Synchronized swimmers, Bavarian gypsies, rowdy sleepover attendees, neon ballerinas, and a wide variety of other colorful characters took the stage this past Saturday at the 26th season of Built on Stilts at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.

The performances, which stretch from August 11 to 21 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, continued Built on Stilts’ mission to provide a community-led dance space on Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone is encouraged to participate­ — regardless of dance experience — and admission is free to all.

“This is your community performance festival,” Built on Stilts co-founder and director Abby Bender reminded the audience ahead of the night’s lineup, adding that the festival would not be able to continue without the community’s enthusiastic support.

In a sea of different dance genres and dancer experiences and ages, individuality amidst community became the night’s uniting theme. Every night begins with a drum circle led by Scott Hershowitz that provides a backdrop while the performers warm up.

Built on Stilts was founded by Ms. Bender and Anna Luckey in 1997, two years after they had both graduated from Bard College. The name doesn’t refer to any lofty dance technique, but rather the treehouse-like dormitories on Bard’s campus that had become refuges for creativity.

“It was that immersive experience that we were seeking to recreate in the working process of that first summer’s production,” Ms. Bender wrote in her welcome message inscribed in the event’s program. “We had just six weeks, very little means, and just the beginnings of the incredible network of Island dancers and artists we have now. The first season of the project instilled in our small group a remarkable faith in the unknown.”

More than a quarter of a century later, Built on Stilts continues to attract dancers and choreographers from a diverse range of backgrounds, fostering both new talent and longtime devotees.

The opening dance, a solo by Roberta Kirn co-choreographed with Victoria Marks, set a somber, reflective tone, as Ms. Kirn’s background vocals encouraged the audience members to open their hearts as they watched her fluid, contemporary-style motion. The pace quickly picked up when Karam Belly Dance, an Island-based Middle Eastern dance troupe, shared a taste of traditional gypsy dance in handmade, 40-yard, double-circle gypsy skirts.

Alise Eve, who choreographed the show’s closer FREEDOM, is the founder and director of Island Hip Hop and has worked with artists such as Kid Cudi, Jim Jones, and Juelz Santana. The dance, performed by Kamryn Bishop, Juliana Desouza, Nikitta Kleeman, Jaylin Johnson, Estella Kirk, Graysen Kirk, Zora Morais, Madis Pittman, and Nala Pittman, dealt with Black resistance in the face of racial violence. Performers wore all white, save for streaks of red, blood-like paint smeared on hands and faces.

Another standout entry came from the choreography of Elizabeth Keen and the deft, knifelike performance of Tomomi Imai. Set to poet Wislawa Szymborska’s “A Word About Statistics,” the dance’s sparse set dressing and costume design stood in contrast to some of the more fanciful performances, inviting the audience to focus intensely on Ms. Imai’s ease and versatility of movement.

Ms. Keen first directed her own dance group, the Elizabeth Keen Dance Company, from 1965 to the early ‘80s, and has taught dance composition at Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton, and the Julliard School. Ms. Imai is also a veteran dancer and a member of Parents Who Dance in New York, “a group of women who celebrate the accomplishments of dancers and choreographers, and demonstrate that aging does not limit creativity and expression.”

Built on Stilts provided proof of that, too. Perhaps the loudest applause went to Esther Richmond’s Line Dancing Polar Bears, a group of eight women well into their retirement years dancing to Master KG’s “Jerusalema.”

“Dance is inside every one of us,” Ms. Bender said of the festival’s mission. “Dance can teach us how to be around others, and dance can teach us how to be ourselves.”

For more information on Built on Stilts and upcoming performances, visit

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