When choreographer Deborah Reshotko launched her first Building Community Through Dance program in 1998, forty people turned out for Saturday-morning rehearsals. There were kids and teens, single moms from the Warren Village assisted-housing project, neighborhood grandmas and everything in between. Some were culled from outreach programs conducted by Reshotko and her Speaking of Dance company; others answered a call for participants in the free workshop, which was designed for, but not restricted to, Capitol Hill residents and which would culminate in a final performance.
"Some had never seen modern dance -- they had no clue what this was," Reshotko recalls. "I had people who literally spoke nine different languages in the group." As in any dance class, there were warmups, but in this case, there was more to loosen than stiff muscles and tight tendons. "We'd do activities to warm up, both in physical terms and in terms of relating to one another," she says. "We did one where everyone stood on a rope and had to rearrange themselves in terms of height order without falling off the rope. That got them helping each other, making decisions together. They had to touch each other."
Community work in dance isn't new to Reshotko, an Ohio native who came to Colorado looking for creative freedom after nine years in the New York City modern-dance mill. Early on, she did a piece for the Petroglyph Festival in Rangely. "They wanted a choreographer to make a dance, but I also liked the idea of holding workshops with the community. Then I began to involve people in the performance itself -- schoolkids, adults, even musicians. At the end, we had this odd conglomeration, from people who played the sticks to people who played guitar. And the whole community of 1,200 people came out to see the final performance -- not so much to see me, but to see the person they sing with in the church choir dance."
Reshotko came back to Denver hoping to create the same kind of unity among the denizens of her own neighborhood. "I've always been an activist in terms of social issues, and Capitol Hill is a place where there are lots of different, distant groups that don't really relate to each other. I thought I could get them to work together, making dance the great equalizer."
So far, the evidence has been stunning: "We have eight weeks to get it together. When the performance comes up, there's that propelling sense of, 'We need to keep moving forward.' You learn to forget your own precious attachments."
One of the first attachments to go is the generation gap. "In the beginning, some of the teenagers who looked at the oldest dancer, who was 69, must have thought, 'Oh, no -- we're going to be up there with her?' But now some of them are still friends with her. It's great watching them change their expectations of what a person with white hair is really like." And, she adds, people felt friendlier and more trusting of their disparate neighbors: "Lots of people said they even felt more comfortable just saying hello to people on the street. They began reaching out instead of hiding in their own little worlds."
Cooperation, after all, is what makes places such as Capitol Hill -- and the rest of the planet -- go round, at least in Deborah Reshotko's corner. "I see it as
my way of changing the world," she says, "and I'm working on it one person at a time."