Tony Matesi, Courtesy Dance Church

Kate Wallich's Dance Church Classes Are Bringing Joy to Non-Dancers—and New Audiences to Dance

In 2010, Kate Wallich was a 22-year-old choreographer in Seattle, struggling to make dances and, like most young artists, also pay the rent. She had started her own dance company, Studio Kate Wallich, but hated how insular the contemporary dance world felt (dancers were the only ones who came to class or performances).

So she made a bold decision: she opened up her Sunday morning company class to, well, anyone—and soon Dance Church was born.


Walk into a Dance Church class at 10 am on a Sunday morning anywhere in the country and here's what you'll find: dancers and non-dancers of all ages, dancing, jumping, laughing, singing, sweating joyfully for almost 90 minutes straight to music by Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Cher. (Truly all ages: Though recommended for 14 and up, I brought my 5 year old and there were women in their sixties.)

The "church" part has nothing to do with religion—the name stuck because the class happens on Sunday mornings and because it felt like a weekly ritual.

The experience is far from a traditional modern, jazz or hip hop class: there are no mirrors, no phrases to follow, no anxiety about getting it "right" or looking stupid. The teacher—a trained contemporary dancer with deep knowledge of physiology—is in the middle, guiding you, and the movement goes from all-out dance party (think of the best wedding ever) to elements of a fitness class (jumping jacks, sit-ups).

This focus on joy and openness—and away from the competition of other fitness classes and the dance world—was intentional: "I don't want anyone to feel trapped in technique, in their bodies," Wallich says. "I want to be in spaces of positivity and joy."

There is no pushing, no force. It's not about losing weight or accomplishing more. Teachers will often say, "You can go at 100% or at 5% today—your body knows best."

"It is not boutique fitness," Wallich says. "It's not a culture of 'You made it! You can go harder!' It is not the culture of 'Just go a little more!'" The inclusivity and openness is disarming and freeing—as is the mix of students: computer programmers rub up against professional ballerinas.

Courtesy Dance Church

This was a huge part of the idea, right from its conception: "When you come to Dance Church," Wallich says, "you're supporting dance." The funds from each class go back to the teachers (all independent dance artists) and their companies.

Also, the teachers are building a dance audience from the ground up. "The mission is to connect artists with the public and to create empathetic experiences between artist and the public," she explains. "It's tremendously empowering when a dance artist is standing in the center of room, laughing, sweating and singing with whoever shows up—and then can say, 'You can come see us in a show!' And then some tech guy from Amazon is sitting in the audience and gets to empathize with art-making practice."

Over the last few years, Dance Church has expanded from Seattle to Portland, New York City, Los Angeles and Indianapolis. This growth has happened organically, "through genuine connection and relationships through our work," Wallich says. So when the company tours and meets dancers from other companies, many of those artists become trained in Dance Church methods and start teaching in those cities. "As Dance Church grows and expands, we're looking forward to being able to support more work and artists in each community directly."

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Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

How Do Choreographers Bring Something Fresh to Music We've Heard Over and Over?

In 2007, Oregon Ballet Theatre asked Nicolo Fonte to choreograph a ballet to Maurice Ravel's Boléro. "I said, 'No way. I'm not going near it,' " recalls Fonte. "I don't want to compete with the Béjart version, ice skaters or the movie 10. No, no, no!"

But Fonte's husband encouraged him to "just listen and get a visceral reaction." He did. And Bolero turned into one of Fonte's most requested and successful ballets.

Not all dance renditions of similar warhorse scores have worked out so well. Yet the irresistible siren song of pieces like Stravinsky's The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, as well as the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, seem too magnetic for choreographers to ignore.

And there are reasons for their popularity. Some were commissioned specifically for dance: Rite and Firebird for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Boléro for dance diva Ida Rubinstein's post–Ballets Russes troupe. Hypnotic rhythms (Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel) and danceable melodies (Bizet's Carmen) make a case for physical eye candy. Audience familiarity can also help box office receipts. Still, many choreographers have been sabotaged by the formidable nature and Muzak-y overuse of these iconic compositions.

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