Westfield, Massachusetts is home to a well-kept secret dance group known as the Small Planet Dancers, who perform different historical and cultural dances. 

This month, the company is honoring Hannukah, Christmas, and New Years with presentations of “Wassail! A Victorian Holiday” across western Massachusetts.  

Connecting Point’s Iohann Rashi Vega spoke with Josephine Sarnelli, choreographer and artistic director of Small Planet Dancers, about the company and how history and entertainment can be shared through dance, music, and community. 

Read the full transcription:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: There is a well-kept secret in Westfield, Massachusetts. It’s a troupe called Small Planet Dancers who perform different historical and cultural dances. And as part of the celebration of the holidays in December, the company presented “Wassail! A Victorian Holiday.”

Throughout the program, Hanukkah, Christmas, and the New Year were celebrated in different locations in Western Massachusetts.

Connecting Point’s Iohann Rashi Vega spoke with the choreographer and artistic director to learn more about the company and the way that history and entertainment can be shared through dance, music, and community.

Josephine Sarnelli, Small Planet Dancers: I’ve always enjoyed history. And dance is a passion of mine. And when we start to put together programs many years ago, I decided that I wanted them to be educational programs, so that they would be not only entertainment but also serve a purpose.

So, I started off developing programs in certain genres so that we might go out and teach about Celtic history, or I might go out and teach about Middle Eastern dancing in relationship to culture. And we also got into historical periods. So, we started off with World War II and World War I, the Civil War became very popular during a certain time frame of the anniversary.

So, what I started to develop was programing based on things that were relevant at certain time periods. So, from there, I expanded out and said, “Well, let’s incorporate things that are also period pieces.” And that’s how the concept of “Wassail!” came up.

So, we were doing Victorian dances, we were talking about the Victorians, I had another variation of that that we did in the Civil War time frame. And then “Wassail!” was just a natural outflow of that. So, it became a celebration. But I wanted to make sure that it encompassed everybody in a community, so that’s why it celebrates, really, three events. It celebrates the Festival of Light for Hanukkah, it celebrates Christmas, and it also goes into the new Year.

Iohann Rashi Vega, Connecting Point: And this is a perfect way to put together celebrations that are so important and meaningful during this period of the end of the year, and at the same time showing how culture and the integration of the different communities that are today here in Western Massachusetts are represented through history, music, and dance. And this particular piece, “Wassail!” is also intended to be participatory for the audience to — to join and become part of the — of the experience, right?

Josephine Sarnelli: That’s correct. We try to do that at all of our events so that the audience can participate either in some form of a back-and-forth communication of greeting or in this particular program, there’s something called the Grand March that used to start off every special dance event during the Victorian period. It’s a very, very simple progression of geometric routines.

And what we do is, we do it in the opening. We call it “The Nutcracker March,” and we use some music from — from “The Nutcracker” to — to start off a nice march. And then at the end of the event, we invite the audience up to participate, and they join us in that performance. So, that’s one way that they are members of our experience.

We also have singalongs, so we’ve taken periods, pieces of music from the Victorian time that would have been popular, so that the audience can participate in those. And they’re popular songs that they would know, things like “Jingle Bells” was popular in Victorian time and “Wassail!”

Small Planet Dancers Chorus: ♫ Her we come a-wassailing / Upon the leaves so green / Here we come a-wandering / So fair to be seen… ♫.

Josephine Sarnelli: We’ll have the word sheets printed out for them and they can join in any time. We also do a little bit of a parlor game. We have a poem that we read back and forth at the end to welcome in the New Year.

So, we’ve discovered that audiences like to participate. They like to come. They like to interact with the performers, and this is a great way to do it.

Iohann Rashi Vega: When we talk about the description of these pieces — and the work that you do is talking about culture, history, representation, dance, music — but there is another element that I will like to hear more about, and it’s all the dressings. The — the work on finding the right attires for the times and periods and places that you are bringing to the different dances, how the element of the dressing comes to the work that you are doing.

Josephine Sarnelli: We try to be very accurate in what we portray. So, you know, if we’re doing something like World War II, we actually buy costumes that represent World War II, for example. We’ll go out and we will go on eBay and we’ll go to different places to — to get uniforms and really try and do that.

For the Victorian pieces, we bought reproduction types of patterns. The only thing that we do is we modify them — we have zippers, simply because it’s easier to get in and out of. But other than that, we’re very, very accurate.

For example, for the Civil War period, we make sure that our costuming doesn’t have fine brocades or fancy silks because during the Civil War we didn’t have those fabrics in the United States. That was — that was a five-year period where people were really suffering, so, they would have used calicoes. So, we make sure that our Civil War period costumes are very much of that element, so that they would have hoop skirts as they would have worn, but they wouldn’t be fine, fancy fabrics, they’d be simple cottons.

Iohann Rashi Vega: So, Small Planet Dancers is based in Westfield and it’s been around for a while, and yet it’s possibly for many still something that they don’t know is there.

So, what’s the history of — of small planet dancers and how can people get to know more about this work and maybe getting involved?

Josephine Sarnelli: The nice thing about Small Planet Dancers is all the people that perform with us are ones that are not professional dancers. We are a volunteer group, we’re community based. People come in from about 11 different communities the last time I counted.

So, we have people coming in from the Hilltowns. We’re based in Westfield, I’m speaking now from my dance studio in Westfield, but as far as people coming in, we’ve had people that are members of the troupe that come in from Monson, from northern Massachusetts, as I said, Agawam, Westfield, Northern Connecticut, because it’s a unique organization. It is all volunteer.

I teach everybody the routines so you can come totally with no experience at all. And “No Dancer Left Behind” is my motto. So, we will bring you along with us and incorporate you into the dances. And we feel it gives a lot of people an opportunity that otherwise might consider themselves too old to perhaps join in in dancing. What they discover is dancing is really ageless and it’s a wonderful way to stay integrated with other people.

Currently, there are 16 members of the dance troupe. People come and go based on the things in their life, but some of the dancers have been with me over 20 years, and as — as you said, we are a well-kept secret in Massachusetts. I’m constantly trying to help people know that there is this opportunity for them. If they like to dance, if they’d like to consider some portion, we’re always looking for musicians. We’re always looking for singers to join in so that it’s a complete performance when we go out.

Well, one of the things I thought I should mention is that we try to make history relevant for today. So, for example, in the Festival of Light, when we’re reading about that, we talk about it in a historical perspective. But anybody that is listening today can hear the impact in today’s society of some of those same values that the Festival of Light talks about. So, and that’s the same thing that we do with World War II or World War I, we try to make it so that people don’t look at history as something in the past. It’s a part of our lives today. And the reason I call the group Small Planet is because we really are one global community.