Dancing Danes

The National Danish Performance Team comes to town for an eight-day stay full of rhythmic gymnastics

Prepare for a Danish invasion.

Twenty-eight dancing Danes will storm into Tucson next week, kicking off eight full days of rhythmic gymnastics workshops, school visits and performances. The members of the National Danish Performance Team will give a free show at the Family Arts Festival downtown on Sunday, Jan. 15, and a full-scale concert performance at Centennial Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

"These are amateur athletes who are the best of the best," says Mia Hansen, a local dance teacher who helped bring the Danes to town. The performers, mostly in their 20s, are on a world tour that's taking them to 15 countries in 10 months. They'll be accompanied by even more Danes, including a documentary filmmaker and--not surprisingly--a physical therapist.

Their distinctively Danish movement, a cross between gymnastics and modern dance, has been practiced in Denmark for more than 80 years, says Hansen, who studied it herself during a childhood year abroad.

"It's called gymnastik in Denmark," she explains. "It's kind of like calisthenics to music, like our aerobics. Its Danish inventor, Nels Buk, developed it as a system of body training, to get people healthier and more active. One out of five Danes participates, young and old, in clubs around the country. It's a national tradition."

Rhythmic gymnastics recently became an Olympic sport, Hansen says, and television broadcasts introduced audiences to its unusual collection of props, including jump ropes, ribbons, hoops and balls.

The hour-and-a-half Centennial Hall performance will have the shape of a dance concert. Performed to recorded music, its choreographed movement will intermix dance styles--tango, Danish folk, hip-hop, funk, lyrical modern--with acrobatic tumbling and leaps.

"In the middle of a hip-hop piece, they'll go into acrobatics, and a girl will jump on a guy's shoulders," says Hansen.

The two dancers in a tango duet will suddenly leap across some of the gymnastic apparatus. A trio of men will roll across the stage in a series of double-back flips.

"They're running and vaulting quickly," she says. "It's high-energy. There's a lot of fluidity. It looks almost like Pilobolus (the modern dance troupe famed for its inventive contortions) but without their body sculptures."

The show even has a loose storyline, a "boy-meets-girl theme that opens it up for artistic modern dance," Hansen says.

Acrobatic clown numbers ("very funny and slapstick") and "artistic vaulting and tumbling" round out the program. Alternating among stunts, dance and story, the whole show is "Cirque du Soleil-ish," Hansen says. In fact, the team will head to Las Vegas shortly after its Tucson gig and give a private 1 a.m. performance for the Cirque du Soleil performers.

In Tucson, where they'll lodge with local families, the rhythmic gymnasts will be busy with a host of activities. They'll visit a geography class at Pistor Middle School and tell the kids about their country. Language won't be a problem. There are virtually "no Danes who speak less than three languages," Hansen asserts.

They'll have a potluck dinner with a local Danish club and lead gymnastic workshops at Cholla High School, Pistor, Lawrence Intermediate, St. Gregory, the UA, a Boys and Girls Club and even the teen club Skrappy's. The performance at the Family Arts Festival will also include a free workshop.

At Ballet Arts, they'll teach young students tumbling and gymnastics, "another way of moving the body." They'll even show the UA Wildcats a move or two, making a halftime appearance at the men's basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 19.

The gymnasts--both women and men--are selected not only for their athletic prowess, but their enthusiasm for cultural exchange.

"They commit to a year of travel around the world, and they participate in all aspects," Hansen says.

A former Up With People dancer who teaches international, social and jazz dancing at Ballet Arts, Hansen has a longtime emotional connection to the movement form. Her late parents were Danish gymnasts who met in 1947, while touring America with an earlier national team. The cultural exchange in their case was profound. They fell in love with each other and with America, married and immigrated to the United States. Once the family settled in Oregon, they hosted visiting Danish team members over the years.

When the current team manager contacted Hansen about organizing a visit to Tucson, he recognized her name. "I was at your home in 1977," he told her. Hansen willingly agreed to coordinate the visit, along with her brother, Mark Hansen, a Tucson quad rugby player.

"There are lots of connections," Hansen says. And she's hoping for more. "We're really excited about the community response."

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