Dancing Lessons


Heartwarming and humorous, Dancing Lessons centers on a geophysics professor with Asperger's syndrome who approaches a Broadway dancer to teach him how to dance for an awards dinner. The dancer, however, is recovering from an injury that may end her dancing career permanently. As their relationship unfolds, they are both caught off guard by the discoveries they make about each other and themselves.

Director: Sarah Rodgers
Featuring: Sandra Medeiros & Andrew Coghlan
Stage Manager/Sound & Projection Design: Nico Dicecco
Choreographer: Melissa Sciarretta
Set Design: Ariel Slack
Lighting Design: Taylor Janzen
Costumes/Props: Ella Heatley-Mulhall
Videography: Trevor Meyer
Photography: Angelo Renai

Clay St. Thomas, Clay St. Thomas Voiceovers

Funny, sweet, touching...what more do you want out of a night of theatre? Congrats Sandra, Andrew, Sarah and co. on an awesome opening night for Dancing Lessons.

Sue Chiu

Congrats on a wonderful production! Dancing Lessons is by far my favourite Naked Goddess production to date! Gorgeous set, clever use of multimedia, great acting and chemistry between Sandra and Andrew, and such a wonderful storyline. I think everyone understood a little bit more autism after seeing the play, making the world just a little bit more compassionate, which is a beautiful thing. Well done!

Jo Ledingham, Jo Ledingham Theatre Reviews

  Dancing Lessons could go so wrong but this Naked Goddess Productions, under the always thoughtful direction of Sarah Rodgers, gets it right. Putting the autism spectrum on stage is a delicate business especially since the neurological disorder presents itself so variously and lends itself to lampooning at the expense of those not neurotypical.

In Mark St. Germain's 2014 play, Ever Montgomery is high functioning: he's a geoscience prof about to win a prestigious award at an upcoming event – a university awards' dinner/dance. His problem? He is totally socially inept (think Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory) and can't dance. His solution? Ask Senga Quinn, the dancer who lives two floors down in his apartment building, to teach him to dance. His offer? $2,153 (exactly) for a one-hour dance lesson.

Senga has just suffered an injury; her right leg is in a full-length brace and she's popping pills and drinking booze straight out of the bottle. She may never dance again. She's an angry mess.

Right away we question who is disabled here: the self-described "Aspie" (for Asperger's syndrome) or the self-pitying dancer.

The playwright strikes some interesting notes: a romantic comedy plus illuminating information about autism plus end-of-the-world stats presented in mathematical precision by geoscientist Ever. "Five foot rise in ocean level by 2100." By such-and-such a year, someone will be diagnosed with "Alzheimer's every 45 seconds." Ever is a virtual Wikipedia of statistics and dire predictions (which he recites with no anxiety).

As Ever, Andrew Coghlan at first brings a childlike simplicity to the role and his body language is perfect: arms held stiffly by his side, his movements awkward, almost robotic. Ever's responses are off-the-wall and often very funny but Coghlan never diminishes the character. Indeed, as the pay progresses, Coghlan shows us how clever Ever actually is. In trying to figure out what emotion Senga is signalling, for example, Ever practises making facial expressions in his mirror until he sees it: fear. Now he knows what Senga is feeling and now he knows how to deal with her. He's not only smart, he's wise.

Costume designer Ella Heatley-Mulhall emphasizes Ever's up-tight-ness with white shirt, woolen vest, tie, tweed jacket and sensible shoes.

Sandra Medeiros, as Senga, starts off brittle, hostile, angry at the world. Medeiros softens the character as the dancing lessons proceed over the course of what is under a week.

The dialogue is witty – mostly as it comes from observant Ever: "Theatre is like sports for those with no athletic ability." Accused of joking, he says, "Why would I make jokes when I don't understand them?" Those with autism, "can be successful alcoholics like everyone else" as he reaches for the high-proof scotch.

The dancing lessons, conducted over several days, present challenges for both Ever and Senga on many levels: Ever doesn't seem to have any body awareness. Shaking his boody is not ever going to happen. And a smile – encouraged by Senga – is more grimace than smile. But the greatest challenge is that he cannot be touched. No handshakes, no hugs, no physical intimacy.

There is a breakthrough moment in Dancing Lessons that has the audience holding its breath. And then relaxing. It's beautiful and it gets better. And funnier.

The speed with which things move is a little hard to credit but it makes for a heartwarming play with a nicely-avoided too-sweet ending.

Set design by Ariel Slack is realistic: stage left is Senga's living room; stage right – indicated by Ever under a spotlight – is his apartment.

The material is sensitively handled, it's a gently treated peek into the world of autism and it's a reminder that disability comes in many guises. Finally, it's about the courage to change. And speaking of courage, it's a gutsy thing actor Andrew Coghlan throws himself into with such dedication. Dancing Lessons is a pas de deux with a difference.

Helena Doigo

Your show last night Sandra Medeiros was terrific! You were both so believable with your characters. With giggles, happy times, teary moments, serious and informative facts... All areas were covered! Fun, witty and entertaining. Way to go!

Maria Miranda Lawrence

Don't miss the chance to see this wonderful Vancouver play! What can I say, but it was exceptional! Both actors were so convincing in their character roles, they kept me on the edge of my seat. Laughs too! I can understand why people would want to see it again! You can only feel it with outstanding shows, well worth my trip from Victoria!

Jerry Wasserman, Vancouver Plays

  As much as I enjoyed this show, I find it very hard to review.

Mark St. Germain's one-act odd-couple two-hander, set in New York, has a straightforward plot. Senga, a dancer, has been grounded by a severe leg injury. She stews in her apartment, feeling sorry for herself. Along comes Ever, a neighbour, offering her an exorbitant fee for an hour of dance lessons. She angrily resists, he weirdly persists, eventually she gives in and the two misfits bond in a sweet way.

The key is that Ever is autistic. His self-described Asperger's comes with superb intelligence that has led him to become an award-winning ecoscience professor who lectures on global warming. A banquet at which he'll receive an award is the occasion for which he needs to learn basic dance moves.

But his autism has also left him with extreme social awkwardness. He can't bear to be touched, even to shake hands. He has difficulty understanding humour and the emotional effect his words have on others. He has to rehearse certain behaviours other people might take for granted—and not just dance. (In a charming sequence he shows Senga how he modeled his high school persona on John Hughes movie characters.) He speaks and moves in carefully calculated ways that initially strike Senga—and likely many audience members—as strange, mechanical, even creepy.

As their relationship progresses, Senga warms to him, helping Ever overcome some of his most severe phobias. Senga, too, becomes more open and vulnerable, revealing personal secrets, moderating her anger. The audience learns to care for them both and root for them to succeed. (Though I wish Ever's climate change lecture on the courage to change wasn't so on the nose.)

This Naked Goddess production, directed by Sarah Rodgers, features the company's co-producers, Sandra Medeiros and Andrew Coghlan. In one way Medeiros has the tougher job: making Senga likeable. She's so tied up in her anger and resentment from the start that it's hard to care much about her, despite learning some of the difficult details of her background. The character and actor eventually come around, but (spoiler alert!) even when having sex, Medeiros' Senga seems a little removed.

Ever's character arc is clearer and more dramatic. His changes and his victory over himself are substantial. Coughlan does what appeared to me to be a wonderful job capturing Ever's distinctive vocal and physical mannerisms, his severe discomfort and burning desire to be able to behave, in certain circumstances, more "normally."

My theatre critic brain says fine performance. But what do I know about autism? Very little. Are Ever's behaviours accurately depicted? Is Coughlan himself an actor on the autism spectrum or is he what Ever calls neurotypical? (His program bio offers no indication.) Does it matter if he's autistic or not? Or, in 2019, should all autistic characters be played by autistic actors?

The politics of the otherly abled are complicated. See the story in today's Vancouver Sun about autistic people protesting a local walk for autism ("Autistic people march for and against walk for autism in Richmond"). Dancing Lessons treats its autistic character with sympathy and humour, but is the portrayal appropriate? respectful? I'd love to hear the opinion of an autistic audience member.

Gillian Lockitch, Review From The House

  Vancouver, BC. With my long time professional interest in developmental neurodiversity and my later discovered passion for dance, the premise underlying Dancing Lessons grabbed my attention. Two people want to dance, yet for very different reasons, they cannot. They have vastly different motivations, each has a major obstacle to overcome, both must embrace change if they are to succeed.

For Senga, a Broadway dancer, dancing is her life but she cannot return to dancing without life-threatening surgery to her injured leg. Ever, is a young man who has never danced, but wants to be able to perform one dance on a gala evening when he is to be given an award. Ever has Asperger's syndrome, now considered a high-functioning form of autism spectrum disorder. He is socially awkward and, reinforced by a traumatic childhood interaction with his father, he cannot touch anyone or be touched. Yet partner dancing is all about touch. What depth of desire to change is needed to overcome such deeply imprinted emotions and behaviours? Can Senga overcome her depression and anxiety at the loss of her dance career enough to see beyond Ever's geeky awkwardness in order to help him?

Long ago, for my final year of medical residency in Paedatrics, I trained as a Paediaric Neurology fellow. That was my first in-depth encounter with children whose developmental and socialization milestones diverged in one way or another from the expected, and the impact it had on the child and the family. As Ever, Andrew Coghlan sensitively conveyed many of the mannerisms and obsessive characteristics that frequently mask the intelligence and inquiring minds from people like Senga, who at first see only the social ineptness

Medeiros looked every bit like a dancer, albeit injured. Couch bound, and surrounded by bottles of liquor and pills, she conveyed the devastation of one whose dream was taken away from her. However, the dancing both on the videos and the final dance lacked authenticity. Moments were missed with lack of rhythm, awkward unfinished movements and no sense of the developing chemistry between these two people.

This is a thoughtful, engaging script but a better directorial job of pacing would elevate the play. On a final note the overabundance of fog as we left the theatre, left me metaphorically fogged. Was it a technical error?

Dancing Lessons runs till October 20th.

David C. Jones

Bravo! So much love and heart! My friend could not stop raving about it on the ride home. Have a great run!

Daniel Wiebe

Go see this great production, a show with heart!