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Jocks vs. Swans, in a Win-Win for Dance

April 25, 2010

The worlds of contemporary dance and college athletics rarely intersect. But performers from ODC/Dance in San Francisco and student athletes from the University of California, Berkeley, have been coming together annually since 2007 to match physical wits in an attempt to settle a longstanding debate: Which group has greater physical prowess?

In ODC’s Toe to Toe: The Grand Slam, on Thursday at the Herbst Pavilion, the participants will perform a series of demanding physical exercises aimed at testing qualities like strength, speed and agility. Some of the games are tilted in the dancers’ favor, like the “table for four,” in which team members interlock their limbs to create a “human tabletop” and then perform balances and other feats while maintaining their position.

Others, like the “gut buster,” a sort of relay race involving running backward and forward between cones, seem more suited to the athletes’ skills. A winner is declared, but the evening’s real goals are to raise money for the troupe and to bring in audiences that may not otherwise attend dance shows.

With ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” generating high ratings, dance may be approaching the kind of mass appeal today that it probably hasn’t had since the Ziegfeld Follies’ chorus girls high-kicked on Broadway, and Bay Area dance organizations are capitalizing on that popularity. By connecting their discipline with the competitiveness of sports and the accessibility of pop culture, dance groups have an opportunity to create a new, broader audience of enthusiasts.

Toe to Toe draws about 800 people each year with a stadium-style setup, complete with hot dogs, beer and celebrity judges. (This year’s roster includes Ronnie Lott and Harris Barton of the San Francisco 49ers, the Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin and the entertainer M. C. Hammer.) Many ticket buyers are sports fans who have never experienced a dance performance, said Brenda Way, artistic director of ODC, also known as Oberlin Dance Collective.

(Toe to Toe was conceptualized by Warren Hellman, the major financial backer of The Bay Citizen, a news organization that will be providing content to The New York Times.)

Meanwhile, in an effort to make dance more accessible, the Bay Area National Dance Week, which started on Friday, offers hundreds of free classes, workshops and performances to the public over 10 days. (Last year it had around 22,000 attendees.)

Highlights include a workshop with the Axis Dance Company, which integrates disabled dancers into its troupe, on Monday; a performance by the Deborah Slater Dance Theater on Tuesday; and a program of innovative short dance films at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance on Saturday.

The Bay Area has long been a hub for public movement happenings. Flash mob dances (in which participants meet at a designated spot, usually outdoors, to perform a choreographed routine), downtown break-dancing displays and site-specific works — like “Love Everywhere,” Erika Chong Shuch’s recent dance piece at San Francisco City Hall about equal marriage rights for same-sex couples — attract significant crowds.

These activities can help make people pay more attention to dance, whether through developing relationships with specific companies or by changing their perceptions of the art form.

Toe to Toe has had an effect on athletes like Bryan Schnugg, a Berkeley water polo player who will be competing this year for the second time. “It was weird learning dance steps at first, but then I got used to it, and it became fun,” he said of preparing for the event’s finale, a choreographed dance featuring competitors from both camps. “I like the dance part of the evening best.”

Turning dance into a gladiator sport does raise aesthetic questions. The ODC has bested the Berkeley athletes in two out of the three Toe to Toes, but the competition doesn’t show off the dancers’ artistic skills (though they frequently win style marks for embellishments like pointing their toes as they leap over hurdles or doing pirouettes at the end of sprints).

The crowd-pleasing final dance in 2007, choreographed to suit the abilities of the Berkeley students and set to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” certainly looks entertaining from the video footage. But it has little to do with the expressive and technically complex work that has come to define ODC’s output over its nearly 40 years of existence.

So while Toe to Toe may provide neophytes with what Ms. Way called “a doorway into concert dance,” it doesn’t introduce audiences to the company’s style.

Still, the Bay Area has plenty of artistically interesting dance that showcases artists’ core aesthetics while fully engaging the public. The popular “Trolley Dances,” an annual event organized by Epiphany Productions, lets riders on the J-Church line watch several local companies perform colorful pieces as they journey across town. Large crowds have also gathered for thought-provoking site-specific performances like Joanna Haigood’s “Departure and Arrival” (2007), an aerial, dance-infused meditation on the slave trade.

In trying to popularize dance, capturing and sustaining people’s attention is ultimately most important. More organizations should think like ODC, which capitalizes on the appeal of “Dancing With the Stars,” to create an event that makes dance accessible and unintimidating in an entertaining, competitive atmosphere. The time is ripe to welcome new audiences to the world of dance.



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