged the hurt feelings, adding that even “well-intended words could throw a real curve ball” into things. He declined further comment.

Plenty of people passing by the sign love it, of course.

Illuminate’s Ben Davis, who recently installed massive rainbow lasers over San Francisco’s Market Street for four nights during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, said that he, too, is sensitive to people’s concerns.

“This was the one stakeholder group I was trying to honor the most, and I offended the most,” Davis told The Standard. “I so love what they mean for Golden Gate Park, and I so admire the lifelong quest of David Miles to make San Francisco a more fun, inclusive and celebratory place.”

All the same, Davis hopes “Over Ruled” stays up for another 11 months.

“We’re not here to fight. We’re here to make joy,” he said of Illuminate’s work. “We take cultural and creative risks. We don’t always get it right. We’re human. If you ask for unanimous consent, you won’t have anything.”

Astrid Kane can be reached at astrid@sfstandard.com