At first, Emily Oleson just wanted to re-create an old-time vaudeville variety show, with dance, comedy and singing all sharing the stage. By the time she was done, Oleson had ingested an encyclopedia’s worth about the history of dance.
Her show, “Vaudevival: Old Is the New New,” explores 20th-century American vernacular dance — street dance, the kind of moves you use on the dance floor. That includes hip-hop, but also such dances as the Charleston, tap, even flatfooting — styles that arose from the bottom up rather than through formal instruction. In nine acts, Good Foot Dance Company explores the eras of street dance in chronological order.
It all started out as Oleson’s thesis concert. After three years of study for a dance MFA at the University of Maryland, Oleson was tired of abstract modern dance.
“I felt like the dance I was doing was losing its ground in reality,” she says. “I wanted to be doing something fun.”
With a background in tap, Oleson found herself looking back to a time when “percussive” dancers could make a living plying their trade: The vaudeville era was a time when dance was sheer entertainment, and showmanship reigned supreme.
“Vaudevival” hits a number of serious notes. Researching the various movement forms, Oleson learned that a good percentage — including the Charleston and the Lindy Hop — originated with African Americans and were later taken over by a white majority. “I didn’t go looking for racial dramas,” Oleson says, “but the theme of appropriation became a focus.”
But Oleson went into this to have fun. So, while she pays homage to some of dance’s unsung originators, there’s also a lively band onstage and plenty of lighthearted movement among the 25 dancers.
Oleson says she’s not nostalgic for the vaudeville era.
“There were so many problems back then,” she says, racism and sexism among them. Still, she adds, “I do think there are some lessons we could learn from vaudeville, in terms of really satisfying an audience.”Dance Place, 3225 8th St. NE; Sat., 8 p.m., & Sun., 7 p.m., $8 – $22; 202-269-1600.