Gypsy Divas break artistic barriers

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Gypsy Divas co-creators Brietta Leader, left, and Hallie Owen are shown in the Bird Dance segment from the Sandpoint dance troupe's Water Dance performance piece. The group recently has expanded both its stylistic repertoire and the number of venues in which it performs. (Photo by WOODS WHEATCROFT PHOTOGRAPHY)

SANDPOINT — The Gypsy Divas might be the best little dance troupe you never heard of. Then again, you’d be forgiven if you were under the impression these local women were actually several dance troupes, based on their chameleon-like ability to shape-shift into whatever they want to be at the moment.

Never standing still for long, the members have appeared at a surprisingly large number of area venues, incorporating an even larger number of styles.

“We just performed at Summer Fest, where we did a flapper dance that was super sassy with lots of energy,” said Brietta Leader, the aptly named leader of the troupe. “It’s been fun, because we always do a different style for every performance.”

Besides Summer Fest, the Gypsy Divas have been featured entertainers at Holly Eve, The Follies, Yoga Fest and the Eco-Green Festival. One of the group’s most expansive performances took place this past Earth Day, when the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper hosted an event called “For the Love of Water” at Sandpoint City Beach. For that gathering, Leader brought together a volunteer team of more than 30 people for what she called “a gift to the community.” Among the volunteers were African drummers Ali Thomas and Celeste Lawrence, healing bowl player William and local artist Kelly Price, who designed and painted the silk backdrops for the performance, along with dancing with the Divas. The performance also included a host of guest dancers of all ages.

Not content to roll out a single piece for the event — which was held to honor Lake Pend Oreille — Leader and co-creator Hallie Owen chose to represent the entire journey of water through a series of original dances.

“It was really an ‘awareness piece’ that represented the water cycle,” the dancer explained. “It started with the story of a rain drop coming through the clouds, then it showed a babbling brook running into the rivers, a waterfall flowing into the lake and the river going into the sea.

“And then, we evaporated.”

Not your everyday dance number. But the Gypsy Divas are not your everyday dance troupe. For the past six years, this core group of about six to eight women has managed to stay together, while constantly reinventing itself. It’s not so much an attempt to defy categorization, according to Leader, it’s just that there are just so many styles to explore.

Part of that exploration comes from the artistic backgrounds of the dancers. Between Leader, Owen and sister choreographer Titina Zuberbuhler, the troupe spans styles that run from Flamenco to jazz and Haitian to African, with stops in the fields of creative movement and free improvisation along the way.

Because each of these styles is also represented by explosively colorful dance wear, costume designer Holly Walker plays “a starring role” in Gypsy Diva shows, Leader said.

Help from other choreographers and costumers is essential to keeping the group going, she added, since her schedule can include teaching up to six dance classes a day. That busy agenda carries Leader on a cross-town route from Nia classes at Sandpoint West Athletic Club and Natural Fitness Health Club to children’s dance classes on the Cedar Street Bridge and a dance conditioning elective offered at Forrest M. Bird Charter Middle School. Somewhere within all of that, she manages to juggle family responsibilities in the bargain.

“So, if I’m not doing all the choreography, it doesn’t break my heart,” Leader said with a laugh. “Plus, it’s so fun to work with other choreographers. That way, when we get down to the mental part of where to be on what beat, it’s not all on me — we just flow off of each other.”

She holds the same respect for her ongoing artistic relationship with Ali Thomas, whose status as a master drummer and national workshop presenter makes her the perfect musical foil for the Divas. Thomas formerly worked with the local dance and drum group called Sisters before moving to San Diego to teach. Now back in North Idaho, she rejoined forces with Leader and the Gypsy Divas to put the groove to their moves.

“Ali watches us dance and she just knows what to do,” Leader said. “We can say, ‘Kick it up!’ and she’s always right there.”

Part of the Gypsy Divas mission is to carry the message of dance beyond the artistic realm and hold it up to the general public as a joyous, healthy way to celebrate life through movement.

“We’ve got women of all sizes expressing themselves in a positive way,” Leader said.

“I really feel like this adds a lot of culture to our little town and the community has embraced that,” she added. “I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback and a lot of thank-yous from people.”

Leader now plans to take that message to both younger women and girls, as well as to men. As a big fan of the Sandpoint High School Dance Team, she realizes that not everyone can be part of that select group.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m starting the Gypsy Divas Jr. group,” she said, pointing out that the troupe would be for girls ages 13-and-up. “I think kids who don’t make the dance team should be able to come and dance with us.”

For men, Leader thinks her Soul Motion classes — a meditative, personalized dance form in which she will become certified next spring — offers a non-threatening passage to the dance floor.

Always on the lookout for new dance ideas for the Divas, the choreographer finds inspiration from all directions.

“Usually, it’s a song, a prop or a costume that sparks the creative flow,” she said. “I just got a baton twirler uniform,” she continued. “Who knows? It could be the start of a whole, new dance — maybe a marching band theme for the Fourth of July parade.”

This Thursday, July 25, Leader will offer a special dance workshop called the “In Breath Dance Odyssey” from 7-9 p.m. at the Moondance Sanctuary.  For more information about the Gypsy Divas, Gypsy Divas Jr. group or the Thursday workshop, call (208) 304-3143.

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