Raising the Barre
Dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet take Shut Up and Dance, and AIDS Fundraiser, to the next level
by Chip Alfred
It may be one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets, but it’s also one of the city’s biggest AIDS fundraisers and one of the most extraordinary, entertaining events of its kind. Shut Up and Dance, a project to benefit MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) put on by a group of Pennsylvania Ballet dancers, presents its twenty-first anniversary performance on Saturday, March 23, at the historic Forrest Theater. According to event organizers, it promises to be an unforgettable evening that’s “fun, sexy, full of surprises and absolutely moving.”
The genesis of Shut Up and Dance (SUD) is a tale of two start-up organizations dating back to the early 1990s. Four dancers who were losing friends and family members to AIDS wanted to do something about it. Another small group, MANNA, had been working out of a church basement bringing meals to people with AIDS in need. The dancers decided to support the fledgling organization and raise money by doing what they do best—shut up and dance.
It began as a bare-bones production at The Trocadero, a relatively small concert venue. The show’s popularity has increased year after year. In 2012, with more than two dozen dancers performing, SUD packed the house at the 1,800-seat theater and raised nearly $150,000.
“It’s a wonderful show, full of laughter and moments of pure joy,” Ian Hussey, SUD producing director and Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer, tells A&U. “Not only is it a really special opportunity for us to give back to the community, it’s a chance for us to do something that’s bigger than us.” Unlike some similar events, Shut Up and Dance began as a grass-roots endeavor and has remained that way. Because it’s not an official Pennsylvania Ballet project, the dancers who choose to participate do it on their own time, choreograph the pieces, put together their own costumes, and oversee all elements of the production. SUD preparation takes place “if we have a free moment when we’re rehearsing [for the next ballet production] or at lunch time, after hours or on breaks between performances,” says Hussey. That’s why SUD typically comes together at the last minute—sometimes just days before the show. “What’s so special about Shut Up and Dance is how the young dancers have embraced it,” says MANNA executive director Sue Daugherty. “They’re engaged; they care and believe in the mission. It’s their vision and they own it!” Hussey, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, is a perfect example. He’s been working on the show every year since he joined the company in 2004. “We want to take it to new heights as we pass it from generation to generation,” he states with exuberance. “We want it to get bigger and better and grow.”
“It’s the event around here that everybody gets excited about,” declares Daugherty, thirty-nine. Every year, the creative team challenges itself to come up with new and different ideas to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, always expecting the unexpected. But there’s one piece that’s been a constant in every performance, “The Dying Swan,” a classic ballet solo featuring one of the company’s leading ballerinas. “It’s such an emotional night. When ‘Dying Swan’ is being performed, it’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop. You feel most people in that room have some connection to somebody they lost from AIDS.”
Hosted by WXPN radio personality Michaela Majoun, this year’s performance features a “Showgirls” theme. Patrons can count on a high-energy contemporary production packed with glitz, glamour, sequins, and sex appeal. With ticket prices starting at $25 to make it accessible to everyone, it’s a full evening of events, starting with a VIP pre-show cocktail reception and ending with a festive after-party, to which everyone attending the show is invited to join the performers and dance the night away together. “The audience realizes what a special event it is and hopefully they want to come back for more,” says Hussey. And many of them do—year after year—for this one-night-only event. “It’s unique and exciting. You’re not going to see it any other time of year, and it’s for a great cause,” says Daugherty.
In 2005, MANNA expanded its founding mission to include providing meals and nutritional counseling for people battling all life-threatening illnesses. At the time, there was some resistance from the AIDS community, concerned MANNA wouldn’t continue providing the same level of services to people living with HIV/AIDS. According to Daugherty, MANNA made the transition so it would be able to qualify for ongoing funding to maintain its services for the HIV/AIDS community. In fact, with the expanded focus and eleven diet modifications, MANNA is able to better provide nutrition and counseling for people with HIV/AIDS who may also be suffering from diabetes, cancer or other illnesses.
Daugherty points out that MANNA isn’t just about nourishment. “A lot of our clients are alone and they have a relationship with their driver who makes deliveries. People are grateful for the meals and the compassion.” She adds that what really sets MANNA apart is “the science behind our nutrition. We don’t just deliver food. Food is medicine.” All of MANNA’s meals are prepared in-house from scratch and supervised by a group of registered dieticians on staff. Seventy-five thousand meals per month are prepared by an army of volunteers and delivered for free seven days a week (three meals per day) to people at acute nutritional risk throughout the greater Philadelphia region. MANNA is making a difference, according to a three-year pilot study conducted in conjunction with OMG Center for Collaborative Learning. Healthcare costs have decreased, and frequency and duration of hospital stays have been reduced for MANNA’s critically-ill clients. “HIV/AIDS always holds a special place in our hearts and Shut Up and Dance always brings that to the forefront. Every year it reinforces our dedication to HIV and AIDS.”
Tara Keating, a former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist and one of Hussey’s predecessors as producing director, likens the show to a ride on a roller coaster. “You laugh. You cry. There are moments of seriousness. There are moments of craziness. You never know what’s going to happen next.” Hussey, who says gearing up for this show is always his favorite time of the year, describes the love and energy in the theater that night with one word—indescribable. “The best part is we’re doing this for people who are sick that can’t feed themselves,” he sums it up. “MANNA has this wonderful gift they give to all these people who are less fortunate than us. This is a show and event that’s very close and personal to everybody involved.”
For tickets and more information, visit www.mannapa.org.
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large for A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.