I’m a convention kid at heart. One whiff of Aussie hair spray and I’m transported right back to the teen room, where kids clad in Jo+Jax unitards go crazy for Mia Michaels’ “Hometown Glory” choreography. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the ache in my joints and the burns on my knees from rolling around on carpet-covered concrete for three days straight. And even a decade after my convention days came to an end, I can recall the hit of serotonin I felt when a choreographer called me up onstage, as well as the stinging hunger when they didn’t. So, when I saw that choreographer Al Blackstone had started a convention for adults called Momen&Friends, I was more than a little curious: What does an adult dance convention actually look like? Is it similar to what I experienced in my youth? Is this the start of a new dance industry trend that will allow adult dancers (both professional and recreational) to indulge in the same experiences as up-and-coming performers?
After registering for Momen&Friends’ fourth edition, held last month, I caught up with Blackstone and his co-founder and husband, Abraham Lule, to learn about the event.
A Way to Connect People
In 2019 Blackstone and Lule (who is a graphic designer with a dance background) began toying with the idea of creating dance events for adults. “We felt like there was a need for something like this for people over the age of 18,” Blackstone says. They wanted to include dancers across generations and experience levels. Whether someone was a professional dancer or hadn’t danced in decades didn’t matter. (Though they highly encourage participants to have had at least three years of dance experience.) They named the umbrella company Momen, and over time planned to add different dance experiences to the organization’s roster. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Blackstone began offering free warm-ups on Instagram under the handle @momennyc, and the audience for their passion project grew.
In November 2021 they offered their first event, Momen&Friends—a three-day, adult dance convention held in New York City. Since then they have held three more editions of the event (all in NYC), bringing in a variety of educators from across the industry. The tickets to the events cost roughly $350, but according to Lule, a handful of dancers attend on tickets purchased by sponsors or other working professional dancers in the community. “We find that very special,” he adds.
Momen and Me
Unsure of what to expect or how to prepare for the convention, I asked Lule and Blackstone for their advice: “Free up space for the weekend so you can be truly present at the event,” Lule said. “Be prepared to disconnect from the outside world so you can be here, dancing.” Blackstone encouraged me to bring a journal, pen, comfortable dance clothes, and snacks.
Momen&Friends was held in regular dance studios in the city, rather than a large ballroom with concrete flooring. (Hallelujah!) The first day began with registration (in lieu of wristbands, we were given temporary tattoos) and the chance to buy Momen merch designed by Lule. Then the 86 dancers in attendance were divided into five small groups and given a journal prompt (“What do you like about dancing?”) followed by a discussion of our responses. This practice became a home base for us to return to multiple times throughout the weekend, and it provided a sense of camaraderie before we took to the floor. “I feel a sense of nostalgia being in this room,” a dancer said during one session. “As I’ve gotten older something has shifted in my relationship with dance and it’s been difficult. But today I feel the same spark of possibility that I felt back when I moved to New York in 2000.”
Of course, nothing like these exercises were offered at conventions when I was a kid—though I imagine it would have been beneficial for my mental health at the time. In fact, Momen&Friends takes a more holistic view of dancers generally. Attendees aren’t just given the chance to execute choreography correctly, they are invited to meditate, create choreography of their own, build friendships, and enjoy watching others perform as well. And Momen&Friends welcomes a more diverse age range of participants: While the majority of attendees appeared to be in their 20s, there were some in their 30s and 40s as well. (Lule and Blackstone hope older dancers choose to register in the future.) Some I’ve seen at auditions, pursuing similar professional opportunities to me; some I’ve seen at Steps on Broadway, taking classes just for fun; some are exclusively dance teachers or choreographers; and some said they work office jobs and are out of the dance world altogether. While it’s not tailored to educators specifically, I found I took a lot of teaching tools away from simply observing how the various educators approached the classroom.
Beyond group sessions, a performance by The Soles of Duende, and a relaxing meditation/yoga class by Ronnie Todorowski from Bob Fosse’s DANCIN’, the three days of convention included roughly 17 hours of dance, much of which was accompanied by live musicians. We spilled our guts on the floor in class with Sonya Tayeh; got sexy in a heels class with Jess Castro (“Have you guys heard of Beyoncé?” she asked to the delight of the room before turning on “Hold Up,” from Lemonade); worked on our cha-chas in an Afro-Cuban class with Sekou Miller; smiled till our faces hurt in musical theater with Billy Griffin; danced in the presence of the icon Sheila Barker; choreographed our own works in creative exploration with Heather Lang (“The outcome is the process,” she reminded us); dipped our toes into something new with a Lindy class taught by Caleb Teicher; and were moved to tears by Al Blackstone’s choreography about the intergenerational nature of dance, set to live music by Claire Wellin. “Dance your history,” Blackstone said, before reminding us that we each know how to dance because a teacher passed that knowledge down to us.
The variety of genres, as well as long hours spent with industry standouts, felt very reminiscent of my time on the convention circuit. The most obvious difference? It was void of competition—and I’m not just talking about the fact that I didn’t wear a rhinestone costume and compete a solo, a trio, and four group numbers. It didn’t feel like anyone was there to prove their exceptionalism. We were there to dance because it’s fun, it feels good, and we wanted to connect and build relationships with other like-minded artists.
As for what the Momen co-founders want dancers to take away from the experience? “I hope dancers realize how much dance has given them, and that they feel connected to something bigger than themselves,” Blackstone says. “I hope people make friends, and that someday those connections lead to the next Momen. It’s a cycle—a continuum.”