Today through May 15, the Celebrity Series of Boston aims to get people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities moving their feet and grooving to the beat — no experience required. “Let’s Dance Boston!,” taking place outdoors on the Rose Kennedy Greenway near Rowes Wharf, is billed as the city’s largest free participatory dance event. When it was last produced in 2017, the festival drew thousands of people — most to dance, but some just to watch and listen to a captivating mix of live music. This year’s styles range from salsa to swing, mambo to Motown, with a special multigenerational closing event featuring the joyful Indian folk dance garba.
The Celebrity Series will transform the outdoor space with a dance floor, a bandstand, lights, and a small stage where dance instructors will walk crowds through the moves. Each nightly event through Saturday features a different dance style and opens with a mini-lesson at 7 p.m. Two popular area DJs set the tone. The open dancing segment starts at 8 p.m. and is fueled by live music. Sunday’s event takes place from 2-3:30 p.m.
Celebrity Series executive director Gary Dunning says it’s one of the most fun community events the organization sponsors. “It’s the epitome of the idea that the arts are for everyone,” he says. “You can get in there and be a dancer for a night and we’ll even help you, and it’s enhanced by being a shared experience.”
In the wake of lockdown, communal participation is more important now than ever, Dunning says. “We have so desperately yearned for a sense of connection and shared ritual and experience. It’s a celebration of using the movement of the body to express oneself, which is fundamentally human. What better time than now to claim that?”
Most of the evenings have a party vibe, Dunning says, attracting folks ranging from serious social dancers, to friends trying something new, to those just wandering by and deciding to join in. “It’s a wonderful mix of encountered art and those determined to be there, all just enjoying what urban living is like.”
Teachers for each evening will provide not just instruction but a sense of context for the different dance styles, and the goal is to impart enough simple movement vocabulary to have what Dunning calls “a dance conversation.” He is especially excited about the festival’s finale, an all-ages afternoon of garba from the Indian state of Gujarat.
“The word garba refers to the event at which it’s performed, the grouping of folk dances, and the music,” says Heena Patel, who will lead the event. “At heart, it’s a joyous community gathering and celebration through movement.” Often done at weddings and other special occasions, the intergenerational dance is done in concentric circles. Sequences involving claps and swirls ranging from four to a hundred counts are performed over and over, with dancers free to enter and exit the circle at will and to add their own personal expression and creativity.
A child of Indian immigrants in Canada, Patel says she was doing garba as soon as she could walk. She grew up competing on garba teams in her native Toronto, where she says Gujarati festivals routinely drew thousands of participants. “Gujaratis are obsessed with garba, and wherever we go, we take our culture with us. It’s elemental.” “Let’s Dance Boston!” is an opportunity to share the uplifting tradition and spiritual roots of the practice with others. “So many threads create the tapestry of the America experience,” Patel says. “This is my attempt to bring larger awareness of something so close to my heart, my identity, and heritage. It’s using movement to experience community. Everyone is welcome in the circle.”
And even the social dance events that traditionally involve partners will welcome one and all. In her third “Let’s Dance Boston!,” professional dancer and Boston Conservatory at Berklee instructor Katie Piselli will teach the opening night East Coast Swing with her husband. During the lesson preceding the open dance, they will set up rotations in circles as people of all ages and from all walks of life learn and try out new steps, getting to know each other in the process. “I encourage people to lean into the vibe of dancing with different people,” Piselli says. “This used to be the way people socialized, showing up at clubs and bars to dance all night. And there’s nothing like being in front of live music.”
Dunning hopes “Let’s Dance Boston!” reinforces the notion that “Boston can be a place where we can embrace the arts as part of daily life, instead of putting the arts on a pedestal,” he says, adding, “Now we just pray to the weather gods. Although one year, it was pouring, and it was just as joyful and as much fun in the spring rain, so even that won’t stop us.”
For a list of bands a
nd dance lesson details, go to www.celebrityseries.org
CELEBRITY SERIES OF BOSTON PRESENTS ‘LET’S DANCE BOSTON!’
May 11-15, Rose Kennedy Greenway
Karen Campbell can be reached at [email protected].