Aug. 4 2010 12:00 AM

Community Dance Project brings together professionals, students and energetic amateurs


The water cooler was draining fast at the Happendance studios in Okemos Sunday afternoon.

The Community Dance Project, a monster mashup of the area’s top choreographers, professionals, dance students, and “members of the community” (read: total greenhorns), was only three days away from its biggest dance ever.

Diane Newman, founder of Happendance, urged a young dancer to fight instinct and fling her arms upward while perched on another dancer’s shoulders. Balancing would only spoil the mood of joyful abandon.

“He’s never going to drop you,” Newman said. “He wouldn’t do that.”

The jump is the pivotal move that kicks the dancers into overdrive. “Everybody Dance Now” is the grand finale of a series of 16 dances that will be performed at three venues this week.

Most of these dancers aren’t average human specimens. During a break in the rehearsal, one of them limbered up with a few push-ups — the kind where your entire body, feet and all, seems to stay six inches above the floor.

Dance is the art of hiding physical difficulty, but the choreography of “Everybody Dance Now” is meant to demystify the art.

“There’s an intrinsic impulse in every human to move to music, but you don’t always give yourself permission,” Newman said. “I want people in the audience to look at the dancers and say, ‘I could do that.’”

The mass dance draws its energy from R&B hits like “Everyday People” and “Dancing in the Streets.”

But everyday people don’t jump on other people and fling their arms in the air, so Newman deploys the dancers in tiers, like George Washington at Saratoga. Group A dancers — pros and top students at LCC and MSU — are the seasoned Continental regulars. Group B, the less trained part-timers, are the militia. Group C, mostly non-dancers, are volunteers.

Group A had to suck up all of Newman’s perfectionist energy. When a dancer made the same mistake twice, she resorted to gentle sarcasm.

“Whoever’s near him, check him!” Newman said, pointing to the offender. Rehearsal time was limited and she wanted to move on. “He might appreciate not being wrong. I know I would.”

At one point, a trio of dancers broke off to work on some complicated heel-toe pivoting, but they bounced in three directions, like droplets on a skillet.

Cameron Spitzfaden, a 14-year-old home-schooled dance whiz, choreographed the bit, but it confused even him.

“The first foot will go to the left — sorry, I said that wrong,” he said.

Newman reached for the “party off ” button.

“I need to see it three times perfectly before we start the music again,” she said.

The pivot sequence lasts less than 10 seconds in the finished dance.

The next step after Sunday’s rehearsal came Tuesday, when Newman was scheduled to fold 16 community members into her troupe of 21. The community dancers, ranging in age from 10 to 71, were recruited by e-mail, posters and print ads.

“Maybe they had some ballroom, or some cheerleading, or just like to boogie down in their kitchen,” Newman said.

Group C swoops in for cavalcade of historic dances — the Swim, the Jerk and the Twist — and follows a walking pattern for a scarf-waving finale.

“If they can keep a beat and know their right from their left, they can do this dance,” Newman said.

Newman had 20 more inquiries, but was limited by the size of the Dart Auditorium stage.

This year’s project started with three choreographers and eight dancers, but mushroomed to 16 pieces of choreography and 41 dancers. The project is in its fifth year.

“It’s a giant program compared to anything else we’ve had before for this project,” artistic director Missy Lilje said.

Nobody was exempt from the positive energy in the practice room. Lilje dandled her 7-month-old daughter, Lucy, while rehearsing her piece Sunday.

During a break, Lucy clambered onto the floor and started doing push-ups. She was trying for that elusive one where only your feet touch the floor.

“She’s working hard,” Lilje said.

Community Dance Project

p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, and Thursday, Aug. 5, Dart Auditorium, Lansing
Community College 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 6, (SCENE) Metrospace, East
Lansing 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7 JazzFest, Old Town, Lansing Free and
open to the public (517) 333-3528