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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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SOME DANCE WISHES FOR THE NEW YEAR

31 Dec

Happy-New-Year-2014The New Year is upon us, and I’m hoping all dance lovers continue to help support the art form in 2014.  Whether you’re an amateur or a pro, a dance fan, a student, a parent or someone who just loves to dance, your actions count! There are many things we as a community can do. Here is my wish list for 2014:

  • Support your local dance companies.
  • Spread the word and encourage family and friends to see a performance.
  • Voice the need for governmental support of the arts.
  • Support arts education programs in the schools.
  • Enroll your child in dance classes.
  • Bring a child to see dance – and live theater – open their world!
  • Realize that dance in all forms, whether modern, contemporary, classical, dance/theater, Broadway, tap, jazz, ballroom, tango, flamenco, hoofing, classical Indian dance and beyond – count and need your support.
  • Be vocal – demand dance coverage in newspapers and magazines. Space is being cut – critics are disappearing. Raise awareness or we will disappear.
  • Fill a seat. Please, fill a seat.
  • Do what you can to participate in, and encourage, private and corporate giving.

Let’s do what we can to support dance in 2014!

Dance is the hidden language of the soulMartha Graham

I don’t want people who want to dance, I want people who have to danceGeorge Balanchine

I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myselfMikhail Baryshnikov

You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel aliveMerce Cunningham

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least onceFrederich Nietzsche

HEATHER WATTS AND TRACY STRAUS ON THE POWER OF ARTS EDUCATION

7 Jun

While scrolling through my Facebook News Feed a few weeks ago, I noticed a colorful photo posted by Heather Watts, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet. It was an eye-catching image of 300 children, all smiles with hands in the air, on stage at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, Colorado. The caption read, “CTB end of year performance” and congratulated the children, their teachers, “and Tracy, for organizing it all!”

Celebrate the Beat year end performance – May 4, 2012

What was CTB, I wondered? Why was Heather Watts involved with children in Colorado? And who was Tracy? I was curious, and wanted to learn more.

It turns out Heather is chairperson of Celebrate the Beat, (CTB), a not-for-profit Colorado-based organization which teaches music and dance classes to children. The program was founded by Tracy Straus, now Artistic Director of CTB, and is an associate of Jacques d’Amboise’s National Dance Institute.

(Associates of National Dance Institute – ANDI – is a collective of arts education programs inspired by National Dance Institute’s pedagogy. ANDI members share best practices, maintain standards of excellence and promote the growth of community arts education programs for children. More than 30,000 children are served annually by ANDI programs).

I decided to reach out to Heather and Tracy to find out more about Celebrate the Beat, what it takes to bring arts education into the public schools, and the positive impact such programs have on students.   What follows is a conversation on the wonderful and important work they are doing.

A conversation with Heather Watts:

Since retiring in 1995 as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, you have given so much back to the dance community. You’ve lectured at Princeton and taught academic courses at Harvard; you are a lecturer on the works of George Balanchine, educate dance academics and work with professional dance students training future instructors. You have worked with The National Endowment for the Arts, serve on the Artists Committee for the Kennedy Center Honors, and are on the Hunter College’s Dance Advisory Board.

Heather Watts, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet

I have recently learned you are also chairperson of Celebrate the Beat, the Colorado-based NDI associate organization teaching music and dance classes to children.  Your hope is to motivate students “to believe in themselves, value artistic expression and develop personal standards of excellence.” What a wonderful endeavor.

How did you become involved with Celebrate the Beat? I had long admired National Dance Institute (NDI), the organization Jacques D’Amboise created. In fact, as he was in the beginning phase of creating NDI in the mid 1970’s I would often pass the small rehearsal hall after late rehearsals at NYCB and stop to watch and listen as Jacques worked with all sorts of SUPPOSED non-dancers; these were policemen, kids, and at one point he was involved in teaching and working with the hearing impaired as well… his passion and ability to get people from all walks moving and engaged is a true gift!!

In 2007, when my husband Damian Woetzel took on the artistic direction at the Vail Valley International Dance Festival, we both felt it was important to offer the entire Vail community access to dance. Since NDI is a fantastic dance and movement program with live music, I spoke to Tracy Straus, the associate director at NDI, who I knew through my friendship with her mother. It turned out she already had a Colorado based organization called Celebrate The Beat, and with the incredible energy of Damian at the VVIDF and Ceil Folz who runs the entire Vail Valley Foundation, we were able to start up immediately that summer and Tracy has built an amazing and robust program in Vail and in other communities in Colorado. This year CTB is moving into schools in Denver where we feel we will be addressing a diverse student body that really stand to benefit from the confidence and joy that CTB brings to kids!!

What influenced you to advise and mentor an organization teaching love of the arts to children? I have always believed that those that have been given a lot need to share in all areas of life. Both my mother and Mr. Balanchine were very civic minded and empathetic and it was a wonderful example and environment to be raised around, first at home in southern California and then later on at NYCB. I believe strongly in the power of arts education to engage and empower young people.

What are the rewards of participating in such a program? Is there a different kind of satisfaction in introducing school children to dance than in teaching professional dancers or students in university dance programs? Watching the pride that the youngsters take and the great energy that is in the room is VERY powerful!!!!

Do you work with the CTB children hands-on? I watch the students with tremendous pride and admire Tracy and her staff. Damian teaches hands on in his various projects with young students, both with Tracy and in the work he does with Yo-Yo Ma volunteering in schools. I am really happy watching, applauding, and plotting how to reach even more students!

Heather Watts and husband Damian Woetzel, Artistic Director of the Vail International Dance Festival

Do you think programs like CTB make a difference? I met a third grade teacher in Vail that told me he was truly against CTB for his kids. He felt it was a distraction from their studies and testing until he started to notice that the boys fought and fussed a lot less on days that they had CTB and that attendance was much better too… he is a true believer today for sure! It’s very important to utilize team work and create self esteem for learning. There is a big movement to justify arts in schools with facts and statistics that prove the usefulness of the arts, but I am a believer in engaging all children BECAUSE IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO, ENGAGING YOUNG HEARTS AND MINDS IN CREATIVE AND JOYFUL EXPERIENCES.

It’s always a struggle to find funding for the arts. What can be done to encourage public and private funding of programs which mentor arts education for children? As long as arts programs and arts education for children is considered an add-on, their funding will be the first to go. Today there is a much needed focus that is growing daily here in America on our education system and on necessary improvements in how we engage and measure our children’s progress. Arts education is a big part of building a 21st century creative mind, and I think that we have let way too many kids lose their way by not drawing in their young minds with music, dance, painting and the other various ways we can express those things we do not have words for.

Do you foresee a growth in the associate programs of the National Dance Institute? Oh yes indeed! NDI has a long, LONG fantastic reach that is growing day by day!!!!!!! Don’t forget it’s called NATIONAL Dance Institute — BRAVO to Jacques and his amazing program!! What an accomplishment. KUDOS to Tracy for all she does for both NDI and CTB and to our team on the ground in Colorado!! And special shout out to Ceil Folz the visionary head of the Vail Valley Foundation – she just makes it happen for the kids in the Vail Valley!!!!!!!!!

How can we help CTB, and other associates of National Dance Institute, to expand? What can arts advocates do to support and encourage development of similar programs? CTB is training more teachers and Tracy is generous to give away all her knowledge and expertise to all who will listen just as Jacques trained her. There are many fine Arts Ed Programs in America, and we can all help them grow by donating even small amounts of money, or by attending events put on in the schools or by starting our own!!!!!!! You can send money to both NDI and CTB online or in the mail. For more ideas if you believe in arts education and want to help, you can go on to www.DonorsChoose.org  and look up arts needs in schools, and help an individual teacher get the supplies she or he needs or help in other ways. Take a look, its amazing!! Even the smallest donation helps.

A conversation with Tracy Straus:

Tracy, you are the founder and Artistic Director of Celebrate the Beat (CTB), and have spearheaded the development of ANDI – Associates of National Dance Institute, a collective of arts education programs. You serve as the National Dance Institute (NDI) Associate Artistic Director, and lead their Residency Program. You are one of a core group of educators who have who have helped found NDI associated organizations across the country.

You engage and motivate young dancers. Introducing young people to the arts is your passion. Who better to talk to about the nuts and bolts of introducing young people to the arts via dance outreach programs? In fact, Celebrate the Beat began as an outreach program of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

Tracy Straus, Founder and Artistic Director of Celebrate the Beat

How does a dance educator go about establishing an outreach program, and how do such outreach programs become associates of the National Dance Institute? A few wonderful NDI associate programs have been created by teaching artists who have become “Master Teachers” after many years of working tirelessly for NDI in different and extremely challenging public school settings in NYC. Other associate programs have been created by dance educators who have been trained by us, and who then continue their training by assisting a master teacher on a few two or three week intensive ‘residency’ programs, during which they teach daily alongside a fabulously talented teaching artist. I was extremely fortunate to have begun working with NDI at a time when Jacques (d’Amboise) was teaching a lot, and he took an interest in seeing me reach my potential, and invited me to assist him on many projects. I was also so fortunate to have been trained by three other extraordinary teachers: Catherine Oppenheimer, Lori Klinger and Ellen Weinstein. Eventually, after working in NYC for seven years, then working with NDI New Mexico for a year, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet hired me to create an ‘outreach’ program for them. Because the teaching is extremely effective, principals in other towns in Colorado wanted the program, and so it grew and became independent. And now, with the support of the Vail Valley Foundation, and a committed group of funders in Crested Butte and Paonia, it has grown tremendously. And in January we were awarded a grant from the Adams County School District in Denver, which supports our expansion into four schools Denver in the 2012-2013 school year.

Each NDI associate program has a very different “birth” story, but share one crucial element: the founder is brilliant in teaching children and other teachers, passionately committed to inspiring communities through this work, and excited by the challenge of raising funds to make it all happen.

During and after school hours, CTB teaching artists “serve entire grades or an entire school.” How do schools elect to participate in your program? Are you approached by the public schools to bring your program to them? Do you go to the schools to suggest arts programming? In most cases principals have heard about the success of CTB and approach us.

Do children choose to participate in the program, or are they enrolled as part of the regular school curriculum? To highlight our belief that to create a better world, ALL children need excellent first hand experiences in art, we place our classes alongside science, math, reading in importance, and the ENTIRE class participates during the school day.

How do the associate organizations fund raise? Do they receive support from NDI? Each organization is one hundred percent independent financially and in every other way. Associate programs share a vision and mission, but are run independently.

Do local school budgets contribute to financing your program? In some cases yes, in others no. Our most recent expansion in Denver is possible because the Adams County School District has committed to financing half the cost of our programs in four new schools in Denver.

How are you working to make the program grow? What can we do to promote arts education in the schools? Our growth continues to be very organic, in that we are responding to a demand for programming that truly benefits the child, her family, and the community at large. Thank you for asking what you can do to promote arts education in our schools. I answer by saying financial contributions are an excellent way to express your support and experience the joy of watching the children touched by this program excel in ways you didn’t quite know possible!

I see there are currently 11 associate organizations for NDI. How do they recruit instructors? Are they found locally? How are they trained in the NDI method? Each organization runs their program completely independently. Some send their teachers to NYC to participate in NDI’s Teaching Artist Training Workshops, some train them in their home programs.

Can you give an example of a success story? A child whose life may have been changed by participation in the CTB program? Oh yes…so many……a child who began a school year struggling in every subject excelled in CTB dance classes. By the end of the year he was also excelling in the classroom, and then was invited to dance on a world class stage – the Gerald Ford Amphitheater, accompanied by Yo Yo Ma….he continues to thrive in CTB and all areas of his life.

NDI’s founder Jacques d’Amboise said, “the arts have a unique power to engage and motivate individuals toward excellence.” How can we support the growth of programs such as Celebrate the Beat, programs that make a difference in the life of a child? Please join our mailing list and become involved as a friend and funder!

Find out more:

Celebrate the Beat

National Dance Institute

Associates of National Dance Institute

Master Class with Jacques d’Amboise – HBO’s “Master Class” on YouTube

A POINTED TOAST FOR THE NEW YEAR

3 Jan

It felt good to plié today.  After all the travel and mayhem of the busy holiday season it  felt good to finally adjust my posture, pull up, move my shoulders back and down, turn out and enjoy that first plié in my first ballet class of 2012. (Sure, you can stretch and plié and tendu without class, but it’s just not the same, you know that)!

As I went through my first  barre of the New Year,  I started thinking how grateful I am to New Jersey Ballet where I take class, for being there with a professional class and pianist so close to home. In fact, I am grateful to all of the local schools and institutions who offer quality dance training – those regional ballet companies, university dance programs and dancing schools who nurture and  inspire so many, all over this country.

New Jersey Ballet

Hey – we all start local – even the luminaries. Wendy Whelan, NYC Ballet principal, began taking dance class with a local teacher in Louisville, KY and as a child performed as a mouse with the Louisville Ballet in its annual production of The Nutcracker.

Charles Askegard,  recently retired principal dancer with NYC Ballet, began his dance training with  Minnesota Dance Theatre. David Hallberg, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, began his formal ballet training at the Arizona Ballet School in Phoenix. And Amanda McKerrow, Répétiteur for the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust and former ABT principal dancer, began her training at the Twinbrook School of Ballet in Rockville, Maryland and later studied at the Washington School of Ballet. And those are just a few.

I love American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, San Francisco and Miami City Ballet. But let’s not forget all of the smaller  companies in the smaller towns; the universities and even the small ballet schools who train and develop our young people, provide quality performance, and of course, offer class to all those who wish to continue dancing throughout their lives.

Please support your local ballet company in 2012 – their role is ever more important. As they say at NJ Ballet, “dance training develops discipline, concentration, alertness and body control, which aids in scholastic endeavors and personal growth. Carriage, body lines, coordination, grace, style, technique, artistry – the benefits that a dance education can bring are unlimited.”

Well said! We would be way less fortunate without our local schools and companies – here’s to them!

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