Before 2018, Second Saturdays at The Space Upstairs had unchoreographed spontaneity and energy unlike any venue in the city. These events were built around improvisation and interaction, giving the performances an unpredictable, organic air. It was about engaging with a moment, being present, confident, and open to possibilities. They were an integral part of Pittsburgh’s dance scene.
As Pearlann Porter, the mind behind Second Saturdays said, “It wasn’t bar culture, it wasn’t a club, it wasn’t a concert venue, it’s not somewhere you saw music or dance performed. It was between casual and deliberate. You knew you were watching something evolve live.”
And after a year-long break, Second Saturdays is back. The series focuses on connection and Porter is using a network of dancers and musicians already part of the Second Saturday family. Feb. 9 marks the first of three shows in the spring featuring the sounds of local group slowdanger.
Second Saturdays are founded on post-jazz improvisation, which for Porter, refers to her background in tap. A good tap dancer has a conversation with feet through beats, patterns, and pauses. Just like an improvisational jazz musician, tappers don’t dance to the beat, they tap to contribute sound.
Dancers at Second Saturdays don’t dance, they play. They’re not dancers, they’re visual musicians.
“You’re saying, I’m going to play with [music]. I’m going to be in it and manipulate it and add accents where there aren’t any, or drop out and let the music carry on a few notes,” says Porter. “You can’t hear me, but I’m going to be a visual musician.”
Porter teaches this technique by imitating instruments with the body, training dancers to engage with the music like a traditional musician.
“It’s a lot of articulating motion, not deciding movements,” says Porter. “If I put my hand above my head and my arm out to the side, that’s a movement. You're really thinking, how can I treat my motion in a way that it sounds like something?”
Second Saturdays are orchestrated by Porter, but she acts more like the event’s invisible host. To her, it’s like “guiding smoke.” She reads the room, feeling what the space needs. If a moment needs vibrancy, a strong presence, or an individual style, she picks dancers from the audience to join players on the floor.
Porter never knows what a Second Saturday is going to be. They never truly begin, and they never end.
“I know that something is going to happen and we’re all going to be honest about it,” she says. “There’s a sense that no one knows and we’re all comfortable not knowing. Let’s all not know together.”