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Finding Their Footing

Six Months Ago, a Citywide Summit Set a New Pace for Baltimore's Dance Community. Now Can the Scene Work Together to Get its Groove Back?

Jefferson Jackson Steele
All Together Now: Dance Baltimore! founder Cheryl T. Goodman is spearheading a movement to bring the city's dance community together for its own good.

By Lily Thayer | Posted 10/29/2003

Is dance Baltimore's most underappreciated art form? This might be self-evident if you're asking yourself, "What dance in Baltimore?" Unlike Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., or Washington, D.C., we don't have a high-visibility ballet company. We don't even have a venue dedicated to dance performances.

But a diverse group of dancers in Baltimore say they're determined to find ways to make dance more accessible, more relevant, and more resonant with artists and audiences. In an unprecedented move for the historically disparate, if not dissonant, local dance community, members of some 37 dance companies, arts organizations, funders, and university faculties began last year to actually talk to one another at regular meetings. These dance summits, as they were called, led to a well-attended all-day event last April called Dance Baltimore!, which in turn evolved into an active dance service organization. Many are crediting its founder, Cheryl T. Goodman, a Baltimore-based arts administrator and dancer, with beginning the conversation--and feeding a momentum that's bringing dancers together as a community in more than name only.

Goodman, whose mother, Bertha, had studied in New York and raised Cheryl and her two sisters on a steady diet of dance, saw herself as being uniquely suited to become Baltimore's dance galvanizer. Through her firm, Eagle Arts and Entertainment Services, she has worked with dance companies (including the renowned Stephanie Powell DansEnsemble) and other nonprofit arts clients to help fund and promote their efforts. She was also well-connected personally. Goodman knew there were strong dance roots here, but she was troubled by the lack of an audience for dance in Baltimore.

"People shouldn't think they have to go all the way to D.C. to find good dance," she says.

In the summer of 2002, seeking to learn why there wasn't a more visible, united dance presence here, Goodman and others researched the scene and saw a lot of committed, talented dancers who suffered from a dismaying cliquishness--what dancer Cathy Paine describes as "lots of very small and rather private scenes" rather than one cohesive group. Dance companies didn't go see others' works. Jazz dancers didn't interact with contact-improvisation dancers. Individual performers hadn't met one another. Dance schools and outreach programs were underfunded and undersupported. And the Baltimore City Public School System still has only one dedicated dance teacher, Lori Goodman (Cheryl's sister), who pulls together a dance symposium every February of all the dance clubs--mentored or not--in the city's schools.

Clearly, the imperative was to get all these people in a room.

"I was talking to Melissa Warlow, of the Baltimore Community Foundation, about dance, and we said, 'We really just want to get together and talk,'" says Goodman. Warlow supported this radical idea, offering to host a meeting at the foundation's Read Street offices. Within three weeks, Goodman and Warlow gathered a group of 30 to 40 people who showed up to talk dance. What was eventually called the June 2002 Baltimore Metropolitan Dance Summit would lead to several subsequent summits, and ultimately the creation of last April's seminal Dance Baltimore! instruction and performance event.

Those who have participated in these summits have included African, aerial, hip-hop, belly, Irish, and senior tap dancers; dancers steeped in classical traditions and those interested in the extremely experimental; faculty and students from UMBC, Essex Community College, Goucher College, and Towson University; and supporters from local foundations, cultural venues, and local and national arts organizations. While by no means homogenous, the group was nevertheless able to agree on the four principal challenges facing their work: lack of awareness within the dance community, lack of communication among its members, lack of media visibility, and lack of a current audience for regular performances and workshops.

Ellie Robinson, associate director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance--an organization whose mission of promoting art and bringing artists together is, like that of Dance Baltimore!, writ large--points out, "The dance community is like any arts community in Baltimore. . . . It's mostly made up of do-it-yourself artists . . . and they are running around like chickens without heads trying to do their full-time jobs and run a dance company on the side."

It wasn't always like this. In the early 1990s an informal group of dancers made strides to rally audiences and fellow performers around their work, but the drive soon dissipated, due to what Goodman calls "a lack of participation." Around the same time, Goodman recalls, efforts were also launched by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to make Baltimore its second home, away from its New York workshop, but "there were some money issues or misunderstandings as to where they would perform and for how much," she says. "Very few major companies have performed in Baltimore since."

It was on a more modest scale, then, that Baltimore's dance projects began to grow. Today, with dance programs at UMBC, Towson, Essex, and Goucher, and established dance schools like Morton Street Dance Center and Stephanie Powell's Baltimore Dance Tech, professional instructors and well-trained dancers abound in the area. What has changed most recently, says dancer and instructor Cathy Paine, is that while many companies used to be run by full-time dance faculty members, "there's now a lot of young, new blood--dancers who graduated from these schools and determined that they want to be here, want to be dancing here. They're finding studio space . . . and they're paying to perform. Dancers are so willing to do that. They just really want to get their work out."

Members of Dance Baltimore!, however, make the point that neither these new dancers nor older, established companies should have to sacrifice to build an audience for their work. And they suggest that, by its very presence, Dance Baltimore! may keep them from having to struggle quite so much. With the concrete support of organizations like the Baltimore Community Foundation (which has committed funding), the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (organization and administration), the Hippodrome Foundation (facilities--both the Mechanic Theatre and the Hippodrome have been offered for future dance events), and the Baltimore Museum of Art (which is co-sponsoring a dance series tied to three of its exhibitions), the group has had demonstrable success in developing an audience, grabbing the media's attention in the process.

Liz Pelton, member of the Full Circle Dance Company, says that when she first came to Baltimore from Boston six years ago, she found it a "fertile environment for serious dancers." But she says the scene has only really begun to realize its full potential in the last couple of years, and she credits this largely to Dance Baltimore!, in particular the event last spring, where "the quality of dance was as good as any, and the sense of spirit was rich."

Cheryl Goodman says the event, for which Mark Sissman of the Hippodrome Foundation donated use of the Mechanic and UMBC's Carol Hess donated the Marley floor (a type of wood floor suited to dance), was predicated on the idea that "everyone can dance, everyone does dance, everyone likes to dance, and there's no difference between dancing in a nightclub and attending a dance performance--we just make it separate."

The approach worked. All 1,600 free tickets for the event were reserved within two weeks of their first offering. Thirteen hundred people attended the April 26 event, amounting to 60 people per workshop and hundreds more just watching.

"The class I took was packed," says Liz Pelton. "Not an inch of space on the stage wasn't filled with dancers' bodies."

While Dance Baltimore! could have been a one-time phenomenon, it supplied enough momentum to keep the organization itself going, and to spark what appears to be a genuine coalescence among Baltimore dancers. Four of the original Dance Baltimore! participants--Full Circle Dance, Cathy Paine (with musician Audrey Chan), movement/addiction, and the Collective--will reunite this Sunday for a performance at the BMA in conjunction with of the museum's exhibit Haunting Visions of Poe: Illustrations by Manet, Matisse, and Gauguin. This is the first of three Dance Baltimore! performances to be held at the BMA. In the spring, the group will organize presentations around exhibits on Toulouse Lautrec and Baltimore album quilts. Plans are also being made for at least two more years' worth of annual Dance Baltimore! events like the one held last April.

And with increased communication among their own ranks, individual members of Dance Baltimore! are finding more performance and practice opportunities. Many of the companies are regularly touring and performing new work at events like the statewide Maryland Council for Dance conference on Kent Island and the Morgan State University Dance Festival, both in November. City Ballet, a classical dance company, is in its nascence. The Collective, a company based at Hampden's Experimental Movement Concepts studio, sponsors well-attended biweekly "Open Marley" nights--improvisational movement jams that are open to all.

"I've done more performing and won more awards in the last two years than in the five years before that," says Paine, a frequent "Open Marley" participant.

Taking the scene as a whole, though, some administrators point out that there's still plenty of fragmentation that Baltimore's dance scene will have to overcome--or at least learn to live with. Anne Cantler Fulwiler, producing director of Theatre Project--which presents dance as well as theater--says, "In the last two years the managements are beginning to talk to one another, but companies aren't necessarily coming to other companies' work, or coming to see dance we're bringing from other places, like the Dance Theater of Ecuador. Dance needs to support itself, to a certain extent."

Goodman agrees: "People in the dance community can be myopic, but you can't grow as an artist like that," she says. "We're trying to garner a certain respect for one another's work, to collaborate--in part because funding is dependent upon that, as well as the social responsibility of our work."

The dance community also splinters on the subject of ballet, that most arch of traditional forms. While dancers like Pelton see the absence of a domineering classical company as liberating, others feel that major ballet companies provide invaluable mentoring, training, and visibility, as performers in cities like Richmond can attest.

"Richmond has the advantage of the Richmond Ballet, and the city has one very good active dance department [at Virginia Commonwealth University] and lots of cross-fertilization between traditional ballet and the experimental VCU dance department," Paine says.

Ballet companies also tend to provide another critical function: facilities. Baltimore still suffers from a paucity of spaces suitable for professional dance. Theatre Project, which redesigned its space in the mid-1980s to be more supportive of modern dance and now has a technical director trained in dance production, is generally regarded as the best show space, but even it doesn't have a Marley floor. The next best venue, the BMA, is large and often prohibitively expensive for dance companies to rent. But this, some say, is all the more reason for companies to collaborate, sharing such expenses.

It appears that Baltimore's dance community is indeed on the cusp of becoming something more cohesive, and cogent, than it has been in several years. And it's clear that what gives the scene its energy--its wild diversity--also sometimes perpetuates its fragmentation. With the stewardship of people like Cheryl Goodman and Melissa Warlow, it's quite possible that Baltimore's dance community will eventually get up to speed with its theater, visual arts, and music scenes. Just don't count on it to become more traditional. Says the Cultural Alliance's Ellie Robinson, "It's a hip-hop, modern, jazz, experimental town."

Dance Baltimore! performs Sunday, Nov. 2, at 2 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Call (410) 637-4130 . The Maryland Council for Dance's State Dance Festival and Conference will be held Nov. 7-9 at Kent Island High School in Stevensville. Call (410) 956-5621 for details. And the Morgan State University Dance Festival takes place Nov. 8 and 9 at the Murphy Fine Arts Center's Turpin-Lamb Theatre. Call (443) 885-3463.

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