How to Create Outreach Projects that Are Actually Meaningful
There's a big difference between one-size-fits-all outreach projects that exist to check a box on a grant application and work that has a lasting impact. As more dance companies incorporate engagement efforts into their seasons, they're finding that truly purposeful projects require careful consideration of the communities they serve.
Focus On Meeting Needs
Taking the time to research the community you're working with is paramount to creating a meaningful partnership. Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women starts all of their engagement endeavors with a planning meeting where they connect with members of the community. "The company is not positioned as experts, but as artists who are sharing a practice," says co-artistic director Chanon Judson. "It's an exchange of values."
Judson at an Urban Bush Women community engagement event
Courtesy Urban Bush Women
Worthwhile outreach projects should take into consideration the particular needs of the population. Oakland, California–based company Dimensions Dance Theater offered free studio space for dance instructors and their students while local schoolteachers were on strike earlier this year. And in response to Oakland's high level of human trafficking, DDT offers educational workshops for youth about trafficking and programs for young women who are survivors.
While working in New Mexico state juvenile detention centers over the past 23 years through Keshet Dance Company's M3 program, artistic director Shira Greenberg got feedback from students that they were struggling academically. Her response was to develop a movement-based curriculum focused on math, literacy, science and conflict resolution. Testing before and after each program shows an average 28-percent increase in student scores, and students who participate also demonstrate increased confidence and cooperation.
Dimensions Dance Theater responds to the needs of the community through educational programs.
Edward Miller Photography, Courtesy Dimensions Dance Theater
Ask and Adapt
Flexibility is key, as no one setting will be like another. In New York City, Gibney offers movement workshops in domestic violence shelters and a violence prevention program for middle and high school students. "Shelters contain transitory populations, so the work we're doing is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate an entirely different group every week," says Kara Gilmour, Gibney's senior director of community action, training and artist services.
Use Your Strengths
As an outsider, it's important to work with other experts rather than trying to do it all. "We don't try to be what we're not. Our dancers have a deep somatic practice and that's what we ask them to bring to the table," says Gilmour.
During Gibney workshops at shelters, a social worker or trained staff member is always present. "They hold the space in a way that is safe for both the participants and the artists," says Gilmour. "The artists can then share their expertise, which is the creative process, creating a sense of community, a sense of fun and building something together." Depending on your setting, a school counselor, classroom teacher, law enforcement official or human resource manager can be the bridge between you and the population you're working with. They can also assist with behavior management, help you navigate a new space or act as another demonstrator.
Gibney's Hands Are For Holding program.
Scott Shaw, Courtesy Gibney
Appreciate the Power of Dance
By offering vulnerable populations the opportunity to make choices, work collaboratively and express themselves creatively, dance has the power to be transformative. "It's a privilege to see people blossom once they are engaged," says DDT's administrative coordinator Latanya d. Tigner. "They learn their self-worth. Their confidence goes through the roof. It's really a pleasure to watch."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.