Out of step

Dallas dance companies struggle to find an audience in a city that trains many dancers but can't seem to keep them here

On a Sunday night in Brooklyn, Misty Owens sits cross-legged on a worn futon, methodically mending holes in the black tights she wears for dance class and performing. She selects one pair at a time from the amorphous pile of spandex and cotton resting beside her on the comforter that her mom, who still lives in Dallas, gave her to disguise the tired futon. Her bedroom in the three-story apartment house in Park Slope, a New York City neighborhood, has one window that faces away from the street. Her view is decidedly un-city-like. She can see small back yards, children, and family pets from where she sits. She gets homesick "a little," she says, but lately she is just plain tired of the lifestyle in the cultural hub of the known universe. She has had it with constant commuting into Manhattan, working three jobs plus a freelance gig or two to take home $400 a week on average, and dealing with tough-talking agents who hold the promise of success tightly in their hands.

Lately, Owens has been a poster child for inertia -- an object at rest tends to stay at rest; an object in motion tends to stay in motion. She's usually on the move from one teaching job in the city at Merrymount College to another at Brooklyn Music School, then back for tap classes in SoHo. Just now she's at rest, but creeping doubts about leaving Dallas to seek her fortune as a professional dancer in New York have made her mentally restless. At 29, she finds herself the oldest member of her five-woman tap troupe based in trendy SoHo. On good days, Owens objectively credits herself with a measure of success in the big city. On somber days, like this quiet Sunday night, she is rethinking her decision.

"I'm thinking I'm here in New York, and I'm at a crossroads," Owens says. "For one thing, it's a very hard life, in order to pay my bills. But I'm thinking, if I give up, what am I going to tell my friends? What is my story now?" Owens has been soul-searching for a month or so and seems to find comfort in talking about it. She is expressive when she speaks, using parts of her lean, limber dancer's body to make a point. She uncrosses her legs and stretches, calves bulging and toes pointed, before dropping her feet on the floor.

Peter Calvin
Misty Owens left Dallas to seek her dance fortunes in New York City.
Brian Guilliaux
Misty Owens left Dallas to seek her dance fortunes in New York City.

"I find most of my energy is going to living," she says. "I don't have much energy left to keep the dance spirit alive. I'm choreographing and teaching most of the time, projecting dance onto others. I'm not doing much for my own growth." She has an opportunity, she says, to create a one-woman show, but the agent who approached her isn't offering to help cover her expenses while the project is in development. "It sounds great, but it will take a lot of time," she says. "I can't possibly keep my jobs and perform and develop a one-woman show, but I can't live here if I have to give something up." She has discovered that opportunities may come fast for a talented dancer in New York City, but they are not without risk and certainly not without sacrifice. For the first time in a long time, Misty Owens is considering coming back to Dallas.

If she does come back, she's pretty sure what she'll find. Owens keeps in touch with the small community of dancers in Dallas; her mother owns and operates a commercial dance studio, London School of Dance, where Owens cut her teeth on tap and ballet and began teaching classes herself at the age of 15. She's still close to members of the Booker T. Washington arts magnet faculty, where she went to high school and, she says, found out how good a dancer she could be. The Dallas Independent School District launched its version of New York's High School for the Performing Arts deep in the downtown arts district in 1976.

"There are tons of people from the arts magnet here in New York," she says. "And people I've kept in touch with all over the country. They are working, getting produced, conceiving their own companies." Owens pauses to sigh before she continues. "They're not in Texas, and I think that's for a reason. Everyone agrees that the funds are not there and the appreciation is not there."

Dance has been something of a tough sell to Dallas audiences, but insiders say it's not for lack of trying on the part of a small group of hard-working performers, dance teachers, and producing and presenting companies. In spite of small successes here and there and a modicum of critical acclaim, Dallas dance companies suffer half-full houses, skimpy seasons, and fickle audiences who would rather visit Texas Stadium every Sunday than watch ballet, tap, or modern dance on any day of the week. The need to please any potential viewer has resulted in some creative thinking on the part of dance professionals here, and the result has been a rollicking diversity in Dallas dance. Still, opposing forces within their own ranks thwart this handful of dance-scene denizens: competitiveness vs. cooperation, elitism vs. populism, professional vs. amateur, commercial vs. creative.

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