‘Dance Nation’ at Silver Spring Stage lays bare pre-teen competitive dance

The raw and intimate production also explores the confusing yet empowering path from childhood to adulthood for girls in particular.

One thing was clear at a recent performance of Dance Nation at Silver Spring Stage: you can leave the world of competitive dance, but it never really leaves you. Clare Barron’s play, directed by Lee Blaser and produced by Liz Butterworth and Jim Robertson, skewers the dance world, while also exploring the often fraught, confusing, yet empowering and exciting path from childhood to adulthood for girls in particular. It immediately transported me, a former competitive dancer, to a very specific time in my life, and I enjoyed the chance to reminisce while watching this unique and entertaining play.

Set in today’s world, the play follows a group of girls (and a token boy — which is one of many aspects of the play that is spot-on) who are part of a competitive dance team as they prepare for and embark on a series of competitions. The dance number they learn and perform is an “acro-lyrical” piece (about Gandhi!) choreographed by their artistic and dramatic leader “Dance Teacher Pat,” who, like so many dance teachers I’ve encountered, takes the craft uber-seriously and expects the girls to do the same, 100 percent of the time. Anderson Wells as Pat commands the stage and his portrayal is both hilarious and eerily accurate. One impressive aspect of this production is that accuracy, which shows up in ways both big and small, well-known (the stereotypical over-involved mom) and more niche (the satiny, matching jackets the dancers wear, and the silly games the dancers play before class and backstage at the competitions). These adult performers inhabit and exemplify the 13-year-old presence, from the casual and intimate ways they play with each other’s hair and bodies while waiting for class to the awkward attempts to talk about love, sex, and friendship with each other

Brandon Rothenburg, Allison Turkel, Sia Li Wright, Boneza Valdez Hanchock, Leena Dev, and Carlotta Capuano in ‘Dance Nation.’ Photo by Nickolas Cummings.

The majority of the play’s action takes place before or after class, or before or after a competition, and it is in those moments that playwright Barron’s message is communicated. In the middle of many scenes, various actors take turns sharing stirring monologues that give us raw, sometimes uncomfortable glimpses into their inner thoughts, feelings, neuroses, and pain. Ashlee, played by the vivacious and hilarious Boneza Valdez Hanchok, is both afraid and in awe of her own beauty and intellect but eventually decides to own her looks and the power she feels it brings her. Zuzu, played by the graceful and talented Sia Li Wright, struggles with self-doubt and what she perceives as her inability to make anyone who watches her dance “feel something.”

The plot pits Zuzu against her friend and teammate Amina, the other top dancer of the group. Amina, played with a perfect balance of confidence and faux-modesty by Carlotta Capuano, is a familiar and recognizable character to anyone who has spent time in dance classes and competitions. She loves the spotlight and has the talent to grab it, and also has the motivation to work hard and do what it takes to win, which she does in one key scene toward the end of the play. While ostensibly we should be wondering whether the team will win enough to make it to Tampa Bay (the location of the ultimate competition), the real conflict and interest in the story lies in the relationships between the girls (and one boy!) and their relationships with themselves.

Tristin Evans turned in a strong performance as Sofia, another dancer on the team. Sofia grapples with getting her first period and the initially appalling suggestion by her mother to “just look at it” to help her learn to put in a tampon. When she finally gets the courage to look, it empowers her and she cannot believe how beautiful it is. Audience members had a chance to take a kit from “The Growing Girls Project,” which started as a PhD dissertation by Dr. Ann Herbert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The kit, aimed at people ages 8 to 16, includes an activity book and a self-exploration mirror to “equip girls with tools to understand, connect with, appreciate, and respect their changing selves and bodies as they go through puberty.”

So many of the Dance Nation’s elements contributed to this raw and intimate production. Choreographers Michelle Norris and Tristin Evans made the dance scenes feel appropriate, while the minimalist but still immersive set design by Jeffrey Asjes worked perfectly with the lighting design by Jordan Hersh to take the audience from dance studio to “riding in mom’s car in the rain.” The costume design, props, makeup, and hair, all designed by McKenna Kelly, were so on point that I could have sworn she raided my old dance studio’s closet.

TOP: Boneza Valdez Hanchock and Tristin Evans; ABOVE: Sia Li Wright, Allison Turkel, Carlotta Capuano, Tristin Evans, Leena Dev, Boneza Valdez Hanchock, and Brandon Rothenberg, in ‘Dance Nation.’ Photos by Nickolas Cummings.

This play is made up of both laugh-out-loud moments full of satire that anyone who’s set foot in a dance studio will appreciate, and also at times almost excruciatingly intimate moments like masturbation, self-harm, first menstruation, and more. It is a show that purposely makes you cringe at these vignettes of puberty but also forces you to wonder what things might have been like then, or might be like in the future, if our society encourages bodily understanding and compassion as opposed to shame and mystery. Dance Nation seems to posit that we might become unstoppable and full of freedom.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Dance Nation plays through March 24, 2024 (Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm), at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Purchase tickets ($23.25–$26.25 including fees) at the door or online. For more information call (301) 593-6036, visit the website, or email [email protected].

This show contains sexual themes, frequent coarse language, partial nudity, depictions of masturbation, abuse, and injury, and themes related to racism and stereotyping/tokenization in dance performance, suicide, and self-harm.

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required.

Dance Nation
By Clare Barron
Directed by Lee Blaser

Amina – Carlotta Capuano
Zuzu – Sia Li Wright
Ashlee – Boneza Valdez Hanchock
Connie – Leena Dev
Sofia – Tristin Evans
Maeve – Allison Turkel
Luke – Brandon Rothenberg
Dance Teacher Pat – Anderson Wells
The Moms/Vanessa – Jordan Coscia
The Moms/Vanessa – Rachel Manteuffel

Trenor Gould (Dance Teacher Pat, Luke)
Nadine Pineda (Zuzu, Ashlee, Sofia)

Fight/Intimacy Direction by Julia Rabson Harris; Composition by Kristin Cotts; Stage Management by David Gorsline; Carpentry by Douglas Becker, Steve Leshin, and Steven Malone; Sound Design by Jeff Goldgeier.


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