In a grassy clearing just past St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven, 28 dancers ranging in age from 5 to almost 11 years old sat on colored beach towels and blankets in the sparse shade of an otherwise sunny day. The kids were part of a weeklong program called Stiltshop, and after a morning of dance rehearsal they were enjoying a leisurely noontime snack.
But then it was time to get back to work.
“Get into straight lines please,” said instructor Lucia Dillon, who knows the procedure all too well. Years ago, Ms. Dillon, along with co-instructors Eliza Greene and Marta Azzollini, were first-graders themselves attending Stiltshop and preparing for the annual Built on Stilts dance festival held each August for the past 18 years at Union Chapel.
“Quiet everyone,” another instructor said.
The kids walked forward, quietly, in two lines and met in the middle to form a semicircle. Then they sat down with their legs crossed as Ms. Dillon crouched down to start the music. Softly, they swayed in place. A boy in the center of the circle cast an imaginary fishing rod at the make-believe minnows. The dance is called The Fisherman and the Magic Sea.
The young dancers of Stiltshop will be performing at Union Chapel on Thursday, August 7, the opening night of Built on Stilts, and again on August 10 and August 17. The Stiltshop dancers will be just one of many troupes at the festival, which every summer showcases a broad range of dancers across different ability levels and genres. This year over 40 dance acts, from both on and off-Island, have registered to participate.
The festival, which was once a one-night affair, takes place from August 7 to 10 and again from August 16 to 19 at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.
“I aim to have as much variety in a night as possible,” said Abby Bender, a co-founder of the festival.
But there are some traditions that remain consistent throughout the festival. A drum circle kicks off each night, beginning at 7:30 p.m., establishing an ambiance for dancers to warm up and attract flocks of people from Circuit avenue and the nearby Oak Bluffs neighborhoods. The performances begin at eight, and as per tradition, the shows are always free. Throughout each evening the doors of the chapel remain open, and visitors may come and go as they please. There’s no seating guarantee, however, so getting to the event early is recommended.
Though Built on Stilts has always been a showcase of dance, the name is not entirely misleading. During the drum circle, Ms. Bender and stage manager Brent Alberghini do some stilting outside of the chapel.
“We learned how to stilt so that people would be satisfied,” Ms. Bender said. “But it’s not really a big thing.”
The name of the festival actually comes from Ms. Bender and co-founder Autumn Anna Luckey’s days at Bard College in upstate New York. As freshmen, they lived in a dorm called the Ravine Houses, which were built over a ravine, with the back end supported by stilts. “You’d be in there doing your homework or whatever, and you’d feel the building go ‘woaaah,’” said Ms. Bender. “I love words and so I just thought that’s the perfect title for this because it was sort of shaky, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were young, I was 24 when I started running this festival. We didn’t know quite what it would become.”
What Built on Stilts became is a celebrated Island tradition.
“There’s something about the energy of the audience and the people that perform that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” said Ms. Bender. “The people just love everything. The audience is not
critical, they’re not here to be judgmental, they’re here to have a good time and support all of the dance that they see.”
The event holds meaning for dancers of all ages as well.
“I want [all the dancers] to feel at home. I want everyone to feel equally regarded, respected and enjoyed and I think that happens,” said Ms. Bender. “I think it’s really important to realize that there’s this incredibly huge world of movement, which is the language that we all have in common. It’s especially important that the kids see that.”
Union Chapel, two storied and round, with doors on all sides and a wooden floor fit for performers in the center, offers a unique dancing atmosphere.
“I don’t think I would do it anywhere else,” said Ms. Bender.
This year’s Built on Stilts festival will offer a slight departure from previous years in the sense that there are many new groups performing for the first time. And many Built on Stilts veterans — including Ms. Bender — will not be performing.
“It’s the first time I’ve never made a Built on Stilts piece,” said Ms. Bender. “I just did a big show at the Yard and that was sort of what I was focusing on.”
Although Ms. Bender has not seen many of the acts herself — the show is non-curated — she is sure that it will offer the “usual blend.”
There’s only one piece of unfinished business: Ms. Bender needs some volunteers, young and old, to serve as ushers. For more details, email firstname.lastname@example.org.