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Massive Dance Flash Mob Planned For Copley Square06:17
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Dancers rehearse last week at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston, for the "Le Grand Continental" dance event. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Dancers rehearse last week at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston, for the "Le Grand Continental" dance event. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
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If you’re walking through Copley Square this weekend you might run into a mass of kicking, swaying, leaping bodies doing their best to move in unison.

This dance flash mob of more than 100 Boston-area amateurs is a public art project being produced by Celebrity Series for its 75th anniversary. It stars a small army of dancers who’ve been rehearsing for more than two months.

Dancers rehearse last week at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston, for the "Le Grand Continental" dance event. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Dancers rehearse last week at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston, for the "Le Grand Continental" dance event. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Each week a steady stream of people — wearing sweatpants, headbands and even some spandex — have been sashaying by Jack Herbin’s security desk at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Roxbury.

“Well I didn’t know initially what they were doing,” he said. “I heard flash mob dance or whatever, but I had no idea.”

When Herbin finally asked what they were up to, they told him they’ve been preparing to put on a massive public dance project. He was totally surprised — and intrigued.

“Everything here is usually basketball, track or whatever. And I just figured that what they were doing was going to last a week — but they’ve been here like a month and half I think, or something like that,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just something that’s interesting. Very different.”

Down the hall and inside the gymnasium, 58-year-old Sylvain Emard goes over named steps like “Elephant,” “Fat Boy Slims,” “Giddy Up” and “No, no, no,” which includes a finger-wagging move.

The Montreal-based choreographer designed the piece, “Le Grand Continental,” especially for non-professional dancers.

Wearing a headset microphone, he coaches an all-ages cast. They’re students, professionals, unemployed workers. Since 2009, Emard has staged his non-professional dance project in six cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon.

“There are different stages during those two months of rehearsals,” Emard explains, “and those stages are the same in every city.”

In the beginning the tyro dancers go into panic-mode about memorizing all of the moves in the 30-minute dance. “They’re very complex. It’s a big challenge. It’s a commitment,” Emard says.

Two hundred and fifty potential dancers “auditioned” in February, although Emard says he accepts anyone who’s up for the challenge. About 25 percent drop out along the way, often because practice takes up too much time or is too much work. The brutal winter didn’t help.

About 100 dancers or so are in this gymnasium on this night. Some smile and shimmy across the parquet flooring. Others struggle to stay in sync with their neighbors.

Marine reservist and security guard Bradford Arnold, 27, lives in Malden and says he’s had to switch a bunch of his night shifts to make rehearsal twice a week for the past two months.

“This is going to be my first performance in front of a large group of people, so I’m a little nervous — but I’m mostly excited,” he said, smiling. “I can’t wait to show my moves. I just hope I don’t freeze up and forget what I’m supposed to do when I have all those eyes on me.”

But Arnold says he feels pretty confident, and shows off a move from the elaborate line dance.

“There’s a portion where you come down like this, you call it ‘The Wrestler,' ” he says, then spins around with his finger in the air.

“That was one of the moves I practiced on my own, just waiting for the train. So I looked foolish but it was worth it,” Arnold recalls with a laugh.

“There is something about looking at people dancing social dance that really touches me,” Emard muses. The choreographer says you don’t have to be an amazing dancer to be an interesting one.

“Dance is very revealing, you know, you’re kind of transparent when you dance. So maybe that’s my voyeur side that is really enjoying that,” he says, laughing.

Barry Kahn, a 63-year-old psychotherapist in Winchester, says he’s never danced in his life.

“Learning how to use my body in a creative way is pretty new to me,” he says. “It’s a lot of work.”

Kahn admits he wasn’t enthusiastic in the beginning, but the woman he’s dating encouraged him to sign up. Doing something new has been helping Kahn through a very hard time; his wife died almost two years ago.

“She had cancer for a long time, and two years ago she was in hospice care, and here I am dancing,” he says. “Life goes on and it’s revitalizing.”

“My roommates make fun of me because I practice in the kitchen,” Tracey Konopinsky, 31, says. She’s an arts advocate and for her, this project is a reawakening.

“Well a long, long time ago in my past life I was a dancer. I grew up dancing classical ballet — so tutus and pointe shoes and I studied dance in college,” Konopinsky recalls. “For me it’s always been about community.”

People from Boston and 29 surrounding communities are here — people Konopinsky says she probably never would’ve crossed paths with in her day-to-day life.

“One of my favorite choreographers growing up was Merce Cunningham. He took on this concept too that you can put pedestrian movement on regular people, and something really magical happens,” she says, adding how much she loves seeing the kids show up still in their softball and baseball uniforms.

Erain Cruz, 11, often comes to rehearsal after games. He lives in Dorchester and is in sixth grade at the Martin Luther King School in Boston. He plays baseball, football, karate and basketball. But he says he also loves to breakdance. The flash mobbers are allowed to choose their own clothes and improvise a few of their own moves during the performance. Cruz is adding "The Wave.”

Before a full-run through choreographer Emard delivers some encouraging words about this weekend's gig from the platform.

“It’s really time to dance now. What we want to do on Copley Square is to print ourselves on the space so when we’re gone it’s still there,” he says. The room fills with applause.

For Emard watching this community of dancers take form is more satisfying than the actual performances. And he says people in the audience can always find someone in the crowd to connect with.

“You see a group, but strangely you see individuals. And people identify with them, And they come to me after and they just want to register for the next one,” he says.

The next flash mob will be in British Columbia, and it’s the first set to be performed in the winter.

“But it’s Vancouver, so there’s no snow there,” the choreographer said laughing.

“Le Grande Continental” is part of Celebrity Series 75th anniversary season. The dance flash mob will perform at Copley Square Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed the performance time for Sunday. It's 3 p.m. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on May 16, 2014.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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