Thursday, March 3, 2011

Denver's Damsels troupe dances to make the world a better place

By John Wenzel
The Denver Post

Katrina Lairsmith had taught dance in nearly every studio in Denver, but in all her time as an instructor — and as one of the original Denver Nuggets dancers — she never found a group that fit her style or mission.

"Other than Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, there was no real contemporary jazz dance company doing what we wanted," said the founder and artistic director of Damsels Contemporary Dance Company. "And finding the amount of talented dancers that had that same vision — that wasn't easy because really good dancers want to get paid."

Of course they do. But Lairsmith's company, which will return this weekend after a five-year hiatus, isn't shy about its goals — or the fact that it doesn't pay its dancers. Damsels is dedicated to raising money and awareness for women's issues, and each of the company's performances benefits a different women's organization.

Damsels' newest show, "State of the Union," debuts at Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre on Saturday, with all proceeds going to Denver nonprofit shelter A Gathering Place.

"It's Denver's only daytime drop- in shelter for women, children and transgender individuals, which is important because a lot of these women have nowhere to go," said Mary Johnston, executive director of the Damsels and a former Denver Broncos cheerleader. "They might ride the bus all night or live in their cars, so there really is a need there."

The 18 Damsels performing this weekend are an all-female crew composed of former Nuggets and Broncos dancers, former students at Lairsmith's Colorado Contemporary Dance Studio and others from around town.

"I basically had a lot of dancers that were over 18 coming to class and wanting to dance," Lairsmith said. "There was no real outlet for them."

Lairsmith, who studied in L.A. with "So You Think You Can Dance" judge Mia Michaels, among others, has taught dancers who have gone on to work for pop stars (Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake) and dance in Broadway shows such as "Billy Elliot: The Musical."

Her choreography is more nuanced than the flashy, matching moves of halftime entertainers and cheerleaders.

"I can see what the perception would be when hearing that I'm a former Nuggets dancer, or that a lot of (the Damsels) are Nuggets or Broncos dancers," Lairsmith said. "But they're all professional dancers, and pretty much everybody teaches currently."

As the Damsels' nonprofit mission and edgy, sexy look implies, it's more about expression than conformity.

"Broncos and Nuggets dancing is about the team and everybody looking the same," Johnston said. "The Damsels is more about letting the individuals shine with solos and small groups, so it's more free-flowing and almost exactly the opposite of what those dance teams would be."

Still, the regimen of dancing for a professional sports team — rehearsing 12 hours a week, going over the same moves hundreds of times — can't help but inform the group's sense of discipline and energy.

"It's so nice to have some young blood in there," Johnston said of the mostly new members of the company. "They're willing to volunteer for anything and always ready for whatever we throw at them."

John Wenzel: 303-954-1642 or


Damsels Contemporary Dance Company
Dance for a cause. Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre, 119 Park Avenue West. Saturday-Sunday. 5 p.m. $15.