Friday, December 12, 2014

DanceUP, space, and intangible value

A few weeks ago, Dance UP, the local branch of the national service organization Dance USA, announced that it was closing its doors. My breath caught in my chest and my heart leapt into my throat when I read the announcement. I double checked the calendar to make sure this wasn't an April Fool's joke.

It wasn't.

For the past seven years, Dance UP has provided the Philly Dance Community with an array of programs to support performance, classes, awareness, and advocacy. The organization was a "safe space" for dancers of all backgrounds, genres, walks of life, ages, and stages in career, providing a neutral, physical space for people to gather, in addition to the services they provided out in the community. Some of these services included (this is not a comprehensive list):
  • a website for quick access to local resources (including jobs, grants, performance opportunities, classes, and consultations)
  • a physical library 
  • a physical workstation with computer and internet 
  • a regular eblast that included "Deadlines at a glance," news, and discounts for dancers
  • "DancePass" a membership program that allowed dancers discounted rates for performances, classes, and other professional services (photography, videography, website design)
  • International Artist Exchange programs with Poland and Hungry. Dancers from Philly went there and brought new experiences home. Dancers from there came to Philly and shared their perspectives. 
  • Scholarships. Based on a lottery system, the scholarships helped artists attend classes and conferences and develop their professional training - something that many organizations provide to their employees. Many dancers are self-employed and it is up to the artist to continue their professional development, costing time, money, and limited resources. There is great value in continuing professional development and DanceUP helped reduce the financial strain. 
  • Advocacy. DanceUP provided a voice within the greater Philly community. 
  • New Stages for Dance. A program that provided subsidies to professional companies to produce their work. 
  • Philadelphia is Dancing Wall Calendar. A great gift! A great way to get access to great pictures! And a great way to get to know what's happening in Philly dance and who's around. The Wall Calender included dates of performances and pictures of members of the local scene. 
  • The Portable Dance Floor. A safe way to show dance in any space, Dance UP rented out the portable dance floor to organizations showing dance in "non-traditional" spaces. The portable dance floor was sprung, protecting the health and safety of the dancers. (Why need a portable dance floor? you might ask. Would you ask a professional athlete - baseball, basketball, tennis, to play on solid concrete? No, they need a specific surface on which they can execute their craft. Likewise, dancers need a specific surface - a sprung floor, usually covered in marley - to best perform their craft with regard to their health, execution of performance, and quality of work.)
  • Dance in Public Places. This program provided free rehearsal space to Philly dancers in the Gallery at Market East. 

It's that time of the year when I'm going through files and piles and reflecting and purging. I found this intended post, which I'm sharing now. The programs that DanceUP provided were sometimes intangible, but those benefits are sometimes the most impactful. (I haven't altered my original thoughts in finally uploading this writing)

Changing space as a performance practice
In February 2014, I had the opportunity to perform and rehearse in several different spaces. One of these spaces included Dance USA Philadelphia's Dance in Public Places - at the Gallery at Market Street. This super unique program offered rehearsal space to local dance companies and simultaneously allowed the public to watch the work in progress. The dancing, itself, occurred in a store-front, with large windows and a speaker system that played both in the enclosed storefront and outside to the passersby. A representative from DanceUP stood outside of the storefront to greet and talk with the audience. The dancers and choreographers remained in the store and their process unfolded, undisturbed.

As a viewer, I was allowed the opportunity to see the nitty-gritty process of these dancers and choreographers. Trail and error. Let's try this... and this... and this... It takes so much time to make a dance. In a traditional performance, the audience doesn't see this. A different type of work is being executed. Performing requires a set of skills. Honing the craft requires another set of skills. Here, the audience was allowed the opportunity to see all of those skills in process. 

As an artist, I was afforded the opportunity to experience space on a different scale. We were dancing on a portable, sprung floor on one section of the store front. In a traditional studio, the walls are generally a good marker of the end of the floor space, but in this situation, I needed to develop a different spatial awareness of the edges of the sprung floor, because the edges of the storefront were wider than the floor, itself.

Nora Gibson Performance Project rehearsing as part of Dance in Public Places.
Photo taken from inside the store front.

KYL/D rehearsing as part of Dance in Public Places.
Photo taken from the mall.
Often, dancers are trained to "project to the nosebleed section" referring to the very back of the theatre. We're told this in performance, rehearsal, class, and the practice of all three. But, what if the furthermost audience member is only a few feet away? Or 300 feet away? How does a performer negotiate the audience space? In my experiences as an educator, dancers project to the space in which they're rehearsing. Then when they get into the performance space (usually a week before the show if they're lucky), a new challenge of spatial awareness and depth perception is added to the excitement of nerves and live performance. In this store-front at the Gallery at Market East, I was able to practice my spatial awareness of my audience from many perspectives. I was challenged to make decisions about who my audience was. This was an empowering opportunity, not often afforded to dancers who are the object of seeing. We are the object of the viewer. In this instance, I could make choices on who I saw and how they saw me. 
Did I choose to see the people outside, watching me, or ignore them?
Did I choose to project to the full space of my visual field - past the glass windows, past the stairs, across the vaulted ceiling out into the street beyond the mall- or did I choose to allow my projected, energetic space to be limited to the enclosure? Or to the actual dancing floor space? Or to the building structure?
If I choose to energetically project to a large space, how did I negotiate the reality of the smaller, physical space of the enclosed store-front and the smaller sprung-floor space, through my movement?

I played with these questions in each of my rehearsals, with differing results. I'm grateful to DanceUP for this opportunity to change spaces and challenge my own dance practice of rehearsal and performance - and challenging my own definitions of what each of those can be. Thank you! And thank you to the Knights Arts Foundation for helping to fund the adventure!
(end of original writing)

Intangible Value

In dance - practice, performance, and education - the value of what we do is often not measurable by monetary accounts, but by real-life experiences. The work we do is valuable. The work artists do connects, builds community, and prompts conversation and thought. It encourages dreaming, hoping, believing, creating, and action. It is not measurable by its stock options but by the dancing that occurs in the kitchen at Thanksgiving and the conversation that occurs on the bus because of the mural on the side of the building. It's in the appreciation of the sunrise and how it can be captured in a painting or photograph or poem and how that brings you back to your breath and the moment that you and your grandparent watched it rise together over the ocean. (And how you were so annoyed that you didn't get to sleep in. And the reflection that occurs because of said annoyance, response, and action). 

Art - dance - reminds us to be human. That has a value that cannot be measured. 

Thank you, DanceUP, for everything you'd done for this community. Your presence will be missed, but the values you created will endure. 

Here are some links, resources, and stories related to this post and to DanceUP and it's closing:

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