Having a Ball

The unorthodox moves of the Beyond Ballroom Dance Company

BALLROOM DANCE, once the wilted wallflower of the entertainment scene, is suddenly the life of the party again. Folks of all ages are rolling up their rugs to tango and waltz, while the sass and sizzle of competitive couple-dancing has inspired the TV reality show Dancing with the Stars and such popular films as Shall We Dance and Mad Hot Ballroom. It is a form still largely bound by tradition, and the world of whirling for prizes marches to more rules and regulations, it seems, than recruits at boot camp. But one group of ballroom dancers is challenging the form’s most sacred tenets: the Beyond Ballroom Dance Company of Minneapolis, which believes that while it may take two to tango, they don’t necessarily have to be a man and a woman. And they can move to music by Yo-Yo Ma or even the avant-garde pop pixie Björk.

Beyond Ballroom has reinvigorated traditional dances—the waltz, tango, fox trot, etc.—by integrating them into dramatic narratives. Their first show, in 2004, explored the interactions between guests at a dinner party, complete with cocktail shakers and domestic spats. Last year, they re-created Prohibition in St. Paul, using historical gangster characters. For this month’s show at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, they’re depicting scenes at an urban bus stop, where chance encounters between, say, a panhandler and an uptight businessman trigger unusual rhythms.

“For us, ballroom dance is not an archive,” says Beyond Ballroom’s managing director Deanne Michael. “It’s alive and constantly changing.” The formal, competition-style maneuvers on Dancing with the Stars, she says, are “just one aspect of what we’re doing.” Indeed, the current company consists of seven veterans who have been there, done that—they’ve competed internationally, won prizes, and coached champions. Now they want to stretch the form and explode a few stereotypes.

The music that Beyond Ballroom dances to is far from formulaic, ranging from Viennese waltzes to the growling blues of Tom Waits to the 1970s soul of Blood, Sweat & Tears. And the choreography harkens to the highly theatrical, artistically adventurous musicals of the 1930s, when Fred Astaire was cutting rugs, and scenes, every which way.

Freed from the conventions of competitive dance, “we don’t have to stick to the rules,” says Mariusz Olszewski, a company dancer who began competing while living in his native Poland. “We can let a dance evolve, develop characters, and be subtle or over-the-top. We can have men partnering with men, women partnering with women.” At this month’s show, Olszewski will even perform a solo, a sort of tango meets modern dance. It reflects his own migration from the Old World to the New, and from performing strictly ballroom to incorporating contemporary moves.

There was a time, of course, when even waltzing was avant-garde—too much so for many tastes. In the late 1700s, young men and women in Europe began dancing together in a closed formation, shocking their elders. Whirling around in the arms of a stranger, the critics worried, could cause a girl to lose her head—or worse. Even the rakish Lord Byron objected to, as he put it, the “lewd grasp and lawless contact” of the waltz. It was the 19th-century version of dirty dancing.

Now the waltz can be seen as quaint. But Beyond Ballroom seeks to enliven it and other forms while maintaining their antique mystique. “There’s something magical about following a good lead and being connected to another body,” says dancer Julie Jacobson.

Indeed, at a recent rehearsal, three couples maneuvered through the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with the supple fluency of a school of fish.

“When you put a classic fox trot in the context of surfboards and bikinis, you realize how elegant Brian Wilson’s music actually was,” says Jacobson. “And how groovy the fox trot can be.”

Beyond Ballroom Dance Company performs April 26 to 29 and May 3 to 6 at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., 612-340-1725.