There is art that makes you think and art that makes you smile, but DANCE This is art that always makes me cry. For the past 20 years, Seattle Theater Group’s (STG) annual youth dance showcase, has presented a rich combination of traditional world styles and the latest new thing via a cast of young performers drawn from the Seattle community. More than 150 kids sign on for the two-week workshop and performance, bringing dances from their own backgrounds—movements that came to this country with their immigrant ancestors—then add concert dance material to the mix. “[It’s] bringing together the cultural and the contemporary,” says STG Education Director Vicky Lee.
When STG first started DANCE This, they reached out to organizations in the city that were trying to help the kids in their communities keep a foot in their heritage while they were growing up in a multicultural environment. They were working in community centers and church basements, in conventional dance studios and living rooms. And the classes were as much about social and community building as they were about nailing the specifics of a step or the details of a gesture. Bringing these diverse groups to a big downtown theater like the Paramount was a vote of confidence in their cultures—showing those students how their heritage fit into the larger world of dance was an eye-opener for them and their audience. While the project isn’t necessarily an audition for the professional world, some DANCE This students have gone on to make dance their work, following a variety of pathways to companies like the Mark Morris Dance Group and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
But for the majority of participants, the experience is like a souped-up version of summer camp, with all the intense relationships that usually entails. The first week is spent at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Phelps Center, where they take classes and rehearse in the same studios that the company uses during its season. They get a taste of ballet and contemporary styles, along with jazz, hip-hop, and musical-theater dance. They share some of their own dance skills, and go on to work with professional choreographers to craft several works for performance that highlight their own heritage.
In Seattle, we’re accustomed to the idea that many of us have roots in other cultures, but even so, it’s fascinating to see those dances onstage alongside so many others. Yes, all kinds of specific distinctions make them unique, but there are also many similarities among them that remind us that we are all kinetic individuals—that movement is part of how we connect. Young women bob up and down gently on one leg, wrapped in multiple folds of gleaming gold, in an example of Cambodian classical dance, while other young women bounce like high-speed rubber balls in South African dances from Guguletu; complex, curving floor plans in social dances from the Philippines and the Balkans; and mind-bending rhythms in Irish step dancing and Indian Kathak.
As the program has grown, STG has used the final performance—this year, Friday, July 13 at the Paramount—to recognize the role of dance in Seattle, folding in professionals who have appeared during their regular season and special homecoming guests. Tap master Savion Glover and members of his ensemble have taught and performed as part of the program. Members of the Joffrey Ballet appeared in honor of their founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, who started their dance training in Seattle. Artists from Ailey and the musical-theater world have been featured as well. But the big thrill is always the kids and their incredible energy.
This year’s 20th-anniversary program boasts a wonderful lineup, including local young dancers from the Apna Bhangra Crew, Bailadores de Bronce, Kalahi Dance Company, Northwest Tap Connection, Spectrum Dance Theater, and Vela Luka Croatian Dance Ensemble. DANCE This alumni Aaron Roux (now with Mark Morris Dance Group), Deepa Liegel (Jose Limon Dance Company), and Michael O’Neal Jr (Opposing Forces) will be there as well, alongside artists from the Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn and Dorrance Dance. The finale will be choreographed by Kirsten Barron Kinney, and that’s where the big emotional moment comes, as we watch the student performers trade steps with each other. Young women in the intricate costumes of Chinese classical dance attack a time step with glee while the tap dancers are fist-pumping like they were born to Bhangra and everyone clasps hands behind their backs in the proud stance of Mexican folk dance.
I’ll be there, with my handkerchief ready.