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

Reeling, Darley says she took a serious look at her life too. "I still didn't have an executive director," she says. "I was wearing all the hats. My own personal creative life was overtaken by the company. I decided I couldn't go forward any more, and the board decided they didn't want to go without me. We decided to put it down."

It wasn't a case of burnout, exactly, Darley says. She had weathered financial storms with Dancers Unlimited before, when the dance company was essentially funded by one "angel," Dallas philanthropist P. L. Moore. "She gave us hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years," Darley says of Moore, who was one of the first people to sign on to The 500 Inc., Dallas' arts charity. "She got hit by the oil crisis like everyone else. We almost met our first demise in the late 1980s, about the same time as the Dallas Ballet." But the company was able to reduce expenses and cut back on its performance schedule and work through another troubling time. Last month, Darley knew she couldn't do it again. "I wasn't burned out on the dancing," she says. "I was burned out on the money issues. I couldn't ask dancers to dance for free. There are a lot of people out there who say dancers love to dance and they'll do it for the exposure. I say, you wouldn't ask your dentist to work on your teeth for nothing, just because he loves the work, would you?"

Angela Amort and Michael Clark of the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet are among a small number of dancers who perform professionally in the city.
Angela Amort and Michael Clark of the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet are among a small number of dancers who perform professionally in the city.
Lori Darley founded Dancers Unlimited, only to see the troupe fold this year because of a lack of interest among Dallas audiences.
Peter Calvin
Lori Darley founded Dancers Unlimited, only to see the troupe fold this year because of a lack of interest among Dallas audiences.

On the sunny side of a street in Oak Cliff, in a vintage bungalow that her architect husband is restoring, Donna Moham is playing host to a meeting of her fellow board members of the Dallas Dance Council. They are planning this year's "Dance for the Planet" outdoor dance festival in Annette Strauss Artist Square. At "Dance for the Planet," all the dancers work for free.

Silky Hart, the council's vice president of marketing, says the idea for the event came from board brainstorming about five years ago. The dance council is made up of 300 dance organizations and commercial studios in the city, all with a vested interest in keeping energetic companies like Dancers Unlimited from going under. Dance Council membership is at an all-time high this year, but board members had seen it dwindle to as few as 100 not so long ago. Many members are dance teachers and know firsthand how the city's younger dancers, like Misty Owens, tend to take off for more opportunities and better pay. Many are dance professionals who must teach to supplement any paid performance opportunities they have here.

"Dance for the Planet" was the council board's idea to get more visibility for member organizations and to attract attention to dance in general. "The kernel was how we could give everyone in the city an experience of dance," Hart says. "To distill it down to its essence, to eliminate any idea that dance has any kind of socioeconomic barriers." Hart says the festival's goal would serve the greater mission of the council. "If classical ballet wasn't for everyone, could something else be?" she says. "If the people who came to 'Dance for the Planet' had a direct experience with and loved dance, then it may have a ripple effect in building dance audiences to go to more dance performances or to take dance classes."

Festival audiences have grown consistently over the three previous years of the event, council board president Gayle Ziaks Halperin says. She's a festival committee member, a former professional contemporary dancer in New York, and former assistant professor of dance at Texas Woman's University. She's watched interest in performing and exhibiting at "Dance for the Planet" increase as well. The event features exhibitions by local dancers as well as out-of-town stars, a silent auction, audience-participation events called "globals," and an exhibits area for dance studios, dance-related products, and fitness and massage centers, plus typical outdoor-festival food and drink. "The first year, we probably produced 60 organizations, then 80 the second year, and 120 the third year, which was phenomenal," she says. The council settled on 85 participating organizations for the April 15-16 festival this year and is buoyed by the interest and participation of San Antonio and Amarillo dance groups and the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet. "Organically, 'Dance for the Planet' brings the whole dance community together," Hart says. "They're all so isolated, doing their own thing, and the competitiveness still exists, but so many of them come together for this one event."

But the festival organizations don't completely judge the event a success yet, even as droves of first-time dance fans frolic in the city square, learning to swing dance, ritual dance, belly dance, or any of the dozens of other forms available for sampling. They're worried that even for an event that has demonstrated an increasingly larger audience over its short history, corporate sponsors, foundations, and individual donors aren't lining up to offer their support. From her perch in the window seat of her guest room in Oak Cliff, Moham outlines this year's strategies for soliciting donations and acquiring items for the fund-raising silent auction. She rattles off tactics to the group with the skill of a political campaign manager and the subtlety of a drill sergeant. "If everyone would ask only five or six companies for support," Moham is saying. "And encourage everyone to add people they know to the list..."

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