Tampa has never been a mecca for dance. It has no professional troupe of its own and most of its dance palette comes from the out-of-town companies that pass through the Straz Center for Performing Arts on national tours.
Moreover, summertime, when snowbird fans are up north, getting their fix at festivals like Jacob's Pillow, provides a pretty paltry dance card wherever you go in Florida.
Two upcoming productions, however — the venerable Florida Dance Festival, back in Tampa for the fourth year, and the Millennium Dancesport Championships, the nation's largest ballroom competition — offer a welcome respite from the summer dance doldrums and a good excuse for a short road trip.
Both have revised their programming this year to provide extra enticements, from Hollywood stars to socially-relevant choreography.
With the Sarasota Ballet on vacation after its critically-acclaimed appearances in Washington, D.C., this is the best of what June has to offer to the Bay area dance fan in withdrawal.
Florida Dance Festival
The Florida Dance Association's annual festival, at the University of South Florida-Tampa for the fourth year, will present its usual fare drawn from the traditional modern dance arena, including from the Houston- and Atlanta-based Core Performance Company and a showcase by the dance students attending the concurrent summer training workshop.
But this year it has strayed a bit farther afield for its performance series, adding a mixed-abilities work, and two multidisciplinary pieces, one by a contemporary but classically-trained Indian dancer and another by a transgender choreographer whose work focuses on the LBGT community.
"I've been very modern-centric in the past and although this is still heavily modern, it's not the modern I'm used to producing," said Bill Doolin, Florida Dance Association's director (and one-man show) since 2007. "I decided to go a little beyond what I had done in the past, so I could educate the audience a little more, which is also one of my missions."
Two of those choices bring artists who have never performed in the Bay Area, and subject matter that is at least nominally, if not overtly, political.
"I don't like politically offensive work and I don't think it belongs on the stage, so they are not that," Doolin said of the work of Sheetal Gandhi and the Sean Dorsey Dance group. "It's work that is great to look at but also makes you think and gives you an experience you haven't had before."
Gandhi, the child of parents who came to America from India, kicks off the series June 19 with her original solo "Bahu-Beti-Biwi" ("Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife"). It combines a contemporary interpretation of Kathak dance and music from northern India with live song and percussive text and portrays an Indian-American girl — not unlike Gandhi herself, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area — journeying through different generations as she redefines her ancestors' interpretations of freedom, compromise, desire, longing, duty and love.
The piece had its genesis in a conversation Gandhi had with her father's brother's wife on a visit to India when she was just 17. Idealizing her relative's devotion to the homefront, she was shocked when her aunt, only a few years older than herself, told her: "But I'm like you. I'm young blood and there is more that I want."
"I realized, oh my god, I have all these options and they are not available to her," Gandhi recalled. "Her life is under the umbrella of what her in-laws will allow."
Eventually, Gandhi gathered stories and created character studies of other Indian women, which she distilled into what would become a solo thesis for her M.F.A. degree. The piece premiered professionally in Los Angeles in 2010 and she has since performed it around the world, including in India.
While it is anything but traditional, Gandhi set herself the challenge of retaining certain rhythmic rules present in classical Indian music and dance, staying true to their structures, but allowing a greater accessibility to those unfamiliar with Indian dance through her freedom of movement and the addition of text.
"I try to take people on this poetic journey through these different lives, which could well be the same life," said Gandhi, 41.
While she did not set out to make a political statement, Gandhi, who is best known for her work as a creator and performer in Cirque du Soleil's "Dralion" and leading role in Broadway's "Bombay Dreams," believes the piece "gives these people a voice and myself a voice in the process."
"This isn't just about Indian women, but about women all over the world," she said. "I'm passionate about the freedom of the human spirit, so experiencing these women, people not able to have the thing they want, connects with the longing in all of us."
Likewise, San Francisco-based choreographer Sean Dorsey drew on history "left out of family albums and history books," as well as societal taboos, for "The Secret History of Love," based on his two-year LGBT Elders Oral History Project, which gathered stories of how transgenders and homosexuals found each other and love under the radar during the 1920s.
"The whole project for me was completely life-changing," says Dorsey, who defines himself as transgender and queer. "It just really blew my mind and filled my heart to discover the extent of loving and activism was far greater than I had imagined."
Dorsey's company of four men, Sean Dorsey Dance, will be joined by his transgender partner of 12 years, singer/songwriter Shawna Virago, who will "flip genders" to perform a torch song. The work, which premiered in 2012 and is on a 20-city performance tour through next year, also includes text, spoken by real people from the elders' project, in their own voices.
Dorsey has received national attention for his groundbreaking work through the nonprofit Fresh Meat Productions, which is dedicated solely to the creation and presentation of transgender arts. But he said he could never have imagined how the national landscape has changed since he began his research four years ago.
"It's been incredibly serendipitous," Dorsey said. "When I began, I could not have predicted that LGBT rights would be so much at the forefront of the national conversation. I was just working to uncover a part of our history that hasn't been documented or shared, and certainly never expressed through the arts."
Both Gandhi and Dorsey will offer workshops to the general public during their Tampa visits. Gandhi will present a Bollywood master class at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Dorsey, a free modern dance class especially targeted toward non-dancers, at 11 a.m. June 29.
Miami dancer and choreographer Heather Maloney, in collaboration with danceAble, a project for able and non-abled dancers, will also present "unquiet / body," featuring dancers Joanne Barrett and John Beuregard, a former construction worker who took up dance after a work-related accident that left him a near-quadriplegic.
Millennium Dancesport Championships
In addition to featuring the largest field of professional and amateur ballroom competitors in the country — more than 2,000 total, up 20 percent from last year — this 13-year-old ballroom competition presented by Michael Chapman has added television celebrities, the filming of a new dance reality show, renowned musicians from Cuba and a salsa dance convention to its week of partner-dance activities.
It will also host, for the first time, the prestigious World Professional Latin Showdance Championships, with the 20 top competitors from around the world and nine judges from as far away as Australia and China.
"It's like the Olympics; it travels to a different country every year," said Chapman, a former ballroom champion and Tampa resident who now produces two major ballroom competitions in Florida and a third in California. "This year it's the U.S.A.'s turn to host and we want to bring it to a new level."
So Chapman has pulled out all the stops for the event he is calling "An Evening at the Tropicana," meant to invoke the famous Cuban nightspot, complete with showgirls and live music from Orquesta Aragón, the Cuban band that introduced the cha cha to the world.
To attract a crowd less familiar with the competition world, but smitten with ballroom by way of popular television reality shows, Chapman has also called on members of his "dance family" to appear as guests, including longtime pals Max Chmerkovsky, Tony Dovolani (from "Dancing with the Stars") and Mary Murphy (from "So You Think You Can Dance").
The event will provide the backdrop for filming an episode of the newest dance television show, "Ballroom Blitz," coming from the TLC network in late September. Several top pro-am competitors (students who dance with their instructors) have been selected for filming during the event to provide material for the show, which focuses on young ballroom dancers' path to perfection — much as the documentary "First Position" did for aspiring ballet dancers.
Because his former competitive partner, Anna Llorente, a world mambo champion in the '90s, is from Cuba, Chapman had a direct connection to add a salsa competition, "Salsa Explosion," to the lineup.
A single salsa "congress," as such conventions are known, can draw up to 25,000 people, but in the past they have operated in a world apart from the ballroom landscape. Chapman, ever the entrepreneur, is trying to change that.
"We're working together to unite the two genres," he said. "My goal is to unite the salsa world and the ballroom dance industry."
Chapman started dancing at age 9 in Tennessee, but moved to Tampa at age 12, where he began training in ballet and eventually became an instructor at the local Fred Astaire franchise. After a successful career performing in the professional exhibitions, Chapman retired in 1998 and focused his energies on becoming a producer of ballroom competitions.
"It's quite emotional when you hang up your ballroom shoes, and I wanted to put my creativity into something," he said. "I wanted to create a stage for myself and for other dancers."
To give back to his one-time community, Chapman has also arranged a benefit for the Arts Alliance of St. Petersburg at the end of the competition on June 23. The St. Petersburg Coliseum will be the venue for "Afternoon in Havana," a concert with live music, dancing, exhibitions, Cuban food and a cigar lounge.
"I had this incredible orchestra coming from Cuba and I thought, 'Why not share this on both sides of the bay?'" Chapman said. "I always try to create something next and different every year that neither the dancers nor the audience have experienced. I call it the future of Dancesport."
FLORIDA DANCE FESTIVAL performance series, June 17-29, University of South Florida Theatre 2, 3829 USF W. Holly Drive, Tampa. $7-$22. (800) 982-2787; www.floridadanceassociation.org. 8 p.m. June 19: Sheetal Gandhi, "Bahu-Beti-Biwi" ("Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife"); 8 p.m. June 22: Core Performance Company; 8 p.m. June 26: Heather Maloney "unquiet / body," with John Beauregard; 8 p.m. June 28: Sean Dorsey Dance "The Secret History of Love; 7:30 p.m. June 29: Festival Finale, festival students showcase.
MILLENNIUM DANCESPORT CHAMPIONSHIPS, "An Evening at the Tropicana," June 18-22 at the Marriott Waterside Resort, 700 S. Florida Ave., Tampa. Live music from Orquesta Aragón; guests Maks Chmerkovsky and Tony Dovolani from "Dancing with the Stars" and Mary Murphy from "So You Think You Can Dance." $25-$150; "An Afternoon in Havana," 2-6 p.m. June 23, St. Petersburg Colieseum, 535 4th Ave. N., St. Petersburg, with live music, dance and Cuban food. $70-$150; www.m2dance.com