Minnesota Fringe Festival—Dance With the Divas

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“Dance With The Divas!” is at The Lab Theatre. There are still three shows: tonight (Weds) at 7:00, plus slots on Saturday and Sunday. I saw it a couple of days ago.

Within the first 30 seconds I knew that this was a group of earnest and well-meaning amateurs who got onto The Fringe through chutzpah and the lottery. There are about 17 dancers and four or five musicians. The skill and experience levels range from people who have done some dancing and taken some classes along the way to some fellow-participants. The age range is mostly about 45 to 65.

They’re terrific.

I talked with choreographer/founder/leader Diane Horner after the show and learned that they meet regularly and dance, simply because they think that dance is a good thing. They don’t have formal “class,” and until they launched this Fringe show they don’t “rehearse.” This is, in fact, their first performing venture ever. There are a number of other people involved in their regular activities, but not everyone is in the show.

They deliver with energy and commitment. I wish I could say as much for hundreds of “serious” dance groups I’ve seen over the years. They also take on a variety of tones and styles with absolute abandon. The “Divas” of their title are female singers known for their pizzazz, such as Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Cher and Tina Turner, among others. The performers sit in a long row of folding chairs across the upstage and stage left edges, each with a big brown paper bag containing accessories. Between dances there are brief interviews, live music selections, and commentary by an MC.

With very few exceptions the choreography presents 16 or 17 people in a general mass doing unison movement according to their various skill levels. Short phrases are repeated several times with small variations such as two to the right then two to the left. I know this sounds dull and amateur but there are several reasons why it’s much more refreshing than that.

First, the dances are not alike. These folks have ventured into taking on many distinguishable styles, and they clearly have a blast doing it. Second, they also accessorize each dance over their basic black costumes, sometimes with sheer tongue-in cheek audacity. Third, did I mention infectious energy? Fourth, they have an honest sense of humor. Pink’s “Get The Party Started” features urban moves and neon pink wigs. MIA’s “Amazon” draws on basic Afro-Modern moves and features a panoply of makeshift sarongs. Loretta Lynn’s “Have Mercy” evolves into a kickline.Cher’s “Strong Enough” is straight out of 70’s disco, even including the classic Travolta point up point down gesture. I forget which piece featured the shades and which featured the elbow length white gloves.

These good folks have a contagious damn good time and they far transcend whatever technical limitations some may have brought with them.

I should also mention that they are dedicating whatever net proceeds they get to Domestic Abuse Project, a credible and important non-profit serving important needs.

All of which leads me to some philosophical thinking, so read on if you dare.

We live in a nation where dance mostly falls into three large and loose categories. One is social and personal dance, what you do at the Salsa or Country Western club. A second is avocational and student dance, “recitals” attended by friends and family where granddaughter imitates a sparrow or grandma does step touch step touch with a top hat and cane. Or, on a more athletic and technical level, your teenage daughter at a “competition school” does hot jazz licks and tap crap with an expensive costume and a huge toothy smile. Lots of people love this because it’s flashy, it’s entertaining, it’s your kid, and best of all it’s competitive with a winner-loser score. The score. An identified winner. The ultimate test of value in America.

The third category, of course, is professional dance. And if you’re not world-class, well then what’s wrong with you? We as a nation mostly don’t like professional dance. Alas.

What fascinates me about “Dance With The Divas” is that they don’t fit into those categories. They’re not stumbling cute kids, and they’re not dazzling professionals. They’re not judge-pleasing teen jumpers and spinners, and they are most certainly not tired old folks just getting a little exercise. They’re not doing the shuffling fox-trot they might do with their spouses at a dinner with dance floor, and they’re not following fad line dances, street dances, or suchlike.

Yes, they are avocational, but they will lift your heart. Most of them have more energy and focus than a lot of young pre-professionals that I encounter.

They embody something that America, with its three rough categories of dance, lacks and needs. They embody the notion that dance, real dance with flavor and variety and energy, can be something for everyone. The notion that dance can be a community activity. Not just for kids and not just for socializing and not limited to world class professionals. The notion that dance has a legitimate place in the lives of regular people. I love them for embodying and demonstrating that truth.

We, as a nation, need that desperately. Many other nations and cultures have it. There are even some cultures where the indigenous language does not contain the phrase “professional dancer” because the idea is absurd and does not exist because EVERYbody dances. We in America, and to a fair degree in Europe, are not like that. We are more like the Taliban, which rigidly prohibits dance as do a number of Euro-American fundamentalist Christian sects. Such good company we keep.

Dance is surely one of the first human activities of social and personal expression. One can argue with no resolution whether singing and drumming came before dance in the dawn of pre-history, or vice-versa. Who cares? It’s one of the earliest and most human of activities. Only a bunch of priests, tyrants, imams and disciplinarians could deny and prohibit this fundamental identifier of humanity at its peaceful and communal best.