In 1996, a group of 24 intrepid dancers, many of whom were alumni of Stanford’s Vintage Dance Ensemble led by dance historian Richard Powers, formed a new performance group. The name “The Academy of Danse Libre” was selected in the spirit of a Quadrille choreographed by students in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. With liberated spirits, these students took the intricate steps that they had learned as children in dancing school and “exploded” them into bounds, kicks, and extravagant capers. The newly formed group sought to create a vivid picture of the mayhem and joyful passion of the lively dance halls from days gone by. Currently, Danse Libre is made up of 24 dancers.
How would you describe your activities and programs?
The Academy of Danse Libre is dedicated to the lively exhibition of and education about vintage social dance. We have weekly rehearsals and perform regularly at various events in the Bay Area. Danse Libre performs a variety of breathtaking pieces from the 19th and early 20th centuries in authentic period attire. Choreographies are created from extensive historical research by members of Danse Libre and with other dance historians. Every two years, we produce a large theatrical show with actors and a storyline that weaves among a hundred years of dance. Through the accurate recreation of these eras, we introduce our audience to the rich and evolving culture of dance.
Is there anything unusual or unique about the work you do?
There are only a handful of organizations specializing in performing vintage dance throughout the US. Dancers from our group have performed in all around the world, including the Santa Barbara Historical Dance Workshop, the Smithsonian Institution, Prague, Paris, Moscow and Spoleto, Italy, among other locales.
If no one knew anything about your company, what would you want them to know?
The Academy of Danse Libre brings the vivacious atmosphere of the historical ballroom to the modern audience. Each of our dances brings to life a period in history, complete with the music, dance, dress and mannerisms of the time. We are primarily known for our Victorian era performances in our resplendent Cinderella-like ball gowns. We also perform a variety pieces from the early 20th century such as the lively dances from the Ragtime Era to the elegant sophistication of Fred and Ginger style pieces.
Do your members have a favorite performance or memorable moment with the organization?
“In 2012, I was participating in an international historical dance festival and workshop in Moscow, Russia. Many of the dancers and instructors attending wanted to learn the Russian Mazurka Quadrille choreography (not originally planned to be taught). I was going to teach it during breaks to those interested, then dance historian Richard Powers (and choreographer of the Quadrille) added it to the official schedule. I was part of a demonstration set, as was one of the Russian dancers who was greatly interested in it. He had learned the choreography by watching a video of Danse Libre’s performance and knew it well enough that he was ready to move on to the next section, each time we stopped to practice a section we’d just demonstrated. After Russia, I was dancing at another workshop in Paris, France. I saw a dancer I knew watching a video on his laptop. When I went to take a look, I saw that it was another Danse Libre performance video (of the Can Can Quadrille, our namesake dance). It was quite humbling and an honor to see dancers in other countries learning dances by watching our performances”
“Performing the Cakewalk Quadrille on stage in our show, Ghostlight Tango, two years ago. That dance requires leads to wear top hats. At that time, my hair was really long, almost to the point of being an afro – so the hat wouldn’t stay on my head. The entire time, I was holding on to my hat and trying to keep it from flying off. The few times I felt secure enough to let go, I was told that it appeared as if the hat was levitating off of my head. That’s one dance I will never forget.”
“Directing Vienna, City of My Dreams. This was a reconstruction of a Viennese ball on stage in collaboration with the Peninsula Symphony, under the baton of Maestro Mitchell Klein. The most memorable moment was stepping out onto the stage at Flint Center for the very first time, looking at the three tiers of seating, and realizing that 2,000 faces would be watching us dance.”
“The joint performance with the Stanford Vintage Dance Ensemble in May of 1999 on the stage of Memorial Auditorium at Stanford University. I don’t think I’ve ever danced on stage together with seventy other people at once. Being in both groups at that time doubled the work load, but more than quadrupled the satisfaction for being part of that wonderful performance.”
What’s a future goal or dream that you have for your organization? As a group, we try to continue to grow and take our performance to the next level. Posture, technique, memory for choreography, stage presence and “becoming” a person from a different time period just before stepping on stage are essential skills for what we do. We want to be able to give audience members a peek into a moment in time. Larger goals have been working on bringing Danse Libre onto bigger stages and expanding our performance opportunities both nationally and internationally.
Do your members have a favorite dance move?
“I really like the ‘Twinkle’ from our Echoes of Snowball Club Hesitation Waltz – a hesitation forward followed by a kickball change. It’s an extremely simple move – but an interesting, unique way to make a hit in a social setting.”
“This is a difficult one. There are so many to choose from. But you can’t go wrong with a dip so deep where the lady is almost horizontal to the floor, or a massive lift with major air time.”
“Any one that just makes dancing with my partner effortless and, therefore, delightful. It could be a complicated sequence in a lively Charleston, or a simple Waltz basic.”
“I particularly love the Redowa, which is a turning Pas de Basque step. When you feel that connection with your partner, it feels like flying across the dance floor.”
What programs or activities do you have coming up? The Academy of Danse Libre performs at a variety of venues throughout the Bay Area. We are regulars at many Stanford Dance events and at both Friday Night Waltz and Friday Night Dance in Palo Alto.
The Dancing Dead: Zombies! Vegetarians! Vintage Dance! Danse Libre’s biennial theatrical show taking place Fri-Sat, Jun 6-7, Cubberley Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto. We will take the audience on a journey through time performing pieces from the 1850s to the 1930s. danselibre.org/show2014
Danse Libre will also be putting on another production with the Peninsula Symphony on Fri-Sat, Jan 16-17, 2015 titled The Golden Age of Hollywood featuring dances from the early 20th century. More information can be found at peninsulasymphony.org/all-concerts.php
Danse Libre will also be performing in the 2015 Panama Pacific Centennial Celebration put on by World Arts West.