For over a decade, the Minnetonka Community Education program Tonka Dance Works has been giving youth time in the spotlight through its annual winter production, Tales and Tails of Folks and Fairies. A role in the production is offered to everyone who auditions, with this year’s performance showcasing 150 local students from grades kindergarten through 12.
“Tonka Dance Works is not a competitive studio,” says director Christa Anderson. “There was a need for kids to be a part of something performance-oriented with a certain wholesomeness about it that most competitions don’t bring. My staff and I really wanted to help students understand that performance is not about competition. Performance is about bringing your very best to your audience. This production gives many children who wouldn’t normally be cast an opportunity to come out and be on stage.”
The show is a compilation of scenes of popular fairy tales, like the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and for the last six years they have been linked by the adventures of the Little Girl character, who is based on a real-life dance participant from several years ago.
“The girl had moved to Minnetonka from Chicago a couple years prior, and some kids at her new school were not accepting of her. It was a really traumatic time for her,” says Anderson. “We started talking to the kids about bullying, about the choice to rise above it, that people often feel the same way that you do, and you can bond together with those people and take the high road. And so that became the theme of the show.” Anderson adds, “The little girl is on the playground, her friends are whispering about her, and she wishes her life was like a fairy tale because it would be better. And she falls into her fairy tale book. There are mean fairy tale characters that do not help her, and there are others who are suffering as well and they work together to get her home. It’s really about seeing that you’re not the only one.”
Anderson worked with her sister, Jen Trundle, to write the main story, and each year she works with her staff following the auditions to adapt the show based on the children’s abilities and personalities.
“What’s unique about this show is, when the children audition, we take a look at the dancers and we ask, what is going to challenge them theatrically and technically? And what do we think will bring out their personalities? It changes every year according to who the children are,” says Anderson, who says the students have an opportunity to give input as well. “We really want dance to be more than just a regurgitation of what the teacher is saying. It’s about cooperation and creativity.”
The auditions are open to children from kindergarten to 12th grade, drawing dancers from studios all over the community, including Tonka Dance Works, as well as other performers like jugglers and an actress who narrates the show. The lead roles for the Little Girl and the Blue Fairy, who is the performance’s prima ballerina, are cast in March, and they work throughout the summer. The remaining cast auditions in the fall, after which Anderson and her team place every child in a role. They begin rehearsing individual roles and scenes with dancers from October to January. The last week of January and February, all the kids come together in one room to rehearse. There is a fee to participate, which is similar to taking a dance class, and includes the costume. This year’s show will include new scenes from the Wizard of Oz, Arabian Nights, and The Nutcracker.
Sisters Lucy Zinn, age 10, and Addy Zinn, age 8, have been dancing in Tales and Tails for several years, and are also dancers with Tonka Dance Works.
“I feel happy and I feel proud that I’m actually on the stage and I learned a dance and know every step,” says Addy, who, this year, plays a monkey from the new Wizard of Oz scene. Addy says her favorite scene is The Three Little Pigs. “The first year I was in it, I was the wolf, and the next year I was a pig that built a house of sticks.”
“I feel really excited, all the work you put it to it, but also it’s cool seeing how everything comes to life. It’s special,” says Lucy, who plays the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. “I do a rabbit tango, which is kind of on the hip-hop, jazzy side.” Lucy says her favorite part of the show is when everyone is on stage together in the opening and ending scenes.
Not only is the program giving students an opportunity to perform, but the diversity of ages has helped foster a community that Anderson says has grown into a mentoring opportunity,
“We have mentors—those that are grade six and up—and they get to be with an elementary school girl. They meet each week and give words of encouragement and help with warm-up,” says Anderson. “For the mentors, it gives them a chance to help younger kids understand what they already know and is a leadership opportunity.”
In addition to the dance teachers and administrative staff, the behind-the-scenes work includes an event planner who helps with ticketing, a backstage manager and the team at the theater who help the show run smoothly with lights and sounds. There is also a costume designer and people who help with sets and props. The show has sponsors who purchase ads in the program to help defray costs. All the parents participate with setup, cleanup and helping kids backstage.
“I love helping backstage with the production. I have helped with every show the girls have danced in,” says Jennifer Zinn, Addy and Lucy’s mom. “There is always a team of moms who help the dancers with hair and makeup, and get them into their costumes and on stage.”
“It’s so much fun. It’s such an inspiring part of the lives of my entire staff, because we are creating something that is successfully becoming an answer to not doing dance competition,” says Anderson. “It was a goal, and I feel like we are achieving it.”
Tales and Tails 2017
February 25, 1 and 4 p.m.
Minnetonka High School