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

Halperin says grassroots fund-raising must cover the costs of the event, which remain small and (barely) manageable mostly because the dancers work for free. Out-of-town dance companies come at their own expense, in part, to help market their own companies. Individual dancers participate out of a sense of community with their colleagues. Still, there is a sense of competitiveness -- some participate in order not to be left out of what has become a high-visibility scene.

"Unfortunately, we cannot pay the artists," she says. "It's successful only because the artists donate their time to come and perform or teach a class. Without their sense of building the community of dance, we wouldn't be in business." "Dance for the Planet" lost money its first year; made $2,000 the second year; and netted $5,000 last year. All profits are poured back into the not-for-profit event.

The growth of dance festivals reflects a recent trend in American dance, bringing dance groups together at "umbrella" events that maximize each company's limited resources but offer broad exposure to a diverse audience. Festivals hook the dance community up with the "first-timers," people who wouldn't pay a nickel to dress up and see Swan Lake but who will take the family to a city park to enjoy the weather, eat nachos, and even take a crack at the Lindy Hop or an African tribal dance if everyone else gets up and does it.

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.

Hart says one of the guest artists at "Dance for the Planet" last year said dance is a birthright. "In all communities and societies, always, they had a dancing component." Moham wonders whether the human need to dance isn't something that classically trained dancers don't understand as well as "vernacular" dancers do. "Maybe that's another reason why some of the larger dance companies don't always participate in dance festivals," she says. "They're not familiar with that ritual -- that 'get up and dance in the sun' kind of thing."

Halperin says the purpose isn't "dumbing down" traditional classical dance to appeal to hordes of hot-dog eaters in rumpled khakis. "It was to include all kinds of dance and movement styles," Halperin says. "Whether it was Tai Chi or classical ballet or African dance or children's dance or senior citizens or belly dancing. Whatever age, whatever level, this festival would present all of it."

But ask Fort Worth Dallas Ballet executive director David Mallette about events like "Dance for the Planet" and how they compare with a glam evening of classical ballet at the Music Hall or Fort Worth's chichi Bass Performance Hall, and you'll get another side to the story. Professional dance, Mallette maintains, is different from other incarnations of dance. "It's incredibly inaccurate and unfair to lump all types of dance together as if it's all one thing," he says. "It's like lumping all of music together. A bunch of guys who get together, who are attorneys, mechanics, and bankers during the week and play in somebody's garage for fun on the weekend is no comparison to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

"Most of what you see when you go to those dance festivals are amateurs, civic companies, and schools," he says. "That doesn't mean they're not good; but sometimes it means they're not good. Not being quote-unquote professional doesn't mean they're not good. I've seen incredible performances from arts magnet students, for example." But Mallette maintains that watching dancers at an "umbrella" festival is different from watching dancers in a professional company. "The elements of the professional classical performing arts are artists who have performed at an extremely high level of competence," he says. "That doesn't mean that watching dancers who are not at an extremely high level of competence cannot be fun, interesting, moving. But the dynamics that affect our company are very, very different than the dynamics that affect a school group."

This sort of talk sounds a tad too elitist to grassroots dance advocates and Dallas Dance Council members. "That is a stereotype," Halperin says, "that the community festival is beneath the professional dance companies, even if years ago it was true. If you look at the historical audience for dance, certainly for ballet, it has always been supported by the upper middle class and upper class." Halperin says history bears out her theory that the better educated a socioeconomic group is, the more dance becomes a part of its culture. "But for at least the last 15 years, I believe there are many more dance fans and dance supporters than ever before," she says.

Lori Darley might disagree.

As a former university dance teacher, Halperin says a growing number of people are interested in dance because they know more about it now. "That's due in part to the accessibility of dance education at universities and secondary schools," she says.

Yet Halperin's background and anecdotal experience with dance education at the college level don't jibe with the national statistics on where dance falls in elementary and secondary public education. According to the latest edition of the National Assessment in Education Progress report conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 1997, 75 percent of schools teach music; 73 percent teach visual art; 16 percent teach theater; only 1 percent teach dance.

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