It all started at the Vegas Dance Explosion in 2004. “Those Phoenix dancers sure are a nice bunch”, I told my friends, “It’s a lot of fun to have them in my classes”. The friendly dancers had told me enthusiastically all about their instructors, Fran DeWar and Cindy Jones, and what a great time they had with them. So it was a real thrill to hear from Fran shortly afterwards with an invitation to teach at the Phoenix Dance Festival in April of 2006. It seemed a long time to wait but it soon rolled around!
Neither my husband, Michael, nor I had ever been to Arizona. We both imagined a desert waste land with cacti and coyotes. Perhaps a few John Wayne look-alikes galloping their horses, lassoes in hand, after their herds of cattle!! Instead, we flew into a modern city spreading for miles over a valley base surrounded by rugged mountain ranges. We had arrived a day early so we could look around the city but you could spend weeks here and still not check out everything there is to see. First we toured, roaming around Scottsdale which is famous for its art galleries and fashion centre. You need a fat bank account if you want to shop here but its fun to look. On the foothills of the McDowell Mountains and surrounded by the Sonoran Desert you’ll find the mansions of the rich and famous but we also discovered Taliesin West. This 600 acre complex was designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1930s and has attracted tourists ever since. If sports are more to your liking than architectural design, then a visit to the Chase Field for a baseball game is a must. This facility is the only one in the world that combines a retractable roof, air conditioning, and a natural turf field – what a combination!
But there’s more, you could hike Camelback Mountain, visit one of the diverse museums such as the Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum or the Pueblo Grand Museum, check out the Phoenix Zoo or visit the Indian Market. I have always been fascinated by desert vegetation so a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden was close to the top of my “must see” list along with the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. However, just driving around the streets looking at the local gardens with many of the cacti in flower was a delight to my eyes. I would have loved to have brought some back but somehow I don’t think they would survive in this northern hemisphere! To Michael’s delight he discovered that there were numerous golf courses. He also discovered a horse track and some good casinos so he was happy!
I know …. By now you want to hear about the dancing but before I tell you, I should add that we stayed on a couple of extra days so we could visit the Grand Canyon. The south rim is approximately just over four hours from Phoenix. It’s an easy drive and the Canyon is a sight not to be missed. It is absolutely breathtaking – photos do not do it justice. Two hundred and seventy-seven miles in length and ten miles wide – no wonder the Grand Canyon is one of the seven wonders of the world. On the way back we stopped in Sedona. Just a couple of hours from Phoenix, it is a beautiful place; in fact I can’t think of superlatives that would describe this attractive town and surrounding red rock country adequately. So all in all, a visit to the Phoenix Dance Festival can be an exciting trip!
So let’s get to the dance action. The event was held in the Sheraton Crescent Hotel about 20 minutes or so from the airport. It’s a beautiful hotel with staff that were extremely obliging and friendly. I was told that the hotel food was very good but a little pricey. However, there were fast food restaurants and others close by so there was choice. If you like tennis, bring your rackets as there were two tennis courts, as well as a large swimming pool and a separate water slide and Jacuzzi. The event flyer had announced a volley ball match on the Thursday night. For the life of me I couldn’t imagine how you could play volley ball in a hotel but, there again, I had never been in a hotel that had its own beach volley ball court! What a great way to start an event!! First everyone headed up to the hospitality room where Dwight Nelson made his famous margaritas! A few of those down you and volley ball was a piece of cake!! The cheerleaders got into action inspiring team spirit and the final tally was the winners -- Orange Crush, runners up -- the Blue Guys!!! It was such a lot of fun! Still time left to dance with DJ JP Potter in charge in the ballroom.
The next morning started bright and early with the instructor demos at 8 a.m. in the Pavillion. This is the first time I have danced outside at an event and it was a most agreeable experience. There was a large tent to give us shade and a couple of huge fans to keep us cool. Informal and spontaneous is how I would describe the demos. You just can’t keep some of those instructors on track!!! There were two ballrooms in addition to the Pavillion to allow for three classes each hour and each dance taught was repeated which I think is a terrific concept. It allows dancers an opportunity to catch a dance if they miss it the first time around or to take it a second time if they want to get it downpat. It also means that the number of dances taught at an event is not overwhelming. It makes for tricky scheduling for organizers but I think its well worth it. If you felt like giving your feet a rest you could watch the competitions which incuded a line dance section.
I started off learning ‘Soul to Soul’ patiently taught by Michael Barr. It was written by him and Michele Burton to the Amato’s wonderful version of ‘It’s Your Love’. The dance takes some concentration but it really flows. Great job by this talented couple from California. I needed some refreshing with ‘Shake Yourself Loose’ so it was off to Joanne Brady’s class. You don’t just go to Joanne’s class to learn a dance, you go there to have fun! Joanne is an excellent instructor who keeps you so entertained that you learn without realizing that you are! ‘Feel My Vibe’ was next on my list with the gifted Michele Perron from British Columbia, Canada. What an unusual piece of music and at the same time very catchy. The dance has some different moves in it as is expected from Michele but the dancers picked it up quickly. Michele has lots of fans down here and her dances filled the floor during the evening sessions. Barry and Dari Anne Amato, as always, are a pleasure to watch dance and at the same time are such pleasant and capable instructors. ‘Toy Soldier’ attracted those dancers wanting a challenge while at the same time Barry & Dari Anne presented two excellent beginner dances, ‘King of the Road’ and ‘Foolish Heart’.
It was Jamie Marshall’s first trip to the event and the crowd certainly seemed to enjoy her classes. One of my favourites, ‘Bomshel Stomp’, that Jamie wrote with Karen Hedges, created some merriment at the evening dance and I think ‘Wiggle It’ will do the same!! Always full of energy and enthusiasm, Jamie is fun to be around. Successful Windy City Event Organizers and well known choreographers, Mark Cosenza and Glen Pospieszny presented some good dances together including ‘Love is Alive’ and ‘Where R U?’. Glen’s ‘Infernal’, which I enjoyed at the Vegas Dance Explosion, is attracting interest and dancers turned up to check it out. Michele Burton meanwhile was taking her team through ‘Greased Lightning’. You should check out the photos to see the grand finale of this routine!!
Michael Diven from Pennsylvania was a new face to me. Dancers enjoyed his friendly attitude and his dance T.C.A. Meanwhile there was more strong representation from California with young Bracken Ellis of ‘Under Your Spell’ fame teaching ‘I am Afraid’ and Noel Castle taking us through a beginner dance with just a bit of a challenge ‘Goin’ Down Rockin’’ and the intermediate ‘Our Hideaway’. They are both capable instructors and creative choreographers. JP Potter also took a moment away from the DJ Booth to teach ‘Geek in Pink’. I had friendly, patient dancers when I taught Dance-Zone, Soft & Slow and Mestizzo.
But there was one special person missing and although he did a terrific job of instructing and entertaining us, we knew that Doug Miranda was constantly aware of the empty space on his right side. Many of you will know that Jackie Miranda had emergency surgery in Hawaii. The good news is that she is now home and recovering well. Dedicated professionals that they are, they decided that Doug’s mother would fly out to be with Jackie as she recovered from surgery so that Doug could return and travel with his dance floor to Phoenix as promised. Doug’s phone bill will be enormous as dancers took turns to speak to Jackie or sent messages along as Doug checked up on her. Take care of yourself Jackie, we all look forward to seeing you back on the dance floor again soon.
And then there was the show. Quite a number of people had told me that the show for them was the highlight and Fran herself said that she is always eager to see what Dwight Nelson has put together. I should add here that Dwight is also a terrific cook making most of the meals for the instructors and he is a most welcoming individual. I find it a little nerve wracking to instruct at a new event but in the Hospitality Room Dwight greeted me like a long lost friend and immediately I felt a part of the group. I should also add that, once I started teaching, the dancers here are so friendly that any anxiety I felt soon melted away.
Back to the show which started with a moving rendition of the national anthem by the multi talented Amatos. With Doug Miranda as the MC the audience expects to encounter the unexpected but a few eyebrows raised when he announced that Fran, Sandi and Dwight are equestrian champions and were going to give a display of their skill! Suffice to say, if they decide to give this performance again make sure you are there … with a hanky handy to wipe away the tears of laughter!!! We were then treated to some absolutely amazing routines by the couples dancers including Sandi Nelson. Our line dancers put on a great show as well with Michael Barr & Michele Burton, the impressive Amatos, Michael Diven, and Jamie & Joanne who displayed their prowess with a lasso!
Time then for the dancers to take to the floor. JP Potter, aided by Bracken, did a good job of keeping the floor filled with a mix of old and new. One interesting idea was to clear the request list around 10:30 p.m. and start again with an empty slate. The rationale was that quite a few of the dancers who had made requests had left by that time
I took a moment to have a chat with Fran to find out a little about her. Fran told me she has been dancing since she was 3. Her mother was a swing dancer and took Fran along with her. Fran started with country couples and competed in many events including UCWDC. She started line dancing in 1990 and discovered a huge demand for it in Phoenix. Her classes during the season average between 150-300 students and she puts through 1500 dancers in a week. Her biggest class had 600 dancers in it!
Fran also used to have a dance team called the ‘Trippers’ and, responding to the demand in the Phoenix area, the team put on the first event in 2001. Sandi was a vendor at that event and thought it would be a great idea to combine couples and line and so the current format of the event was borne. The combination of couples and line dancers has not succeeded at many events but at this one both groups seemed to get along well. They both had good dance spaces allocated and lots of attention given to them; as far as I could tell neither seemed to feel they lacked anything. Both Sandi and Fran have backgrounds in both dance forms and that obviously really helps in the understanding of what both sides need in a dance event. As it is Fran told me that her dancers tell her who they would like to have teach and a panel of dancers also choose the dances that are taught out of those submitted by the instructors, so the event is very much dancer focussed. It is also very well organized but, as Fran said with heartfelt conviction, there is no way the event could succeed without the help of their dedicated volunteers. Fran and Sandi and their volunteers were always available and looked like they were enjoying themselves as much as the dancers. Fran was a great MC for the line dance demos; she has a dry sense of humour and a mischievous smile! Her dancers are obviously very fond of her and when she injured her thumb trying to prevent a speaker falling, their concern was evident.
We are so fortunate to have events of this caliber to attend. They take a tremendous amount of work, time and financial commitment. Yet there was something here for everyone; great hotel, very competent and responsive event organizers and volunteers, lots of great vendors, capable outgoing instructors teaching all levels of dances, friendly dancers and lots of fun, what more could you want?! Fran is in the process of setting the date for next year’s event; check out her website and don’t forget to mark it down in your calendar – time to head down the trail to Arizona!