My heels echo off Boston Latin School’s concrete floors, brick walls, and metal lockers. The corridor is empty. The scent of institutional ammonia and a blasting boombox suggest a custodian’s mopping nearby. My steps fall into the hip-hop rhythm as I follow signs directing me to the gym.
A gray-haired man in a V-neck sweater signs me in. “Welcome to ‘Le Grand Continental’ Boston,” he says. “I’m Gary Dunning.” Turns out when Dunning’s not handing out nametags, he’s executive director of Boston’s Celebrity Series. When I’m not hip-hopping empty hallways, I’m a middle-age father and architect. But for the next 10 weeks, as March yields to spring, I’m going to be a dancer. It seems fitting that my journey begins in a high school, where so many of us try on new identities to explore what fits.
In its 75th anniversary season, the Celebrity Series — which brings world-renowned performers to Boston — is giving folks who usually sit in the audience an opportunity to perform. The celebration began last September, when the group placed 75 pianos around the city, and “Chopsticks” and Chopin triumphed over the sound of traffic. The festivities conclude Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with a choreographed street dance in Copley Square. Seven professional dancers and a team of logicians have turned more than 100 Boston-area residents of all ages, shapes, and sizes into a coherent troupe. All we have to do is to stay on count, remember right from left, and nurse sore knees.
Canadian choreographer Sylvain Emard conceived “Le Grand Continental” in 2009. He’s produced it in Montreal, New York, and Mexico City. “Le Grand Continental” is an integrated collection of line dances that riff on familiar dance forms, including swing, salsa, disco, hip-hop, and even the frug. Sylvain brings fresh amateurs together for each performance, though he never uses the word “amateur.” He calls us dancers and treats us as professionals despite our shaky moves.
My February audition induced all the excitement and anxiety of “A Chorus Line.” I was shuttled from registration to the changing area, a number got slapped on my chest, and I was propped before a black backdrop. “Say cheese.” The camera flash for my head shot blinded me. Then I was escorted to a rehearsal space where 40 other souls sported sequential numbers.
Sylvain lined us up and demonstrated steps. “1-2-3-4 chicken 5-6-7-8 push-back 1-2-3-4 sashay 5-6-7-8, stomp, stomp, stomp.” Every eight counts had a unique mnemonic. I tried to re-create his steps, but stumbled when I glimpsed my outstretched arms in the mirror. A Bob Fosse fantasy of tight moves and undulating cool confounded my reality. We repeated the routine to counts, then music. We expanded the sequence until it took shape. By audition’s end I was in step. “Le Grand Continental” strives to include a cross-section of the community, and I saw little competition among the 59-year-old white male demographic. Ten days later I received notice to report to Boston Latin.
Our first practice in March includes the requisite welcome, staff introductions, and nervous jokes. Sylvain climbs on a raised platform and counts out steps to “Song of India,” Tommy Dorsey’s jazz masterpiece inspired by a Rimsky-Korsakov opera. Right foot forward, left, and a quick right left right left back. We add hand movements and repeat the phrase in each direction. Sylvain continues with eight counts of arm shifts, leg tucks, and head reverses. Each move is simple, but cumulatively complex. Our lines get tangled. Sylvain humors our frustration. “You can’t go too wrong; humans only have two legs.”
There are 50-odd dancers in the gym. We will practice as two groups, A and B, through March. Then we’ll come together and coordinate our complementary steps. Aside from a 6:1 ratio of women to men, we’re a fair representation of our city. There’s a precocious 8-year-old boy, a group of giggly Hispanic girls, an immense black women who moves so smoothly she appears weightless, several mother-daughter teams, a preponderance of middle-age women who, like me, forget our gray hair and gravity’s sag when our feet flow, and a handful of elderly ladies whose frail bodies are long past flexible, but whose steps are firm.
An hour in, we take everything from the top, with music. Our progress seems impressive until I realize we’ve learned less than a minute of our half-hour performance. By the rehearsal’s second hour I’m tired. My movements are cautious and weary. I stand next to Cory, a peg-shaped older woman who gives each phrase her own unique name. “Here comes Pee-Wee Herman,” she mutters before a series of silly steps and slaps.
After two hours, our energy and attention are exhausted. Sylvain explains how to access practice videos online. Homework is one aspect of high school I could do without, but the sequence isn’t going to settle into my head without regular drilling.
Week one is “Song of India.” Week two is Junior Brown’s country anthem “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.” On week three, Peter DiMuro, director of the Dance Complex in Cambridge, takes over rehearsal. Our leaders are pedagogically different. Sylvain lines us up and we dance. Peter circles us together, plays introductory games, and weaves us through serpentine lines to meet new faces. Our assistants, Renee Martin and Ryan Valente, lead warm-ups. Twenty minutes are gone and I’m itching to dance. When we begin “Gogo Prado,” a fusion of Cuban bandleader Perez Prado’s music with Austin Powers-like 1960s frenzy, I realize that the warm-up included several key steps. “Gogo Prado” proves easy to learn. In my day, this is how we danced.
Each dance has familiar music, though never the rendition I recall. Peter explains, “The music is based on popular songs which have been reinterpreted by contemporary composers.” I realize that “Le Grand Continental” is not a medley; it’s a coherent composition. We don’t dance swing, then country, then pop; we interpret similar movements across different genres.
After four weeks at Boston Latin, Group B graduates in April and joins Group A at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College. We are 112 strong now, and the math gets more challenging. The gym floor is marked by eight rows of colored symbols, 14 to a row. Each row has seven different symbols, which are repeated 5 feet apart. I am a large yellow circle. There is only one other large yellow circle, 35 feet to my right. In “Song of India,” I begin on one yellow circle and end on the other, while my complement, Alain, does the opposite. In between, I have to watch my step. Each of the four walls is marked with large letters: C for church, B for Boylston Street, L for library, H for hotel. We are getting ready for Copley Square.
Joint rehearsals begin with struggle. My initial excitement has passed, the big group is daunting, and my knees are tenuous. I’m sick of practice videos. The teachers demonstrate “Cumbia,” a six-minute salsa number. The dance is awesome, but the prospect of learning all those moves is depressing. I slog through rehearsals. I count at home. I beat my steps into motor memory. I won’t be able to really dance until I no longer have to think.
What we dancers lack in ability we compensate for in motivation. We arrive early and organize impromptu practices. Lill, a skinny woman well past 60, marches through “Stuckfunk.” She calls out eight-beat cues the way Pete Seeger used to lead folk songs. Everyone lines up behind her. We dip and stomp together. We don’t need Sylvain or Peter to corral us into action; we want to get this right.
A Friday evening rehearsal gets tossed into the end of April. Attendance is high, but our energy is low. When I don’t think I can absorb another eight-count variation, Renee announces, “We’re going to dance the entire show, beginning to end. Don’t worry about what you miss, just stay with it.” It’s a lot to ask at the end of a long week, but when “Gogo Prado” plays, we move. And keep moving for 30 minutes. It’s ragged. Our lines are a mess. I take a wrong turn and run smack into my neighbor. But the momentum of the show boosts our energy. Twenty-six minutes in, during the pulsing transition to “Champagne,” I feel a visceral connection to everyone else on the floor. It accelerates through our improvisation, and when the last downbeat thumps, we nail our final stance.
That’s my turning point. Knowing the context, learning steps and sequences becomes easier. Six rehearsals remain. We have plenty to polish, but for the first time we’re confident.
With two weeks to go before our own perfomance, many of us attend the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater show at the Wang Center. We marvel at their precision and form; our most complex steps are their afterthoughts. My section leader, Ryan, belongs to the local dance troupe Urbanity; I go to their spring performance to witness his virtuosity. Being a citizen-dancer has enhanced my appreciation for the art form.
But more importantly, “Le Grand Continental” has enhanced my appreciation for people beyond my usual crowd. Stephi and her mom, Judy, are my dancing buddies. Three years ago a car accident left Judy’s husband quadriplegic. She drives 73 miles from Palmer for rehearsal. “‘Le Grand Continental’ is my therapy,” she says with a smile and a shrug. Dancing lifts her spirits so she can better care for a man robbed of that pleasure. There’s also Saisely, Gabriella, Alain, and Gia; folks big and small, exotic and mundane I might never have met.
To the untrained eye, we’re an ordinary-looking bunch. But come next weekend we’ll take our marks, and become dancers.