A new exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is so marvelously interactive that even the most staid and proper among us will be tapping their toes.
“Dance!” — a display of dance culture, memorabilia and artifacts tucked into a secondary gallery next to the new permanent “American Pop” — can’t be missed because of of the eye-catching dancer-shaped mirrors along the royal blue walls at the entrance.
The mirrors act as a magnet, drawing people in, as more than a few passing museum visitors envisioned themselves as dancers, taking on the poses of the mirrors before moving on.
Elegant mood lighting shines on the iconic artifacts in the exhibit’s foyer of three dance costumes: a ballet tutu, a ceremonial costume from the Polynesian Islands and a hoodie, jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers – the street style of break dancers and hip-hop artists.
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The exhibit covers these types of dance and much more. And the museum shows its sense of humor, incorporating the words of iconic dancer and pop star M.C. Hammer into the signage of the centerpiece display; instead of “Please do not touch,” the sign reads, “Can’t touch this.” Don’t try. The costumes are out of reach anyway.
A central theme runs throughout the exhibit: “Dance happens when people tell a story or express emotion by moving their bodies to a rhythm.”
Anyone who has ever enjoyed any kind of dance as visual entertainment knows that the dancers make it look easier. “Dance!” makes a point by comparing brand new tap shoes and toe shoes next to shoes that have seen more than 3,000 hours of dancing. The wear and tear on the soles of the shoes proves that it’s not as easy as it looks.
It’s impossible to keep your feet still moving through the displays. Music from a variety of cultures and styles of dance ebbs and flows as visitors move closer to one display and away from another.
A series of screens in one section of the room features dancers from different decades of the 20th century demonstrating the dances of each era.
A 1920s flapper puts her all into the Charleston; a couple from the 1940s swings through the Jitterbug; a chubby guy in a black fedora, button-down shirt and a tie gyrates through the Twist from the 1950s; and last but not least, you can’t help but smile at the guy in the purple leisure suit step-kicking through the Hustle from the 1970s.
One display pays tribute to the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Video clips of Berkeley’s over-the-top human pyramid dance choreography play while museum-goers place colored pegs (dancers) on what looks like a flat white plate; but push the button, and sections of the plate begin to rotate and rise like a wedding cake. Congratulations, you’ve just choreographed your own Busby Berkeley dance routine!
Dance from other countries receives equal attention. Video of interpretive dance from Japan, the South Seas and India invites visitors to match the dance on the screen to the story being told. It’s challenging, but once the matches are made, it’s easy to see the story in the movements.
Pop culture items throughout the exhibit serve as touchstones: a sparkly blue dress worn by Olympic ice skater Kristi Yamaguchi when she appeared on “Dancing with the Stars;” an equally glittery red dress and shoes worn by actress and dancer Debbie Reynolds during her Las Vegas act; James Cagney’s shoes from the 1942 movie, “Yankee Doodle Dandy;” a costume worn in 1948 by renowned dancer Gene Kelly in “The Pirate.”
The most delightfully interactive aspect of the exhibit presents a stage fronted by rows of red seats for an audience. At times during the museum day, performances and presentations by trained dancers use the space.
But during its unused hours, visitors are welcome to walk out onto the stage. And when they do, they turn around to see a video screen above the seats, with a teacher who leads a class of museum attendees/would-be dancers through the steps of ballet, tap, modern and other forms of dance.
The genius of this setup gives structure to its participants: those on the stage find themselves following the example of the instructor on the screen in an actual choreographed dance.
For those who are sitting and watching in the audience, buttons between the seats create sound effects of a crowd applauding, calling ‘bravo,’ reacting in surprise or calling for an encore – all of which the “Dance!” exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis deserves.
“Dance!” shows at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, 3400 N. Meridian through April 2018. Visit childrensmuseum.org for hours of operation and admission.