“Five, six, five-six-seven-eight,” a voice echoed through the empty nightclub at the corner of 35th and Walnut. Without the veil of night, the home of LGBTQ club Tracks is but an inconspicuous warehouse in RiNo amid construction of the transitioning neighborhood.
On this particular Sunday afternoon, the empty bar, set up on concrete floors under unfinished ceilings, will be home to Carlos Spanic and his half-dozen team of dancers for the next few hours.
When he moved from Lima, Peru to Colorado at the age of 10, Spanic never imagined he would be in charge of a dance company whose sole purpose was to work with queens in stilettos. Yet, the 28-year-old is doing exactly that as owner and lead choreographer of International Dance Crew.
“OK, let’s go through it once more, and then to music,” Spanic told the dancers. With his left leg outstretched, he swept his right arm overhead as the assembled formation of dancers watched behind him and followed each motion. Later, between group rehearsals, Spanic explained his journey from dancer to choreographer and now business owner.
“I started dancing for Denver Dance and Drag Nation at Tracks two years ago,” Spanic said. “Then, led by Marguerite Endsley, I was lead choreographer when she decided to take a break. I made it my own dance crew, and last November, I started my company, International Dance Crew.”
Spanic’s dance education is non-traditional; as a teenager he would lock himself in his room for hours and watch Britney Spears music videos, learning each move with a meticulous perfection as though preparing for his inevitable big audition someday.
“It’s tough out there for dancers; you have to start from zero,” he said. “I started from zero dancing at a Latin club where only 20 people come to the show.”
At the age of 21, he took the leap into professional and began as back-up dancer for Mariah Spanic and other queens at El Potrero Night Club. He then was introduced to Endsley and the rest of the Tracks house dance group who performed for Drag Nation and other Tracks-hosted events, and the rest is history.
International Dance Crew now has more than 20 dancers, and Spanic works diligently beside manager Rachel Gibbons to keep things running smoothly as they perform beside some of Denver’s, and the nation’s, biggest names.
“I help Carlos pick up the lost pieces,” Gibbons explained. “Whatever he can’t get to is what he’ll toss my way. He knows how to take charge and how to run this company. He does the majority of the work, and has been doing so for this last year. It’s really fun to see him grow into this position; he’s found a new Carlos by doing so.”
“Not a lot of people have the opportunity to dance,” Spanic said. “I have a lot of friends that went to California and are suffering; they don’t get any gigs. We do have that platform to dance every month; we perform a lot at this venue.”
Sometimes opportunities are given, and sometimes they are made. In the case of Buddy Bravo, one choreographer for International Dance Crew, opportunities were made. He created a pathway for himself within the world of Denver’s queer dance scene, bringing a unique form of dance fitness from his hometown in Pueblo: a non-traditional fusion of hip hop and modern burlesque, which he teaches out of the studio Tease.
“The modern burlesque class has been a really good form of expression for me. That really allows me to express myself in much different way than I’ve ever been allowed, or than I’ve even tried,” he said. “I teach my class in heels, a platform with a nine-inch heel. I decided to go full-force with it because I feel like I had held back to so long on anything that slightly interested me. It’s been so cool for me, because in my class it almost acts as an excuse for people to express themselves as well.”
Through incorporating his queer identity, he found confidence and a way of standing out that generated success.
“As I express myself more authentically, and as I am more comfortable with myself as an individual, my performance also increases. Personal success and professional success walk hand-in-hand.”
“Denver is on fire with creativity; we are being challenged as a city about what our own identity is. It’s up to us to decide. That’s what it’s all about; that is what Denver is. It’s loud; it’s beautiful; it’s self-expressive, and it’s very accepting and loving.”
Back at Tracks, Meghan Trainor’s “Lips Are Moving” played on repeat in the background as Spanic continued to work with Bella C Le Cher and the group of back-up dancers. They learned the moves at an impressively rapid pace, one section at a time. Combinations of turns and intricate footwork were taught at half-speed, then were immediately compounded by an eight-count of hip pops and Sailor Jerry salutes. This sequence is but one of the dozen performances choreographed for the August Drag Nation show.
On average, eight to 13 queens perform per show each month. While some choose to perform as solo acts, the majority of numbers will include dancers and some choreography.
“It’s a lot of work to do 10 or 13 numbers,” Spanic admitted. “I don’t think I’ll ever have time for that.” Even though he does most of the heavy lifting, there is a lot of help within the crew of eager dancers who offer to help choreograph the handful of songs that he has to hand off.
Collaboration, it appears, is the recipe for a beautiful production.
Take Angie Simmons, founder, co-artistic director, and choreographer for Evolving Doors Dance. Specializing in a contemporary, modern-based form of dance, her process of creating a finalized piece of choreography is very much a collaborative venture with her cast and fellow contributors.
“A lot of our work has deep, contextual meaning, and I like for that to not come just from my brain,” Simmons explained. “We’ll do some movement work based on discussions we have had; a lot of it comes from the dancer’s input and their experiences.”
“Being that I am a lesbian, I have spent some years in creating work that speaks to my experiences,” she said. “Sometimes there is content in shows that has to do with being queer or being a lesbian specifically.”
While often creating pieces that are inspired directly from her own experiences, Simmons pointed out that may not always be the case, even though audiences can be quick to assume based on socialization around gender.
“We are so trained to look at bodies in a gendered way,” she said. “If I make a female-female duet, the audience sometimes identifies that on their own as a lesbian duet. Unfortunately, sexualization is something that audiences automatically put on what they see.”
Simmons continued, “If there are two females who dance in an intimate way that involves touch, even if I as a choreographer intended to be familial or friendly touch, there will always be audience members who will place it in a certain category no matter what my intent is. In the past, we have cast from the trans community, the queer community, the non-binary community,” she explained. “However, I do find that most of those who audition tend to not be from those communities.”
For Simmons, who entered formal dance training as a child, she found that self-exploration through movement was not only helpful but crucial to her self-development and self-acceptance.
“I’ve often wondered if I should create a queer-specific dance class in Denver,” Simmons said. “Dancing sometimes feels vulnerable, and while it does feel vulnerable, it also gives us an opportunity to become friends with our bodies. I’ve had some students in the queer community in my classes, and that is really rewarding to me, to be a fly on the wall as that person gets a different understanding of where their power is as a mover. When somebody who has maybe not been comfortable in their body before, for whatever reason, suddenly figures out they can move big or can really travel [across the dance floor], that is super empowering.”
Pressure around body size and shape is intense in the dance community and is often informed strictly by genetics. From the length of a leg to the shape of a foot, the height of a dancer and their waist size, all of these become focal points for casting directors and choreographers in the profession.
“The dance world is so interesting,” Simmons said. “There are some long-standing stereotypes that all of us bump up against. There are some body specifics that we expect in the dance world, that all dancers are very fit and trim. Going in as a professional, I would never call this an easy road…”
Gibbons spoke to her own experience in pursuing the profession, before meeting Spanic and joining International Dance Crew. “There have been auditions that I have attended that it’s very clear that I do not have the proper body type,” she said. “I’m not this skinny, tall ballerina, which is what most professional companies do look for.”
Spanic agreed, “A lot of the auditions require a dancer to be fit, to be completely in shape,” but emphasized, “Here at Tracks and in International Dance Crew, there is no discrimination. You can be any weight, and you don’t have to be a trained dancer as long as you have that will to perform.”
Spanic, Bravo, and Simmons embody an essence of plie, which means to bend, an approach of taking on the traditional, hetero normative world of dance and making it their own. Each of them are pushing boundaries outside the box for dancers, allowing space and opportunities for those who may not have them elsewhere.
A week later, at Tracks, the night has come to see the hard work pay off in front of hundreds of eager audience members. Song after song, the queens vogue and vamp away, strutting their finest attire and striking the most ferocious poses. Then, the familiar words came on over the speakers: “If your lips are movin’, then you’re lie, lie, lying…”
Spanic and his dancers took the stage with Bella Le Cher in an energetic execution of the dance moves they learned less than seven days prior. Not a single clap, hip sway, or spin was missed, and every single dancer had a grin a mile wide.
“It feels overwhelming sometimes because you do get tired,” said Spanic. “You do get to that point where it’s like ‘Oh my God, do I really want to continue to do this after so many rehearsals?’ but that feeling I get when I’m on stage and that feeling that I get when I see my dancers performing on stage trying to kill it… it’s a fulfillment for me.”
He admits that while the burden of being a business owner can sometimes be dramatic, uphill, and exhausting, it’s one worth fighting.
“When I hear ‘thank you,’ it makes me feel like I’m here for a purpose,” he said. “If my purpose is to lead them, I’m still going to do it. It makes me happy, even though I get really tired, when I see the number come together at the end—it’s amazing.”
Photos by Veronica L. Holyfield