Category Archives: Essays

Not (just) your grandma’s dance – 11/28/08

I’m a little nervous as I step out of my car. “What if I’m no good at it? What if I make a complete fool out of myself?” It’s dark – about 8:30 p.m. – so Molly can’t see my distressed expression.

I don’t even know why I’m here; I must be one of those foolish dancers who will do anything to impress their new choreographer. “I’ve never enjoyed things like this before. Why would I now?” I think to myself. With my friend by my side we walk through the doors of the Minneapolis Eagle’s Club. I’m about to have the time of my life being swung and tosses around by complete strangers.

There are maybe 50 people at the Eagle’s Club tonight, and they range from 5 to 70 years in age. Even though my professor Karla Grotting told me that this age range is common, I didn’t believe her. Square dancing is, of course, for old people, right? But here they are: your young bohemians clad in long vintage skirts and bandanas, your middle-aged hippies with their arms covered in tattoos and, not surprisingly, your old fogies with their beards that nearly touch the floor. There is one character, an older gentleman about 70 years old, dressed in a cowboy hat, checkered shirt, denim overalls and white socks. His socks could be seen through his brown sandals. I overhear someone say, “How awesome is the guy in the overalls!?!” which leads me to believe that it is not the norm to dress-up for these events.

Molly and I climb over chairs and set our coats on a brown fold-up table on the edge of the dance floor. The lights are soft and low. The air is warm and stuffy and there is a smell that we can’t quite put our finger on. The stale air? Beer? Body odor? Or perhaps it is a combination of all three? “There’s also slight confusion,” Molly adds. We look out onto the dance floor. “Ok, maybe heavy confusion.” We both laugh.

There is a live band playing “old-time music.” It is tawngy and lively in feel with some well placed staccato notes. It also has a simple beat which, in my opinion, helps the dancers keep the rhythm and tempo of the steps. I see a guitar, upright bass, banjo and fiddle. There is also a caller with a microphone. The caller is the person who guides the dance from beginning to end. He or she shouts a call such as, “swing your partner” and the couples do what they hear. “When all else fails, swing your partner,” tonight’s caller, Corey Mohen, says.

The band members and caller are on a slightly raised stage – the kind you would see at an elementary school or community center. A string of lights line the top of the stage area as a single bright light shines on the yellow and red backdrop. It gives the feeling that you are at a backyard cookout except the guests are wearing their winter boots.

While there are many people in the floor we immediately find our party: a motely crew complied of my jazz and tap professor Karla, local choreographer and Flying Foot Forum artistic director, Joe Chvala, and Max Pollack, the choreographer from New York. Their square, however, is full with unknown participants.

A voice calls, “Molly!” We walk over to the source and are greeted by a middle-aged woman of average stature who is wearing a button-down shirt, long pants and glasses. She hugs Molly and then introduces herself to me. “I’m Shawn. Nice to meet you!” Molly knows Shawn through another dance instructor. She tells me that Shawn always comes to the First Monday Night Dance and either dances, calls or plays. Tonight she is dancing and calling.

Minneapolis’ square dancing scene—similar to other American cities—started in the 1970s as local interest in old-time and Appalachian music began to emerge. It was a time when many people came together to play music, hang out and be hippies, local caller and musician Shawn Glidden explained to me over the phone one mid-November afternoon.

Most of these twenty-something hippies typically lived on the West Bank off Harriet Island and it was this group who started the first Monday night dance. They called themselves the “Monday Night Dance Collective.”

The Monday Night Dance Collective was held every Monday night for about 28 years, until the attendance started to shrink about five years ago. “Everybody had grown up and they all had kids. The people who started the collective and were coming to dance in their twenties, 20 years later don’t have time, you know?” Shawn said. She seemed to not have a better reason for the drop in attendance other than the fact that people simply did not have the time anymore. What a shame.

Attendance continued to dwindle and the Monday Night Dance stopped for a year. About two years ago, with a friend’s help, Shawn started the dance up again – monthly – and moved it to the Eagle’s Club. Now with about 100 people attending – ranging from the kids of the people who first started the dance scene, to train hoppers who play music and dance when they come to town, to students from the University of Minnesota – the First Monday Night Dance is alive and kicking again.

I am smiling as the first dance ends. I can’t help it. The people at the Eagle’s Club are warm, welcoming and fun. And the dance! It’s a blast. All of the swinging, turning and swishing create an active and alert energy in my body. This energy is similar yet different than the kind of energy I’m used to in my dance major courses at the University. Typically, the energy created via modern, jazz and ballet classes is more individual than a group experience – although not always.

Also, unlike the other forms of dance that I have studied, square dancing is a completely partnered dance; it cannot be done alone. There are four or six couples per square and even though you start with one partner, you end up dancing with everyone’s partner by the dances’ end. This is because many of the turns, pulls and other dance moves are performed while moving around the square. In other words, each pull of the arm brings you to a different partner thus allowing you dance with everyone. Very social!

Molly is my first partner and we are not taking the dance seriously at all. We were just doing our interpretation of the movements and having a good old time, and that’s the point. The point of square dancing is to let loose and have fun in a social environment.

The band is changing now and we have a chance to breathe, grab a drink from the adjacent bar and talk to our party members. At this point another one of my friends and fellow dance majors, Kelsey, has arrived. We chat with Max. He begins to relate the event to the tap jams he attends in New York and how much fun they are because they bring a lot of random, fun people together.

Shawn tells me that square dancing, like tap jam sessions, is all about bringing people together. It’s a social event. She says when people hear “square dancing” they think of old fashioned club dancing – the kind where people wear the fancy outfits and the white shoes and the crowd is usually older people – and that is not what her dancing is at all. “I make sure people know it’s social dancing when they come to our [dances]. It’s not a ‘hee-haw’ kind of concept.” She says when she promotes her kind of dance she has to really emphasize the social aspect of it.

Square dancing is more than simply something that is fun to do. It is some people’s way of life. People who are completely immersed in this culture find their closest friends here. “Some even get married!” Boasts Shawn. She explains that she and some of the friends she meet through square dancing took a long trip to Europe recently. “There are even professional companies,” Shawn says. The Wild Goose Chase Cloggers, a Minneapolis-based clogging group, was founded by some of the people in the first Monday Night Dance Collective.

After talking with Shawn, I find out that the Eagle’s Club is not the only venue that houses square dancing events in the Twin Cities. Tapestry Folkdance Center, off Minnehaha and 37th, is home to a huge international dance group scene.

Tapestry is a non-profit organization that’s mission, according to their Program Director Rachel Svihel, is to “provide opportunities to participate in dance and music from around the world.” This is why Tapestry, unlike the Eagle’s Club, offers more than just square dancing. Dances such as traditional square/folk, contra and “English country.” They also provide the community with weekly lessons for a nominal fee. Classes range from beginning international dance, swing, hula and belly dancing. Rachel tells me people get involved with these classes by simply showing up; none of their dances require registrations. The Folkdance Center offers the dance community with a few more perks: they host caller workshops and “spotlight series” dance nights. Cajun Dance was the “spotlight series” dance in November. It was held every Friday at 7 p.m.

While Tapestry seems like all that and more, I think the atmosphere might not be as relaxed as it is at the Eagle’s Club because of its structured class-like environment.

After a few more dances I am exhausted. I signal to Molly that “the train is leaving” and we once again climb over chairs and grab our things. With a smile brimming from ear to ear I walk out of the Eagle’s club, waving to those left inside. My motto is to learn at least one new thing everyday, and tonight I learned that square dancing is not just your grandma’s dance.


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Stark dramatic immersion – 10/26/08

The night is cold and the crisp smell of autumn wafts through the air. I find that my three companions and I are walking to a building I have never noticed before; a building, which I am told, is slated for demolition. That’s why we’re here. That’s why this whole event is happening. That is why I am standing outside at nine o’clock at night in front of a school building instead of lying on the couch with the idea of sleep in the near future. I am here, in front of Norris Hall on the University of Minnesota’s east bank, to see my first experimental theater show.

“The Woyzeck Project,” is based off Georg Büchner’s unfinished play “Woyzeck.” It remains incomplete because Büchner died during the writing process. The show began as a five-week class exploring the text and researching Büchner himself. Apparently the only good to have come out of the class was that it informed the directors of what they didn’t want the show to be. Luverne Seifert, one of the department of Theatre Arts and Dance faculty members directing the project, and the other directors did not want to base the production on the Büchner’s text. Instead they decided to let the student actors explore the themes of the play, in which Woyzeck murders his lover, the prostitute named Marie, and create vignettes. After much editing, the directors and actors successfully wove the vignettes together thus creating the finalized, fragmented, hour-long show. The directors believe because the original play was unfinished, it lent itself to the fragmented version of their particular presentation.

Now, I am not new to the idea of “experimental” theater. I am modern dancer, after all. Seeing “crazy” and “abstract” ideas presented onstage is a regular occurrence for me. But that’s motion…movement. And it’s onstage. It’s not in an old gym where the performers are most definitely popping your personal bubble. Dazed disturbed random taskmasters dressed in clear plastic garbage bags are in your face, forcing you to sing and sway and they yell at you if you don’t do what they say. I’m a little out of my comfort zone and this is only part of the pre-show.

I’m tickled as I walk inside; this is the building where the university’s dance program used to reside – this is where my teachers used to dance when they were undergrads. I’m sure it looks very different now. In those days dancers in bright colored leotards and yoga pants would bounce down the hallways. Nowadays, the building is usually deserted, the halls dark with mice and other creatures of the night skittering around. However, tonight, the Hall is once again filled with students.

Small yellow lights are scattered here there and everywhere. Lockers with people in them line the walls. Hollow drum beats echo through the hallway. Is that guy peeing in a bucket? Yes, he is.

The taskmasters from outside stop the few dozen of us audience members in the middle of a dimly lit hallway. There is a public restroom to our left. The door is open and a guard is blocking its entrance. The taskmasters direct us to a crude yet slightly nostalgic puppet show box. Suddenly, two puppets reveal themselves. Apparently these beings-on-a-stick represent the play’s two characters, Woyzeck and Marie. They begin to act out the plot of the play. It was sort of strange to watch. Typically audiences do not see the entire plot acted out before the actual show begins. However, I later realized that by seeing this pre-show, I understood the more abstracted, “out there” vignettes. Without the puppet show, I’m pretty sure I would have walked around the Norris Hall gym with a “What the hell!?!” expression on my face. Although, I will say that seeing a puppet have sex and then kill his lover is kind of a disturbing sight, especially when they have an uncanny resemblance to the puppets on “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.”

After the pre-show, the other audience members and I shuffle our way past a short line of lockers. There are people in them. They try to scare us. It is like the “Evil Dead 2″ of theater. From there, we enter a twisting labyrinth. Photographs line each wall and each wall leads to a compartment with actors acting out a seemingly random scene. In one such compartment two people – Woyzeck and Marie – are sitting in a chair, staring at each other. Woyzeck is hiding a knife behind his back. In another, Woyzeck is eating a bowl of green mushy mashed peas.

After a good ten minutes of wandering around this strange world, a voice booms. It is yet another Woyzeck. He directs us to the far end of the gym where a wired caged the size of a living room stands. It is empty save for two lights. He speaks at length in jumbled sentences – sentences that seem to have been strung together because they to not relate to one another. Woyzeck takes a moment of pause. There are footsteps in the distance. They’re growing louder. Louder. Louder. A storm of Rocky wannabes run into the cage, jumping on its wired walls, their feet inches from your face. The caged mass begins to dance and thrash about but I am thoroughly confused as to what their vignette has to do with the rest of the show. “It’s supposed to represent the feeling of the play,” I was later told by a performer, however, I am unconvinced. Because I know the choreographer and have taken many a modern dance class with him, part of me thinks he just wanted to make the dancers throw themselves around for fun. He likes that kind of movement; that kind of “throw yourself around for the hell of it” movement that I appreciate on a physical side.

The dancing in “The Woyzeck Project” is what I expect from Carl, and I love watching that raw energy…but…I failed to see the continuity between it and the rest of the story. Ultimately was left wanting more because the dancing ended as suddenly as it began. The dancers and actors are running outside the building.

Fire dancers and death await the audience in the grass. Marie saunters over to Woyzeck. He is crazed. His mind plagued by jealousy and the need to control Marie overcomes him. He does not want anyone else to touch Marie. She can only be with him. She goes in for an embrace and receives death. Woyzeck picks up her corpse and runs away into the night. And like the unfinished play, “The Woyzeck Project” abruptly ends.

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My moment before – 8/7/08

“What is this a moment before? A moment before…what?” I sat in the corner of studio 200 in the Barbara Barker Center for Dance as Kelly Drummond Cawthon spoke to the University Dance Theater cast of the Shapiro & Smith Dance piece “A moment before.” Winter break. ACDFA. Graduation. The rest of my life. This apprenticeship is my moment before – a moment before my career reveals itself.

This project marks the end of my college career. I am a graduating senior from the University of Minnesota and I am earning a BFA in dance and a minor in mass communications. My senior project is apprenticing with Shapiro & Smith Dance (S&S).

I arrived on the university’s campus a little over three years ago. I was fresh out of high school and I wanted to take every performance opportunity the school could offer. I auditioned and was cast in Joe Chvala’s “Berserks” which was one of the six dances involved in that year’s University Dance Theater’s (UDT) production. Shapiro & Smith Dance’s “To Have And To Hold” was also part of that lineup. Since then, I have been infatuated with the work Shapiro & Smith produce.

The idea for my project sprouted in the spring of last year. My friend and fellow dancer, Tawny Hyster, essentially apprenticed with S&S that year and got to know the company very well. I also wanted to get to know them but beyond that, I wanted to someday become part of the company. The physicality and the choreography of S&S’s dances are beautiful, striking and most importantly fun.

I talked with Joanie Smith, the artistic director of S&S, and asked if I could apprentice with the company for my senior project. She of course said yes with a brilliant smile across her face. We decided – even before the fall semester started – that I would come to rehearsals, learn the repertoire, step in if one of the company members is absent, and help backstage during their April show at the Southern Theater.

Everything was falling into place…and then, when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the dance program announced that Shapiro & Smith Dance was going to provide a dance, “A Moment Before,” for the 2008-2009 UDT show.

It has been three years since Shapiro & Smith had a dance in the UDT show. I had hoped to be cast in this piece but unfortunately that is not what happened. This blew my ego a little because I thought I had a very strong chance of getting into the piece.

Even though I was not cast, Joanie asked if I would “please join the cast during the first week of UDT rehearsals.” Company member Kelly Cathorn was coming up from Florida for a week to set “A Moment Before” on the cast; Joanie thought I would benefit from hearing what Kelly had to offer.

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Shaprio & Smith Dance performance paper – 4/6/08

Shapiro & Smith Dance’s newest production “Next Steps” is an example of how production elements greatly aid a performance. The lights expressed the tone of each dance piece; the sound supported the choreography by creating a sensory ambiance; the costumes made each character come to life; and the choreography showed the thought and brilliance of the show’s maker.

I saw “Next Steps” twice. The first viewing was purely for my own enjoyment. The second time around however, I came in with a critical eye. While at the second viewing, I found that I felt certain ways depending on the lighting. In Maggie Bergeron’s piece “Accidentally Walking Through Nothing,” for example, I felt gloomy. I believe the reason for this was because the dark lights set a gloomy, lost tone. The best example of lights supporting a piece is seen in the second part of “What Dark/Falling Into Light.” The stark yellow of the lights provided a striking contrast to the very dark first half. The saturated yellow made the dancers – who are in great physical shape and are feed well – look sickly. Also, the blinding white light coming from the front floor lights brought out the fear, panic and distress in each performer’s face when they crawled to the front edge of the stage. This effect greatly supported the intention of the choreography and vision of the piece. In “Miniatures,” I enjoyed that the lights became the through line for the piece. A single light – that appeared to be coming from the prop door – introduced nearly every vignette. It created the sense that we were either going into or coming out of one of the character’s homes, which I appreciated.

The soundscapes of each piece created an ambiance in the theater. In my opinion, the best example of a mood generating soundscape is seen in “What Dark…Light.” In the first half of the piece, the voice of David Greenspan is heard. His words did not register in my mind (save for the phrase “what dark”) yet the sound of his voice and his inflections made me feel as if I was in a trance. Because I was in a mesmerized, trance-like state, the second half of the piece was much more jarring. I was pulled out of my glassy-eyed, tranquil (but not quite peaceful) state – created by Greenspan’s text – and was shocked by the jarring sounds of harsh breaths and trains rolling over tracks. The soundscape made me feel uncomfortable and unnerved which was part of the piece’s intention. The soundscape in “Miniatures” created a light, airy environment. The songs were pleasant and humorous. They also supported the characters that the dancers were representing. Conversely, Joanie Smith made the decision to perform her flower solo in silence. It worked because the absence of sound allowed the audience to focus solely on the character. The character was so lively and full that I appreciated not being distracted by any of the other production elements.

Costuming in “Next Steps” allowed characters to develop in each piece. Specifically in “Miniatures” the costumes made the characters seem somewhat unreal. I say this not because they couldn’t exist but rather they seemed overly exaggerated in color and size and therefore a bit unreal. I suppose a better way of putting this is I felt like the dancers could have been cartoon characters. The colors were not only ones that many people don’t wear – or at least not in those particular combinations – but they were also overly vibrant, much like that of cartoon shows. The costumes also did not fit the dancers well. Because of this, I felt as if the dancers were children who were trying on their parents clothing. The costumes did however help create relationships between the dancers. In one of Ned Sturgis’ ball dances, Mathew Janczewski was behind him in the dimly light upstage area. They were doing the same movement in nearly perfect synchronization. I felt like Mathew’s character was the father of Ned’s character because their costumes were the same colors. Ned was wearing a bright green shirt and dark pants while Mathew was wearing a dark shirt and bright green pants. Another example is a quartet between Ned, Maggie, Kari Mosel and Eddie Oroyan. Ned and Kari were supposed to be a couple and were dressed in similar colors. The same is true for Maggie and Eddie. I am not certain if these specific costume choices were done on purpose but I have a hard time thinking they all happened accidentally because they so perfectly create relationships between the characters.

It is impossible to talk about a dance show without talking about the choreography. The movement in every piece was inventive and breathtaking. The quality with which the performers dance is full of ease, even though I know the movement is anything but easy. In “Accidentally…Nothing,” Maggie developed a motif by repeating a certain moment in the choreography. Doing this gave meaning to the movement which then gave meaning the entire piece. I am most impressed with the choreography of “Miniatures.” This is because it is the first Shapiro & Smith Dance piece that was choreographed after Danny Shapiro’s death. I am pleased that Joanie was able to finish a piece on her own and still keep the integrity and feel of the company when her partner was alive. It was as if his spirit and creativity were around as the choreography was being created. Joanie has said that the dancers helped come up with “Danny-like” choreography which I’m sure eased the transition from co-artistic director to artistic director.

The production elements of Shapiro & Smith Dance’s “Next Steps” greatly aided the performance. The lights expressed the tone of each dance piece which gave me chills; the sound supported the choreography by creating a sensory ambiance which filled the theater; the costumes made each character come to life in a pleasant and oftentimes fun manor; and the choreography showed the thought and brilliance of the show’s maker Joanie Smith.

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