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Illustration by Jessica Caisse.

A Dance Festival Is The Festival Experience You Really Want

Garth Grimball

What’s happening to Tom Petty? He’s so far away. Like two football fields. He’s a speck of sound. A most familiar melody morphing into a vibrating color. Oh, wait. It’s the acid. I’m tripping.

So began the most lysergic night of my life. In June 2006, a week after graduating high school, I went to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, with three friends. The real estate from the campgrounds into the official festival area was an ad-hoc marketplace for substances and services, illicit and innocuous. Being a bunch of fresh-faced noobs, my friends and I had little idea what we were being offered, and, since it was the 2006, smart phones were an elite rumor of a device, not the ubiquitous hardware of 2022. So we remained blissfully ignorant without a search engine at our fingertips.

On the night I allegedly saw Tom Petty live (again: drugs), I was walking from our campsite solo to meet my friends at our predetermined place and time (again: no smart phones, it used to cost money to text, and no service). On the way a gentleman looking very much like Devendra Banhart was whispering “acid, acid” to passersby. DING! I knew what that was. Psychotropics secured, I went on my merry way.

I share this anecdote because I think it speaks to the idea of the “festival experience.” The freedom to roam and experiment within the confines of a transformed space for a fee. In my experience at performance festivals of all kinds, the content is a backdrop for the “festival experience” for many attendees. The price of admission is literally for the roster of performances but it’s almost like what folks really pay for is permission. Permission to step out of their routines and into a space that is dedicated to live art.

By entering that space you dedicate yourself.

It comes as no surprise that I think dance festivals are the best festivals. But I think I can make a compelling case for why beyond the fact that dance consumes 70% of my life.

The music festival “festival experience” can include collectively vibing within a blissed out aura to your favorite soundscapes. More often than not time spent at music festivals is dominated by long lines for hot porta-potties, overpriced food and drinks, and waking up to two bros high on nitrous screaming “WHISTLE TATE” while they throw full 2 liter water bottles into the air in an effort to have the bottles come crashing down onto their helmeted heads. This actually happened to me.

And the sightlines of it all. I have the privilege of being 6’1” so I’m a fortunate one at concerts. For anyone shorter than 5’8” your view is just as likely to be smelly armpits than the professionally beautified musicians.

I love live music. There’s nothing like being filled with sound, singing along to a song that you know so intimately it might as well be a document of your own life. But a music festival is rarely a place where expectations are met by reality.

I grew up near Duke University, home to the American Dance Festival. Annual attendance was not a part of my youth but I was always aware of the beautiful humans, the dancers, on posters all over town (sometimes I think Pilobolus posters contributed to my gay awakening). When I finally did attend, seeing the bodies come to life in infinite ways felt transcendent. Like an Oprah “Aha” moment I was hooked on dance and on the dance festival.

Let’s start with the amenities:

  • Guaranteed seat (see: sightlines)
  • A/C
  • Indoor plumbing
  • Drinks at much more affordable prices than music festivals
  • The ability to easily leave a crowd

In addition to all of that, you get the one quality that I think is truly superior, the possibility that makes dance festivals so unique: surprise.

There can be surprises at a music festival but it’s easy to listen to the music of any and all performers before attending to suss out what is and isn’t for you. Seeing the way a musician brings a song to life can be surprising. And you can definitely show up to a concert knowing nothing, but committing to a music festival usually means there’s some artist you definitely want to see, some song you know you will hear.

For dance there is no equivalent way to pre-screen the “festival experience.” You may know one of the artists but they won’t be (only) doing their greatest hits. And each new cast brings novelty to each dance no matter how many times it’s been performed. The live dance experience is inimitable. No recording can do it justice.

Attending a dance festival is one of the few remaining opportunities to dedicate oneself to a space of surprise. The meeting of bodies and space and time is transitory and therefore singular.

This dissection of the “festival experience” is not unprompted. ODC Theater’s State of Play Festival launches tomorrow. This post is not a covert marketing ploy. In the words of art critic Jerry Saltz, “I want every artist to be successful.” I’d love for each artist to perform in front of a (Covid-safe) packed house. And, I want to share in the surprises of a dance festival with all of you. I truly believe dance festivals are the best festivals. I hope I’ve convinced you to come, enjoy a festival experience, and hopefully, be surprised.

Learn more about State of Play here.

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A collection of articles about ODC and the world of Dance.

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