Outside Union Chapel last Saturday evening people lingered on the stairs; little girls doing each other’s makeup and mothers making small talk, all the while keeping an eye on the green doors behind them. At 7:30 p.m. sharp, the doors of the chapel opened and the people streamed inside, running to the closest seat and marking their territory in preparation for this summer’s edition of Built on Stilts.
Inside the chapel, as a drum circle kept the beat, ebbing and flowing, an older couple waltzed about the room taking care not to step on a group of women stretching on the floor, while nearby a group of tiny ballerinas bounced on their toes.
After 16 years, Built on Stilts still attracts a wide variety of both audience members and participants, said co-founder Abby Bender.
“There’s always new dancers and I’m thinking, ‘Where are they coming from?’ Did they Google dance festivals? Read an article about it? Know someone who has been in Built on Stilts? Or maybe they got introduced to it because they stumbled upon the drum circle years ago. That’s sort of the magic of it, that all of these people come out of the wood-work.”
By the time the lights dimmed and the dancers began their performances, the chapel was standing room only. Little masked girls teetered around on their toes to a bird-themed ballet. Ms. Bender danced an autobiographical one-woman-show, where she incorporated hand puppetry, storytelling and contemporary dance while wearing a dress made of plastic bags. And a group of young women bounded around the dance floor hunting a grandiose butterfly, played by Laura Sargent Hall.
Nilah Pettus, 11, performed with the Taratibu group from the Jones-Haywood Dance School located in Washington, D.C. The group of young ladies shook the chapel with their body percussion, boot stomps and booming spoken word.
“I like dance because it’s another way you can express yourself besides jewelry or clothing,” Nilah said. That said, she does enjoy her performance attire, too: a printed head wrap, a small top covered in seashells, baggy black pants and solid boots.
“[The outfit] feels different but we feel proud because it’s our heritage,” she said. “And I get to whip my hair.”
Built on Stilts is open to performers both on and off-island, bringing an eclectic group of dance styles not only for the audience but for fellow dancers to enjoy.
“You see all of these dance forms performed by people of all different ages, sizes, shapes and backgrounds,” said Ms. Bender after the show. “It opens your eyes to how broad the language of dance is.”
She said the Vineyard community provides a welcoming, anything-goes vibe not comparable to most environments.
“It’s success is so specific to this place; the nature of the venue, of Oak Bluffs itself, the huge variety of dancers on the Island, the amazing drummers and how they draw audiences in,” Ms. Bender said. “I just don’t think something like this would fly in the city.”
Built on Stilts began 16 years ago because Ms. Bender and co-founder Anna Luckey simply wanted to choreograph and dance on the Island. Limited time and money made the process of creating an event difficult, but they maintained their faith. The process of putting on a show reminded the co-founders of their dormitory at Bard college, a small dorm built on stilts over a ravine that would shake and rattle with a push or shove.
“It was so shaky,” said Ms. Bender. “It was a wonderful thing, but potentially disastrous.”
With luck, hard work and a unique network of Island dancers, the first Built on Stilts performance was a success. In a speakeasy sort of way, the one-night performance has continued and grown into an eight-night festival.
“It’s truly grassroots,” said Ms. Bender. “I think what adds to it’s success is that it’s sort of old-fashioned. There is nothing flashy about it, but it works because it is so pure.”
Off-Island choreographers Beth Liebowitz and Andria LaRocco made their third appearance this year with a jazzy, upbeat piece altering from their usual intense, dark pieces.
“This is the one time to do whatever we want,” said Ms. LaRocco.
“This is our chance to play onstage together and not just be choreographers,” added Ms. Liebowitz. “This festival is so beautiful. It’s a tiny perfect part of the world.”
And the best part of the festival? Each night is a different performance, ranging from ballet to ballroom to belly dancing.
“For the most part, everyone is supportive of everything, equally across the board. Because they get it,” said Ms. Bender. “It’s about how much everyone loves dance in their own way.”
Built on Stilts continues Saturday, August 18, through Tuesday, August 21, at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. All shows are free. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and performances start at 8 p.m. For a detailed schedule or more information, visit builtonstilts.org.