What It Takes: 7 Tips for New Leaders from BalletX’s Christine Cox

It takes an excellent leader to run a dance company. But Christine Cox, executive and artistic director of Philadelphia's BalletX, knows that it's not only hard work that distinguishes a leader.

Cox started BalletX with Matthew Neenan in 2005, using fellow Pennsylvania Ballet dancers during their summer layoff to populate a startup contemporary ballet troupe. Fast forward 12 years, and BalletX is opening a new $1 million building next month: The Center for World Premiere Choreography. It will not only serve as a home base for BalletX classes and rehearsals, but will also play host to choreographic residencies and community outreach.

Now the sole director of the company, Cox has learned invaluable lessons along the way. Here are seven tips she shares for new and aspiring directors-to-be.


1. Follow before you lead.

Cox's journey to BalletX was no cake walk—but it made her the leader she is today. As a teenager, she set her sights on joining Pennsylvania Ballet, but it took several auditions and several years dancing for other companies like BalletMet, Ballet Hispanico and American Repertory Ballet before she was ultimately accepted into her dream company.

Cox is thankful for those experiences because they taught her how to be the fearless leader she is today. "I would do nothing differently," she says. Cox attributes a great deal of what she knows as a leader to watching the great directors of the companies she danced for.

2. Be willing to take risks.

BalletX rehearsing Matthew Neenan's Let mortal tongues awake

Cox left Pennsylvania Ballet in 2006 to give BalletX its own identity separate from Pennsylvania Ballet. It was a risk, but she knew that to grow her own troupe, she had to leave the company she'd grown up idolizing.

3. Don't be afraid to diversify.

Initially, BalletX's business model focused solely on performances. But Cox felt the need to give back to the community in which the company had flourished. In 2014 she founded the Dance eXchange: an in-school dance program for 200 third and fourth graders at three public schools in Philadelphia. Based on the award-winning methodology of the National Dance Institute in New York City, Dance eXchange takes BalletX teaching artists and live musicians into the classroom to teach students the basics of dance with a focus on achieving personal standards of excellence.

4. Know that you will make mistakes.

Chloe Perkes, Zachary Kapeluck in Beautiful Once by Jodie Gates. Photo by Bill Hebert.

Cox says that making mistakes is part of learning what it takes to be a successful leader. "If you are afraid to make mistakes, you are afraid to try," she says. When starting the company, some early slipups included missing grant deadlines because they weren't written on the calendar, or being late to important meetings with stakeholders. Small mistakes add up, and Cox realized that she had to be as serious about the business aspects of BalletX as she was the artistic ones.

5. Surround yourself with people who have the skills you don't.

BalletX rehearsing a new Trey McIntyre piece, The Boogeyman

Cox attributes her successes to the great relationships she has with her board and staff members, particularly associate artistic director Tara Keating. However, she admits that she's made the mistake of hiring both dancers and administrators who weren't, at first, the right fit for BalletX. In those instances, she says, "I try to make it a better fit and work with what I have."

6. Learn when to hold back.

Cox is very much aware that people judge men and women in business differently. She naturally wears a lot of feelings on her sleeve, but she knows that each day she has to calculate how much of that side of herself she shares with the dancers and her team.

7. Believe in the work.

Having a great deal of integrity about the work she does has not only given Cox immense pride in her company, but it has brought the organization national exposure. By showcasing BalletX to groups of theaters and presenters, having a strong Philadelphia base of support and touring regularly, the company has gotten 11 write-ups in the New York Times in the last four years, and kept eyes on BalletX across the country.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021