Guerrillas in Our Midst

The State of Dance in the U.S.

Reviews by Suzanne Sato, independent consultant, and board member National Video Resources

"Without getting on a soapbox, I would say that dancing is as much a calling as it is anything else. Don't think of it as a career. You're stupid if you do. You've got to have something burning in your gut that you want to express."

— Bill T. Jones

“I don't want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance.”

— George Balanchine

The past two years have been financially challenging for all the performing arts, but among the many who claim “hardest hit,” the dance community seems to be experiencing the most troubling sea change. In this volatile environment, Dance/USA, under the leadership of Executive Director Andrea Snyder, provides many useful services to a wildly diverse and fractured field, and among the services is a growing publications program. Four useful reports were published in the past year and a half, in tandem with Snyder's informative quarterly reports to the field. Two are needs assessments for dance — in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, researched and written by Dance/USA. Two others provide insights into dance education, focusing on the National College Choreography Initiative's dance artists' collaborations with colleges and universities, and on the progress of holistic education in training classical ballet dancers.

Suzanne Sato

Dance in the San Francisco Bay Area
A Needs Assessment

Written and edited by John Munger and Libby Smigel

May 2002, 76 pages. Dance/USA, (202) 833-1717, (an executive summary is available at $4 for members/$8 for non-members

In surveying and publishing this exhaustive needs assessment, Dance/USA and Bay Area grantmakers (the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Walter & Elise Haas Fund, and the Fleishhacker Foundation) have done a great service for the diverse dance community of the Bay Area. A survey, based on responses from 129 dance entities (of 650 contacted), yielded important information from a set of communities that are traditionally divided by geography, aesthetics, and tradition. The Bay Area comprises the 7 million people in Greater San Francisco and the North, East, and South Bays.

Three key findings provide a crucial context for interpreting the extensive data: that small and mid-size companies are under severe economic stress, that ethnic dance communities of the Bay Area are under-recognized and undervalued, and that characteristics of the Bay Area dance community “faithfully profile” national trends. Five areas emerged as focal points for future initiatives: strengthening the infrastructure of dance companies; increasing performing opportunities, particularly creating mid-sized and multi-functional performances spaces; the general space crunch; the need for a Bay Area dance service provider to replace the former Dance Bay Area; and the need for more general funding support. Since the completion of the report, these clearly defined needs have surely been exacerbated by the escalating state budget crisis in California.

While much of the raw data will be most useful to grantmakers working in this region, the general findings offer a baseline for similar assessments that grantmakers might consider for their own communities. Of particular interest for all, however, is an appendix that excerpts a chapter from A National Comparative Study of Dance Communities by Sally Sommer and Suzanne Callahan, an unpublished report commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2000. The ten-page history of the evolution of the dance field since the inception of the National Endowment for the Arts provides a useful context for the increasingly untenable financial concerns of the dance field.

Dance in the DC Metropolitan Area
A Needs Assessment

Written by John Munger and edited by Libby Smigel

July 2003, 85 pages. Dance/USA, (202) 833-1717, (An executive summary and the complete report are available at

This report covers the five-county greater Washington, D.C. area, including parts of Maryland and Virginia, and was funded by the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, Fannie Mae Foundation, and the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. It is a complex, comprehensive, and credible census of 186 dance entities, amplified by forty-three responses to a more detailed qualitative survey. Spearheaded by D.C. grantmakers, Dance/USA has been able to build on its ongoing research of dance communities in San Francisco and Chicago to perfect a process that can inform grantmakers, policy makers, or administrators planning their own needs assessments — whether in dance or other arts fields.

Perhaps even more than in the San Francisco study, the impact of ethnic dance is notable, and the research reveals that one cannot rely on company size, age, or budget to predict audience reach. While isolation even within a single community is a common concern in the performing arts, it seems even more pronounced in dance; this report repeatedly cites the fragmentation of the Washington, D.C. dance community characterized by numerous tight “circles,” that rarely communicate or collaborate. A key positive finding is ironically related to these circles — the majority of respondents cite and applaud the diversity of the dance community as its greatest strength. The chronically difficult financial climate for the arts in the D.C. region highlights another kind of “vicious circle,” one that traps dance artists in a downward spiral of choosing between survival and dancemaking. The complexity of describing this community is evident in the report's careful differentiation between the “factual” and the “perceptual” landscapes.

A localized needs assessment inevitably raises questions that are national in scope. In view of the many dance companies in the survey that meet few of the traditional definitions of “professional,” the report usefully questions the validity of basic grantee qualifications that have been the bedrock of professional grantmaking. An interesting sidebar in the report succinctly concludes, “Dance is a field with more guerillas than institutions,” underscoring a growing concern about underserved arts “communities,” whether because of aesthetics, geography, ethnicity, professionalism, or other differences from the classical and modern dance norms.

This report, as fulsome as it is, is the tip of an iceberg of information. Appendices posit other ways to cut the data to extract additional correlations about, for example, institutional size and/or age, the role of gender, culturally-specific companies, etc. Copies of all survey instruments are helpful inclusions. You will need time to digest this report, but it raises provocative questions not just for dance in Washington, D.C. but for the ecology of the performing arts as a whole.

Developing the Whole Dancer
Issues and Challenges for Ballet Training Institutions

Mindy N. Levine

September 2003, 26 pages. Dance/USA, (202) 833-1717,, $4 for members/$8 for non-members

Developing the Whole Dancer was commissioned in 2002 by the Howard Gilman Foundation and the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at the North Carolina School of the Arts in association with the School of American Ballet, in an effort “to better understand the issues and challenges surrounding the provision of more holistic education to classical dance [students] within conservatory settings and training academies.” The resulting briefing paper informed a conference at White Oak Plantation that convened many of the leading classical dance training programs from the United States and Canada.

While training of classical dancers may seem to be a peripheral concern for many arts grantmakers, the progress of holistic education practices has been remarkable when compared to concerns raised ten years ago in a groundbreaking report, “Widening the Circle: Towards a New Vision for Dance Education” also by Ms. Levine and available from Dance/USA. Developing the Whole Dancer provides a crash course in the evolution of training curricula today, with many specific examples of strategies — academic and career-oriented — that have been implemented at the most influential of the nation's ballet training institutions. These talented and highly motivated young men and women are the future of ballet, and their preparation — not only as dancers, but as potential choreographers, administrators, educators, donors, audience members, and citizens — should be the concern of anyone who cares about ballet.

The apparently modest scale of the “next steps” that dance training leaders recommend belies the immediate, lasting, and measurable positive impact these actions would have on the field of dance. It is an ironic commentary on the overall fragility of dance among the performing arts that both funding entities that commissioned this report have since suspended their grantmaking.

The NCCI's Artist-College Collaboration
Issues, Trends and Future Vision

Written by Suzanne Callahan, edited by Tricia Young

September 2003, 22 pages. Dance/USA, (202) 833-1717, (an executive summary is currently available at $4 for members/$8 for non-members

The National College Choreography Initiative (NCCI) is a partnership between Dance/USA and the NEA, launched in 1999 as one of several national Millenium Projects. In its inaugural year, NCCI received additional support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and from Target Stores, Marshall Field's, and Mervyn's with support from the Target Foundation. In 2002 Dance/USA issued a celebratory 32-page publication, The National Choreography Initiative: Supporting the Past, Present & Future of American Dance, by Suzanne Callahan, an overview of NCCI's first round with a brief description of all fifty-one projects and with lively in-depth stories of five of the college residencies.

Dance/USA and Suzanne Callahan have followed up a year later with The NCCI's Artist—College Collaboration: Issues, Trends and Future Vision. With support from the NEA and the Dana Foundation, this new publication developed from a series of national forums with college faculty and professional artists to report on “the profound changes in ways of working that are facing artists and college dance departments, and to make recommendations about steps that might be taken to increase the quality of collaborations for both working artists and colleges.”

The report's recommendations for increasing the success of artist-college collaborations will certainly be useful to any reader — dance artist, college, university, grantmaker, administrator — considering similar initiatives. Happily, the NEA has sustained support to Dance/USA for NCCI, which is now accepting proposals for a third round. Although many Millennium projects ended after their celebratory work was done, this one is notable for its continuation and its potential to have a lasting impact on the dance field as a whole.