This summer was the closest I came to joining a dance company since I was 18 and opted not to pursue a ballet career like some of my friends, leaping into journalism instead.
In June, I joined the cast of Le Super Grand Continental, a huge piece that Canadian choreographer Sylvain Émard has been presenting in cities all over the world. A variation was danced in Philadelphia in 2012. It returns to the Fringe Festival this weekend, where it will be performed in two free 30-minute shows on Saturday and one on Sunday in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
An audience dance party follows all three weekend performances.
The premise of Grand Continental is a bit like a reality TV show. More than 150 nondancers who auditioned made the cut, then spent three months rehearsing four to 10 hours a week (sometime more) in order to put on a professional-quality show. But while no one was voted off the island, we knew that at any time — even this last week — we could get pulled from the show if we missed rehearsals or couldn't keep up.
After not dancing much for years, and nursing a knee injury, it took me a few rehearsals to feel comfortable working with the eight professional dancers who are also part of the performance. As a dance critic, I'd critiqued some of them — including rehearsal director Sarah Gladwin Camp, and assistants Bethany Formica, and Gabrielle Revlock — but all were kind and encouraging.
Every couple of weeks we learned a new dance. We delighted in the different styles, as well as the whimsical names for the movements, such as "dolphin," "spy," and "drama."
Émard came to Philadelphia in midsummer and again for the past two weeks to polish the choreography, which includes six dances, an intro, and a kids' section. Only one dance was reprised from 2012, Philly Soul, which Émard choreographed for our city.
The passion most of us felt for the process overshadowed some of the discomfort. Most of our rehearsals took place in brutally hot locations, ironically including the Class of 1923 ice rink on Penn's campus, melted down for the summer. The temperature improved last week when we moved to the Convention Center. Other rehearsals were arranged in parks, on driveways, and in studios of all sorts.
But however uncomfortable the situation, as the dances came together, people grew increasingly enthusiastic.
There was a Facebook group, picnics, and a pop-up dance at Philadelphia Free Streets. There were words of wisdom from the dancers who returned from the 2012 cast and from the pros.
I dashed from work to two-hour rehearsals, and this week commuted back to Philadelphia from my Shore vacation for more. My fitness level improved, even if the numbers on the scale didn't change significantly.
>> PHOTO GALLERY: Moments from Le Super Grand Continental
And of course, being dance, there were injuries. A good many people wore knee and ankle braces, and we frequently danced on cement, notoriously hard on the joints. I came into rehearsals already sporting a knee brace, and it's not going away anytime soon.
My new dance pals included Rosanne Sarkissian, a government employee, musician, and longtime FringeArts staffer, who wouldn't let a foot injury stop her, even though she had to take a break from running and wear an orthopedic boot when she wasn't dancing.
Sarkissian called Grand Continental "one of the most amazing experiences of my adult life."
My colleague Nancy G. Heller, who also writes dance criticism for the Inquirer and Daily News, participated, as did James Lemma Jr., with whom I bonded over our shared experience with figure skating. He is a roller-skating coach who taught a young Tara Lipinski before she switched to my medium of choice, ice, and later became Olympic champion.
Michael Healy, who installs blinds and curtains, took a particular joy in the process, delighting in the hard work. He brought water bottles and ice for everyone to share and always wanted to do another run through.
"Life is difficult. But isn't it funny that sometimes it feels worth it?" he said. "I believe a shortcut to those times are music, dance, laughter, and, of course, service to others."
Healy hasn't always had it easy. "I'm a recovering drug addict with 26 years clean," he said. "I was homeless in New York with warrants for my arrest 27 years ago. Slept in the subway station. Addiction nearly closed my life off from all joy.
"Today all of life's joys are available."
Le Super Grand Continental is one of them. It's almost showtime, and we're eager to dance.