I’ll be honest, I had never heard of Dance/USA (a national service organization for professional dance) until the social media started buzzing in January about their annual conference coming to Chicago. Maybe this is because the member companies and venues are on a much larger scale (and budget) than me.
Then again, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.
Thinking, talking, and networking on the national level as a dance community seems a bit lofty to me (the majority of the people I talked to were either from Chicago or Philadelphia, where one of three main branches of Dance/USA resides), but one thing that was made really clear to me by attending a day at the conference was that many of the problems that I see facing the dance world are not specific to Chicago -- they are ubiquitous to the dance field as a whole.
The theme of this year’s conference was the rather verbose: Design it. Dance it. Be the architect of your future. Held at the beautiful Hyatt Regency McCormick Place -- just south of the heart of my city -- Dance/USA’s conference (much like any other professional conference) consisted of key-note speakers, forums, and area-specific lectures.
The attendees (primarily artistic directors, presenters, executive directors and journalists, with a gaggle of choreographers and dancers as well) could pick an area of focus between artist, management, and education-based topics. I went for the second day of the conference on scholarship primarily functioning as an independent artist, though I never able to completely let go of my other professional affiliations as an administrator at the Menomonee Club and columnist right here at Dance Advantage when hobnobbing with “the community”.
Take aways from the conference
In spite of its forward-thinking theme, the opening speech from Pico Iyer was decidedly reflective, and, at times, only vaguely related to dance. The discussion that followed was primarily focused on the idea of “stillness”. Dancers often view dance as a sanctuary -- a religious rite, if you will -- and many dancers view dance as a defining factor in who they are. Thodos Dance Chicago’s emerging choreographers recently testified to this fact surrounding their upcoming New Dances project. As Brian Hare promises on his Facebook page: “We are better at choreography than we are at public speaking”….. but you’ll get the idea.
In fact, I think Brian’s quip on Facebook really gets to the root of a major problem. Dance is not always an especially accessible medium. For dancers, dance is inherent in what we do and who we are. The very people we rely on to buy tickets and sustain our profession don’t have the same sensibility (and why should they?), and we dancers aren’t always great at articulating what dance is or what it means in words (and why should we?).
Engaging Dance Audiences
One of the main focuses of the conference was surrounding audience engagement and how to bring non-dancers into the fold of understanding. Through a massive granting initiative made possible by the James Irvine Foundation, Wolf Brown and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Dance/USA ignited the Engaging Dance Audiences program. Eight organizations ran pilot studies testing out new formats for getting dance-goers excited and engaged by dance performances. Universally, the studies found that people wanted to understand dance, but didn’t have the opportunity or the courage (for fear of sounding wrong or stupid) to ask the questions they need to ask to better process what they’ve seen. By providing new platforms for dance that encourage the audience to interact with the choreographers, understand and witness the creative process, and discuss their feelings without judgment, they will experience less frustration and be apt to attend more dance concerts.
What does this have to do with stillness?
You thought I’d forgotten… Pico Iyer encouraged us all to find a bit of stillness in our day. As dancers, we are often on the go, working three jobs, and busting our tails to keep dance as our professions. On top of that, we a continually promoting, networking, and tweeting, and often also serving as managing directors, PR, producers, and stage managers to try to get our work out there when there’s no money to pay other people to do those jobs.
That’s a whole lot of fuss and muss and chaos for something we say is a “sanctuary”.
In the discussion that followed Pico’s keynote, my group of business casually dressed dance strangers noted that “stillness” in performance can be one of the most powerful moments in a piece. Perhaps that’s because as people we don’t often demonstrate it; it’s uncomfortable. How often do we really turn off, unplug, stop tweeting, and decompress? If we lead by example, and show to our audience that dance itself is, for us, the stillness that we employ in our days, it might just rub off and become contagious.
I’m not yet sure to what extent my day at the Dance/USA conference will provide me with the tools to “be the architect of my future”, but I will say that getting dancers from around the country in a room together to has out the main issues facing our community is a really good idea.
As Jennifer Edwards stated on the Huffington Post: “… it seems that, beyond the stage and the studio, dance has the potential and the potency to infuse our world with graceful reflection — whether through gathering leaders in the field, contextualizing origin of inspiration, or building community spirit and cohesion. Among the many stories of cities and states defunding the arts and dismissing their generative properties, it’s heartening to report these events.”
For more thoughts from Chicago’s dance journalists, visit the links below.
Sharon Hoyer’s preview: Talking Business: The annual Dance/USA conference arrives in Chicago
Rouge Ballerina: Dance/USA hits town this week!
Time Out Chicago’s Dance Editor Zachary Whittenburg interviews the ED of Dance/USA: Interview | Amy Fitterer
Were you in attendance? How can non-dancers be led into ‘the fold of understanding’?
Is dance still your sanctuary?
How can you incorporate some stillness in your business, your marketing, your life?
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance writer and editor, focused on dance and cultural criticism in Chicago and across the Midwest. Lauren is the dance critic for the Chicago Tribune, editor of See Chicago Dance, and founder/editor of Art Intercepts, with bylines in Chicago Magazine, Milwaukee Magazine, St. Louis Magazine and Dance Media publications, among others. Holding degrees in dance and kinesiology, Lauren is an instructor of dance and exercise science at Loyola University Chicago. Read Lauren’s posts.