Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Dance Nation’ begins its five-show run at the Fine Arts Center

An exploration into the lives of competitive dancers
Photo Courtesy of the UMass Amherst Theater Department Facebook Page

The University of Massachusetts theater department premiered “Dance Nation” on Nov. 12, a play exploring the relationships, motivations and anxieties of young competitive dancers.

“We have been rehearsing and working on this show for the past two months, so we were more than ready for an audience to see what we had created,” said sophomore theater major Sam Patterson, who plays Dance Teacher Pat.

The team is three competitions away from qualifying for the national championship in Tampa Bay, Florida, and tensions between dancers are high.

“Philly, Akron, Lanoka… it all starts here,” said Dance Teacher Pat.

Team members deal with issues of body image, sexuality and mental health, but the play’s central conflict surrounds the casting of the Spirit of Gandi in the group dance. Dancers Amina and Zuzu compete for the solo, and Zuzu is ultimately assigned the part.

At the competition, the dancers realize the other teams will be challenging to beat.

“We have Luke,” the shy, singular male dancer. “They have, like, advanced level boys,” a team member said. “Dancing boys are unbeatable.”

During the group dance, Zuzu panics and lies down on stage in the middle of her solo. When she fails to get up, Amina dances in her place and wins an award for her performance — a fast track to a solo in Tampa.

“You hesitate, you’re dead,” Amina said.

“Playing Amina is bittersweet because I understand what she is going through and being the best at what she does also means that she will never be an equal in terms of friendship with her other dance buddies. But at the same time, it is amazing that she is so talented and that everyone recognizes that,” said senior theater major Elisabeth Castellon Goncalves. “I just tried to understand her emotions and pull from my own emotions as well, which sometimes I feel are quite similar.”

She’s a successful dancer, but Amina forgets getting to the top means being there alone.

When Zuzu attempts to quit the dance team, Dance Teacher Pat reminds her that her body will change and never return to its current state. The dancers, all young teenagers, cannot escape the attention and criticisms paid to their bodies.

Ashlee, played by theater major Ivy Linden-Dionne, disagrees with people who tell her she’s beautiful. She grapples with older men who pay attention to her, giving in to one and showing him her leotard.

“I have a nice face, I think,” and “I’m really smart, I am,” Ashlee said in her first monologue. “But sometimes, I wonder what would happen if I went for it.”

Several impassioned monologues are scattered throughout “Dance Nation,” providing each actor the opportunity to be recognized individually.

“I think the energy in the room becomes very focused and intense at that point as they share very private and personal words and ideas so publicly. It’s very brave and very beautiful,” said sophomore theater major Claudia Maurino, who played the mother of three different dancers.

The play is reminiscent of Lifetime’s “Dance Moms,” with a demanding teacher, stiff competition between teammates and performances in America’s most random cities.

Maurino said she did not watch the reality show to prepare for her role as a dance mom.

“They all seem so mean and the energy is so suffocating, and I didn’t want to force myself to be that,” she said. “You can’t go into a role saying, ‘yeah I’m gonna play this evil, mean, controlling person,’ you have to meet them on their terms — as a person.”

Patterson said he took inspiration for Dance Teacher Pat from chef Gordon Ramsey.

“He has that incredibly harsh… commentary whenever he speaks to his chefs, but deep down it’s based on his desire for them to succeed.”

The play portrays the humanity of each character as they work within the demanding structure of competitive dance.

“Dance Nation” will continue its run at the Fine Arts Center’s Rand Theater on Nov. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. as well as Nov. 20 at 2 p.m.

Catherine Hurley can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @cath_hurley.

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