Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

What good is dancing alone in your room?


SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band offers annual 'Dance-AlongNutcracker'

Sugar plum fairies dance up to the timpanist at aprevious Dance-Along Nutcracker. Photo:Jane Philomen Cleland
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This weekend, when Artistic Director Jadine Louie conducts the opening downbeat of the 2005 Dance-Along Nutcracker: The Movies! at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band strikes up the 20th-Century Fox fanfare, the zany holiday show will mark its 20th anniversary production.

Celebrate any anniversary belonging to a band, and you've got instant hoopla. You know the brass band and fanfare are in the bag, and with credentials like "first openly gay music organization in the world" and "twice proclaimed Official Band of the City of San Francisco," there's bound to be a politician in the house. In fact, California State Assemblyman Mark Leno will host the Opening Night Gala reception on Saturday evening, with live music by pianist Rice Majors and the Dixieland Dykes +3.

The Dance-Along Nutcracker is the annual holiday lollapalooza served up by the Freedom Band. Part variety show, part costume pageant, it is the choreographical equivalent of a barn-raising in toe shoes, the do-it-yourselfer of ballets. You want dancing mushrooms? You better bring dancing mushrooms, because this ballet is a hoofers' potluck, and everyone bears some responsibility for the menu. Audience members so inclined (and to be clear, no one's required to dance) strap on tutus and tiaras from the Tutu Rental Boutique if they haven't brought their own, and storm the dance floor as the Freedom Band performs the full Tchaikovsky Fantasia hit parade, including "Waltz of the Flowers," "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and "The Arabian Dance."

Only the Suite portion of Tchaikovsky's ballet (the collection of fairyland dances in the second act) has been transcribed for wind ensemble. So each year, Louie fills out the show with complementary music on a theme, and brings in guest artists to perform between dance-along numbers, giving the audience a chance to catch its breath and see some spectacle. This year's theme is cinema, so the program includes music from Gone with the Wind, The Incredibles, Ben Hur, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca — sweeping scores that demonstrate the power of music to set the scene, whether it's outer space or the Wild West frontier.

"Ballet, opera and theater were the mass entertainment of Tchaikovsky's time, like movies are today," Louie explained in an online interview. "John Williams could have written the Nutcracker if he lived then. Movies, which try to evoke deep feelings through very elaborate artificial means, are a perfect target for campy parody."

Flying leap

Twenty years ago, the idea for Dance-Along popped into the head of Wayne Fleisher, then director of the San Francisco Tap Troupe and executive director of the San Francisco Band Foundation, the nonprofit umbrella for the Band, the Tap Troupe, the San Francisco FLAG (For Lesbians and Gays) Corps and a new big band called City Swing. The organizers were looking for a holiday program to showcase everybody, and as the head of a dance troupe, Fleisher took a leap of logic.

"It just came to me that, hell, they have been doing the Sing-It-Yourself Messiah all these years, why not do a Dance-Along Nutcracker? " Fleisher wrote in an online interview from his home in Palm Springs.  "Everyone thought that was just crazy enough to work."

Performed at the Gift Center Pavilion on December 22, 1985, the first Dance-Along was launched in the "Hey kids, let's put on a show" spirit that marked the early days of the Gay Castro. Jose Sarria emceed as the Widow Norton. Fleisher recalled that the Tap Troupe performed in red flannel nightshirts with teddy bears, and the FLAG Corps performed as wooden soldiers. Drag Andrews Sisters sang with City Swing, who introduced a new lead singer, Gail Wilson. Fleisher himself danced the Arabian

Ringmaster Jadine Louie conducts the SF Lesbian/GayFreedom Band. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Dance with Jim Sniadach. ("Half naked! What was I thinking? Thank God for the mask.") As always, the Band played the music, conducted by Jay Kast, and the audience danced along.

"Our original goal was to be upbeat and fun, " Fleisher explained, "because Christmas can be such a downer, and as you know, all this happened during the peak of the first death wave from AIDS, and the year after Jon [Sims, founder of the Band and the GLBT music movement] died."

Fleisher was involved in three more Dance-Alongs: two at the Gift Center, and a third at Theatre Artaud that was a take-off on an I Love Lucy episode, with Marga Gomez as Ricky and Gail Wilson as Lucy, in 1988. After a hiatus of three years, the Dance-Along Nutcracker was relaunched by the Band in 1992 by conductor Nancy Corporon, who programmed it at Bethany United Methodist Church as part of the Band's Community Concert Series. In 1994, Corporon moved the show to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and included Jose Sarria dancing en pointe, Cheer San Francisco as toy soldiers, and Lisa Grey and Wayne Love performing a duet.

Made whole

In 1996, Jadine Louie, the band's current conductor, took over the reins. This year Louie will conduct her 10th Dance-Along Nutcracker. Louie reintroduced the concept of Dance-Along as a broad variety show, spreading the Nutcracker Suite movements throughout, and integrating other acts and music into a single show, where before it had been half holiday concert, half Dance-Along.

During her decade at the helm, Cheer San Francisco appeared as dancing Hershey's Kisses, Gail Wilson reprised her "Santa Baby," San Francisco Opera Ballet veteran Carolyn Carvajal danced as human marionette "Stumpy," Dance Through Time jitterbugged, Trauma Flintstone belted out "Chanukah in Santa Monica," and Balinese shadow puppets carried the story. The Dance-Along has explored Broadway show tunes (2002), children's stories (04), world travel (03), outer space (00) and cartoon/animation music (1999).

"I've recently realized that I've incorporated favorite childhood experiences into the show," Louie said. "The Dance Along sign that cues the audience to take the floor was inspired by the All Skate sign at skating rinks. The Band reenacts a Halloween parade when it enters in costume. And we have little musical jokes for those who are just listening."

Through all of its incarnations, though, the core of the Dance-Along has always been encouraging the audience to get out of their chairs and join in the show. A review of the first show from the B.A.R. noted that even the first Dance-Along audience included straight as well as gay couples. Today's audience includes a broad mix of straight and queer, kids and hammy adults.

"Part of what the Band does is bridge communities through music," Louie said. "Homophobic demonstrators have been seen tapping their toes when we play music to counter their hate speech. They can't help it. It's their bodies speaking the truth that we are one."

Heidi Beeler has played trumpet with the SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band since 1991. The Dance-Along Nutcracker runs Sat., Dec. 10, 2:30 & 7 p.m. (opening-night Gala); and Sun., Dec. 11, 11 a.m. & 3 p.m., at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Info: (415) 255-1355 or

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