The Elvis Festival in Lake George, NY is an unforgettable event that draws performers and fans from all across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and beyond, all to pay tribute to the King of Rock-n-Roll, Elvis Presley. Some people may believe that the artistic legacy and appeal of Elvis rests strictly upon the memories of an ever-dwindling older population. This assumption, however, could not be further from the truth.
I recently got to see this for myself at the 2013 Elvis Festival where I met enthusiastic fans both young and old. Amongst the artists scheduled to perform, there was a broad representation of all ages and backgrounds. One of the youngest performers was 11 year old Trenten Oliphant, and there was even a female Elvis known as Lady E. (Images shown below.)
A Growing Phenomenon: The Elvis Tribute Artist
One thing I soon discovered at this event is that you quickly make a lot of friends. On the very first day, one of my newfound friends turned to me and asked, “Now which ETA’s do you follow?”
Not knowing what an “ETA” was, I just blurted out, “I follow all of them!!”
Subsequently, I realized that an “ETA” is, in fact, an “Elvis Tribute Artist”. While impersonators of Elvis Presley harken back to the 1950’s when he began his career, it is only since 1987 that the modern day Elvis Tribute Artist community was established. The inspiration for this development came from Edward “Doc” Franklin (the late friend and veterinarian of Elvis Presley) who founded the “Images of the King” contest, which still exists today.
Over the years, the number of contests and demand for ETA appearances has flourished. In addition to all of their tours and concerts, in February 2013, five of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest winners made nightly guest appearances on the “Late Show with David Letterman“.
Portraying Elvis Is An Art Form In Itself
In these competitions, the contestants are divided into non-pro and professional categories, and within their designated group will represent Elvis either in his early years or in the 1970’s version. While the songs and costumes may have differed from one performer to the next, clearly the source of inspiration was the memory and appreciation of Elvis Presley.
One benefit that comes from having a background in dance is that you understand what it’s like to consider even the most minute detail of a performance. As I sat there enjoying the shows, I could not help but think just how much work goes into making a convincing portrayal of Elvis.
- First and foremost, there’s the most crucial thing: the singing voice. Also, Elvis had a distinct manner of speech. (Yes. I heard the customary “Thank you very much”, but my all-time favorite, that I made good use of at the airport afterwards, was “Lord have mercy!”
- Secondly, there’s the physical appearance. While from stage, looking like Elvis is largely dependent upon the hair, makeup and costumes, it never hurts to have Elvis-like features. Furthermore, and fortunately for the tribute artists, Elvis’ weight did fluctuate over the years.
- Thirdly, there are the types of things that a dancer in particular (and probably annoyingly so) would tend to focus on. First of all, Elvis Presley had tremendous stage presence. In addition to his unique style of dancing, the performers must consider how they walk and stand, their posture, the use of mannerisms, how they hold the microphone and even facial expressions. Then, once all of these factors are taken into consideration, how does the performer incorporate them into the routine so that they appear spontaneous and not overly rehearsed?
Needless to say, as my mental list of Elvis-isms grew, so did my appreciation for the inspired work of each tribute artist. Check out this video from 2011. (It might take a moment to load.)
Elvis Presley: What a Performer
With his raw talent, energy, and style, Elvis Presley has inspired all sorts of performers over the years. We were fortunate to get some brilliant first-hand insight into seeing Elvis perform live from someone who is highly respected in the world of dance and entertainment, Dennis Nahat, of Theatre Ventures International. Mr. Nahat has an extensive resume (see more below) which includes choreography for Broadway, tv and film. He is also the choreographer of the hugely successful, Emmy-nominated tribute to Elvis Presley “Blue Suede Shoes“. (Also, see review: here)
From the time of it’s premiere of “Blue Suede Shoes”, we have included an abbreviated copy of a letter from Priscilla Presley to Dennis Nahat and his creative team.
On behalf of Elvis Presley Enterprises and everyone at Graceland, I want to tell you how excited we are to be part of such a wonderful show… and the great creative team of Dennis Nahat, Bob Mackie and Bill Ross. Elvis appreciated dance and we know he would be happy that we are involved with this project. We wish the company the best success in this world premiere endeavor, and hope you enjoy the production as much as we do.
“I’m not the first to say that Elvis Presley is the 20th century’s most significant entertainer, movie star, cult figure, and more importantly, pop singer the world has ever known. I believe that the popular phrase, “The American Dream” took on a new and truer meaning with the emergence of Elvis. In 1955, when we first heard his music, it was as if a sledgehammer had come down on the heads of all Americans. We had a wake up call – so did the rest of the world.”
“While growing up in Detroit, in early 1955, the first song I ever heard of Elvis’ was “You’re a Heartbreaker”. It was on the car radio as I was being driven to church for altar boy practice on Wednesday night by a young woman. She was so excited we almost had an accident during the broadcast of his song. Being so young, I didn’t understand what all the noise was about. However, because I was around so many musically-oriented people, and studied dance at the Ricardeau Dance Studio where music of all kinds rang out from every studio, I got swallowed up in the pop culture of Elvis and all that was to come.”
“I used to take a bus on Woodward Avenue to and from the dance school almost daily, past the famous Fox Theater which I had never entered. Once, for a week, I could see on the marquee a name in big letters, ELVIS PRESLEY and lines of people forming daily outside for tickets. One night after dance classes, I got off the bus in front of the Fox Theater and wanted to go inside like everyone else. Being a kid and alone, I said with a frantic voice to the man at the door, “My mom is inside and I gotta get in!” Amidst all the excitement, and to my amazement, he let me in.”
“I stood at the back of the theater on a side aisle, and to this day I do not remember what I heard – but I do remember what I saw. A gyrating body, twisting legs and a voice I’d never heard before was coming out of loud speakers in this large theater of screaming people. I was afraid and at the same time excited – I started screaming too – I didn’t know why. I do now. It was that earthquake of a performer on the Fox Theater stage… an experience I can clearly remember to this day. In September of 1956, the same year I had seen Elvis live, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Who didn’t see him that night? My sister and I were stuck to the TV screen. We all tried to dance like him, sing like him, dress like him, talk like him. Our elders were so afraid for us, but we were only youths who had become alive with excitment and were having a good time. We saw Elvis as one of us, just a decent guy with a message, a message we could understand: Freedom. Isn’t that what America stood for? We didn’t think about whether he was talented or not, that was beside the point.”
“Still today, over forty years later, I listen to his music and find the true genius of his talent. Oh yes, there were other fine talents on the charts then, but when it comes to vocal clarity, range, delivery, and believability, as in his song “Anyway You Want Me”, it’s Elvis, like no one before or since.”
“So when anyone asks, “Why the music of Elvis? You’re a director of a classical ballet company. You choreograph the classics.” I just say, “Yeah baby, Elvis is classic…”” – Dennis Nahat
Elvis Presley: A Natural Dancer
How many of these Elvis-inspired moves did we see in Lake George?
In celebration of its tenth anniversary, the Lake George Elvis Festival featured exciting concerts by six champions of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artists Contest. These six performers, having earned the highest honor of any Elvis performer, included Brandon Bennett (Louisiana), Bill Cherry (Illinois), Shawn Klush (Pennsylvania), Ben Portsmouth (United Kingdom), Justin Shandor (Michigan) and Cody Slaughter (Arkansas). (Click on the poster below to enlarge.)
I should also point out that these shows just would not have been the same without the spectacular accompaniment by vocalist/musician Dan Lentino and the Change of Habit Tribute Band .
In addition to the headliner performances was the actual contest portion of the festival. As promised, here are photos of a few of the contestants.
First, we have Trenten Oliphant, who did a terrific job in the Youth Category. Trenten began practicing the songs and moves of Elvis Presley when he was six years old, when his sister introduced him to the film “Trouble with Girls.” Much to his parents surprise, Trenten’s interest in performing has only increased over the years and he has appeared annually in Memphis during Elvis Week. Check out his Facebook page: here.
As mentioned above, another of the Elvis Tribute Artists in the competition was the statuesque Lady E. (See link to her Facebook page: here.) Hailing from South Florida, Lady E’s bio reads:
“You’re probably wondering how I ended up performing a tribute to Elvis Presley. Well, it’s simple…I got tired of everyone else having all the fun! It is like a dream come true. Paying tribute to one of the greatest entertainers of all time.” — Lady E.
Much to the thrill of the audience, there was plenty of talent on display from the contestants, both professional and non-professional. Yet, because this competition served as a preliminary round for the 2013 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, one of the main goals of the festival was to determine which artist would go on to represent Lake George for the finals in Memphis during Elvis Week in August.
It just so happened that the overall winner of the 2013 Lake George Elvis Festival was Travis Powell of North Carolina (shown below). However, because Travis is already scheduled to represent Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at the finals in Memphis (having won 1st place in the Myrtle Beach Ultimate ETA Contest on April 6, 2013), the incomparable Jesse Aron of Wisconsin will represent Lake George in August (also shown below).
Congratulations to all of the ETA’s for a job well done!!
- Click here for a full list of preliminary winners.
- A complete list of 2013 Lake George winners as well as previous winners will appear: here.
Other Featured Artists
Another highlight of the weekend was the Tribute to Rock and Roll History. This event featured an astounding array of other tribute artists including Dwight Icenhower (who does not only a convincing Elton John, but Elvis as well), charmer Ted Torres as Ricky Nelson (and also as Elvis) plus Tarie Aron as an adorable Connie Francis. Other fantastic performers were Cliff Wright as Conway Twitty, Steve Bobbitt as Rod Stewart, Jesse Aron (mentioned above) as Roy Orbison and Jim Barone, with all of the charismatic style of Elvis.
Speaking of charisma, there was also Robert Washington displaying the trademark fast, funky footwork of James Brown and Irv Cass showing off his soulful, yet humorously suggestive moves as Tom Jones. (See featured interview below.)
Dance as a Free Style Art Form
Most often at DanseTrack, we feature dancers who specialize in such styles as modern dance, tap, ballet, jazz, hip hop, and ethnic dance. Dance, however, in its most freestyle form, plays an integral role in the performance of so many entertainers. In addition to enjoying the vast singing talent at the Lake George Elvis Festival, it was so much fun just to sit back and enjoy the dancing, not from the standpoint of fomally-trained dance technique, but from a completely spontaneous, pop culture perspective.
As For the Dancing at Lake George? We Were Not Disappointed
First, here’s a photo of Elvis himself with one of the best dancers ever, Fred Astaire. One can only imagine what they must have been saying to one another.
Among the many great performances in Lake George, we saw 2012 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Ben Portsmouth in a spontaneous dance duet with Shira Rosenblatt.
2011 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Cody Slaughter displayed the vibrant moves reminiscent of a younger Elvis. This photo, by the way, was taken from his performance of Elvis in the hit musical “Million Dollar Quartet”. Official website here.
One question still remains. In the absence of any formal training, how does one develop the confidence and skills necessary to just get out there and perform?
To find out, I spoke with Irv Cass, who served as Master of Ceremonies for the entire festival as well as performed his own tribute to Tom Jones. (Pssst… I also wanted to talk to Irv to find out where he learned his killer dance moves.) Here’s what I learned:
Although not formally trained as a dancer, Michigan native Irv Cass was fortunate to have a natural sense of rhythm. After working at many types of jobs including as a model and disc jockey, this natural rhythm was put to good use when he was asked to join the first all-male exotic dance troupe, Fast Freddy and The Playboys. Founded by Fred Byler in the 1980’s, this touring troupe — which was a predecessor to the well-known Chippendale’s, developed a reputation for its tasteful costumes and quality dance routines. This led to such tv appearances as ABC’s 20/20 and the Phil Donahue Show.
Over the years, Irv has put his talent and performing experience to good use. As an Elvis Tribute Artist, his awards include winner of the 1999 “Worldwide Images of the King” and the 2006 Championship (Elvis 1970’s Division) in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada. Irv is featured in the classic documentary “Almost Elvis” about the competitive world of Elvis Tribute Artists as well as numerous tv appearances.
While Irv has been honored to pay tribute to Elvis, it’s in his stunning portrayal of Tom Jones, where we see his dance experience brought to life!
Here, we see a photo of these two entertainment icons, who were also good friends.
What’s an Elvis concert without the screaming fans?
At the Lake George Elvis Festival, there was plenty of enthusiasm to go around!
Last, but not least, thank you to…
- Jason Sherry (who’d probably make a fantastic ETA himself!) of Sherry Management, LLC for making it possible for us to cover this event.
- Dennis Nahat for his expertise in the entertainment business and insight into experiencing Elvis Presley live as a performer.
- Irv Cass for sharing his vast experience of working as a tribute artist.
- And to all of the ETAs and fans out there who tirelessly work to keep the memory of Elvis Presley alive.
Yolonda Jordan D’Amico, DanseTrack Editor-at-large
Dennis Nahat has performed with several of the world’s finest dance companies, including the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. His extensive resume includes serving as co-founder of the Cleveland Ballet and choreography for Broadway, tv and film. Mr. Nahat is a recipient of the Dance Master of America Award for Lifetime Achievement and is the choreographer of the hugely successful tribute to Elvis Presley, “Blue Suede Shoes”.
Presently, he is Founding Director of Theatre Ventures International, an innovative international theatre and dance production company based in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Check this out: The artwork presented in the Theatre Ventures International logo to the right (click on the image to enlarge) was done by the renowned prima ballerina from the American Ballet (and close friend of Mr. Nahat), Cynthia Gregory!
The name, image and likeness of Elvis Presley appear courtesy of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.
- Elvis Presley official website: http://www.elvis.com
- Official Elvis Festival Events – http://www.elvisfestival.com
- New website for Elvis fans and Elvis tribute artists: http://elvisevents.com
- Elvis artwork by renowned painter, Nate Giorgio. Link to his website: here. Related DanseTrack feature: here
- Elvis Tribute Artist Costumes – http://www.b-k-enterprises.com
- Elvis Tribute Artist Wigs – http://www.broadwaywigs.com/tribute_artists.html
- Elvis247 Radio – where the best entertainers on the planet sing the songs that Elvis sang. Link
Yolonda Jordan D’Amico, DanseTrack Editor-at-large