In 1993, the HIV/AIDS crisis in Philadelphia was still at full flood. A diagnosis was widely seen as a death sentence. So some Pennsylvania Ballet dancers gathered to talk about doing a dance benefit for MANNA, the city organization that brought meals to people with HIV/AIDS.
"It was a time of great hopelessness," says Laura Payne, events manager at MANNA. "The story goes that they went round and round about ideas and, 'What can we do?', and someone just said, 'Why don't you just shut up and dance?' "
Thus was born Shut Up & Dance, a yearly benefit for MANNA, celebrating its 25th anniversary on Saturday at the Forrest Theatre with an after-party at Voyeur Nightclub open to all who attend the show.
Shut Up & Dance is Philly through and through. Dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet, University of the Arts, and elsewhere perform. This year's host is Dito van Reigersberg, better known as Martha Graham Cracker, cabaret send-up chanteuse par excellence, "and about 6-foot-8 in heels," as van Reigersberg says. (Payne: "It will be quite the visual.")
"Michaela Majoun of WXPN used to host it," says van Reigersberg, "and last year, we made an actual construction-paper torch, and she passed the torch to me, and now I'm the host."
"It's produced by the dancers and feels like it belongs to the dance community," says van Reigersberg. "Dancers even volunteer in the kitchen. Shut Up & Dance feels like a prom, even more fun than a prom."
Much more. At this year's fund-raiser, as in years past, professional ballet dancers will try out their chops choreographing original work. And there will be whacked-out parodies. Van Reigersberg waxes nostalgic about a jokey send-up of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" in which Martha's 6-8 self was paired with the diminutive Abby Mentzer of the Pennsylvania Ballet.
"We also did a rip-off of 'Cold Hearted' by Paula Abdul," van Reigersberg recalls, "all of us dancing, scantily clad, on a scaffolding." This year's program will include a 25th-anniversary video montage of clips from all the previous Shut Up & Dances.
Shut Up & Dance can be an opportunity for the choreographers who devise new dances for it. Van Reigersberg's boyfriend, Matthew Neenan, is today a respected choreographer. "He got his start at Shut Up & Dance as a member of the Pennsylvania Ballet," van Reigersberg says, "and he always wanted to do choreography. So he cut his teeth creating short dance pieces for the show, and eventually the ballet gave him a commission to do some serious work."
The after-party at Voyeur Nightclub is "a fun chance to let your hair down and dance," Payne says. "All the dancers from the [Pennsylvania] Ballet come, and all the people from MANNA. I would not characterize it as sedate. Perhaps 'raucous' would be a better word." This year's DJ will be Robert Drake of WXPN, a longtime supporter of Shut Up & Dance.
Payne says that in a quarter-century of dancing, Shut Up & Dance has raised more than $1.5 million for MANNA. And as the world has changed, so has MANNA, expanding its mission to include people with more than 60 serious illnesses; cancer, diabetes, and renal disease are the largest subgroups. MANNA serves about 1,000 clients at any given time, three meals a day, 365 days a year, or close to 1 million meals annually.
Since its beginning, MANNA has served about 13.1 million meals. The organization recently moved to new digs at 420 N. 20th St., with capacity to expand to 2.5 million meals a year.
There are some dancers, such as the Pennsylvania Ballet's James Ihde, who have performed in almost every Shut Up & Dance. Ian Hussey, who came to the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004 and who has been a principal dancer there since 2012, is another regular. "I was in the junior company when I came in, and I danced in Shut Up & Dance that year and every year since," he says.
Hussey says that, "especially for younger dancers, who get few opportunities to dance on the big stage, the show can be a really great opportunity. Plus, let's face it, the show is so much fun."
"When you think about the name," van Reigersberg says, "it's in the spirit of play, of 'Let's not get too serious, let's enjoy ourselves.' But really, isn't it a no-brainer? You really can't argue with serving people with serious illness. And it doesn't hurt that there are gorgeous bodies flying around the stage."