By Donalevan Maines
A whole new world awakens for naïve teenager Frances “Baby” Houseman when she sees the grinding hip moves of John Swapshire and friends “kicking it” in Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story On Stage.
“She looks at us, and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, where’d they learn to do that?’” says the out dancer, whose first professional tour will help christen the Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land, January 20–22, 2017.
The $84 million, state-of-the-art venue will boast back-to-back performances by Jerry Seinfeld at its January 14 grand-opening celebration, with Dirty Dancing hot on its heels as the center’s first theatrical performance.
“Oh, wow,” says Swapshire. “I feel like Houston is going to love this being one of the first shows there. The timing is just perfect, especially with the [presidential] election and everything that’s been going on.”
He describes the musical as a balm for the weary, and its North American tour a victory march for optimists.
The show is set in the summer of 1963, against the backdrop of the civil-rights movement. “There is actually a moment when we all stop and listen to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech,” says Swapshire. “To me, it’s really personal, being an African American. I feel connected. [Comparing 1963 with today], things have changed, but they haven’t changed that much, and the show is a reminder not to go back there.”
Swapshire was born and raised in St. Louis, where both he and his mother, soprano Ginger James, graduated from Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. “Performing arts was a natural thing in our family,” he says. “My brother, five years older than me, played the saxophone. I was the dancer in the house.”
Swapshire’s mother introduced him to the 1987 coming-of-age movie Dirty Dancing, which starred the late Patrick Swayze of Houston as bad-boy rebel Johnny Castle, and newcomer Jennifer Grey as Baby. “I instantly fell in love with it,” he says. “It actually was a big deal for me,” especially its depiction of blacks and whites “kicking it” together in the working-class staff quarters of Kellerman’s, a fictional resort in the Catskill Mountains of southeastern New York.
While earning a bachelor of fine arts in dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Swapshire got to travel a lot during his five seasons with Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company, which is hailed for expressing important social issues, provoking thought, and speaking to the human spirit.
This year, the Valentine’s Day baby graduated from college three months after turning 23. A week later, he says, “I got the phone call that I landed this gig. The great thing is that I am an ensemble dancer, so I am onstage a lot. I have two different roles. My upstairs character is in ballroom scenes where everyone dresses elegantly. Then downstairs is where we do the grinding, lusty, fiery dancing.”
This production’s ballroom scenes, however, are more inclusive than the movie’s depiction of snobby, upper-class Jewish patrons and upwardly mobile staff, with Jack Weston (as owner Max Kellerman) saying, “This is your waiter, Robbie Gold, Yale Medical School.”
In the stage production, says Swapshire, “There is a lot of diversity upstairs, too.”
You mean integrated dancing, in the family foxtrot?
“Yes,” says Swapshire. “At Kellerman’s, I believe it would have been appropriate. People could have been ceding the style of dancing to kind of bring both worlds together, cross-blending cultures [through] the arts to build a beautiful, diverse world.”
In a “perfect world,” Swapshire says he has two dream roles. “I would like to play a male witch in the musical Wicked, cross-blending gender and color and all that, and in the future a role I plan to do is Scar in The Lion King.” (In the original film, Jeremy Irons voiced the role of Scar, winning the 1990 Annie Award for Best Achievement for Voice Acting, four years after sweeping major honors, including an Oscar, for Best Actor as Claud von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune.)
Dirty Dancing won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” and its best-selling soundtrack included Swayze singing “She’s Like the Wind.”
Swapshire loves the mambo that’s performed by the stars of both the movie and the stage show, as well as the raunchy medley of “Do You Love Me” (The Contours) and “Love Man” (Otis Redding) that introduces Baby to dirty dancing. But he also has a soft spot in his heart for a samba that is celebrated with conga drums.
“It calls home to me,” he says.
Serving as next month’s home to this production, the Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land is a part of the most diverse city in the most diverse county in the nation, with census statistics indicating that Fort Bend County’s population is practically equal parts white, black, Hispanic, and Asian.
Sugar Land was once a thriving company town, home to the giant Imperial Sugar refinery that closed in 2003. The town’s record growth in the 1980s and 1990s was carefully planned, resulting in safe, first-class recreational facilities and exemplary schools.
For further information about the venue that will host Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story On Stage and additional events, visit smartfinancialcentre.net.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.