I'm Not a Number; I'm a Human Being

As Ginger Rogers once commented about her role in the Astaire/Rogers duo, "I do everything he does, only backwards and in high heels." If your vision of ballroom dance is limited to leathery-skinned, Australian versions of Fred and Ginger gliding across the floor in perfect synchrony, or guys leading and gals following, it's high time you went beyond ballroom.

In Interplay: Dinner for Seven, which runs Thursday through Sunday at the Southern Theater, the Beyond Ballroom Dance Company puts enough spin on the art form to make a disco ball look like it's standing still. This local troupe was founded by a bunch of rebellious championship ballroom dancers who'd wearied of the grueling competition circuit. The performers craved more artistic freedom and a chance to keep their routines from feeling routine. "In competition, you have to show your stuff in one-and-a-half minutes--best tricks, best moves, wham-bam," say artistic co-director Mariusz Olszewski, who got his start competing in his native Poland. "There is no subtlety. In fact, competitive ballroom is now called Dance Sport. It's become an athletic competition with increasingly rigid rules."

BBDC's collectively choreographed dance drama melds ballroom styles--from lyrical waltz to sizzling rumba--into what one dancer terms a "very sordid dinner party." In this narrative concept, couples and singles play out relationships through qualities inherent in the dances--the flirty rhythms of cha-cha or the tense architecture of the tango, for instance. "In competition, you observe and judge the dance. Here you are looking at the story," says managing director Deanne Michael. "We don't wear numbers, we become characters."

Nor do they embrace the rigid gender roles of traditional ballroom. Here men dance with men, women partner women, and anyone can lead or follow.

"In competition, you must stick with the particular genre of music that goes with the dance," says Olszewski. "But in this show, we've incorporated everything from vintage Xavier Cugat to Ahmad Jamal. We've stripped the music and played with the rhythms so that, say, we can fuse a cha-cha and a tango to music by Yo-Yo Ma."

One number, set to a whiney instrumental version of the popular song "Fever," features Olszewski as a raven-haired Lothario oozing long-legged Theresa Kimler through a Latinized fox trot. In the background, Nathan Daniels does fancy things with a cocktail shaker, a maneuver he terms "shaking up an Afro-Cuban daiquiri."

It's a fusion of elements that might shake up some competition judges. "At competitions, the audience claps after each routine," say Olszewski. "Here the dance flows from situation to situation. We didn't want to design the dance for the clap."

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