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History Theatre's 'Dance 'Til You Drop': Before there were reality TV competitions, there were dance marathons

Scott Pakudaitis

Scott Pakudaitis

You might as well do the math straightaway, or you'll be doing it in your head during the show: 3,780 hours equals 158 days, a span of over five months. That's the world record for marathon dancing, and the Minnesotan who set that record understandably had the fact engraved on his tombstone at Lakewood Cemetery.

History Theatre
$15-$52

The History Theatre's new show Dance 'Til You Drop tells the story of Callum deVillier, the Pilot Mound Township native who spent nearly 5% of the entire Great Depression on a dance floor in Somerville, Massachusetts. A collaboration with Collide Theatrical Dance Company, the show is built on nearly nonstop dancing with just one 15-minute intermission, which is less rest than even deVillier got on a per-hour basis.

Dancers could take a quarter of every hour off their feet, which was just enough respite for hardy hoofers to achieve truly absurd feats of endurance. Spectators were charged admission for a day shift or an overnight shift, and organizers reserved the right to reduce or eliminate break times. The 1969 movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They? centered on a Depression-era dance marathon, and like horses, deVillier and other marathon dancers learned how to sleep on their feet.

We first encounter deVillier, played in his senior years by Pearce Bunting, in 1969. Running a hair salon in St. Louis Park, deVillier shows off his trophy as his attention drifts back to 1932. While Bunting shifts character to a dance marathon emcee, Patrick Jeffrey and Andrea Mislan take the stage as a younger Cal and his dance partner Vonnie.

Their competition, on Rick Polenek's colorful set, consists of several caricatured couples vying for the same $1,000 prize. Cal and Vonnie face dancers including a "Hollywood" couple (Heather Cadigan Brockman and Cameron Meilicke) so experienced they've already been sham-married twice on other dance floors; a showy pair of Vaudeville vets (Erik Hunder and Brittany Keefe); and a couple of pro-union agitators (Chelsea Rose and Elander Rosser).

The show is full of fun scenes where the dancers flaunt their fleet feet and replicate some of the era's jazzy fads with choreography by Regina Peluso. Doug Rohde leads a live band on an upstage platform, with Bunting and Katie Gearty trading off on vocals — and the show's unsung MVP, Melissa Stoudt, wailing away on both saxophone and flute.

What lifts Dance 'Til You Drop above the level of a wacky nostalgia piece is playwright Carson Kreitzer's interest in exploring the stranger, darker side of dance marathons. As in today's reality TV competitions, the show observes, contestants were pressured into humiliating exploits that helped keep gawkers satisfied.

Director Anya Kremenetsky nicely balances the dance and the drama, though the show's standout actor, Mislan, will leave you wondering about Vonnie's side of this story. A failed romance is hastily sketched, and in the end deVillier is left with his trophy and his claim to fame. Where's Vonnie's gravestone...and what does it say?

IF YOU GO:

Dance 'Til You Drop 
History Theatre
30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
Through April 15