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Merilyn Jackson
Special Focus
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Like Everything in the United States, Dance has Gotta be Big

by Merilyn Jackson
October 10, 2007
Last century's seminal choreographers, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, and others since, engendered several heydays for American dance. Concurrently, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers kicked off another kind of dance craze. Dance now seems in a phase of popularity, not caused by any particular innovators on the scene, though there are a few, but because of the sheer number and variety of dance events Americans can see.

Professional dance companies, as counted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), numbered 37 in 1965 and 157 in 1975. By 1990 this figure had reached over 400. In 1993, the national service organization, Dance/USA undertook a census which identified over 650 professional companies. It may be the proliferation of companies, peopled by graduates of many fine university dance programs across the nation that has grown a larger dance-going public.

English-born Simon Dove is the newly appointed director of Arizona State University's dance department, considered one of the top ten in the country by Dance Teacher Magazine. Dove came from directing Springdance in Utrecht, Netherlands for eight years and made the following observation about American dance at a conference. "I think there is not such a single entity as American dance," he said, "the diversity is immense."

Figures put out by Dance USA, note that 76 companies have budgets of $1 million or more; New York has 15, San Francisco/Bay Area has six, Washington, DC, 4, and Philadelphia, Denver and Chicago each 2. That leaves 45 other cities nationwide each with a one million-plus company. For a further breakdown of these statistics, see www.danceusa.org.

Not surprisingly, one report shows that companies with high earned income ratios (EIR) – ticket sales, school profits and space rentals — more often end their fiscal year in the black than companies with lower EIRs. In 1999, large ballet companies averaged EIR's of 57 percent, while large modern companies earned 55 percent. In part because of aggressive touring, large modern companies rebounded very well from the recession of 1991-92, and when the Right was decimating the NEA.

So, while not-for-profit funding, touring, university dance departments and diversity all foster dance's popularity in the U.S., so does the spawning of multiple for-profit touring troupes like Momix, STOMP, Tap Dogs, Riverdance, and the hip hop sensation Rennie Harris Puremovement. Each of these have at least three companies touring worldwide at any one time and draws huge audiences over long runs. Over the years, the PBS series Dance in America educated audiences and brought them to dance.

Newspaper coverage in the form of reviews, previews, features, profiles and listing picks has dwindled nationwide. When I was writing at The Philadelphia Inquirer under the culturally savvy Fine Arts Editor Jeff Weinstein, it published approximately 80 to 100 dance-related articles a year – an average of about two per week. That was a peak period for dance coverage at The Inquirer, even though my colleague, dance and art critic Miriam Seidel, and I were freelance.

The Inquirer, like many American newspapers has not had a staff dance critic since 1995. Fewer than a dozen American publications have staff dance writers. Compare that to one to three staff dance critics at many London and European papers, as well as at The New York Times and The Washington Post. Or, compare that to one to three staff theater and music critics at many of the remaining large U.S. dailies.

Paying audiences tend to stay in their comfort zone, giving their time and money to what they know about. The newspaper industry, at least with dance, fails to do a well-rounded job of creating an informed public. Where they fail, however, other media have succeeded wildly.

Films like Strictly Ballroom and the sweet and surprisingly successful documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, also contribute to the popularization of dance, both social and concert. Mad Hot Ballroom featured the touring company American Ballroom Theater and its Dancing in the Classroom programs operated by Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau. (See Dancing Classrooms, www.americanballroomtheater.com.)

Dance websites, blogs, zines and TV shows like Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, challenge audiences and web surfers to take notice.

Big ballet companies take note too. Ballet Nouveau Colorado launched a 21st Century Choreography Competition, "a YouTube-driven, American Idol-style contest that has the potential to make modern dance relevant to vast new audiences." [It] hopes to piggyback off the popularity of the TV social dance shows and create a national forum for the best new choreography.

The Pennsylvania Ballet celebrates the music of the World War II era and the choreographic references to the dances of the time with Paul Taylor's Company B. Their pre-run promo invites you to "learn social dance basics with 2007 Swing Champion Christy Kam; followed by a dance-off for a grand prize."

In countries like Russia and Poland, the middle to upper class tradition of sending children to dancing classes continues. Note that is not dance class, but dancing class, meaning social dance. Boys wear white gloves; girls dresses. They bow and curtsey to each other when asking for or accepting a dance. I have danced in clubs in Poland where the men could lead me in everything from the Foxtrot, Hustle, Jitterbug, Merengue, Rumba and Tango. Whatever their body type, they were divine dancers who could make a woman sway, and maybe even swoon, with the lightest tap of their fingertips.

Apparently, once they have begun to seriously watch, American audiences can discern a good dancer almost as well as any critic who has seen thousands of dance concerts over his or her career. Take Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who trained in social dance since the age of four in his native Ukraine and can move all his parts at once or isolate them as called for, is a favorite on Dancing with the Stars.

Viewer enthusiasm shows in the statistics. So You Think You Can Dance averaged 9.5 million viewers per show. For the finals, viewers cast 16 million votes, with 70 million votes cast over 9 weeks. Between 15 and 27 million tune in to Dancing with the Stars, per show.

But how many people attend live dance performances in the U.S.? Lois Welk is director of DanceUSA's Philadelphia branch. She says this question hasn't been visited by any organization for about a decade and that her parent organization is performing a major study due out in the fall of 2008. "It's a $100,000 project that will examine audience attendance at all forms of dance," she said, "from tap to post-modern."

An Australian study found 9% of the population goes to dance performances. If the same were true of American audiences, the population over the age of 15 that goes to dance performances in the U.S. would be about 20 million. If this audience estimate proves close, it will cost only a half cent per capita to find out. Worth every half penny.

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