It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's your next dance recital!

Wonder Woman

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They may fly through the air like Batman, have smooth moves like Michael Jackson or be a stranger lending a hand at just the right time. Walh Performing Arts Studio in Buffalo, New York, honored both famous and ordinary heroes with a recital theme of “Heroes and Legends.”

Co-owners Katie and David Walh, both successful musical theater performers and educators, opened their studio in 2002. Because they offer lessons in dancing, singing and acting, their production was sprinkled with vocal numbers and acting scenes, giving this performance a musical-review feel. “We wanted it to be entertaining for every age,” says David.

Students performed three shows—two on Saturday and a Sunday matinee—with as many as 50 numbers in each, all choreographed and arranged by the studio’s nine faculty members. To ensure that each class got its time in the spotlight, every performance was completely different, save for the opening, closing and “Big Hero” numbers.

The studio has a real-life hero of its own. Nine-year-old Gianna Pezzino was diagnosed with Type E leukemia just two months before the recital. Eventually, Gianna had to drop out of her recital numbers while undergoing daily chemotherapy.

But on recital day, she and her parents came to watch sister Alexia perform. “Her parents had to carry her to her chair,” says Katie. “I went backstage and told the kids about it before the show; it elevated the performance’s purpose.” Today, Gianna is a cancer survivor. She is dancing again and is also involved in acting and modeling.

The Walhs’ program note begins, “We need a Hero…Our show celebrates many of our favorite childhood superheroes, legends of theatre and song, but more importantly, the heroes and legends in our everyday lives... A Hero lies in you.”

Opening Number

Music: “Don’t Stop Believin’”—Journey

Level/Genre: Advanced—musical theater (audition-only class)

Costumes: Students wore their own nice dress.

Choreography: In this “stand and sing” number, à la television show “Glee,” basic stage movement and song brought the curtain up like a Broadway opener. 

 

Big Hero Number (Closes Act 1)

Music: “Holding Out For A Hero”—Bonnie Tyler (mixed with themes from Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rocky and Austin Powers and finished with a revival of “Holding Out For A Hero”)

Level/Genre: Ages 13–18—musical theater/vocal

Costumes: Girls—short, red trench-coat-style dresses. Boys—black pants and black button-up shirts.

Choreography: In each 30- to 40-second vignette, groups of two to eight students dance to different superhero themes. The Austin Powers segment featured ’60s-style movement; the Indiana Jones group performed lots of running, jumping and thrilling leaps; in Star Wars, two boy dancers were silhouetted and used light-saber props with kung-fu acrobatics and stage combat. 

 

Rocky

Music: “Eye of the Tiger”—Survivor

Level/Genre: Ages 9–12—tap

Costumes: Red hoodies and red boxing gloves.

Choreography: Dancers mixed tap choreography with boxing moves. This number featured a face-off section in which half of the students went down, while the other half delivered the “knockout.”

Tip: Make sure the students know where their gloves are going so no one actually gets hurt. 

 

Shirley Temple

Music: “On the Good Ship Lollipop”—Shirley Temple

Level/Genre: Ages 3–5—ballet

Costumes: Pink, sparkly leotards and tutus.

Choreography: The audience smiled and aww-ed as these baby dancers re-created the moves of iconic Shirley Temple. 

 

We Are the World

Music: “We Are the World”—Michael Jackson (demo version)

Level/Genre: Ages 9–12—lyrical

Costumes: Blue, flowy dresses.

Choreography: This lyrical number, danced to the music of the legendary Michael Jackson, featured passionate and expressive movement meant to stir the audience. 

 

Batman

Music: The original 1960s “Batman” TV show theme music

Level/Genre: Ages 9–12—jazz

Costumes: Girls—yellow turtlenecks with black dresses. Boy—Batman costume.

Choreography: “POW!” This theatrical number featured the class’ one male student in the role of Batman. The girls formed a clump and Batman exploded through it. A little stage combat mixed in with the jazz steps gave this a comical feel.

 

Smooth Criminal

Music: “Smooth Criminal”—Michael Jackson

Level/Genre: Ages 13+—pointe

Costumes: White leotards with black stripes and long, black skirts; one white glove and one black glove.

Choreography: No hero would make their mark without an arch nemesis. These ballerinas modified the signature “Smooth Criminal” hat move by rolling over their pointe shoes, looking down, with a jazz hand over their head. 

 

Wonder Woman

Music: The original 1970s “Wonder Woman” TV show theme music

Level/Genre: Ages 6–8—jazz

Costumes: Red-white-and-blue sequin dresses and gold sparkle bracelets.

Choreography: These Wonder Women performed basic jazz movements with lots of crossing fists to show their power and strength. 

 

Closing Number

Music: “Will You Be There”—Michael Jackson (Free Willy soundtrack)

Level/Genre: All—musical theater

Costumes: The students each wore the costumes from their last piece.

Choreography: The curtain opened on the youngest dancers. They moved forward as the rest of the students danced in. Everybody sang; sign language and “arm-ography” brought the house down in an inspiring full-cast closer.

 

Director’s Tips

Make It Flow

With approximately 175 students in each show (and 10 to 25 dancers per piece), transitioning quickly between numbers was important. The Walhs didn’t use blackouts and each number flowed into the next, so that the show could be done in two and a half hours.

Start Early

Rehearsals for the mid-June show began in January, so that the numbers were clean and well-rehearsed when they got to the theater five months later.

Save Some Dough

The Walh Studio set the stage with a scrim, enabling them to make lighting the primary mood-setter and cutting the cost of having a set. The Walhs estimate that their budget was $10,000, including the cost of space rental, audio and sound equipment and a few professional staff. They relied heavily on the support of volunteers.

 

Other Songs Used

* Dance Numbers

Little Red Riding Hood—medley of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”

“Thriller”—Michael Jackson

“Mr. Bojangles”—Jerry Jeff Walker

“Everything I Know”—In the Heights

“Spiderman”—theme song

“Men in Black”—M.I.B. theme song


* Vocal Numbers

“Hero”—Mariah Carey

“It’s Possible”—Seussical

“The Greatest American Hero”—theme song from 1980s TV series

 

Walh Performing Arts Studio’s Past Recital Ideas

“Work and Play the American Way”—Dances focused on school, sports and vocational themes.

“Smile”—Dances were comical and lighthearted.

 

Click here to watch clips from “Heroes and Legends” on www.dancemedia.com

 

Photo by  John Umlauf, courtesy of Walh Performing Arts Studio

Pop–Slide–Groove–Lunge! Get ready, here comes the King of Pop! Lisa Pillow, director of Lisa’s Dance Spot in Austell, Georgia, created a tribute to Michael Jackson for the studio’s 2010 recital. To mark the one-year anniversary of his tragic death, 110 students bobbed and moon-walked to the pop star’s memorable hits, making “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” an unforgettable matinee recital for 350 family members and friends.

-"Workin' Day and Night"
-"Stranger in Moscow"
-"Thriller"
-Pre-ballet students in "I'll Be There"

 

From top:
-Intermediate jazz students in "Thriller"
-Studio director Lisa Pillow in "Smooth Criminal"
-"Ease on Down the Road" for the beginner level
-"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" for intermediate/advanced dancers

Lisa’s Dance Spot specializes in recreational jazz, hip hop, ballet and tap dance. In a two-and-a-half-hour show, Pillow and staff mixed Jackson’s hit songs and moves with the students’ class work. With the many Top 10 hits and decades of recordings, there was a lot to choose from, and Pillow felt the show would appeal to audiences of all ages. “The great thing about Michael’s music,” she says, “is that it’s still fresh and still grabs you now in 2010.”

 

The recital took place in a local theater. With a show budget of less than $5,000, Pillow kept the set simple—a black backdrop was lit with the studio’s logo—and let the dancers be the focus of the production. The director herself and two assistants, clad in spats and pinstripe Zoot suits, kicked off the show with a rendition of “Smooth Criminal.” In the spirit of a Jackson concert, she had a friend serve as emcee to keep the energy high between numbers. The full ensemble closed the show by boogying to the title piece, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” and took their final bow to roaring applause.

 

Lisa’s Dance Spot’s MJ-inspired numbers:

 

Song: “Can You Feel It” by The Jacksons

Genre: Jazz

Level: All dancers

Costume: Black attire with white gloves

Choreography: The full cast opened the show with Jackson’s signature head-bob moves.

 

Song: “Ease On Down the Road” from The Wiz

Genre: Musical theater

Level: Beginner/intermediate

Costume: Yellow halter dresses fringed with silver sequins and a silver headband

Props: Silver canes

Choreography: Two dancers spun onto the stage, as if just out of Dorothy’s house. More dancers boogied onstage tapping their canes and swishing their hips. The dancers formed a pyramid at the end to bounce the piece to a Broadway finish.

 

Song: “I’ll Be There” by Jackson 5

Genre: Ballet

Level: Pre-ballet

Costume: Pink and black leotard and tutu with a feather headpiece

Choreography: The precious ballet babies showed off their port de bras, chassés and tendus for an adoring audience.

 

Song: “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson

Genre: Ballet

Level: Intermediate/teen

Costume: White and silver flowing dresses with white headscarves

Props: Silver mirror

Choreography: Dancers decorated their own mirrors and used them in the port de bras of this more classical ballet piece.

 

Song: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” by Michael Jackson

Genre: Jazz/hip hop

Level: Intermediate/advanced

Costume: Black leotards, silver shorts and silver twine laced up one leg

Choreography: The Dancing Divas mixed in classic moves like the lawnmower and railroad arms into this toe-tapping rhythm. They formed a giant dancing caterpillar marching to the beat.

 

Song: “You Can’t Win” from The Wiz

Genre: Tap

Level: Beginner (ages 3–5)

Costume: Pink and black leotard and tutu with a feather headpiece

Choreography: Like Jackson’s Scarecrow character in The Wiz, these tiny tappers used scarecrow walks with their marches and toe touches.

 

Song: “Scream” by Janet and Michael Jackson

Genre: Hip hop

Level: Intermediate/advanced

Costume: Black sneakers, black leggings, yellow and pink baggy dresses, fingerless gloves and a tilted black hat

Choreography: This funky hit mixed hip-hop moves with robotic popping and locking movements.

 

Song: “Stranger in Moscow” by Michael Jackson

Genre: Modern/lyrical

Level: Intermediate

Costume: Yellow and orange flowing dresses

Choreography: With dramatic gestures and floor work, this lyrical piece told the story of a stranger searching for something and finding it at the end in a loving embrace from her friends.

 

Song: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson (pictured)

Genre: Jazz

Level: Intermediate

Roles: Jackson and Zombies

Costume:

Jackson: Red sequin Members-Only jacket and red jazz pants

Zombies: Dad’s old white button-up dress shirt cut up and torn, black pants or bottoms, teased hair and lots of dark eye makeup

Choreography: Incorporating moves and phrases from the original “Thriller” video, these jazzers brought down the house with the “funk of 40,000 years.”

 

Tips, Tricks & Tracks

 

Why Jackson?

Jackson’s music has inspired studio director Lisa Pillow all her life. At age 16 she won a beauty pageant after performing the “Thriller” dance, and as a teacher and studio owner, she lives by Jackson’s example. “He’s the kind of person who inspires people to be better than what they are,” she says.

 

Set the Mood

Pillow and her teachers played Jackson songs all year in the studio to build excitement for the show.

 

Overcoming Obstacles

State-wide flooding in September 2009 destroyed Lisa’s Dance Spot. Though initially devastated, Pillow was able to rebuild in two months’ time, with the help of her supportive network of family and friends. “That’s what Michael would have done. He faced adversity and got through it,” says Pillow. “Now our studio is bigger and better. The flood didn’t stop me.” In June 2010, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” burst onto the Mable House Barnes Amphitheatre.

 

More Music Ideas:

 

Michael Jackson

—“The Way You Make Me Feel”

—"Beat It”

—“They Don’t Care About Us”

—“You Are Not Alone”

—“Ben”

—“Black or White”

—“Ghost”

—“Will You Be There” (Free Willy soundtrack)

 

Jackson 5

—“I Want You Back”

—“ABC”

—“Dancing Machine”

 

The Jacksons

—Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)

 

 

Click here for a video of three routines from Lisa Pillow's Michael Jackson-inspired recital!

 

 

Photo courtesy of Lisa’s Dance Spot

Higher Ed

Ask a group of dancers to perform a piece without its music and they’re likely to struggle with the silence. But the Gallaudet Dance Company thrives in quiet. Located in Washington, DC, Gallaudet University, a world leader in deaf education, is host to this extraordinary ensemble of deaf and hard-of-hearing dancers. “Their first language movement,” says company director Dr. Diane Hottendorf.  

GU’s dance company was founded in 1955 by Dr. Peter Wisher, the university’s head basketball coach, who was inspired after seeing students sign the Lord’s Prayer. “He was so impressed with the beauty of signs that he wondered why the deaf students weren’t using them as a foundation for dance movement,” says Hottendorf. 

Wisher, who has a PhD in physical education and also trained with Doris Humphrey, combined American Sign Language (ASL) with dance to create a unique movement style. During his time, the troupe grew from a recreational activity to a performing club that appeared on shows like 60 Minutes and The Mike Douglas Show. 

In 1981, Hottendorf became the director, renamed the group the Gallaudet Dance Company and expanded the repertoire. She has a PhD in dance from the University of Southern California and has taught at various colleges. It was while teaching at California State University–Northridge, which has a large deaf student population, that she first experienced signing. 

Though Hottendorf didn’t learn ASL until she came to GU, her experience at CSU made her sensitive to the needs of deaf dancers—and aware of their capability. In the 1980s, there was support for deaf dance education, but Hottendorf had to relentlessly explain that GDC was not “dance-therapy” but, rather, a group of performing artists. After getting the directorship, she worked hard to make the dance facilities more professional by acquiring a new studio, sound system and costumes. 

GDC’s 15 dancers rehearse ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop and lyrical/modern techniques. Some take outside classes or participate in GU’s dance minor program. Their repertoire includes works by guest choreographers, such as Debra Floyd, director of Washington, DC’s FloydProject Dance Company, in addition to those by Hottendorf and Assistant Director Sue Gill-Doleac. 

Teaching deaf dancers is much like teaching those with hearing, but for the deaf, each instruction, tip or correction must be shown through movement and gesture. And teachers rely heavily on other nonverbal sensory cues, like touch. When teaching choreography, “what works is counting visually, so they can see the rhythm,” says Hottendorf. Using a drumbeat or a sign for each step is the hearing-impaired equivalent of “5-6-7-8.” “We feel the music through the floor, keep count in our heads and use our peripheral vision,” says Erin Ginn, GDC member. “so it all comes together.” 

With at least 10 hours of rehearsal per week, these dancers have plenty of time to develop their unity. “We don’t believe in having a ‘star’ of the company.  We support each other,” says Jasmene Fuller, GDC dancer. Many members, inspired by the experience, have pursued dance careers. One graduate is lead teacher for Gallaudet’s National Deaf Dance Academy and another directs the dance program at one of Maryland’s largest public high schools.

GDC is now well supported, selling out shows and receiving media coverage from sources like CBS’s The Insider and the Washington Post Express. Each spring, GDC presents a concert with a theme inspired by world events. In this year’s, entitled Times, They Are A Changing, they hope to restage Wisher’s  Lord’s Prayer. Just as Wisher realized from the beginning, “It doesn’t matter if a dancer is deaf or hearing,” Hottendorf says. “What is required is dedication, hard work and a passion to move.”  DT

Each year, Melissa Dobbs, director of the Metropolitan Fine Arts Center in Northern Virginia, a noncompetitive performing arts studio that serves 900 students in two locations, collaborates with fellow teachers and choreographers to use a story or fairy tale as a loose theme. “Fairy tales are . . . familiar, and we can incorporate a lot of different dances and music,” says Dobbs.

This year, 700 students danced their version of The Wizard of Oz. “We added our own twist,” says Dobbs. “It’s not as literal as you would see in a movie. We did something different, so it’s more dance-friendly. Doing a production is so much more valuable than just doing a recital,” she adds. “It teaches them that dancing is not just about the steps they do; it’s more about expression, about telling a story.”

MFAC’s budget for The Wizard of Oz production was $100,000, which included the cost of buying, renting and making the costumes, props and scenery, theater rental and technical staff fees. The school also had to obtain the proper music rights for the show. MFAC employs a wardrobe crew, technical crew, a videographer, light and sound designers and a security team, in addition to 150 parent volunteers. “It takes about 10 or 20 times as much work to put on a production like this, versus a recital,” says Dobbs. Students help out as well. Throughout the year, they participate in costume creation and set building. “It helps them take more ownership,” says Katie Miller, assistant director. “They find a certain sense of pride beyond the technique of dancing.” Read on for details about some of this show’s inspiring numbers.

Music: “Barnyard Boogie,” by Music Works Unlimited

Genre/Level: song and dance (tap with singing), 4-year-olds

These “country kids” re-created Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s farm on a stage lit in sepia tones to evoke an old-time-movie feel. Dressed in black-and-white checkered petticoat dresses and sunflower hats, they performed tap moves and sang with bright cheery voices, making this an instant audience favorite.

Music: from Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ

Genre/Level: modern, intermediate/advanced

To portray Dorothy and Toto being swept away by the chaotic twister, Miller outfitted dancers in simple black unitards draped with long gray skirts. Circular movements and formations traveling laterally across the stage worked well. A Wicked Witch flew above the stage on a fly rig, and flashes of white light helped to portray a lightning effect.

Music: “Munchkinland” musical sequence from The Wizard of Oz 

soundtrack

Genre/Level: Broadway jazz, ages 8–14

In this ensemble piece, dancers (all under five feet tall) performed a show-stopping Broadway number in colorful handmade costumes.

Music: a mix of music from Cinderella and by composer Hector Berlioz 

Genre/Level: ballet and pointe, multiple (six ballet classes were incorporated)

In a 12-minute ballet suite, dancers performed as beautiful poppy flowers bewitching Dorothy and her friends into a deep sleep. Each dance class or level wore a different colored flowing dress.

Music: “Loompa Land” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory combined with music from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack

Genre/Level: contemporary, multiple 

levels (ages 11–17)

In the The Wizard of Oz movie, the Winkies are seen as a squadron of evil, flying monkeys. MFAC created their version by using blue unitards, military-esque jackets with animalistic accents and Trojan helmets. Linear formations and grounded, syncopated movement built up this dark Wicked Witch battle scene. “It was constantly moving,” says Miller.

For the culminating scene of the show, Dorothy and friends arrive at the Emerald City and jazz, tap and Irish dancing citizens greet them. Music included hits such as “Sing, Sing, Sing,” by Benny Goodman, “New Shoes,” by Paolo Nutini (for a tap dance about Dorothy’s new ruby slippers), “One Short Day,” from the musical Wicked and, of course, “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” from the original motion picture soundtrack. The set had five custom-built arches that rotated to reveal the Wizard’s chamber. DT

Lauren Green is a senior BFA dance major at SUNY Buffalo and a member of the Zodiaque Dance Company.

Far from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Sue White, the director of Foot Notes Studio of Dance, Inc., in Exeter, New Hampshire, brought a bit of the Golden State to her hometown last June with her studio’s spring show at Exeter High School. Approximately 250 students participated in two performances, which White estimates cost $7,000 to stage (including the cost of rental space, advertising and programs).

“The show is all about the dancers and the audience; it’s a night for everyone to enjoy and learn,” White says. “It’s important to keep the audience’s attention. When they see different ages and levels perform, they realize how hard the kids have worked and how far some of them have come.” To help brighten up your next recital, White shared a few ideas from her “California Dreamin’”–themed show. DT

Song: “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin

Genre/Level: Intermediate lyrical

“My mother used to play this song on the piano when I was growing up, so it always makes me smile,” says White. The bright yellow and brown costumes radiated onstage in this feel-good piece, and dancers used gestures, such as rocking a baby and fanning their faces, while they smiled as if the sun had just come out from behind a cloud.

Song: “California Dreamin’,” by The Mamas and The Papas

Genre/Level: Advanced contemporary

In bright pink and orange flowing costumes, six dancers in this number performed large, graceful movements based on the concept of lying on a California beach. “The idea was to show a light, bright feel,” says White.

Song: “Swim Little Fish” by Sharon, Lois, and Bram

Genre/Level: Creative movement for 3- to 4-year-olds

These little dancers donned purple costumes with fish headbands as they held hands and swayed side to side, imitating the back-and-forth motion of a school of fish playing in the ocean waves. White recalls that this number was “big smiles and lots of fun!”

More Sunny Song Choices 

 “The Sound of San Francisco,” Global Deejays

 “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Brian Hyland

 “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” The Beach Boys

 “Here Comes the Sun,” The Beatles

 “Sunglasses at Night,” Corey Hart

 “Pocketful of Sunshine,” Natasha Bedingfield

 “Wipe Out,” The Surfaris

 “California Girls,” The Beach Boys

 “Summer Breeze,” Jason Mraz

 “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Sly and the  Family Stone

 “Sea Cruise,” Frankie Ford

 “By the Beautiful Sea,” Knickerbocker Four

Lauren Green is a senior BFA dance major at SUNY University at Buffalo and a member of the Zodiaque Dance Company.

Last month, we wrote about Florida International University Dance Department Chair Tom Hagood’s efforts to save his program. Despite a nationwide appeal to keep it alive, the department was eliminated, along with 22 others, on June 12. “One of the shining lights in sequential, quality dance education in the nation is going to just go out,” Hagood said

The response to Hagood’s plight was tremendous. Educators from all over the country wrote letters in support of the vitality of FIU’s program and its importance to the South Florida cultural community.

But FIU’s $37 million deficit proved too much to overcome. And although the faculty senate voted 30 to 15 to save the dance program, the school provost ultimately sided with the board of trustees in a vote to cut it. The FIU administration will provide three years of funding to allow current students to finish their degrees, with no new majors accepted.

Most graduates of the program find dance education jobs within the community and within the Miami Dade School District, Hagood says. “They were going out there being able to dance in relation to their community,” he adds. “These were prepared dance educators, and now it’s gone.”

The university’s other education programs were also hit hard, with K–12 education in English, math, science, music, social studies and exercise science slated for elimination. Half of the new teachers hired in the Miami-Dade Public School system graduate from FIU. In addition, 38 FIU faculty members are now unemployed, and six research centers will close. “[The vote] seemed to say, ‘Florida International University is no longer interested in education,’” Hagood said.

The current economic downturn has left state universities scrambling to support only its highest enrollment programs. The state of Florida, which relies heavily upon the real estate market, has been particularly hard hit. In a trickling down of financial melt-water, state-funded dance and other arts departments are red-flag victims.

Hard times are upon us,” Hagood warns. “This family has got to come together and recognize that if we don’t circle the wagons here, we’re going to watch ourselves one by one fall off the edge.” As other state university dance departments start to feel Uncle Sam’s finger pointed their way, we must consider what the performing arts can bring to the table, and how to make lawmakers aware of the social and cultural implications of their actions.

On a recent weekday, in the midst of the New York City lunch-hour bustle, The DOORKNOB COMPANY created a small miracle in Bowling Green, a park in Lower Manhattan. Dancers turned heads as they playfully mocked the serious attitude of the NYC business class. “This day is so sad!” they exclaimed. The work, appropriately titled “Death of OPTIMISM,” was staged as a funeral.

In black dresses, sneakers and cone hats with yellow smiley faces, the dancers used movement, gesture, vocalization, music, over-the-top expression and sound to create a work that brought a smile to passersby and, for just a moment, a little joy to the lives of hundreds.

This performance was part of Sitelines 2008, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s site-specific performance series. The 20-minute performance began with static marching and contracted hopping. The movement became more frantic, mirroring the busy street beyond. It then turned calm, as the dancers united in a Tai Chi movement formation. Showstopper dance sequences to the tune “Get Happy” provided a rousing dynamic change.

DOORKNOB co-directors Shannon Gillen and Elisabeth Motley, both BFA graduates from Juilliard, seek to “connect to the audience in a real way… [to] create something true, relatable to people of all kinds.” With this performance, Motley and Gillen hoped to “get New Yorkers to be optimistic in a heightened time in the world, to [open them up to] the possibility of thinking optimistically.”

If changing the world one dance step at a time sounds like something you could get into, look for more events as part of the LMCC’s outdoor Sitelines series. Coming up in July, Risa Jaroslow & Dancers will perform their work “311” at the Municipal Building, and the 360° Dance Company will perform “Maktub” at South Street Seaport, Pier 17.

Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines, once considered the most dangerous prison on the island, is now an inspiration to institutions--and dance teachers--around the world.

Overseer Byron Garcia, who had no previous prison management experience, began experimenting with dance as part of the morning exercise routine. Inmates facing life sentences for drug dealing, rape and mass murder now find themselves united in a communal dance experience. And, over 20 million YouTube hits later, the prisoners are globally famous to boot. “Deep within us there is a will to change,” says inmate Leo Suico, who is accused of mass murder. “[Dance is] the biggest thing that changed us, because it occupied our time. We have no time to think of the problems of our case.”

Amidst a sea of orange uniforms, choreographer Gwen Lador, standing less than five feet tall, is the mastermind behind the dance moves. “I didn’t want to do it, because I was scared,” she says. “And then one of [the prisoners] said, ‘Madam, I’ll help you with whatever you need.’ So my fear vanished.”

Lador teaches the 1,500 inmates everyday, sometimes for five hours a day, starting at 6 am. (The challenge, she states, is not teaching them dance, but teaching them musical coordination.) Introducing dance to these men has turned their heads from the numbing power of drugs to the unifying, endorphin-enhancing power of dance. It seems as if all they needed was someone to believe they could do something, and slowly they danced their way into a second chance at life. “They no longer feel like lowly criminals; they feel like celebrity criminals,” Garcia says.

The inmates have learned popular dance combinations like “YMCA,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Sister Act” and “Soulja Boy,” but their most famous, with over 16 million YouTube hits to date, is “Thriller.” Crisanto Niere, the star of the video, says his son used to be ashamed of him, but, “now when he goes to school, he tells everyone the dancer on the internet is his father. It makes me proud that my son is proud of me."

Garcia and Lador shrug their shoulders at the United States prison officials who said that dance couldn’t work in prisons. Not only was it an effective exercise routine, it also unified the men, rehabilitated addictions, lifted animosity and produced friendships. When filming “Thriller,” Michael Jackson probably never imagined what kind of an impact the work could have. It’s truly a modern-day rain dance, with the power to renew and heal, and when the clouds come rolling in, wash away the destruction of lives distorted by aggression.

Check out Byron Garcia’s YouTube page with all of the original Cebu inmate video postings. For more information about how dance changed the lives of these prisoners, view the Journeyman Pictures documentary.

 

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