Dancing through the past

Mountain View's Danse Libre brings decades of social dancing to life

What do you get when you take a handful of Stanford graduates, passionate vintage dancers and business professionals? The Academy of Danse Libre, that's what.

Danse Libre is a vintage dance performance group based in Mountain View. They are currently preparing for their upcoming theatrical dance show, "The Dancing Dead: Zombies! Vegetarians! Vintage Dance!" in Palo Alto on June 6 and 7.

"Don't be afraid of the front of the stage," Irvin Tyan, the artistic co-director of Danse Libre said to his dancers at a rehearsal on Monday.

They came closer to the wall of the rehearsal building and once again, the music started. "Okay, one more time," Tyan said for at least the third time. "Five, six, seven, eight!"

The performance is set in 1941, when Adolf Hitler finds a way to turn harmless vegetarian zombies into his own ruthless, brain-eating army, and scientists must travel back in time to stop him. The show, written by Olivia Shen Green and directed by Marc Kenig, takes viewers through 100 years of social dances. Dancers waltz through the Victorian era of the 1820s, cakewalk through the 1890s and swing dance through the 1920s, among other styles and eras.

Performances by the dance companies Swing Cats Rhythm Revue and Knotts Dance Company will also be featured at the show.

Every two years, Danse Libre puts on a performance that showcases dance styles throughout a century. They prepare for each show at least one year in advance, and rehearse three to six hours several times per week.

Most of the dancers in the company have alter egos more commonly known as day jobs. Dancer Valerie Baadh is a javelin thrower, movement coach and teacher trainer for Waldorf schools. Other dancers in the troupe spend their days working as lawyers and doctors, while others have jobs in the dance industry. Publicity director Jeff Kellem gives dance workshops around the world, and told the Voice that historical dancers abroad have heard of Danse Libre.

"We tend to be one of the more well-known vintage dance groups," he said. "I went to Paris and I saw a dance colleague of mine looking at a video. I said, 'Oh, what are you watching? Oh, that's us," Kellem said.

On a trip to Moscow, he realized that a group he was instructing had already seen videos of some of Danse Libre's performances. Group members were excited to learn the choreography of one of their dances, and picked it up pretty quickly since they were already somewhat familiar with the Danse Libre's style, he said.

Baadh said she views dance as a very important thing, especially in Silicon Valley, where people are very focused on academia and technology.

"It helps balance an overly-tech culture," Baadh said.

There are other productions in the works. Danse Libre will be collaborating with the Peninsula Symphony on a production called "The Golden Age of Hollywood." A full orchestra will be playing as Danse Libre recreates some of the most beloved dances from the silver screen at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center and the Flint Center. The group will also be performing at the centennial celebration of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco next year.


"The Dancing Dead" will be performed at the Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto at 7:30 p.m. on June 6 and 7. Tickets can be purchased online at Tickets are $20 for adults and $17 for students and seniors.


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