By Alex Palmer
Dina Denis, the artistic director of Queens–based dance troupe Dance Into Light/Dina Denis Dance, describes her work less as a performance than a community-building activity. Working with a team of dancers, musicians and other creative folk, she has used dance as a way to explore vitality, personal healing and reaching one’s full potential.
These take the form of dance productions, lecture demonstrations and workshops. Most recently, the group used dance, music and narration to explore the lives of everyday New Yorkers in a new work that drew on interviews with volunteers in areas like education, women’s rights, mission work and animal care.
The performance, titled LifeFull, premiered at Green Space Studio in Long Island City Nov. 3 as part of the Take Root Series. Though the next performance won’t be until June, at the University Settlement in Manhattan, Denis describes the show as an evolving work.
The group had been showing “LifeFull” to various groups around Queens over the past two years as it developed in stages. This included a screening of a video excerpt of the work at LaGuardia Community College as part of the LEAP program through Queens Council of the Arts, at the Topaz Arts Center in Woodside and Langston Hughes Library in Corona.
“We’ve been kind of showing it every chance we get, including with several open rehearsals,” says Denis. “It’s really helped build our audience and it’s really invested people in the work and seeing the work in various phases, which is completely one of the goals.”
In addition to the performance group, Denis applies her approach to dance, focused on human relations and improving quality of life, in other ways such as the Nursing Home and Senior Center Project. The group has been offering weekly classes to seniors, taking place at the Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center in Flushing every Monday from 2 to 3 p.m. It had been drawing 50 to 60 people a week, and Councilman Peter Koo recently granted the group resources to allow them to continue offering the workshops through the end of the year.
“It’s looking at this community of people in our society who maybe aren’t as valued, and really trying to use dance as a way to bring vitality to that area and those people, giving that enjoyment,” says Denis. “We play lots of ’40s music and pieces from that era which they really recall and enjoy.”
Dance Into Light was recently invited to participate in a Women in Dance series on Dec. 12 at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Presented by Queens-based Legros Cultural Arts, the event will give Denis’s group the opportunity to perform some of their repertory from the Nursing Home project, set to the music of Duke Ellington.
In addition to older members of New York City’s community, Denis also works with younger members — specifically public high school students who she teaches through a summer intensive program. A certified New York state dance educator, Denis worked with several students from an inner-city Bronx high school who would not usually be able to afford formal dance instruction.
“We’re really concerned with how can we make an impact in our lives, how can we help change this state of our world, even if it’s a small step at a time,” says Denis. “It’s great to see how I can use dance as this lifeline and bring it into various areas.”
Denis describes the goal for her work as, “looking at ordinary people in our society doing extraordinary things.” LifeFull specifically draws inspiration from interviews with individuals who have worked to improve the quality of life for others in the city. Denis went out and conducted video interviews with these people, transcribed their words and began building a multi-media show around the conversations.
Denis and her three dancers — Lisa Craig, Nicole Sclafani, Nicole Speleti — began by putting movement to words. Steve Sclafani, the group’s composer, created a score based around them, incorporating text and music, as well as live accompaniment. Bits of the voices were pulled out and manipulated into the soundscape.
Denis also reached out to Carrie McCormack to serve as guest narrator, reading portions of the interviews verbatim, while Jane Pinchuck designed the set elements, and Renee Kurz created and designed original costumes.
All members of Dance Into Light are Queens-based artists, and Denis herself was born and raised in Middle Village, though she now lives in East Elmhurst. She has been dancing for about 30 years as a teacher and performing in companies first before founding Dance Into Light in 2003 to focus specifically on exploring dance as an expression of personal healing for both performers and audience members.
“We work extremely collaboratively together,” says Denis. “We come in with ideas and everyone just digs in.”