They lug props, climb ladders, and save the day. And once a year, the men of ODD even dance.
By Karen White
The Ovations Dancing Dads—otherwise known as ODD—have an official motto: “Surrender your dignity.” Or, as Dancing Dad Craig Roncace likes to say, “We’re not the best at what we do; we’re the only ones who do what we do.” From a group of 14 fathers who performed in Ovations Dance Studio’s first recital in 2000, the Dancing Dads have grown into a 30-member powerhouse.
Ovations owner and director Rita Ogden would surely disagree about the men not being the best. Not only do they steal the show year after year with their over-the-top comedy routines, but they run the front-of-house, sell refreshments, provide security, set props, and step in when the inevitable recital disaster strikes.
Take, for example, that one Friday night recital when the entire town of Collingswood, New Jersey, lost power. With an impatient audience literally sweating out a two-hour delay in the unair-conditioned Collingswood Scottish Rite Theatre, Ogden had her hands full keeping her students calm backstage. Without any instruction from her, the Dads took control, ushering the audience outside and then lugging out cases of water and pretzels to help placate the crowd. It worked. Although the show was eventually cancelled and rescheduled, what Ogden says “could have been a riot” was instead merely an inconvenience.
And not only that, she adds, but the school’s scholarship fund—supported by sales of all that water and pretzels—was never bigger.
During another recital, the curtain jammed as it was opening. Before Ogden could even react, two Dads were rolling a ladder onto the stage, with another already climbing up the rungs. In 30 seconds the curtain was unhooked and the show went on.
“It’s just that sense of security, knowing that the group is there,” Ogden says of her Dancing Dads.
The Dads developed into such an important aspect of the Ovations’ recitals purely by chance. Ogden, who had been a student and teacher at a studio with a father-daughter recital dance tradition, wanted something similar for her school, which moved in May from Westmont, New Jersey, to a new location in Oaklyn, New Jersey. “But I thought, how much fun would it be if the dads had their own routine and it was a secret?” she says.
So that first year she approached some dads, who told their wives they had signed up to “do backstage stuff,” but instead were meeting clandestinely for an hour on Friday nights to learn a routine.
When they finally took to the stage at the “Around the World”-themed recital, clad as French cancan dancers (with skirts cut to fit under beer bellies and flashing boxers that read “Hi Mom” over their fishnet stockings), they were an instant hit.
Today, while the song or concept that the dads plan to use each year is always kept hush-hush, the routine is the most anticipated part of the recital. Ogden says she schedules it near the end of the show: it keeps her audience in their seats. No one will leave without seeing the Dads.
Dancing Dad Tom Lorenz, 48, recalls the year the group’s number was a tribute to Irish dance, complete with one short, stout, redheaded dad as “Lord of the Dance.” “When the curtain opened, the roar from the crowd was absolutely unreal,” he says. “It wasn’t just applause or laughter—it was a true roar like I have never heard before. We worked very, very long and hard on that routine, so getting that kind of reaction was enormously gratifying.”
Over the years their camp/dance numbers have never disappointed, from male construction workers whistling “Brick House” to “females” in pink hardhats, to “Fat Bottomed Girls,” to this spring’s foam-sword-wielding “Men in Tights.”
Ogden, a musical-theater fanatic, says it wasn’t hard to convince the Dads to get silly for the sake of their art. Women’s roles are especially prized—during a “TV Theme Show” recital, when the Dads paid tribute to Gilligan’s Island, everyone wanted to be Ginger or Mrs. Howell.
While some fathers, like 54-year-old Joe Duva, 43-year-old Evan Horn, and 42-year-old Roncace, joined the group at the insistence of their children, John Kingham, 51, joined after seeing the Dads’ synchronized swimming routine at his child’s first recital. For him, the hardest part is remembering the steps. “I think Rita purposely gives us a week or two off before the show to make sure we forget our steps,” he says.
But all that struggling has opened Kingham’s eyes to the work his three daughters put into their dance classes. “Realizing how many different dances my daughters are doing has given me an appreciation for their dancing,” he says.
Lorenz agrees. “I hadn’t ever thought about what it takes to learn a piece, what the rehearsals are like, or what challenges there are creatively and logistically,” he says. “It has been a tremendous eye-opener, and I find myself enjoying watching others dance far more than I ever had before.”
Ogden believes the Dads have also helped to foster a stronger family feeling at her studio. Dads who never would have known each other—with daughters in various age groups or who live in different towns—rehearse together one hour a week for three months each spring. In the process, they become friends.
“We may not have a lot in common, but we do have the recital, and the practice leading up to it, and the pride in our kids,” Duva says. “That makes it a good time.”
The Dads, in turn, introduce their wives to each other. They congratulate each other’s children after the show, Ogden says, and set a good example (through both their onstage performances and backstage labor) for the school’s dozen male students. She knows her students are excited about their parents’ participation as well—for example, she’ll sometimes hear a dancer telling others how her dad works the spotlight or dances in the show.
“What more can you ask for than parents who are involved with their children and understand and have an appreciation and respect for what their children do?” Ogden says. “It changes the whole atmosphere of the studio.”
Perhaps the Dads’ biggest contribution, though, is keeping the recitals running smoothly. Ogden won’t allow mothers to help backstage, so she relies on her senior students and returning alumni to staff the dressing rooms and backstage area. Her mother and an office staffer sell tickets and merchandise. A few volunteers handle the 50/50 raffle, and one of Ogden’s uncles calls the show.
The Dads do everything else, from selling refreshments to taking tickets, securing the house and backstage, running spotlights, directing lost parents to the dressing rooms, setting up large props or acro mats, and restocking water and ice. They load in the show, roll and tape down the marley floor, then re-roll it and load out when the recital is over. They coordinate their recital jobs themselves, taking turns so that each man can watch his own child’s dance numbers.
It all happened naturally, Ogden says. At the first recital, as the Dads waited to do their number, several of them offered to fetch water and help out with a large prop. When the next recital rolled around, one Dad sent around a sign-up sheet—and a recital crew was born.
“We’re not the best at what we do; we’re the only ones who do what we do.” —Dancing Dad Craig Roncace
“I’ve never had to worry about whether someone will be there for props,” Ogden says. “The [men] take the initiative. At dress rehearsal, they check the batteries in the ushers’ flashlights. They get the ice. There’s always new blood coming in, and they teach the new ones. I never have to leave backstage, and I know my front-of-house is fine. It’s such a relief.”
Roncace says helping out at the recital is a “benefit” of being a Dancing Dad. “Selling the pretzels and water is busy, but fast-paced fun,” he says. “I love seeing the kids all dressed up and excited about their big night. It’s all a good time.”
Ogden is aware of what mothers might think of men backstage, so she keeps only two or three Dads backstage during the show—and they are always on stage left, near the boys’ dressing room, nowhere near the girls’ dressing room or the stage right quick-change area. The Dads have their own dressing room—an office space in the front-of-house—where they can hang out during the show and change from their official Dancing Dads “Staff” T-shirts into their costumes.
Ogden thanks the men for all their hard work by throwing a post-recital barbecue. Like regular students, Dads even get “trophies” (bobble-head ballerinas) after 5 or 10 years of involvement. “When they get their awards, many feel the need to give a little speech. I tell you, the personalities!” she laughs. “We have doctors, businessmen. It’s a release, I guess—they can get their goofiness out.”
In turn, the men take up a collection each year and purchase a massage gift certificate or Home Depot gift card for Ogden, who doesn’t charge them for rehearsal time. She proudly wears one of their gifts—a Dancing Dads T-shirt with “Coach” printed on the back.
These feelings of camaraderie and overall sense of fun extend far past the footlights. The Dancing Dads’ handbook (they wrote it themselves) spells out rules for participation—such as every member must help at the recital—but also tongue-in-cheek regulations such as “Those who miss rehearsals are subject to be awarded roles that those present refuse to accept—such as an animal’s rear end.”
When one Dancing Dad’s daughter left the studio to attend college, his insistence at remaining in the group led to another rule: “Once a Dancing Dad, always a Dancing Dad.” Another man, whose daughter left dance for sports, has also stayed on board.
Ogden’s own father, Fred Ogden, 60, recognized that this group was something special years ago. He had been a part of a dancing dads group at the studio where his daughter took lessons, but admits that he always found recitals painful.
When the Ovations Dancing Dads group was about 4 years old, he overheard some of the men—several didn’t yet realize he was the owner’s father—praising the studio. “What really got me is how important the dance studio was to them personally as dads, and to their families,” he says. “What an eye-opener. From that point on, I looked at the studio through very different eyes. I also began to understand and enjoy the recitals.”
While the Dancing Dads have found friends, fun, and fame, some have also found that dancing is not as easy as it looks. Roncace remembers one routine when the Dads shared the stage with their kids. “They learned their dance routine in about three minutes. It took us three months,” he says.
Or as Joe Smith puts it: “I could practice until I’m 150 years old and my dancing would remain the same. It’s like my golf game.”
Want to see the Ovations Dancing Dads in action? They’re on YouTube!