Start-Up Stories: The Multi-Disciplinary Arts Program

Have you ever thought about beginning a multi-disciplinary arts program?

I get excited when I see programs like this offered because I’m a product of one. During the summer months my childhood dance school provided week-long arts workshops instead of the usual dance camps or summer intensives. The focus was always on two well-known artists – one a visual artist and the other a choreographer. The day was split into sessions led by artists in our community in which we focused on writing, drama, dance, and art. We discovered connections in their work as we ‘tried on’ the styles of the famous artists and learned to express ourselves through a variety of mediums. It was an enriching and creative experience that, at the time, provided plenty of summer fun but that I value (and sometimes miss) even more as an adult.

Former Dance Advantage contributor, Roger Lee, is starting his own multi-disciplinary arts program. Roger Lee Arts Academy will operate out of Studio 1831 in the heart of Philadelphia, within walking distance of Community College of Philadelphia, Masterman Middle and High School, Friends Select School, Center City, and more. We talked with him to find out more about this new venture, how he’s marketing it, and how he’s balancing it with the direction of his dance company.

Roger Lee Arts Academy

Dance Advantage: Your Summer Camp schedule includes Writing, Drawing, Acting, and Dance and your After-School program is similarly diverse. Why not just focus on dance?

Roger Lee: I have always been interested in the arts as a whole. Very few people know this, but I actually started out as a visual artist. My parents put me in drawing and painting classes from the age of 5 to 15. I did not begin dancing until I was 13 years old. During this time period I also took music lessons (alto recorder) and acting classes. I eventually decided to focus my education and career on dance. However, I never lost my love for other art forms. I always had a vision of creating a multi-disciplinary arts training center for youth. I wanted to create an environment where students are inspired to pursue more than one artistic discipline, not discouraged.

DA: Tell me about your core student base. Who are you reaching? Who do you want to reach?

RL: I have the pleasure of teaching a variety of youth from Philadelphia, PA. Since this is our first year of operation, our student base is still growing. At the moment, we have a beautifully diverse group of youth from all sections of Philadelphia, PA. We also are blessed to have an awesome balance of boys and girls. I hope to continue building a racially diverse group of students that represent all areas of Philadelphia (North, Northeast, South, Southwest, and West). While the students vary in their artistic training and experiences, they all have one thing in common: raw talent. I am blessed to have students with so much potential, passion, and excitement for the arts.

DA: What are the ways you’ve gotten the word out about your program? Which have so far proven the most successful?

RL: I have used a lot of methods to spread the word about the new Roger Lee Arts Academy. I have reached out to business owners, local schools, social and the traditional media. Each avenue has been fruitful in its own right. However, the support of local businesses has been outstanding. They have helped me to establish a scholarship fund for children to attend Roger Lee Arts Academy summer camp and/or after-school program! I want to give a very special thank you to our current sponsors Costume Gallery, BearBear Productions, oVertone, Chatting With Champions, and MiNudes. If businesses, organizations, or individuals are interested in sponsoring the Academy, they can visit for more information.


DA: You are balancing the opening of the academy with the direction of a relatively new dance company as well. How do you stay organized and energized as you pursue both projects?

RL: The two things that have kept me organized and energized in running Roger Lee Arts Academy and Roger Lee Dance Company simultaneously are my faith in God: praying and seeking God’s guidance and plan for my life has really kept me moving towards the mark each day (both sunny and rainy days alike!), and the thought of the people that I am servicing. For the academy, the thought of children from Philadelphia keeps me working. For the dance company, the thought of my dancers and the audience members that we touch with our gifts keeps me working.

DA: Tell me a little about what makes Philadelphia’s dance and arts scene unique.

RL: Philadelphia’s dance and arts scenes are unique because of their history. Our city has discovered many artistic giants such as Joan Myers Brown (dance), Will Smith (acting), Jazmin Sullivan (singing), Boyz II Men (singing), Bianca Ryan (singing), Isaiah Zagar (visual art), Gamble and Huff (Philadelphia Sound of Music), and so many more! We also have some of the most recognized high schools, colleges, and universities catering to visual and performing arts. Lastly, we have an undeniable urban style mixed with classical technique and crowd-roaring stage presence. Philadelphia is truly an artistic gem that is often underrated.


If you’d like to sponsor a student (or an event) at Roger Lee Arts Academy, again that address is


Do you operate a multi-discipline arts program in your city or at your dance studio? Tell us about it in the comments.

If not, what are your concerns or questions about starting such an arts program?

We want to know if we can help or connect you!

The Nutcracker, Philly Style

“’Tis the season to be jolly,” “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” and “Santa Claus is coming to town!”

But Santa isn’t the only one traveling this month. The Nutracker ballet has jetéd its way to major theater venues across the country. The 220-year-old holiday classic has captivated generations of audiences while inspiring adaptations around the globe.

Christmas Tree in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia

Photo by Michael Murphy

Professional dance companies all over have put their own spin on the season by developing alternatives to the popular holiday ballet. Some are creative reflections of their region and its inhabitants.

In the city of Philadelphia, two dance companies have created original, urban holiday productions that are filled with hip-hop, jazz, and modern dance, rapping, and live gospel singing. These productions are also filled with fun for the whole family, inspiring performers, and exciting storylines that keep audiences at the edge of their seats.

If you are traveling to the Philadelphia area this holiday season and would like an alternative to The Nutcracker, you may want to check out these two holiday classics. If you’re not, we’d love to hear about your city’s Nutcracker alternatives in our comments.

Eleone Dance Theatre’s Carols in Color

“This is a refreshing dance and music holiday production that audiences crave. It is an alternative to the traditional Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol and other ballets that have become synonymous with the holiday season.” — Steven Weisz, The Dance Journal

When E. Leon Evans, II, founder and former artistic director of Eleone Dance Theatre, became tired of seeing the traditional Nutcracker each holiday season, he decided to develop an artistic alternative within his hometown of Philadelphia, PA. [Read more…]

How To Build African-American Audiences for Dance

Black History Month is a time for reflection.

Each year I make it a point to reflect on how far African-Americans have come as a people, how their outstanding contributions have added to the rich fabric of American history and how prominent their influence is on popular culture, entertainment and the arts.

Last year I looked back and wrote an article on the desegregation of dance and the African-American pioneers that made it possible.

The good news is that there is still a large interest in dance within the African-American community.

IMAGE Urban Bush Women - Visible - Photo by KevinK

Photo by Kevin K

Dance has been a major part of our culture since the beginning, but how can dance producers and presenters build African-American audiences today?

The “FUBU Test”

Marketing research shows that many African-Americans use the “FUBU Test” when deciding if they will attend arts and cultural, specifically dance, concerts. The name “FUBU” is derived from the popular African-American clothing line. It is an acronym for the phrase “for us, by us.” In order to pass the “FUBU Test,” a dance concert must have some cultural relevance.

The majority of African-American audiences want insurance that they have the option of attending dance concerts produced specifically for African-Americans, by African-Americans. They want to personally identify with their dance experience, whether it is through seeing their history celebrated, hearing music from their own artists, seeing people who look like them on stage, or seeing African Americans represented throughout the presenting organization. The majority of African-American audiences are losing interest in dance works that have little or nothing to do with their culture.

During an African-American focus group conducted by an arts management consulting firm, one male participant stated, [Read more…]

Tap Classics: Frank Condos and 5-Count Wings

IMAGE A line drawing of two wings ready for flight IMAGEMany steps straddle the line between “flash” and “rhythm” steps, but unique amongst the aerial steps are wings.  To quote Marshal and Jean Stearns in Jazz Dance, “The Wing, with its combination of taps with an upward spring, holds two opposing impulses in balance, creating a dramatic fusion which can be thrilling.”

In the 1920s, wings were all the rage, and many variations existed.  The Pump, the Pendulum, the Saw, the Double Back… like time steps, most dancers had a signature wing variation.

IMAGE Gibson's New Standard Theater, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1919 IMAGE

Gibson's New Standard Theater, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1919

But there was one variation in particular that caught the public’s attention, and it was the 5-count wing, created by Frank Condos.

The step gave him and his partner Mateo Olvera, billed as the more memorable moniker of King and King, that earned them the title as “the greatest of all Wing teams.”

Basically, the 5-count wing is a shuffle and a wing done without any break in the rhythm and can be enunciated as shuh-full-and-a-wing.  This may seem like no great feat, but at the time, tap dance was just getting off of flat feet and up onto the toes.  While a respectable wing usually had dancers getting three inches off of the ground, Condos and Olvera were getting five or six inches of lift.

“There wasn’t many teams copying Mattie and me,” says Condos, “because we did those Wings faster than anybody else.”

Frank Condos grew up working in his father’s restaurant, the Standard Restaurant, across the street from the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia.  It was while running orders to the theatre that Frank was exposed to the best Negro acts in Vaudeville, class acts like Covan and Ruffin and Buck and Bubbles.  It wasn’t until he saw The Three Eddies, which featured dancer Chick Horsey, whose specialty was the wing, that Frank got the idea for what would become the act of King and King.

After his split with Olvera, Condos formed the team of The Condos Brothers with his brother Nick, whom he trained in his trademark step.  Later, he would train his other brother Steve, who would take his place in the group after Frank Condos’ retirement from performing in 1937.

Nick and Steve Condos went on to have illustrious careers, stars of both stage and screen. But it all started with Frank Condos, whose daring and innovative spirit is felt even today as tap dancers continue his legacy of pushing the art form to its creative and physical limits.

The Condos Brothers "War Dance" [HD]

Watch this video on YouTube.

(The Condos Brothers, Nick and Steve Condos. See Steve hitting their signature 5 count wings at 2:15.)

More Tap Classics:

Tap Classic: Jimmy Slyde and his Signature Sliding

Hope Dances For Children With Special Needs

Last year Brian Mengini introduced himself to me via Facebook and I happily discovered his dance photography (he operates a studio in the Phoenixville suburbs of Philadelphia). Soon I saw his name attached to projects left and right, from his photography exhibit Spirit of the Fallen which depicts winged dancers in honor of fallen police officers, to the Dominics Dreams Foundation, the support group for families affected by Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) which he operates with his wife, Sandy.

Brian’s photography has been published on Dance Advantage, in most dance periodicals, as well as in the book, When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinities Across Borders. Currently, he is working on a blog, Barre Boys, which spotlights men in ballet, and will produce accompanying live events featuring all male performers. Married with two children, Dominic, 9 and Michela, 7, Brian is a firm believer of giving back and giving voice and opportunity to those who don’t have one.

IMAGE Brian, his family, plus friend and Dominics Dreams supporter Allie Parsons IMAGE

Brian, his family, plus friend and Dominics Dreams supporter Allie Parsons

I had a chat with Brian about another new and growing project he has in the works, Hope Dances, an initiative that aims to bring the benefits of dance to kids with special needs.

Dance Advantage: Hope Dances began as an initiative of Dominics Dreams. Can you tell us a little about your son Dominic and Dominics Dreams?

Brian Mengini: Dominic was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) shortly after his third birthday. SPD is the brain’s inability to receive, process and respond to information brought in by the five senses as we know it. It also affects their coordination and body awareness.

It affects each child with it differently. Some kids may present over or under-sensitivities to touch or sound. They also may not present an awareness of where their body is in relation to the rest of space. Or, imagine you have twenty different voices in your head yelling all at once. It clogs you up and you may get frustrated and just yell. Well, their body is going through that type of overload with their senses all day long. They are not equipped to process and organize it properly so they may seem unfocused or present what might be called behavioral issues.

Through years of independent, school and home based therapies, Dominic’s symptoms have leveled out tremendously. Those therapies included speech, physical and occupational. His social cues, graces and manners are in line now with his peers, his focus and attention have improved significantly, he is now able to tolerate louder sounds and new textures, especially with clothes. It took us four years to get him to wear a golf shirt.

When we first started on our journey, there were no formal support groups that we knew of for SPD. So, that was the main driving force behind DominicsDreams. What we do is host community events that are educational and fun, at no cost. We shadow families at times, helping guide them on where to turn for services. I do a bunch of speaking engagements. Currently, we are working on a program to bring into the school systems to educate the teachers. We are dealing with a disorder that affects one in twenty kids but no one knows about it.

DA: You’ve worked in dance for a long time, as a company manager and dance photographer. Hope Dances is the most recent example of a charitable project which combines your passions. Why is there a need for Hope Dances and what compelled you to make this happen?

BM: Dance is such a wonderful gift with many benefits to body and soul. With Dominic, we are now at a point where we are doing only alternate therapies – swimming, soccer and horseback riding. I have long wanted to create an outreach program around dance. I now have that platform. I feel more people need outlets like dance in their lives, whether it be simply as a spectator or in education. With Hope Dances, they are getting both. they are experiencing dance in a physical way that helps them overcome some hurdles but they will also attend performances so they can see the beauty.

DA: What are the benefits of dance for special needs children?

BM: Dance helps with a sense of body awareness, it helps with confidence and social skills. Dance allows for creative expression and individuality and provides exercise and healthy living. Dance allows room for creative thinking and the acceptance of varied concepts, it stimulates the intellect. It can foster a sense of peace. Dance allows you to express the inner you in a fun, energetic and engaging way that is nonjudgmental.

Our hope is that some of the kids may be able to break out of their shells a little and ultimately that they can just “leave it all on the floor.” We want them all to have a full and rich experience.

[image] Dance instructor Michael Patterson, Brian and his son, Dominic [image]

Dance Instructor Michael Patterson, Brian and his son, Dominic

DA: Hope Dances will be offering monthly dance “parties” which are either free or of minimum cost to the families. Who are the master class teachers you have lined up?

BM: The first one will include Ian Hussey, a soloist at Pennsylvania Ballet and Michael Patterson, a teacher at Sandonato School of Ballet. We have a bunch interested and ready to go after this in all forms of dance – tap, hip hop, contemporary. They are all working professionals in their genres. I am very fortunate to have the friends and contacts I do. They have all really stepped up on their own to support this program. Its quite humbling!

DA: Hope Dances is not limited to children with any particular disorder or diagnosis. What kind of preparation goes into planning events or working with such a wide range of differently-abled students?

BM: I think that will be a work in progress, honestly. Most studios or schools who have a special needs program, its mostly creative movement. I want to offer the full spectrum of dance. So, right now, we are just lining up the teachers and will see as we go, what works and what tweaks need to be made. We do let the parents know what to expect and let them decide if they feel its a good fit for their child.

Jacques D’Amboise runs an amazing program in New York, National Dance Institute, which is mostly geared to low income students, but they do offer programs for special populations.  I have recently been in contact with him and his staff and they have been just so accommodating, supportive and just amazing. So, I am looking at their program and talking with them more to see what things I can pull from their model.  I don’t want to replicate anything that exists, but am ok with taking a look at existing models and see what tweaks we can make, how we can customize it to make it our own or even just to get some new ideas rolling out. But again, from my first email into them, they have been truly incredible.

DA: What should teachers or dance administrators consider if they are interested in creating programming, classes, or events for special needs children?

BM: My biggest thing would be to try new things. See what works and what doesn’t. Make sure the curriculum is appropriate. My goal with our program is to teach the kids real steps, even if at a beginner’s level. Look at other programs for ideas and as possible models.

DA: What’s coming up for Hope Dances?

BM: Well, we are planning an all-star gala for June 25. Dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet, Boston Ballet, Rennie Harris Puremovement, Say Dance, Tap Team Two and Rasta Thomas, have said yes and we’re ironing out schedules. This will be a fundraiser for Hope Dances and an annual event.

Other than that, we want to keep exploring dance with these children. We are assembling a steering committee. I want to create this program to offer weekly classes and work towards a showcase so they can show what they have learned and how they have progressed. I want to continue to grow this program, get our own home and perhaps create satellites in other areas. There is a need for this. I want to fill that need!

For more information or to find out how to get involved visit the Hope Dances website, their page on Facebook, or contact info AT

Let’s talk with each other about dance for children with special needs:

If you reach out to this special population, have you seen a positive change in the students in your program?
What are your questions about offering dance to kids with special needs?