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Fun on the floor: Dancers carry on 79 years of Follies tradition

Audience members join the fun on the dance floor in the Bemidji State University gym during the Friday, April 26, 2024, production of the Funtastic Dance Follies.
Larissa Donovan
Audience members join the fun on the dance floor in the Bemidji State University gym during the Friday, April 26, 2024, production of the Funtastic Dance Follies.

Dancers of all ages participated in the Funtastic Dance Follies at Bemidji State University this weekend. The event started in 1945 and features several local dance groups.

BEMIDJI — For the last 79 years, the Funtastic Dance Follies has featured a seamless variety show of the long-standing tradition of dance at Bemidji State University.

The show started in 1945 with Myrtie Hunt, who reportedly had little dance experience, collaborating with choir director Carl O. Thompson to present a version of The Nutcracker Suite.

Follies Director Suzy Langhout of Suzy and Hondo’s School of Dance said the production has been a tradition in her family for generations.

"In 1945, my mom was a soloist in the first show, and then years later she became a teacher at BSU," Suzy said. “... When my mom retired in 1995, she handed it off to me. It's been in the family a long time.”

In 1978, Marion Christianson, Suzy’s mother, renamed the production The Funtastic Dance Follies to encourage dancers’ creativity and more male participants.

Luke Hendershot of Mora is president of the BSU Swing Club. He’s a junior pursuing a degree in engineering and project management, but said he wanted to learn how to dance after a missed opportunity.

“I think I was 13, or 14 years old at the time, something like that. I'd always eat all the snacks, sit at the table, I didn't know how to dance," Hendershot said when describing his years of attending polka fests with his family.

“My parents knew the band. One of the band members had a daughter and my father pointed at her and said, ‘You should go dance with her. She can teach you how to dance,’ and I said ‘I'm not going to go dance with any girl.’”

Hendershot never did get a chance to dance with her again, but the move to Bemidji inspired him to no longer sit on the sidelines.

"I regretted it ever since. Came up here and figured I better learn how to dance.”

While Suzy Langhout officially holds the title of director, and several area dance clubs and organizations participate, she said the students run the show.

"We kind of sign paperwork and try to lead them in the right direction a little bit but really, the students do it. It's open to any student on campus, any faculty, any alums, any staff members can dance on the show. The more the merrier,” Suzy said.

As campus life and student interests change over the decades, Suzysaid the numbers have ebbed and flowed but the tradition continues.

"[In] the ‘70s and the ‘80s, kids just went to school, they went to college. They didn't have to work. They lived on campus. This was something big to do. Her [my mom’s] biggest show ever, she had 230 dancers in the show, which is a lot of dancers on the floor,” Suzy said.

“We hit COVID, and we had to do it online because nobody could be here. We came out of COVID, we had eight students to do Dance Follies, so our alumni came in and carried the show for us.

“This year, we have almost 50, so it grew in a year. And so things are coming back. Things are looking a little bit better. People are not so afraid to be close together anymore.”

What’s also changed over the years are the styles. With the TikTok dance crazes that sweep the internet, Jon “Hondo” Langhout said those styles are more independent, versus the social styles he and Suzy teach.

“We focus on teaching the students social dancing in the beginning of the year, coach them on skills, how to work together, partnering, empathy, trust, confidence. ‘How do you do? My name is Hondo.’ How do you introduce yourself, and carry yourself with some confidence,” Hondo said.

Each production of the Dance Follies features an unexpected mix, another tradition of the show.

This weekend, Friday night’s performance included a lot of contemporary music as well as a mime and clown number, swing, jazz, and one style that is, at this point, a Follies staple.

"There has always been some sort of a jitterbug in every show from as far back as I remember it from ‘77 on. It's just funny because it just doesn't die, the jitterbug. Everybody loves it,” Suzy said.

With quick wardrobe changes and dancers performing multiple numbers, Suzy said the show has also seen its use of theatrics and props.

"If there is movement in music, we allow it in. We’ve had some different things in the past. We had a yo-yo expert one time because you could make the yo-yo dance to the music," Suzy said.

Hondo said it’s college experiences like this that will last a lifetime.

"I've told all the kids this, that these are the people that you will remember from college 20, 30, 40 years from now," Hondo said.

In Bemidji, there are plenty of ways to find camaraderie and connection on the dance floor, and room for dancers of all ages.

Larissa Donovan has been in the Bemidji area's local news scene since 2016, joining the KAXE newsroom in 2023 after several years as the News Director for the stations of Paul Bunyan Broadcasting.