For two weekends in August Oak Bluffs goes dancing. The beating of drums begins around 7:30 p.m., beckoning people to the corner of Grove and Narragansett avenues. Inside Union Chapel dancers sway and stretch and leap, warming up to the drumbeats.
Built on Stilts is back.
Last Saturday night Lucia Dillon and Eliza Greene led a group of children, ages five through 12, onto the dance floor to join the other dancers for the warm-up. The dancers formed a circle, raised their hands above their heads, and ran in close around the drummers. The drumming quickened and grew louder and the dancers moved faster and faster until the drumming reached a crescendo and then stopped. It was showtime.
Abby Bender, one of the co-founders and organizers of the festival, took the stage wearing her blue Built on Stilts T-shirt and welcomed the audience.
“This is your festival,” she said to the packed house. “If you have a dance in your heart, join us on the stage next year. And, without further ado, night number three. Enjoy!”
Ms. Dillon has danced with Built on Stilts since it was founded in 1997. She was seven years old that first season and performed in a piece with Anna Luckey, who co-founded the festival with Abby Bender. Ms. Dillon and Ms. Greene have danced together since they were children, and have performed together in Built on Stilts for almost every one of its 17 years.
“I can’t say enough how grateful I am to participate in Built on Stilts,” Ms. Dillon said. “It is a great tasting of the dance world, served to you on this beautiful platter. I am so, so grateful to Abby. She puts so much into this precious and wonderful space for dancers.”
Abby Bender’s voicemail message encourages callers to “say something nice!” In person she also speaks and moves and smiles with boundless enthusiasm.
She described the “magical recipe” that makes Built on Stilts what it is — take a beautiful and unique historic chapel, add original choreographed work by a wide variety of dancers, and finish with a special kind of audience.
“The audience respects everything onstage,” said Ms. Bender. “I like to watch the audience watching the show. Almost to a person they are engrossed, really getting something out of it. They are so supportive.”
Every night the performance features a different line-up. “You can expect a huge variety,” Ms. Bender said. “This year is heavy on modern dance but with variety in the dancer’s leanings. Some are expressive or lyrical and others are more abstract.”
“Built on Stilts is a very diverse community dance festival that is a unique combination of professional and amateur,” she added.
Maria Simpson and Sandra Loring are among the professional dancers performing this year. Ms. Simpson is director of the dance program at Bard College, where Ms. Bender went to school. It was her experience dancing at Bard that inspired Ms. Bender to create Built on Stilts. Ms. Loring choreographed the piece that she performed with Ms. Simpson.
In another example of creative cross-pollination, interns from The Yard, the Chilmark-based dance and performance center, performed their original choreography.
Ms. Bender is especially excited about dancers such as Ms. Dillon and Ms. Greene who grew up with Built on Stilts. “It is so delightful for me that they are all making their own work. That is what we wanted to create, a community developing original work.”
This season, Ms. Dillon and Ms. Greene led a new group of young people through Stiltshop, the week-long dance workshop for children that accompanies the festival.
“We spend the first couple of days going over a few of the fundamental things involved in choreography and making a dance,” Ms. Dillon said. “Then we just have them start making movement. We step in here and there to shape it but it’s really their vision and their space to share what they like,”
The Stiltshop choreographers, ages five through 12, created a vignette of each season. There were spring chicks, summer beach girls dancing with the sun, fall leaves and snowflakes. Each child who shuffled, swayed and twirled across the floor was experiencing dance from its conception to live performance. The chapel reverberated from the balcony and all eight walls with claps, cheers and whistles.
“They love the surprise of it,” Ms. Bender said about the audience. “You’re always wondering, what’s next? Something is going to inspire you.”
Musical choices ranged from Black Sabbath to Antonio Vivaldi to Neil Young, and that was all in one dance. Performances are playful and serious, they reflect modern hip-hop and classic Charlie Chaplin.
After the final dance of the evening, all of the dancers returned to the stage, in reverse performance order. The result was a layering effect, an entire evening of dance represented in different ages, shapes, sizes and levels of experience.
Built on Stilts continues this week at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. Upcoming shows are from August 17 to 20. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and dance programs begin at 8 p.m. Admission is free and no reservations are needed. Donations are accepted at the door.