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How do you tell a story without words? Two dancers give it a spin.

Kellie Harmon and Crystal DelGiudice will perform their piece at the Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday, as part of the festival.
Published Oct. 3, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The dance came from a conversation. About having conversations. Some of the best ones, the two dancers agreed, had been with strangers.

So they started there.

Kellie Harmon, 27, told her friend about a girl she had met on a New York subway. The girl was 6, maybe 7, and asked Kellie if she had any princess songs on her phone.

Crystal DelGiudice, 30, told her friend about a man she met in an Ybor City bar. He looked like some hipster jock but wanted to discuss philosophy and astronomy, the meaning of life.

"It's that instant connection you make with someone new, that openness of possibility," Crystal said.

"Okay, so we have to explore that initial interaction," Kellie said. "Let's start by looking into each other's eyes."

The women met six years ago in dance classes at the University of South Florida and have been roommates and dance partners ever since.

Last week, they were at the Academy of Ballet Arts, choreographing a piece for the Story Days in Tampa Bay festival.

"You think we can get it done today?" Crystal asked, stretching on the studio floor.

"We need to get to the backbend," Kellie said. "And figure out an ending."

• • •

The Story Days festival started three years ago, and is put on by a group called Your Real Stories. The idea, said organizer Lillian Dunlap, is "to draw people together to write, see and perform stories."

In past years, Dunlap and artistic director Jaye Sheldon have invited authors and actors, poets and playwrights to perform during the five-day event, which starts today. This year, they also have sessions that tell stories through food and film, photography, jazz, even beer.

And, for the first time, the Story Day organizers collaborated with dancers.

"We're branching out," Sheldon said. "This is all about exploring different ways to tell stories, recognizing how stories bring us together."

Crystal and Kellie, who founded a small dance company called Rogue Dance, will perform at the Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday. In addition to the piece they were choreographing last week, they also will improvise at least three other dances, including one to a slam poem.

"We're still trying to figure out how to convey that initial conversation with a stranger, that connection, through movement and touch," Kellie said.

How do you tell a story without words?

• • •

Kellie slipped off her socks. Crystal retwisted her bun. Ethereal, electronic mood music filtered through the studio.

They played with lyrical, modern and ballet moves, channeling their favorite choreographers, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

"We check each other out from afar," Kellie said. "We feel that spark or whatever, ask that unspoken question ... I feel like we need a pause, a second of silence."

They walked to opposite ends of the dance floor, then turned to face each other. They stood, staring, arms at their sides. Kellie counted, "5-6-7-8." And still they remained unmoving — except for their eyes.

Somehow, they knew. A look? Some sort of shared energy? Without a cue, the dancers began striding toward each other slowly, their steps perfectly in synch, never letting go of the other's gaze.

After an hour, they had choreographed three minutes of their piece, almost half. The slow walk brought them into a hand-clasp, then into each other's arms. They lifted each other, held, pushed and pulled apart, their bodies lacing and longing, testing and trusting.

"In all this interplay," Kellie told Crystal, "it has to be unclear who will take the lead."

One powerful section of lifts was supposed to climax with Kellie dipping Crystal over her knee, Crystal dropping into a languid backbend, then flipping into a back walkover and melting into a turn.

But when they tried it, Crystal hit her head on the floor. "You dropped me!" she said, rubbing her forehead.

Kellie saw it differently, "You didn't brace yourself."

Suddenly, their dance was tangled with the tension of so many relationships: Why aren't you holding me up? Why aren't you helping yourself?

"Just put me in the position and show me where to set my hands," Crystal said.

"There, yes. Over my leg and through. Yes!" Kellie said. She helped her partner up. "You okay?"

They broke for a few minutes to catch their breath, sip their iced coffees and try to figure out their next moves. They went back to their stranger stories: How did those end?

"I didn't want that little girl to get off the train. That whole week, I couldn't stop smiling," Kellie said.

"I don't even remember that guy's name. But his conversation never left me," Crystal said. "He led me into a maze of thoughts and feelings I'd never explored."

Kellie bounced on her toes. "That's it, that's it! What if at the end, we go back to circling each other, then, I eventually leave.

"And you're still spinning in the maze, alone but happy — and changed."

Contact Lane DeGregory at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Follow @LaneDeGregory.

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