An All-Weather Scene

Dance is thriving in Minneapolis and St. Paul.



While its subzero winters take some getting used to, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul harbor a thriving dance scene ranging from classical ballet to bharata natyam, from flamenco to hip hop. The dance ecology here unites buoyant individualism with an ardent sense of community, echoing the populist streak that runs through Minnesota’s history, from its socialist Scandinavian roots to its current multicultural profile.

Now after years of planning, Minneapolis has gained a flagship theater and a center for dance. The new Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, including the stunningly renovated 1910 Shubert Theater with a refurbished 500-seat Goodale Theater, opened in September to much fanfare. Two sold-out gala performances showcased local companies as well as guest stars like Savion Glover and Wendy Whelan in the state-of-the-art facility. Named for longtime arts benefactors Sage and John Cowles, the center’s inaugural season is presenting 18 area companies. The theater, a lobby, and a studio that houses a distance-learning program have been integrated with the Hennepin Center for the Arts, a renovated Masonic Temple, with three dance companies currently in residence. The hope is that the Cowles Center will give dance groups increased visibility and production capabilities, and that its downtown location will draw a broader audience for dance.

The fact that Minnesota has never had a major ballet company has led to a profusion of diverse artists with powerful artistic visions. Through their ongoing support for individual artists as well as companies, funders like the Jerome, McKnight and Bush Foundations and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council have nurtured the spirit of innovation that has characterized dance here for over four decades.

A Little Background
The 1960s saw the rise of two key organizations: the Nancy Hauser Dance Company, rooted  in the Hanya Holm and Louis/Nikolais techniques; and the Minnesota Dance Theatre (MDT), under the direction of Loyce Houlton, whose choreography wedded ballet and Graham techniques. Both companies had influential schools and both still operate under their founders’ daughters, Heidi Jasmin and Lise Houlton.

The independent scene flourished in the 1970s and ’80s, with the establishment of the Minnesota Dance Alliance, a grassroots organization that offered resources and support for choreographers and companies. Nancy Hauser created a center that encouraged the creativity of choreographers like Ralph Lemon and Sara Pearson, who went on to found their own companies.

Other entrepreneurial artists developed new ways to present their work. Myron Johnson founded the still-thriving Ballet of the Dolls, a cheeky mélange of pop culture and classical moves, then created a cabaret setting where audiences could mingle with the glam cast. Already part of a strong local improvisation network, Patrick Scully founded Patrick’s Cabaret, a place for experimental work by sometimes marginalized subcultures, including gay artists, that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dancer/writer Judith Brin Ingber convinced Walker Art Center, a bastion of modern art and performance, to sponsor local Choreographers’ Evenings, which have been ongoing.

And Now...
Today, the Twin Cities’ robust arts scene encompasses dance, theater, visual arts, music, and performance art. Rather than existing in separate silos, artists interact to create lively dialogues between forms and genres. For example kathak-based Katha Dance Theatre performed with the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir at the Cowles Center in November. This collaborative spirit has fostered some fascinating hybrids: dance performances that are also art installations (April Sellers Dance Collective, Emily Johnson/Catalyst); composers who embody music in motion (Mary Ellen Childs’ group CRASH); and dance/theater pieces written and directed by choreographers. The prestigious Guthrie Theater has recently presented works by Joe Chvala and Stuart Pimsler. Pimsler also spearheaded the creation of the annual Sage Awards in 2005 in honor of dancer/philanthropist Sage Cowles, to recognize outstanding achievements in dance.

Company Town
The Twin Cities is rife with companies, both on and under the radar. Some have two home seasons per year, touring, and dancers on contract for 30 to 50 weeks. Others are more loosely organized and project-based.

• A strong repertory group under the direction of Linda Z. Andrews, Zenon Dance Company commissions both local and nationally known choreographers ranging from jazz dance to postmodern.

• TU Dance, founded by former Ailey dancers Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands, showcases Sands’ dynamic fusion of West African, modern, and ballet.

• Carl Flink’s Black Label Movement combines intense physicality with sophisticated structuring.

• Shapiro & Smith Dance offers up athletically charged theatricality.

• The James Sewell Ballet features Sewell’s accessible yet innovative work, including improvisation on pointe!

Other Voices
A lively dance counterculture has been buoyed up by organizations like Red Eye, which presents emerging artists and offers structured critical feedback, and the Bryant-Lake Bowl’s 9x22 series, a monthly event where works-in-progress get audience responses. Walker Art Center’s curator of performing arts, Philip Bither, commissions adventurous artists/companies like Ragamala, ARENA Dances with Mathew Janczewski (a 2008 “25 to Watch”), and Morgan Thorson to create new works.

Performance art–oriented artists and groups like Hijack, Mad King Thomas, Shawn McConneloug and her Orchestra, Vanessa Voskuil, Laurie Van Wieren, and Judith Howard create richly evocative, surreal landscapes, often in alternative spaces. Meanwhile Penny Freeh, Justin Leaf, Sally Rousse and Nic Lincoln radicalize and deconstruct ballet conventions—sometimes in fishnet tights. New York expats Justin Jones and Chris Yon remix gestural moves and iconic images, and Karen Sherman makes ferocious dances exploring physical and emotional extremes. There is plenty of interdisciplinary dance incorporating film, video, and installations, most notably from the BodyCartography Project and Time Track Productions.

World Dance
World dance proliferates here. Three Indian-based companies—Ragamala Dance, Katha Dance Theatre, and Ananya Dance Theatre—along with Zorongo Flamenco, and Middle Eastern Jawaahir, take traditional forms in contemporary directions. Ethnic Dance Theatre and the Native Pride Dancers stress authenticity in their culturally specific productions, while Kenna Cottman (director of West African–based Voice of Culture Drum and Dance), Roxane Wallace-Patterson, and B-Girl Leah Nelson have made pithy interdisciplinary works exploring cultural identity.

• The Zenon Dance School has the most diverse offerings, including classes in ballet, modern, and jazz, as well as sessions with names like “Belly Dance Flow” and “Health and Wellness.” It also houses a pre-professional performing group and offers scholarships and work-study programs.

• The MDT Dance Institute’s performing arts division provides a rigorous curriculum in classical ballet and contemporary dance.

• The new TU Dance Center in St. Paul offers classes in ballet, modern, and African.

• Ballet teachers like Becky Stanchfield (at Zenon), former ABT soloist Lise Houlton, and former Bolshoi dancer Lirena Branitski (at MDT) mentor the students and professionals who flock to their classes. 

• The University of Minnesota’s Department of Theatre Arts and Dance turns out versatile dancers who are immediately sucked into companies here, nationally, and internationally. Its excellent faculty includes Toni Pierce-Sands (ballet and Horton technique); department chair Carl Flink, whose dynamic men’s class has attracted many to the program; and Erin Thompson, whose teaching has been influenced by her work in Alexander Technique. The department also brings in Cowles Visiting Artists, who teach and choreograph on the students.

• Macalester College in St. Paul has a diverse dance program under the direction of Becky Heist.

• Arts high schools like the one at the Perpich Center for Arts Education outside Minneapolis and the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists serve as feeder programs for these institutions.

• Suzanne River developed and teaches Global Somatics, a combination of various somatic modalities.

• Jane Shockley draws upon this approach, along with Feldenkrais and her dance training, for classes that get rave reviews from area professionals. She also teaches at nearby Carleton College, whose dance program is headed by another popular teacher, Judith Howard.

• Classes by Rosy Simas, Deborah Thayer, former Trisha Brown dancer Kevin Kortan, and many others draw from Pilates, Gyrotonics, Feldenkrais, yoga, Klein and Alexander Techniques.

The Twin Cities prides itself on the number and diversity of its dance venues, even before the Cowles Center reared its elegant head. Walker Art Center, Northrop Auditorium, and the Ordway Center present mostly national and international dance, while area artists showcase their work in intimate venues, including the Ritz Theater, Lab Theater, Red Eye, and Byrant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, and larger houses like The O’Shaughnessy and Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. In addition, the annual Minnesota Fringe Festival presented over 18 dance events last August. The recent financial problems of the Southern Theater, which curated programs of local dance for over three decades, have been a blow to the community (it is now operating as a rental house).

Influx of Artists
The climate of mutual respect created here by partnerships between artists, educators, funders, and presenters has made this area a destination for both young dancers and established professionals. Over the past couple of decades, the Twin Cities has seen an influx of artists from across the country and around the world who have chosen to migrate to a fertile crescent where their careers, their lives, and their families can thrive. It has welcomed them with open arms—and with a massive skyway system designed to keep them warm and dry. Of course, keeping yourself in layers helps too.


Linda Shapiro was co-founder of New Dance Ensemble and director of the New Dance Laboratory, which were both active in the Twin Cities in the 1980s. She now writes about dance and the performing arts.


From top: Photo of Vanessa Voskuil, independent choreographer, by John Koch, Courtesy Voskuil; Photo of Stuart Pimsler by V. Paul Virtucio, Courtesy Stuart Pimsler; Photo of James Sewell Ballet by Erik Saulitis, Courtesy JSB; Photo of ARENA Dances by Erik Saulitis, Courtesy Arena; Photo of Ragalama by Ed Bock, Courtesy Ragamala; Photo of Zenon by Steve Niedorf, Courtesy Zenon; Photo of Cowles Center courtesy Cowles Center. Below: Photo of Rhythmic Circus by Cory Jones, Courtesy Rhythmic Circus.



Percussive, Hip Hop, Ballroom, & All That Jazz
Even before it opened, the Cowles Center gained its cred as a community hub by sponsoring three Groundbreaker Battles in adjoining parking lots, highlighting the Twin Cities’ thriving hip hop and breaking scene. Crews have included J-Sun and the Battlecats, Dancin’ Dave, D-Skreet, Ill Chemistry, and Looney Tunes.

Jazz dance has been a staple here since Zoe Sealy founded the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company in the 1970s, and Danny Buraczeski relocated his JAZZDANCE troupe from NYC in the 1980s. Currently Eclectic Edge Ensemble keeps the flame alive. Rhythmically Speaking, an online newsletter and blog by Erinn Liebhard and Heather P. Westerlund, seeks to revitalize jazz and rhythm-based dance forms in the Twin Cities area, while the Beyond Ballroom Dance Company explores the creative possibilities of ballroom dance outside of the competition arena.

Percussive dance took off in the 1990s with Joe Chvala’s Flying Foot Forum, a mix of folklore, camp theater, and hard-core tapping. Buckets and Tap Shoes mixes tap, hip hop, bucket drumming, and broad physical theater. And Rhythmic Circus has made provocative tap explorations of subjects like Alzheimer’s disease.

Outreach & Exchanges
Several area groups and individuals get Twin Cities’ work out there and into the community. Since the 1990s, Link Vostok has sponsored annual exchanges between Minnesota and Russian dance artists. Minnesota is also part of the SCUBA Touring Network, a four-way partnership with venues in Seattle, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. In addition there are several informal artist-driven touring networks.

Since 1985, Marylee Hardenbergh has been creating large-scale, site-specific works here and around the world, including a multi-site piece along the Mississippi River and Dance for Peace in Bosnia to mark the end of the war.

Area artists have worked with medical professionals and caregivers (Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater), hearing-impaired children (Zenon), and at-risk youth (J-Sun, Kenna Cottman). Kairos Dance Theatre is an intergenerational group that works with older adults and their families and caregivers. 

Web Resources
Most companies and artists have websites, but here are a few primary sources of information and commentary. is an online database on artists and organizations as well as news and features about the local arts scene. gives access to a weekly dance newsletter and various blogs.

 Twin Cities newspapers, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and City Pages, post reviews, blogs, and calendars on their websites. —L. S.


It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.

—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH

Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Nisian Hughes

"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"

Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.

Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
via Rebels on Pointe

You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.

A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
LINES dancer Courtney Henry. Photo by Quinn Wharton

We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.

But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.

A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.

Keep reading... Show less
Laurel Jenkins, Photo by Vincent Beaume

Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.

So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
AXIS's Lani Dickinson and James Bowen. Photo by Matt Evearitt, courtesy AXIS

After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.

By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Jim Lafferty for Pointe

You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.

Keep reading... Show less
screenshot via Jonathan Simkhai.

How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.

For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Emily Schoen and Houcem Bouakroucha, Photo by TuniStudio

Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.

In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.

Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.

Keep reading... Show less





Get Dance Magazine in your inbox


Win It!