They're dancing in the streets

A project that's equal parts art, social experiment and self-exploration takes the concept of dancing in the streets down an interesting path.

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Aki Shibata danced blissfully along the Nicollet Mall.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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A long, lean man comes twirling down the sidewalk, bobbing and weaving through the crowd, lost in whatever song is playing on his iPod. A few minutes later, here comes a short, compact woman propelling herself forward with a series of kicks and turns, the private beat from her colorful headphones inspiring her to intense bursts of movement. On her heels is the graceful loper, a tallish young woman wearing muted tones and a ponytail, performing an understated street ballet.

Everywhere they go, heads turn -- clusters swiveling in unison, some on cell phones, some doing obvious double-takes, others keeping their faces forward, but darting their eyes as if afraid of connecting with a flailing limb. A young couple sporting twin dreadlocked hair nests grins broadly and bob their heads in approval. A few people don't appear to notice at all.

If you happen to be on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis on Monday or Thursday evenings, you've probably seen these solo dancers, part of a loosely knit group called "Don't you feel it too?" It's an offshoot of the artists' collaborative Grace MN in St. Paul that promotes, among other things, self-expression in public places.

"There's so much fear around dancing outside, but when I'm doing it, when I'm inside it, with my music, I feel really beautiful," said organizer and conceptual artist Marcus Young. "How often do you really feel that?"

The question on many observers' minds is, why? The quietly charismatic Young describes what they're doing as, in part, "liberating the spirit through dancing our inner life in public places ... where dancing does not usually belong."

Young, a public artist-in-residence for the city of St. Paul, started the project two years ago during the Republican National Convention as a way to offset the controversies surrounding it and to allow for a form of creative self-expression.

He was somewhat reluctant about publicity because the project "requires the automatic audience, the innocent bystanders, to be in a position of not knowing," he said. "We are very strict about what we say and don't say when people ask us what we're doing. We want to maintain a semblance of mystery, so the experience isn't diminished."

The group, open to anyone with comfortable shoes, an iPod stocked with tunes and the willingness to put it out there, will hold its final event of the year on Sept. 23.

Range of reactions

Adventurous soul Meredith Shorb, who moved to Minneapolis a month ago, saw taking part as a novel way to get to know her new city.

First-timer Shorb, who was dancing to, among other songs, "The Dog Days Are Over" by Florence and the Machines, said, "If you give the uptight people a chance, when you come dancing back their way, they might have loosened up a little bit."

Diane Hellekson, who has participated on several evenings, finds it therapeutic. Reactions have ranged from a woman who angrily shouted, "What do you jerk-offs think you're doing?" to a father pushing a stroller who paused to perform a few dance steps himself as she passed, as if to show his child, "see, Daddy's got responsibilities but he's still spontaneous."

On this night, as she made her final moves toward the steps of Peavey Plaza for the group's usual post-dance discussion, a man stopped her and asked to dance with her. She politely obliged.

"Swing dancing to the Clash," Hellekson said. "Don't you feel it, too?"

"What is this, a silent dance party?" asked attorney Britt Kringle of St. Paul, who was downtown with friends. "I want to know what music they're listening to, maybe I'd join them."

"It's really cool, I like them," said 8-year-old Kayla Xiong, whose family sells produce at the Thursday farmers' market on the mall.

Patricia Castro, who has often seen Young and his crew of street soloists walking her beat as a Downtown Improvement District ambassador, said people ask her about the dancers. "I don't really know, but I think it's about self-esteem, and maybe relaxing. They seem relaxed."

The group gets a lot of positive feedback, some of it vocal.

Lugging an armful of groceries and flowers, downtown dweller Aliya Shamsi seemed entranced.

"I just got back from a long commute and then had to go shopping, and it's so nice to see these guys out here moving around like that," she said. "I'd join them but I'm afraid people would think I'm having a seizure."

Pushing boundaries

Four years ago, Minneapolis repealed an ordinance against dancing in the street. But there's an unofficial, unspoken social ordinance against doing anything that makes your fellow sidewalk denizens uncomfortable, and that is the essence of what makes this project so remarkable.

The participants in "Don't you feel it too?" push the boundaries of what it means to be private in public, not by shouting or threatening the space of others, but by dancing, spurred by a longing to find beauty within themselves, and without. Unlike Billy Idol, whose pop hit "Dancing With Myself" was a lament of loneliness, they aren't looking for partners, though they may share a step or two with a willing stranger along the way. Nor are they, as scoffers suggest, seeking attention or individual approval.

As Renee Lepreau did her signature languorous lope past a sign outside the Christian Science Reading Room reading "Are You Curious About Yourself?," her body seemed to silently answer the question: "Yes, and I'm doing something about it."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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