Abby Bender is once again leading the charge of this summer’s engaging and always fun dance extravaganza. She, along with Anna Luckey, began Built on Stilts in 1997 as a welcoming, grassroots performance outlet for Island artists. It’s grown from a single night to this season’s six-night festival. Over the years, some 1,400 performers of all ages, backgrounds, and dance levels — from newcomers to professionals — have gathered together to celebrate all things dance at the historic Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.
The array of talent is broad, and you never know what you might see: ballet, modern, hip-hop, jazz, tap, breakdance, ballroom, belly dance, martial arts, line dancing, movement theater, circus arts, mime, improvisation, spoken word — or stilting. Each night offers a different selection of this year’s 40 or so pieces, making it all that more enticing to attend multiple evenings.
Even though she has been producing the festival for well over two decades, Bender gets sustenance from the hard work she and everyone else puts in. “No matter what, when I get that first group into the Chapel and tech their piece and figure it out, I get that feeling,” Bender says. “And it comes at the right time of year. It absolutely rekindles my faith in humanity right when I’m so grouchy because of traffic, or because I can’t walk down the widened sidewalks since people are still spreading out. And then this happens; the feeling is just amazing.”
The process takes off when registration closes on July 1. Anyone over 16 years old can sign up, although performers in a group can be younger. About 60 to 70 percent of artists are repeats. Everyone gets a tech rehearsal to figure out spacing and other logistics. There’s also a dress rehearsal and production meeting at 4 pm for each show, and then everyone takes a break for dinner and to rest up for the night ahead.
Bender notes that it’s a significant time commitment for performers, and that’s become more of a challenge over time. “I noticed that probably for the first 10 years, we didn’t have a problem giving all our time to it,” she says. “It’s what we wanted to do. Nowadays, I don’t know if it’s because younger people have to work much more since it’s so much more expensive, but it’s much harder to get them to be super-comfortable with the amount of time you have to put in.” Yet with some 100 performers this summer, clearly, young and old alike feel every moment is worth it.
You don’t just “see” a Built on Stilts show, you feel it. The energy generated by the outpouring of community support is tangible. The night starts from the moment the doors open at 7:30 pm. Family, kids, friends, dance lovers, and Island visitors pour into the Chapel greeting one another, excited to see what’s in store. The space throbs, too, with Scott Hershowitz’s improvisational drum circle of musicians, who set the upbeat tone before the show. The dancers soon come out, circling around them, so observers are treated to seeing them limber up and get their jitters out. Bender reflects on the drum circle ritual: “It’s a signature part of Built on Stilts because it gets the audience so psyched, and sucks in people just walking around Oak Bluffs.”
At 8 pm, the dancers and musicians disperse, and Bender takes the stage to introduce the show, which proceeds at a rapid pace. With a seven-minute limit and only moments between pieces, the night whizzes by with solos and large groups, with performances ranging from serious to funny, tender, or endearing. What’s ubiquitous is the audience’s raucous applause and vocal accolades, honoring each dancer for their artistry.
Built on Stilts celebrates the remarkable artistic spirit that permeates the Island, and the love from the community that so enthusiastically supports it. You can rest assured, as Bender says: “Everyone is amazing, and it’s got the same brand of wonderfulness as always this year.”
Built on Stilts runs from August 10 through 12, and August 19 through 21, at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. Admission is free, but donations at the door are encouraged. No reservations are necessary. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Shows begin at 8 pm, and run for approximately one hour without intermission. For more information, visit builtonstilts.org/2023_festival_schedule_here_.htm.