Dance On Philly hopes to revive the ballot-count street party

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People salsa dancing outside

People salsa dancing as part of the Painted Bride's 'Celebrate Your Vote' campaign earlier this month. (Provided by Painted Bride)

This weekend, Philadelphians are invited to participate in an old-school dance party, in the city’s proud tradition of shows like American Bandstand and Dancin’ On Air.

But Dance On Philly will be an online, live-streamed, socially-distanced affair. A rotation of a few dozen professional dancers will perform, 12 at a time, on the floor inside squares taped down to the floor of the Fillmore in Fishtown. The event will include celebrity video testimonials, dance lessons, host banter, and people at home dancing on Zoom occasionally added in real time to the main feed.

Even under pandemic conditions, producer Andrew Hurwitz promises he can pull off a “Soul Train Line,” online.

“It’s an amazing mix of technology and reality,” he said. “It’s taking all the elements that we are all sick of on Zoom and using it in a more social way.”

Previously, Hurwitz had produced Love From Philly, a virtual music festival to benefit performing artists unable to work during the pandemic. Dance On Philly will benefit music and dance education. It has been months in the planning.

“While we were planning all this, we felt funny promoting a dance party with everything going on in the world,” said Hurwitz. “So we laid low until after Election Day.”

But something big happened after Election Day: Philadelphia became the center of a fight over vote counting, which evolved into a massive dance party in the street that the world watched in real time.

“It was the most inspiring use of art as a weapon. Philadelphia turned to the streets to dance with a purpose,” said Hurwitz. “When you hear about these spontaneous dances erupting, a lot of the reason why is there was a DJ there blasting music.”

One of those DJs was Cosmo Baker, spinning in the street before, during and after Election Day with Joy to the Polls, a get-out-the-vote campaign organized by Election Defenders. He saw firsthand what music can do to people waiting in line to vote.

“The look at first of befuddlement, then after 20 minutes that befuddlement turned to absolute joy and mirth,” said Baker. “In my 30-year career, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Cosmo Baker, who DJed on Friday, Nov. 6, for crowds dancing at 12th and Arch streets during the ballot count. (Courtesy of Ali Fenwick / Joy To The Polls)

For decades, Baker has gotten plenty of people on the floor in clubs to dance, but he says dancing on Election Day is different. They were being called to dance while acting out a fundamental American civic duty and right.

“I don’t want to make DJing a solemn occupation — although I do have my feelings about how we make safe environments in dance clubs,” said Baker. “But this was different because it was soundtracking people’s effort to hold onto something they truly believed in: a connection to their country.”

After Election Day, Baker thought that was it. The votes would be counted, a winner would be determined, and he would go back to spinning records live on Twitch and wait for the pandemic to lift so he could play clubs again.

Then he got another call from Election Defenders. Supporters of President Trump were coming to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to oppose the vote count. Could Baker go back out there, to 12th and Arch streets, and play music again?

“We knew it was going to be volatile,” he said. “Their idea was to get out there early, and when these folks showed up they would be met by us, with positivity and joy through dance and music.”

What happened next was seen on television around the world, as the streets around the Convention Center flooded with activists, party-seekers, Philly icons and Philly weirdos who danced to Daft Punk, Freeway and T.S.O.P., cutting a path toward democracy with elation.

“The idea was to take the opportunity to flip the narrative — the narrative that Philly would be looted and burned,” said Baker. “When the cameras started rolling and the eyes of the world get fixed on Philadelphia, they saw people dancing to Luther Vandross and the gayest of disco with signs and flags and flowers.”

That was last weekend.

This weekend, Dance On Philly is hoping to keep that feeling of civic pride going. The online event will feature DJs Abby Klein, Rich Medina, Jabair and Alicextra; dance lessons from professionals like Rhonda Moore, founding member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company; and a video cameo by native son Kevin Bacon, offering dance moves from Footloose.

“We were reaching out to people cold,” said Hurwitz, who said he didn’t previously have a relationship — professional or otherwise — with many people ultimately contributing to the event. “I reached out to Kevin Bacon on Facebook, and three minutes later he sent me a full video of what his suggested dance move is.”

Hurwitz planned the event to begin with “family dancing” from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., geared for young and old, hosted by kiddie rock guitarist Alex Mitnick and NBC10 news anchor Erin Coleman. Then it will move into more adult dancing, hosted by Philadelphia-based singers Lauren Hart — known for singing the national anthem at Flyers games — and Zeek Burse.

The night will wrap up with a set by Cosmo Baker, who says he is still feeling the high of last week’s street party. He wants to stream that energy into people’s homes.

“It definitely will be more of an optimistic and less of a highly charged energy. Let’s find our Zen in what we do,” he said. “On that note, I promise to play a lot of Stevie Wonder. We could always use more Stevie Wonder in our lives.”

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