How Can a Dance Studio Pay it Forward?
“The most important thing, for any of our students, is that they love it, and we do everything we can think of to foster that love.” Tim and Sherrie of Center for Movement Arts did not just build a dance instruction center back in 1997 when they opened. They strategically crafted a community that is based around instruction in dance and that is driven by respect, kindness and discipline. For anyone who has been to a studio but was turned off by a snooty vibe, you will not find that here. What you will find is an environment where dancers get high quality dance instruction while also being encouraged to be well rounded people. The emphasis on dance is very much balanced out by emphasis on academic success. Tim says the critical trio is family, school/work and what you want to do, in this case dance. For him it’s a pay-it-forward mentality. “We want a kid to fall in love with dance, get as technically proficient as possible, achieve academic success early on, go on to a good school, graduate and get a good job, then sit on boards, become supporters of the arts, volunteer, vote.” Whether the goal is moving on to be a professional dancer or not, CMA reminds kids that dance can remain a large part of their lives, even the primary focus.
The curriculum reflects the well rounded mentality as well and most of the kids start at age 3 and stay through high school. The kids program is ballet based, but they expose the kids almost immediately with elements of jazz and modern. As they move through the program they are strongly encouraged to branch out even further. They want their students to not be afraid to try completely new things. They’ll introduce African, Flamenco even Hungarian, reminding the dancers that even if it’s not your favorite thing it’s going to make you a better dancer over all. “Kids emerge fearless” Tim says. CMA also has an adult program ranging from classes for those who have never set foot in a studio in their life, to high intermediate.
Whether kid or adult, the goal is that the nearly 450 students that take class at Center for Movement Arts each week each feel safe, valued and engaged.
Everyone Should Dance. Period.
Ask Robert Guitron, Director of Polaris Dance Theatre, what is dance and who should dance and he’ll let out a big sigh indicating the weight and depth of the response, then hardly missing a beat, out comes his answer: “Dance is a rudimentary necessity of humanity. It transcends language, culture, demographics, and it’s the oldest form of expression and communication.” And, he emphasizes, “Everyone should dance, everyone should express themselves.” Robert laments that we’ve put stigmas and judgements on ourselves and others about who is and what is a dancer. But to be a professional artist is completely different than enjoying the art form itself. Like cooking, not everyone is a chef; but learning how to cook and learning what to do with food is part of sustaining yourself and your family and helping you succeed. Robert loves to see people on the street rocking out to their headphones or in the car jamming out. “If we could find more ways of just doing that, society would be healthier.” Movement for movements sake.
These ideals permeate everything Polaris is and does. Polaris consists of a professional performing company, a pre-professional training company and a school. One of their core values is that they don’t shut anyone out. They’ve often taken in people who other studios have turned away. Robert gives the example of a legally blind girl who came to the studio after being turned away from studios that saw her as a liability. Polaris also has a quad amputee in their main company who dances gorgeously, but likely wouldn’t have been given a chance other places. But again, Robert stressed that dance isn’t an elitist activity; it’s fundamental to all humans.
Polaris is dedicated to not only allowing everyone to have the opportunity to explore movement, but also to supporting all styles of movement. Collaboration is very important, which is why each year Polaris hosts Groovin Greenhouse, the dance portion of the annual Fertile Ground Festival that showcases new works by both emerging and established artists. They also created the Galaxy Festival, a free public event set in Director’s Park that celebrates all different styles of movement.
“Art is problem solving,” Robert says. “It’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s about looking at someone else’s voice.” At Polaris, all voices are heard.
The Next Generation of Groundbreaking Dancers
Jim and Nancy, both former principle dancers with the Los Angeles Ballet, are a classic tale. Upon retiring from center stage, they could not walk away from ballet or dance so they opened their studio, The Portland Ballet. They brought with them an advanced level of expertise and strong connections to big names in the field. They soon attracted a wide array of local talent to join their faculty. Nancy is quick to remark, “this town is full of great teachers.” Their curriculum is rigorous and based on the Russian School of Ballet. Dancers start as early as age 3 with Creative Ballet. Soon they start moving through the levels, with each level sometimes taking multiple years to progress through. Level 1 students may take around 2-3 hours of class per week, while level 5 could be taking 15-17 hours. The Portland Ballet genuinely believes that it is “high expectations and standards that forge the next generation of groundbreaking dancers.”
One of the programs that makes The Portland Ballet unique is their mens program. While other studios and academies include men, TPB realizes that exceptional male dancers need male teachers and role models throughout their education. They were pleasantly surprised to discover the community agreed, and there was distinct interest right off the bat. Having no problem finding a powerhouse of male teachers in Portland, the men’s program has continued to grow and prosper.
The Portland Ballet has a show coming up on Thanksgiving weekend the features another exciting component of their program – a live orchestra. Anyone who has danced to live music knows that it comes with both joys and challenges. This will be the 5th year TPB has collaborated with PSU Orchestra for their holiday performance and is a very special treat for the performers on both sides.
When asked what their future looks like Nancy says “our highest priorities looking ahead are to do new things, push the dancers, and enrich the professional experience.”
The Artistry of Pole
Ecdysiast opened their doors in 2008 under the direction of Shannon Gee – an exceptional pole dancer herself. As a member of the International Pole Federation, Ecdysiast provides high quality instruction and takes pride in their curriculum. While some of the other pole studios in town are more of a women’s fitness boutique type atmosphere, Ecdysiast is co-ed and the emphasis is on artistry. (not saying you’re not going to get a kick ass workout!)
Students are a unique mixture of doctors and lawyers coming in for the fun and the fitness aspect of working on the pole while others are fire dancers and circus performers looking to add dimension to their personal repertoires. While Ecdysiast originally started simply as a studio that offered classes, pretty soon Shannon started to see a need and a desire for students to perform. They now have annual auditions for their training company which directly feeds into the performing company.
Coming up they have a lively rendition of Alice in Wonderland called “Oh Alice” that is equal parts whimsical, edgy, modern and fun. While Shannon has kept the storyline largely intact, the show is set to popular music and the set and costumes adds splashes of surprises along the way. When asked where she gets her artistic vision she says nature is a huge inspiration as well as music. “Sometimes there’s a certain set of songs that the show gets built around while other times there is an aesthetic and the rest forms around that. And of course seeing shows, keeping up with what other people are doing is a very important part of maintaining a good artistic vision.”
As for the future of Ecdysiast “I love it all! – both the education and the performing/directing and I hope to keep them both building and going strong.”
So you want to dance, but not just take class. You want to be a part of a bigger project, to perform and perhaps even choreograph. But where, how, with who? Meet Vitality Dance Collective. Director Kristina York started Vitality in 2013 to offer choreography and performance opportunities for non professionals, as well as to establish that unique sense of community you get from being part of a company. Many dancers that chose not to go the professional route are still interested in working with a group and finding ways to perform. Kristina pointed out that when you share creative space and share the stage with other people, you really get to know a rare and special part of them. On her work and her dancers she says “How can I invest in these people and how can we create a community we love?”
While dancers audition to participate, the emphasis is put more on willingness to learn than meeting high technical standards. Dancers are also encouraged to choreograph, so shows often feature the work of the entire collective. Many of the company members have performed before but not been in charge of the choreographic process. As the director, Kristina guides them with choreographic tools and how to use them, while also giving the new choreographer plenty of space for their own movement creation to emerge. Each choreographer also works directly with the lighting designer, which is sometimes a new experience. Again, Kristina works to draw out the choreographers vision by asking: What kind of colors would you use? Why would you want them? What mood are you looking for? What are costumes and how will their palette interact with lights? She encourages them to think about shadowing, spotlight and various points of emphasis. The whole process is very much about learning and experimenting. Kristina believes that working in this sort of environment is very authentic to both the dancers and the audience.