Dance: Feet for Radio

Public-radio icon Ira Glass shows off his new moves.

Ira Glass backed by Monica Bill Barnes (left) and Anna Bass
Ira Glass backed by Monica Bill Barnes (left) and Anna Bass

Many of us know This American Life radio host Ira Glass by his voice—that nasal, wry, halting, excitable voice that stumbles so comfortingly into some 3.1 million pairs of ears each week. If you’ve seen the TV series on Showtime, you also know him by his glasses. But it’s unlikely you have any idea how he dances. 

Three acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall—June 21

That’s about to change. In June, Glass will grace the Schnitz with his new live show, Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host. He’s quick to point out no one listens to TAL and thinks, “If only they had some dancers”—but nonetheless, he’s touring with the artistic director and namesake of Monica Bill Barnes & Company, as well as one of her dancers, Anna Bass. We’re holding out hope for jazz hands.

Radio and dance: not exactly an obvious marriage. How did this come about?

I saw Monica Bill Barnes Dance Company perform and had this experience that I never have at a dance show: it reminded me of our radio show. They were documenting small, very relatable human moments—moments of awkwardness, that feeling of the world getting better right this second. At the same time, they were very aggressively out for fun. That combination is what I shoot for in our radio show.

So we invented a thing where I would tell stories and they would dance. That turned out to be enormously hilarious to us. We put together an 11-minute piece, and through a fluke my cousin Philip Glass asked me to be part of a fundraiser for the Tibet House at Carnegie Hall. I’d never performed anywhere for anyone, and we premiered at Carnegie Hall. And we killed. We totally killed. 

Since Carnegie Hall it’s been a steady progression downward to less prestigious theaters.

In terms of things people fear, dancing in public is right up there with speaking in public. Were you nervous?

Truthfully, we don’t talk about me dancing in the publicity of the show, so I will not confirm or deny. Mostly it’s me talking while they dance. 

OK, what about dancing in Yoko Ono’s music video for “Bad Dancer”? 

I did end up in that. There’s no denying that. When you get a call from Yoko Ono’s people saying Yoko Ono has a new music video and they want you to be in it, who says no? I know I’m a bad dancer. I’m in my 50s. I’ve never been athletic. I don’t have any illusions about it at all. I am an enthusiastic and bad dancer.

TAL has now passed the 500-episode mark. Do you ever get bored? Does being in a live show reinvigorate things for you?

I never get bored. That said, it’s super fun doing something you haven’t done before. We have props, there are lighting cues I have to hit, there are costume changes. It’s like, “I’m in a show! We’re putting on a show!” The only experience I’ve had with this is in high school, so that’s a lot of fun. We’re hoping to do a Broadway run this summer.

In a dance-off between public-radio hosts—you know, you, Terry Gross, Peter Sagal, Steve Inskeep, Renee Montagne—who would win?

Everyone you’re naming, I could beat. I would be scared of that Ari Shapiro. I know that he can sing, so he probably can dance. The only threat is Ari Shapiro. 

Read our extended interview with Ira Glass...