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‘Dance on the Lawn’ – Community Dance Festival Sets Standard

11 Sep
Randy James' "Ten Hairy Legs." Photo: Tony Turner

Randy James’ “Ten Hairy Legs.” Photo: Tony Turner

I had the privilege recently to attend a dance festival a bit different from the norm — not one produced by an established organization, or part of a regional effort, or one of the well known dance festivals found in nearby New York City. This dance festival, billed as “community-based,” took place the first weekend of September in the New York City suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. This “first annual Dance on the Lawn” outdoor dance concert was held in a simple yet perfect setting, the front lawn of the local Episcopal Church.

The key components of the performance space — a festival banner, a marley covered platform stage and a great sound system – were complemented by a backdrop of trees, grass and the beautiful stone church to the rear. Add a warm, sunny day to the mix and the stage was set for a multi-faceted dance program for whomever dropped by to watch, lawn chairs and blankets in tow.

Alvin Ailey scholarship student Christopher Taylor - Photo: Tony Turner

Alvin Ailey scholarship student Christopher Taylor – Photo: Tony Turner

Teachers, students, artists and choreographers participating all generously donated their time, and the program was offered to its audience free of charge, something rare these days. Designed to help support dance and culture and “celebrate the arts in our own communities,” Dance on the Lawn hopes to become an annual event.

A diverse group of artists from New York, statewide from New Jersey, and some of Montclair’s own were among those who performed, including New York’s Seán Curran Company & Brice Mousset’s Oui Danse, and New Jersey’s Maurice Chestnut, Donna Scro’s Freespace Dance, Randy James’ 10 Hairy Legs, Nancy Turano’s New Jersey Dance Theater Ensemble, Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts’ Performance Workshop Ensemble, and Kathy Costa’s DanceWorks & Company. Contemporary dance, contemporary ballet, tap dance and modern dance were represented.

Seán Curran Company. Photo: Adria Rolnik

Seán Curran Company. Photo: Adria Rolnik

I was touched by the sight of a group of children, jumping and dancing, attempting to copy what they saw on stage. Job well done… isn’t that what it’s all about, inspiring and exposing the next generation to dance?

Directed and curated by former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater faculty member, dance performer and historian Charmaine Warren, and hosted by Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, former Ailey principal dancer and now head of national outreach for Ailey’s Arts in Education & Community Programs, Dance on the Lawn has been a heartfelt project long in the making.

I sat down with Charmaine to better understand what it takes to produce a community-based dance festival, and how her model can inspire other towns to do the same.

Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

(L-R) Charmaine Warren and Nasha Thomas-Schmitt. Photo: Tony Turner

(L-R) Charmaine Warren and Nasha Thomas-Schmitt. Photo: Tony Turner

What made you decide to produce Dance on the Lawn?

For more than two years I’ve wanted to share my love of dance with fellow Montclair residents so I began planning this event. There are other arts festivals in Montclair, so it just made sense to bring dance home and offer a dance festival too!

What are some of the difficulties faced in curating this project?

Because I’ve performed with some of the artists (I’m a curator and because no matter what, dance is part of my world), curating was not as difficult as it could have been. That said, I reached out some fabulous artists and asked them to perform without pay, and they said yes! The difficulty came when I, as an artist, knew how difficult it was for them to donate their time, so I set out to get financial assistance.

How did you find sponsors?

I am a Montclair resident, so I simply asked some wonderful people I know in the community for assistance. They signed on and donated their services (Toni’s Kitchen, Studio042, Tony Turner Photography and IMANI, a community-based non-profit that offers educational support programs to promote high achievement for all students in the Montclair Public Schools). One company led me to another, and so on. For example, Donna Scro’s Freespace Dance was an original company member of Seán Curran Company.

How can Dance on the Lawn serve as a role model for dance festivals in other communities?

I’ve been a curator for quite some time now – Harlem Stage‘s Dance Series, EMoves and The Wassaic Project Festival – so the curatorial part for me is not new. Being the producer/artistic director, though, is very new. The challenge was bringing all the pieces together and for the most part I was a one-woman-band. I don’t recommend that route, but I will say that having good friends and supporters is a must. Stick with those in the community that know you and trust you. Talk to friends and supporters who you know will be there for you, no matter what!

Brice Mousset's "Oui Danse"

Brice Mousset’s “Oui Danse”

This story first appeared on the Arts & Culture/Dance page of The Huffington Post, on September 10, 2014.

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TAP DANCE SCHOLARSHIP CHANGES YOUNG LIVES

5 Mar

Sophia Stewart-Chapman’s 14th birthday is on April 13, the same day she will be performing in the American Tap Dance Foundation‘s annual Gala in support of the Gregory Hines Youth Scholarship Fund. “What can be better than tap dancing on my birthday?” said Sophia. “I love to express my feelings through my feet. What better way to celebrate?”

Sophia began tap dancing when she was six years old, and has been a recipient of the Gregory Hines Youth Scholarship since she was nine. She will be performing at the ATDF Gala with her nine-year old brother, Andrei, also a scholarship recipient. He has been tap dancing since he was three, and both are members of the ATDF Junior Ensemble, one of several troupes performing that day.

When I tap, I like the rhythm my shoes make and how that sounds. Before I started I was scared, but then, the more I got into it, the better I felt. I love being in the world of tappers!” said Sophia.

Andrei and Sophia Stewart-Chapman rehearse in-studio

Andrei and Sophia Stewart-Chapman rehearse in-studio

The Gregory Hines Youth Scholarship Fund was created the year after Hines’ death, in 2003. Tony Waag, Artistic/Executive Director of ATDF, and Margaret Morrison, then Education Director to ADTF (now ATDF Education Advisor), discussed creating a scholarship fund in memory of Gregory’s contributions to the art form. According to Ms. Morrison, “Tony and the Board of Directors of the ATDF founded the Scholarship Fund so that young dancers, up to the age of 19, could study and participate in ATDF training programs and perform in events such as ATDF’s Tap City, the NYC Tap Festival. Gregory’s family, including his brother Maurice Hines, Jr., his former wife Pam Koslow Hines, and his son Zachary Hines gave their full support to ATDF around this project.”

The Scholarship Fund ensures that young dancers who want to pursue quality tap dance training have the opportunity to study, awarding scholarships every year to students based on both merit and financial need. The goal of the program is not only to offer training and performance opportunities to ‘under-served’ youth, but also to encourage pre-professional level students to continue their studies with on-stage performing experience. The program brings together students from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds.

Tony Waag - Artistic/Executive Dir. American Tap Dance Foundation

Tony Waag – Artistic/Executive Dir. American Tap Dance Foundation

“Besides being a leader in tap artistry, Gregory Hines had a commitment to access and diversity,” said Ms. Morrison. “He believed tap dance was for everyone. Tap dance fans and audiences come from all walks of life and can be found all over the globe. Gregory believed that tap dance should be inclusive of performers and choreographers of all races, ages, and genders, and from every economic class. Tap dancers come from many different countries and cultural backgrounds, and perform tap dance excellence in a variety of styles,” she said.

For Sophia and Andrei, the Gregory Hines Scholarship has been a way not only to allow them to learn the art form, but to gain confidence in themselves.

According to little Andrei, “I really like my friends and teachers. I feel kind of special, because I’m the youngest in the Junior Ensemble. That means I’m especially good for my age! When my family comes over and they watch me dance, I feel excited to show them what I’ve learned and what I know.”

Margaret Morrison, ATDF Education Advisor

Margaret Morrison, ATDF Education Advisor

Sandra Chapman, Sophia and Andrei’s mother, explained how tap dance has made a difference in her children’s lives. “It’s changed them in so many ways. They used to be hesitant to try new things and worried about failing. Tap dance has given them an outlet – they make mistakes and learn from them. Throughout the year, I watch my kids struggle with a tap step or dance piece, practice at the train station while we wait for the train to school, or watch as my son is helped by his big sister… then twice a year I see how they ‘nail it’ at the ATDF holiday and end-of-year performances. They’ve learned to take risks, yet still have appropriate expectations.”

“Through tap they have learned perseverance, a strong work ethic, and that you can have fun doing something challenging if you have the right support and encouragement. Those seem like life skills to me,” she said.

When Gregory Hines received the first ATDF Hoofer Award in 2001, he noted that tap dance doesn’t exclude anyone: “if you have a pair of tap shoes, you’re in.” The Scholarship Fund aims to sustain that vision.

GALA14CoverOn Sunday, April 13, the annual Gregory Hines Youth Scholarship Fund Gala will be hosted by comic actor, dancer and performance artist Bill Irwin, with a special appearance by former Saturday Night Live cast member Ana Gasteyer. Top tappers Max Pollak, Cartier Williams, Randy Skinner and Michela Marino-Lerman will perform, along with members of ATDF’s Junior Tap City Youth Ensemble and the Tap City Youth Ensemble. The afternoon will include a revived piece of choreography, Gregory Hines Boom, re staged by tap dancer/choreographer Barbara Duffy. A live jazz quartet will accompany all.

The Gala afternoon will take place at the Theater at the 14th Street Y (344 East 14th Street, NYC), beginning with a reception and silent auction at 1pm, with performances and live auction beginning at 2pm.

The Gregory Hines Youth Scholarship Fund Gala comes at the heels of the critically lauded Rhythm in Motion (April 8-12), a production featuring new work by New York’s most renowned tappers and choreographers. Tap luminaries Michelle Dorrance, Brenda Bufalino, Derick K. Grant, and Cartier Williams are among those presenting new choreography in ten performances over four days. Rhythm in Motion was overwhelmingly well-received in its March, 2013 run, including Brian Seibert at the New York Times who called it, “a vindication, a triumph, a knockout show.”

Former recipients of the Gregory Hines Youth Scholarship are current members of the professional tap community. They perform, choreograph, teach and continue Gregory Hines’ legacy of excellence in the art form.

“It feels really good to let my feelings out,” says Andrei. “With tap, instead of using words, I use my feet.”

Gregory would be proud.

Adria Rolnik is helping promote the American Tap Dance Foundation.

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