Out of step
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.
"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.
Members of the dance community blame one another and the city's well-heeled arts patrons for lack of support for dance, and they blame the lack of public funding. They all agree that Dallas is a great city to learn to dance, but the talented dancers who grow up here and train here have to go somewhere else to make a living. How shameful it is, they say, that a city the size of Dallas can't even support its own professional classical-ballet company without help from Fort Worth. How depressing it is, they believe, when a respected, innovative modern dance group has to fold after 20 years simply because the audiences aren't there to cover even its modest expenses. How strange it is that innovative, edgy contemporary dance must be brought to town by presenting organizations, rather than created here by the young dancers the city trains and nurtures.
"What's interesting about Dallas-Fort Worth that most people don't know is that it's the fourth largest dance market in the country -- in terms of the number of studios and the number of people involved in taking classes," says Linda James, an arts magnet high school dance-faculty member and vice president of the Dallas Dance Council. "We do a terrific job of training people, and they're leaving. There are really only two professional dance companies here, Dallas Black Dance Theater and the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, and that doesn't reflect the size of the market."
What it may accurately reflect, James says, is the lack of public funding. "Funding for dance in the state of Texas is the lowest on the totem pole," she says. When the funding for the Texas Commission on the Arts dropped sharply 10 years ago, one TCA commissioner, Mitch Jericho of Dallas, helped create a private foundation to raise money to support the arts beyond what the Legislature could do. Jericho and a group of former TCA commissioners established the Texas Cultural Trust, a public-private partnership, to raise a $100 million endowment for the arts in Texas and take away the Texas Legislature's heavy-handed cutting of arts funding. George Pond, who directs the Austin-based trust, says the group has raised $12 million since its inception in 1993. "If we could get a couple of these Dallas high-tech entrepreneurs to donate, they wouldn't even miss it," Pond says. "In their minds, $100 million wouldn't be anything. Dallas is crawling with all these very wealthy entrepreneurs. If we can excite them about how important the arts are to their business, we'd raise enough money."
James says the trust has been a godsend, but dance still suffers: "We always feel like dance is the mother of the arts, but in terms of funding, we're more like the stepsister."
On one return-trip to Dallas, Misty Owens participated in the Dallas Dance Council's "Dance for the Planet" festival, and says she was encouraged by what the 4-year-old, mid-April event has become on the Dallas dance scene. "I know everyone on the dance council, and I know what they're trying to achieve," she says. "But from everything I've seen and heard, Dallas still has a long way to go to be a city where dance is supported, accepted, and encouraged."
If Owens comes back for good, she'll have a leg up on other local dancers. For one thing, she'll have New York City experience on her résumé, and the East Coast-anointed command a degree of respect that the local talent doesn't. For another thing, she's heir apparent to her mother's thriving commercial dance studio. Still, she says, she'd be teaching students only to lose them to New York, Seattle, Toronto, or San Francisco; or, worse yet, Fort Worth. "Dallas has got to re-evaluate if they want the artists to stay here," Owens says. "People in Dallas are always saying they're cosmopolitan, but where are the artists? There's tattooing and there's Deep Ellum, but hey," she says. "I'm not sure what the solution is. But if I decide to come back, perhaps I can be part of it."
Nobody knows the trouble Dallas dance has seen as intimately as Lori Darley. Her own life and career parallel both the best and the worst of it. She is a homegrown talent, having graduated 20 years ago from the respected dance program at Southern Methodist University. With nine of her fellow alumni she decided to stay in Dallas and start a contemporary dance company. "Let's build a barn and put on a show," she jokes now about the we-can-do-anything attitude the group of 22-year-olds had back then. They called their new company Dancers Unlimited, and the troupe specialized in dance theater.
"While we did dance for dance's sake, oftentimes our pieces would be more theatrically based," she says. "Shopper's Guide to the Center of the Universe had singers and actors; it was more multimedia. We've done pieces that were pure dance, like Company Man about life in corporate America, and Wild Kingdom, with dances of a suburban Congo, where we looked at people as animals."
She speaks in the past tense. Shortly after Darley and company announced a preview performance of the company's 20th-anniversary season in December and introduced Dancers Unlimited's first crack at offering season tickets, she realized the tickets were barely moving. "Here we had this incredible brochure, our membership was growing, we had a couple of grant proposals out, and things were looking really good, and the bottom fell out," she says. She and her husband had made a $25,000 loan to the company to keep the dancers paid while launching the anniversary season and waiting for news on the grants. "At the end of the December show, we realized the company was in a $30,000 deficit," she says. "I told the board I could not foresee trying to back ourselves out of another huge debt. I just couldn't see anything other than more struggle ahead."
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?"
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..."
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.
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.
A professional classical-dance company is often the crown jewel in any city's community of dance. Dallas used to have its own, and Mallette would argue that it still does. Yet before Mallette and a group of Dallas leaders got together to unify the pointy-toed life of the cities under one classical-dance company that started in Fort Worth, Dallas had a troubled past vis-a-vis ballet.
First there was Dallas Civic Ballet, founded in 1957 with nonprofessionals and students, which became Dallas Ballet when it turned pro in 1975. When the respected Dallas Ballet was staring down $1.8 million in debt at the end of 1987 because of what most insiders say was the European-bred extravagance of artistic director Fleming Flindt, the company went belly-up. Flindt, who had learned his trade in state-supported ballet companies in Europe, spent lavishly on sets and costumes and an ever-growing company of well-paid dancers. The professional school arm of the Dallas Ballet regrouped as Ballet Dallas and for two or three years ran a respected training program before introducing one annual performance of traditional classics such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty to what should have been a dance-starved Dallas public. But Ballet Dallas couldn't build momentum or sell tickets either during the '80s economic bust.
Mallette, from his perch high atop the successful Fort Worth Ballet, and a handful of Dallas leaders whose support he enlisted looked strategically at the Dallas dance situation in January 1988, when Dallas Ballet bowed out, and saw an opportunity. He says his organization took a pragmatic approach to filling a cultural void and by December 1988 had struck a deal with the Dallas Opera to put The Nutcracker on stage at the Fair Park Music Hall. "Our relationship with that small group of Dallas leaders is what formed the nucleus of what we now call the 'Dallas Supporters of the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet,'" Mallette says.
In 1993, the Dallas Supporters spun off into its own nonprofit organization. "Then we spent a little more than a year working out a six-year plan to serve both sides of the river," Mallette says. "Obviously our biggest concern was to address the financial side, since Dallas had seen two companies go out of business." Mallette says there were enough Dallas resources to underwrite the fledgling Dallas season, and the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet carefully constructed a plan to ensure that Dallas audiences and philanthropists would pay for the Dallas season while the Fort Worth contingent would pay for its own. The dual-city season debuted in 1994, and Mallette says most of the goals of the six-year plan have now been realized, including season subscriber parity. "For the 1999-2000 season, we have 1,900-plus subscribers in Dallas and 2,800 in Fort Worth," he says.
Most of Mallette's statistics reflect steady growth for the bi-city company. In fiscal year 2000, the company's budget was $4.2 million from Fort Worth plus the Dallas Supporters' $1.2 million. Mallette says the budget for the first year of the unified approach was $500,000 in Dallas and $2.6 million in Fort Worth. Another area he's proud of is the ratio of earned revenue to contributed revenue. "Currently, 65 percent is earned income," he says. Fort Worth Dallas Ballet's staff of professional dancers has grown to 30, plus two apprentices and three trainees.
Mallette won't discuss salaries, although Dance Magazine reported an average wage of $400 a week for a non-union professional in the metroplex. "We have made a very deliberate effort, especially over the last two years, to increase our dancers' salaries and our benefits package for all of our employees," Mallette says. "We're paying on the same par with other companies with a like-size budget." By comparison, Texas' well-known Houston Ballet is three times as big as Fort Worth Dallas, with a $12 million annual budget and a unionized company of dancers.
Parity between the number of performances in Dallas and Fort Worth isn't quite there yet. Dallas loses out on Fort Worth Dallas Ballet presentations by an average of three to one. Mallette says they're working on that too. He's about ready to announce the ballet's first fall performance in Dallas, to be held at the Majestic Theatre in November. Mallette won't divulge the offering, but expect something snazzy from the company's new artistic director, Benjamin Houk, along the lines of his novel Rite of Swing that got balletomanes and neophytes alike fairly hot on Houk and on ballet last year.
Dallas' other professional dance company, its modern-dance complement to Fort Worth Dallas Ballet's classical tradition, is Dallas Black Dance Theater. Founder Ann Williams says she modeled her company on the internationally acclaimed Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Ailey was a talented black dancer who grew up in rural Texas and burst on the New York scene with an inventive approach to choreography, pop culture, and soul and R&B music. Williams remembers meeting the company's founder in 1968 at Bishop College, where she founded the dance program. "He said stay small," she recalls. "Never get over 16 dancers, so they can go anywhere." She believes that much of her small company's success comes from its ability to play in any hall, no matter how small.
Dallas Black, as locals call it, produces modern, contemporary dance pieces by David Parsons, Paul Taylor, and Ailey. Williams says the company also performs choreography to the music of young composers or modern artists like Marvin Gaye. Dallas Black, it seems, has built a bridge between populism and elitism. It maintains all the trappings of a professional dance company while still giving its audiences an approachable art form set to popular music. "We have a spiritual suite with music by Aretha Franklin and a full production of Porgy and Bess with music by Miles Davis," she says. "When you leave our performance, you will have seen artistically very good dancers, plus you will have seen dance that you as an audience participant can identify with."
A large portion of Dallas Black's season is spent touring, and the company has performed as far away as South Africa and Austria and as nearby as Waco. "A lot of my dancers feel we get better support outside the city of Dallas than we do inside the city," Williams says, citing full houses, standing ovations, and "getting knocked down for autographs when we tour." The hometown, she says, is not always a city that continuously supports its dance companies. "If someone comes to one dance performance in December, they think that's enough and they don't need to come in February," she says of Dallas patrons. "They don't realize we want to see them every time. I tell them it doesn't work like that, because they go to the Cowboys game every Sunday, not just once a year."
The Dallas dance grapevine reached Misty Owens in New York; she says she was sad to hear of Dancers Unlimited's demise, but not terribly surprised. "I hate to say it, but another one bites the dust," Owens says, more matter-of-fact than mean-spirited. "When a new company starts in Dallas, they have fresh, complete, energetic, new, inventive ideas. And then, like a new restaurant, you may have three good years before you die." Owens says that if she returns to Dallas, she might consider conceiving a new dance company. "I think you have to keep creating yourself. If you don't do that, that's the danger," she says. "Especially in Dallas, where you have to work, work, work to keep your crowd." She thinks attracting a crowd to new dance offerings is easier in New York. She hates the idea that the work within the Dallas dance community is such an uphill battle. "It is a fight," she says. "If you're fighting, you're going upstream, and you're going to lose the spark or special magic that occurs to make what you have special. I know Dancers Unlimited tried and tried. But that's Dallas. What do we have that's lasted for that long?"
Lori Darley blames herself as easily as she blames Dallas for what happened to Dancers Unlimited. "We are all responsible," she says. "I never feel like my integrity is intact when I start to point fingers. Every time I choose not to go see a dance performance here, I think that's what happened to us. If people really wanted a dance community here, they'd be going to performances and buying tickets.
"It takes a village," she continues. "It takes everybody...I think it'd be a real shame if Dallas just becomes about buildings and the big stuff. There are a lot of incredibly soulful people in Dallas, but I don't know if Dallas has a very well-developed soul yet."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.