Build your own Built on Stilts performance

A summer favorite will come together in a new way this year.

A warm-up at a previous Built on Stilts dance festival. — Jaxon White

Abby Bender has turned the proverbial lemon into the most splendid of lemonades when it comes to Built on Stilts, an iconic summer tradition on the Vineyard.

“Canceling the festival was an incredibly hard decision,” Bender, director of BOS, says. “I thought about it for weeks, and ultimately determined that I didn’t want the festival to just go fallow. Next summer will be our 25th season, and I wondered if we might still celebrate that milestone if we don’t have a 24th season? If we skip a year, the uninterrupted tradition is broken. We need to connect to dance, somehow.”

Bender challenged herself, asking, “How do you come up with something that embodies the spirit of Built on Stilts, which is all about all of us being present together?” Her first answer is a quarantined/extremely socially distant flash mob dance performance.

“I’ll develop a one- to two-minute dance phrase that incorporates moves or gestures that people send to me. I’ll stitch together the contributed material so it becomes ‘our’ phrase, which we’ll repeat several times,” Bender said. “It won’t be too ‘dancey,’ so anyone can learn it. There will be plenty of room for interpretation and personal style to come through.” Bender will teach the sequence online, and also provide a video that you can download to be able to practice on your own, along with the original score she has commissioned from Brian Hughes.

For more unity, Bender says, “Everyone will dress in red — the color of blood, determination, energy, and passion. I invite kids and families to engage, and hope everyone who wishes to will get involved.”

The grand event occurs on August 22 at 3 pm. The performance breaks the traditional concept of a stage. Dancers — whether on-Island in their backyard or spaced apart with a few other performers at Ocean Park, Five Corners, Featherstone, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum campus — or on their rooftop in Brooklyn or living room in D.C., will perform the piece simultaneously. Bender will coordinate any of the dancers who want to perform in public spaces so that there is always appropriate social distancing. “If I can get 100, 200 people across the Island, which might be ambitious, but certainly not impossible, then that’s about the number of dancers who perform in Built on Stilts every year,” she says, “My hope is that we’ll feel that collective energy whether we can see each other or not.”

Bender asks the dancers to videotape themselves and send it to her after the fact. She will then splice together one edited stream of movement. It might be five seconds of dancer X and the next five seconds by dancer Y knit into a collage of performers. (See examples online at Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE or Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.)

Another special opportunity is to submit a dance on or for video, anywhere from 10 seconds to seven minutes long. Live Built on Stilts policies apply — it must be appropriate for all ages; no nudity, swearing, or hate-mongering.

“It can be anything, a full-scale dance shot on video, a clip of you shaking your booty, a recording of your feet, your eyes, your hands, your Zoom class in gallery mode, a montage of still images, a movement–based experiment on film of any kind,” Bender explains.

Now, there’s a catch to creating dance for the internet that attempts to use copyrighted music. Don’t do it unless you want to pursue permission and or a license for use from the original musician and/or copyright owner. There are content ID searching algorithms online that will likely take your video down, which would be a shame after all that creative effort. (Although it addresses legal use for podcasts, not videos, Bender offers this read for a good explanation about the issue:

But again, with this lemonade situation, Bender passionately feels, “This challenge poses terrific opportunities to try new things.” She’s been in contact with several musicians from the Island and beyond on behalf of Built on Stilts, and many of them are happy to permit the use of their existing music for free for noncommercial work. Several of them are also eager to collaborate with choreographers on something new. Bender has a list of contacts and details for these musicians that you can get from her directly, as well as other sources for free music online. Another alternative she suggests is to create your own music or poetry to dance to — or use no music at all, allowing for silence or for the natural sounds in your environment to come through.

After recording your dance, just upload your video to an online platform that the public can directly link to, such as YouTube or Vimeo or your own website, if you have one that supports video streaming. Provide links to Bender by August 8, as she wants to start posting them on the Built on Stilts website and social networking platforms, rolling out several a day starting on August 10 to echo the usual two-week time span of Built on Stilts.

What’s special about both these new opportunities is that anyone and everyone — on the Island or off — can participate and/or be an audience member this year.

“I’m excited about these projects, and I feel like this strange, new approach has legs because we’re going to be hungry for action by late summer,” Bender says. “The more, the merrier. We’re getting through this — dance, everyone, dance!”

Important dates

Gesture contributions for flash mob by July 10.

URL (and password if you choose to have one) for dance video by August 8.

Send the locations where you think you’d like to perform your flash mob dance by August 15.

Save the date for 3 pm, August 22, for the flash mob (rain date August 23).

Submit video or your flash mob by Sept. 1.

Contact Abby Bender directly for more information and ways to get involved at, or text 508-717-2887.