The moment came, and I lay down in a puddle on the wet ground. Rain was falling on my face and into my right ear, and as I snuck my hand around to protect my ear from the rain I could hear the music and imagine what was going on around me, though I couldn’t really see it. I curled up a little to protect my head and hands from the dancing children and I thought about how I had ended up here, on a cold and rainy Sunday in Philadelphia, in front of the Art Museum steps of Rocky fame, how unlikely it all seemed, and if any of my sequins were coming off.
My home for 20 years, the City of Brotherly Love, where It’s Always Sunny, known for Soul and the Eagles and violence and cheese steaks- there is also a lot of art here. We have a church that hosts punk rock shows, the 118-year-old Mummers, the longest running feminist choir, puppet based community parades, and many other unusual, accessible forms of artistic expression. Every fall there is a Fringe Festival for several weeks that spreads edgy art into unusual spaces all over the city. In the 1990’s, I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh, Scotland and viewed several shows in their Fringe, the original and largest arts festival in the world. When I moved to Philadelphia in the late 1990’s, the Fringe here was immediately, happily recognizable to me.
In 2012, the Philadelphia Fringe opened with Le Grand Continental, a community dance performance by 200 locals, almost entirely amateurs, choreographed by Montreal artist Sylvain Emard. The 30-minute line dance had been performed in cities all over the world. In 2018 it was coming back as Le Super Grande Continental. As I fastened a number onto my chest at the audition, feeling very A Chorus Line, I had no idea of any of this, or what I was in for, having come on a whim to the very last audition at the suggestion of an acquaintance. I just tried to mimic the man with the French accent and “have fun!” as he and the other teachers instructed. It was a mixture of stress (they were filming us! They were judging us!), concentration, and undeniable fun. It was to define my summer.
above, the author, left of center in pink shirt
We rehearsed in a cement, nearly 100-year-old, dimly lit hockey rink, devoid of ice, in fact it was uncomfortably warm and humid, stifling even, like the long, hot summer outside the doors. The irony did not escape notice; as fans futilely pushed around the warm air, we were practicing on a surface covered by ice most of the year. Week after week, twice a week, for 2-3 hours each evening, there we were, sweat beaded on foreheads and blossoming through clothing, 1,2,3… we counted to eight over and over, with and without the music. Over 150 of us thinking and moving and trying to coordinate with each other and this dance. We were professors, nurses, students, laborers, cisgender, transgender, asian, black, white, kids under 10 to retirees over 70. Some people seemed to know each other, most did not, and more than a few recognized fellow dancers from the 2012 performance. Trains rumbled by outside, and a sliver of the setting sun would pass through the group each rehearsal, right into your eyes if you were in the right spot. It rained several times as we danced, thunder booming and lightning flashing into our space through the narrow windows above the tiered seats. The sense I had was of beauty in squalor, our colorful clothing against dreary cement, our synchronization against political chaos in the world, our coordination with strangers in a city known for urban woes.
After a few weeks, when I began to realize and accept the commitment this dance required, it dawned on me that I was in a charmed environment. In my years here, I have witnessed epithets against Philadelphia I consider unfair. With time and a few unhappy experiences of my own, I stopped defending the city and even agreed with many criticisms. I traveled partly to escape the displeasing things about this city. This stance, however, did not jibe with what was happening twice a week at rehearsal. Everyone was so positive, friendly, accepting of each other, happy to be sweating and even to be frustrated as they learned fairly complicated choreography. We were all vulnerable, looking awkward and unkempt in the pursuit of something beautiful. And the dance itself, to be performed in the street, outside- it reminded me I had wished for this as a 12-year-old in suburban Northeast Ohio as I watched the TV show Fame and especially as I watched this scene from the Blues Brothers movie. I wanted to live in a big city and dance in the street! This was magic; I was living the dream of my 12-year-old self.
The summer groaned on and there were shootings, political disgrace, relentless humidity. Yet we danced. We were many shapes, genders, backgrounds, and we were all twisting, kicking, snapping our heads to look to the right, making a wide arc with the left arm, sometimes we got it right. I would have teared up at the sight, but I was mired in my own learning. For we learned differently, too. I felt optimistic watching the teachers do a new move, it looked easy, then I became inadequate and close to hopeless sometimes as I tried, only to figure it out between mind and body over repetition and assistance from the pros and my fellow dancers, at yet more rehearsals on the weekends.
Finally, the calendar turned, the performance date was upon us. It had rained an unusual amount over the summer, and it looked as if our performance would involve rain as well. We showed up at dress rehearsal outside the art museum on a Friday night. The rain began, a serious rain that did not abate, relax, or tame itself. We were thrown together in a much smaller space than usual, unable to dance, waiting it out. It was enjoyable there, dry and full of friendly people, in the trailers I never knew existed behind the art museum. We waited hours but our dress rehearsal was cancelled; the lights and sound would not tolerate the water pelting us from above. The next day we had a previously unplanned dress rehearsal just a few hours before the show. Skies were grey but it did not rain. We performed as scheduled- it was magical! -then again after sunset in the lights that night, then for our final show on that Sunday in a fairly steady rain that created puddles and dampened my ear. It was an explosive, joyful, soggy, glittery mess that I think none of us will forget.