What is Dance/USA?

By Kate Law Hoflich


You’ve most likely heard the name Dance/USA. But what exactly does the organization do? Why, you may ask, do we need a national organization for dance when we’ve got support services right in our own backyard? I posed this question to Andrea Snyder, the Executive Director of Dance/USA. She gave me a very practical answer.

“Without a national dance service organization, there would be no voice equal to those national service organizations that represent the disciplines of opera, orchestra, chorus, theater, presenters, chamber music, literature, museums, to name a few,” she said. She also explained one of Dance/USA’s major services for the national dance community: data collection on the national level. Dance/USA is “the central source for consistent, national data collection, analysis and reporting to media, funders and policy makers.” This sort of widescale data collection is incredibly valuable and simply can’t be carried out by regional service organizations, no matter how amazing they are.

So what are Dance/USA’s other functions? Let’s look at its history and an overview of who it serves. Dance/USA was founded in 1982 to serve the professional, not-for-profit dance field. It is the only national service provider that is dedicated to serving a broad cross section of professional dance. It is structured as a membership organization, much like Dancers’ Group, and currently has over 400 dance companies of all genres, service and presenting organizations, individuals and other related organizations in its member base. Dance/USA members range in size from individual dancers, to choreographers, to companies with budgets under $50,000 and up to $50 million.

Dance/USA’s mission derives mainly from its national, big-picture point of view. Their mission statement includes the very important objectives of addressing the needs and concerns of artists, administrators and organizations and providing national leadership to enhance the infrastructure for dance creation, distribution, education and dissemination of information. The organization also lays out a beautiful and utopian vision for the future of dance in American and world cultures. In the eyes of Dance/USA dance will be “an enduring and sought-after art form…. Stable, comprehensive infrastructure for dance creation and distribution will be in place nationwide…. The economic environment for dance will amply sustain its creative resources…. Politicians, reporters, funders, business leaders, educators, and community members will value dance and include dance professionals and dance experiences in their day-to-day activities.” They want to see dance taught in every school and for it be accessible to every person. What a wonderful and ambitious vision—one that most dance professionals share. Luckily, Dance/USA has the drive, support and skills to bring this vision closer to reality. It’s nice to have a leadership organization that has lofty goals paired with the practical foundation needed to bring about change.

So what is the practical foundation that Dance/USA is building change upon? The concrete tools Dance/USA primarily uses to nurture their vision are their member services, professional development, advocacy, research and information services, public communications, and branch offices in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. that directly serve their local dance communities. Let’s briefly examine these areas.

One of the main benefits of being a member of Dance/USA is being a part of a national network with other members. As with many organizations with this type of membership structure, their strength derives from their numbers. The more members there are, the more valuable membership is for everyone. The national voice of dance becomes stronger when there are more voices chiming in. As difficult as it is to choose the single most important role that Dance/USA plays, I asked Snyder to choose what she thought was the most essential of all of her organization’s functions. She decided that it was “convening passionate, intelligent, creative and powerful dance leaders and professionals to strengthen the art form.”

The membership of Dance/USA is structured so that different types of artists and organizations pay tiered membership fees. Beyond networking there are other benefits of Dance/USA membership and the organization breaks their benefits into four categories: Connections, Knowledge, Influence, and Access. The tangible parts of “Connections” include a biweekly national newsletter, a member bulletin with jobs and audition notices, the Dance/USA Journal, access to listservs, updates, and visibility on the Dance/USA website. Items in the “Knowledge” category include access to detailed statistics and reports, professional development, and information on funding and new government policies that affect the arts and non-profits. “Influence” covers advocacy issues like representation on Capitol Hill, automatic membership in the Performing Arts Alliance, peer consultation letters to help foreign artists comply with legal working regulations, and assistance in taking part in Arts Advocacy Day. Last but not least, “Access” encompasses practical benefits like access to the Actors Federal Credit Union, use of Dance/USA’s mailing list, discounts on hotels and arts conferences, emails from GrantStation, a resource for grantseekers, and membership in Fractured Atlas, an arts service organization

Although professional development falls under member services, it is one of Dance/USA’s more important functions. According to their website, “Ensuring that the dance field has competent leadership on which to build its future is a priority for Dance/USA. Recognizing that leadership comes in all styles and points in a career, we strive to reach deeply and broadly across the membership by including both the artistic and administrative sides of the dance field from experienced executive directors, marketing and development personnel to young professionals recently entering the field.”

The professional development strategy is generally addressed at conferences because they provide time for face-to-face training. Dance/USA convenes at least twice a year for a topic-based forum in the winter and a national conference in the summer. These meetings are open to the entire field and are not restricted to the organization’s membership, although members do get discounts to attend. Dance/USA offers financial support for first-time attendees to its conferences, and more information about this is available at their website.

Dance/USA is based in Washington, D.C. and takes advocacy on a national level as a serious endeavor. As a founding member of the Performing Arts Alliance, Dance/USA works with the broader arts field to strengthen national arts policy while also working independently to represent the interests of dance before Congress, the White House, and federal agencies. The organization also works diligently to inform the dance field of their progress and encourages artists and organizations to take action when it will be beneficial. They organize many different types of advocacy events and learning opportunities throughout the year including the annual Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C.

One of Dance/USA’s primary strategies is to enhance and expand its research capabilities, which are already going strong. The research arm of Dance/USA assesses changes in the field, collects data, notes trends, shares information and resources through online and print publications, and responds to inquiries from its members, the press, funders, and government agencies. They conduct an annual data survey, create a “Snapshot of [the] Field,” and head up various research initiatives. This important part of the organization provides the numbers and statistics that support powerful advocacy arguments.

Dance/USA has a number of public communications outlets. The most prominent is the semi-annual “Dance/USA Journal.” The Journal serves an important role in keeping the various regions and distant coasts in contact with each other and often includes articles and reports from Bay Area dance leaders. The organization also partners with scholars and authors in the publication of various books and reports that are relevant to the field. Additionally, they issue press releases and reports about the dance field, their members, and their activities to regional organizations and the media in order to keep the public and their constituents informed.

So what does all this mean to you, a dance artist in the California Bay Area? I asked Snyder if there is a certain part of Dance/USA’s mission or services that particularly pertains to dance on the West Coast in general and dance in the Bay Area in particular. She said that “The mission, affirmed by the Board of Trustees in 2006, emerges from a national mindset, as do most of the services. However, Dance/USA has had a long relationship with the James Irvine Foundation in serving the California dance community, and with the Hewlett Foundation in connecting with the Bay Area dance community. Apart from our branch offices in NYC, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., San Francisco remains highest on our radar screen.” She also mentioned that four of Dance/USA’s board members hail from San Francisco: Glen McCoy (San Francisco Ballet), Wayne Hazzard (Dancers’ Group), Robert Capili (Voice of Dance), and Dwight Hutton (Smuin Ballet). Dance/USA also focused on San Francisco for their first research project assessing city-wide dance communities.

Dancers’ Group is a member of Dance/USA and Dancers’ Group’s members can benefit directly from this relationship. Much of the information that Dance/USA distributes is passed on to Dancers’ Group’s membership and the larger community: a perfect example of how Dance/USA disseminates information to the whole field.

Dance/USA is a strong organization with a clear vision and many services. So if you aren’t already a member of Dance/USA, you may be asking yourself if joining is a good idea. If you are a member of a dance company or organization that is a member of Dance/USA, you may already have full access to the benefits of membership. But what if you are an independent choreographer or dance artist with a tiny budget (or no budget at all)? It may still be a good option, even if membership in Dancers’ Group gives access to some of Dance/USA’s member benefits. Snyder said, “For anyone who is interested in broadening her/his view to a 15,000 ft. [mountain-top], national level [perspective] and networking beyond the known universe of players, membership in Dance/USA is useful. Listservs and periodic group phone calls are a few of the services that bring the field together.”

Conversely, however, she adds that “getting the most out of Dance/USA generally means attending a conference in order to network, and that may be unaffordable. Dance/USA relies on connections to regional dance service organizations that work more closely on the ground with artists in their community and then bring their knowledge to the national table.”

If you would like more information, check out Dance/USA’s website at http://www.danceusa.org. You can weigh for yourself whether joining Dance/USA is a good move for you. But the important thing to remember is that your voice is already being heard and advocated for on a national level through Dance/USA’s relationship to local service organizations.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of In Dance.

Kate Law Hoflich is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community. Katelaw.org, bowandsparrow.org