Dance/USA: A Summer Camp Survival Guide

By Christy Bolingbroke


Like camp as a kid, the national dance community can look forward to Dance/USA’s Annual Conference each summer. Except, instead of the arts & crafts table, scary campfire stories, and skinny-dipping, there will be many panels discussing dance; scary breakout sessions about appealing to an apathetic audience or fundraising in a weakened economy; and drinks at the hotel bar (not, to my knowledge, ever followed by skinny-dipping, but never underestimate unstructured time with alcohol). Just like summer camp, you will be exhausted (after only four days), but excited to return to your everyday challenges with a new perspective and a few new friends. And this year, the Dance/USA Conference will return to San Francisco for a national convening–June 27-30, 2012–for the first time in thirty years.

What is Dance/USA?
Established in 1982, Dance/USA is the national dance service organization dedicated to sustaining and advancing professional dance by addressing the needs, concerns, and interests of artists, administrators, and organizations. Dance/USA strives to provide national leadership and services to enhance the infrastructure for dance creation, distribution, education, and dissemination of information. Dance/USA operates out of Washington, DC, with branch offices in New York City and Philadelphia.

Who Usually Attends This Conference?
This annual conference attracts over 400 people making it the broadest gathering of dance professionals in the US, including executive directors, artistic directors, company managers, choreographers, dancers, presenters, agents, educators, and others. Traditionally, representatives from regional ballet companies seem strongest in attendance, but that is where we can manifest change.

Why Should You Attend The Conference?
As all choreographers know, having a good idea for a dance will lead to nothing if you do not have a room full of people to realize your idea–for example, dancers to try it on the left as well as the right. The potential of this conference relies on the same principle; bringing colleagues together to give you feedback and maybe even contribute an alternate idea or two to solve some of the same old problems. Out of the 460 ballet, modern, ethnic, jazz/tap companies, dance service and presenting organizations, individuals, and dance-related organizations listed as active Dance/USA members, only a handful are based here in the Bay Area. There are 600 dance artists in our region alone, we are terribly underrepresented in the national conversation and this is a tremendous opportunity to not only participate, but shape the discussion by being in the room–to find out how other communities are coping and evolving; to share our successes as well as our failures so the entire field can benefit and advance dance.

We cannot criticize or complain about the lack of representation if we are not ourselves active. With any membership-based collective, you will reap the rewards of membership beyond your dues depending on what you bring to the table; how much effort you put into making those potential connections and available tools work for you. Perhaps you have no interest in becoming a member of Dance/USA. (That’s fine!) There are non-member rates and volunteer opportunities to participate, and since the conference will be in San Francisco, this is the cheapest and most affordable it will ever be for you attend. Explore the dance community outside of these forty-nine square miles by getting to know our national colleagues while they’re here on our turf.

What Will Happen During The Conference?
Over four days, participants will engage in invaluable professional and networking opportunities. Sessions will provide experiential hands-on learning paired with examples of successful new models that reflect the field’s entrepreneurial spirit and will inspire new thinking for a vibrant future for dance.

– This is four days of fun with likeminded people from all over who love dance and performance as much as you do.
– You will find out there is more going on in places like Cincinnati, Austin, Minneapolis, and pretty much any where else outside of San Francisco and New York City than you thought.
– You will hear at least one idea that has you saying to yourself, “I thought that up first, but didn’t do anything about it” or “I wish I had thought of that.”
– You will come away with more ideas than time you have to execute them.
– You are likely to run into someone that you rolled around with on your first day of contact improvisation in college and even though you are Facebook friends, you did not even know they were still in the field.
– You are likely to finally get five minutes with someone from the Bay Area community whom you can never connect with otherwise.

And here is an encapsulated schedule broken down by day:
Day One. Wednesday, June 27
You do not need to call-in sick to your day job or get someone to cover your shift. Just take off a little early and join in the festivities at the Opening Night Reception at City Hall scheduled to begin at 5:30pm.

Day Two. Thursday, June 28
This entire day will take place at YBCA. There will be a hosted breakfast for first-time conference attendees. (Go! It is a nice opportunity and worth it to get up early.) A speaker will give what we hope to be an inspiring, opening plenary to set the tone for the next few days followed by a series of short performances by local companies in the Novellus Theater.

After a provided lunch, there will be breakout sessions in the afternoon as well as SmART Bar sessions. There are always too many breakout sessions to choose from. If you do not find one session dominantly appealing over all the others or you just cannot choose, go to whichever session has Sydney Skybetter listed as a speaker. SmART Bar sessions are optional 20-minute one-on-one consultations with specialists in fundraising, publicity or strategic planning, and representatives from the NEA.

Then, there will be the Honors Celebration (like the Izzies with fewer awards and on a broader level), followed by more performances in the Novellus.

If, for whatever reason, you can only commit to one day, do not miss Thursday. Everyone will be at their freshest and it is likely to be the most substantive day for non-members.

Day Three. Friday, June 29
This entire day will take place on ODC’s campus and will be made up primarily of council and forum meetings. Basically, Dance/USA members are divided into councils and forums based on their affiliated organization (company, presenter, agent, service, etc) and their budget size. These groups convene to discuss issues specific to their cohort. There will also be some additional SmART Bar sessions in the afternoon.

Day Four. Saturday, June 30
This will be a half-day back at YBCA. There will be additional breakout sessions and another session called 20/20 Vision: A Community Forum curated by Bamuthi. This session will take place pecha-kucha style with seven artists discussing current or in-development projects in 6 minutes and 40 seconds each (20 slides x 20 seconds/piece). Then there will be a closing plenary speaker.

For the detail-oriented people, check out the website for the full and final schedule at

“What if I don’t know anyone?” “What do I do once I get there?” “I’m bored…” And other latent summer camp concerns rearing their ugly heads from your childhood.

Here is my unofficial rules of survival when approaching the Dance/USA conference:
(1) Online is fine, but try to “friend” five new people offline each day during the conference. You are going to run into the same people over and over. You might as well learn at least their first names because you can only smile and nod so much.
(2) Be hospitable. You are the native. Take advantage of the fact that you know all the secrets to hailing cabs, finding the best burrito in town–or any decent food after 10pm. Plus, you have all the inside knowledge when it comes to local performances and the artists featured in the conference performance series. Take this opportunity to educate other attendees on our community.
(3) Don’t forget your business cards.
(4) This is not school. If a breakout session is not your cup of tea, that might be a good time for you to go see a SmART Bartender, grab a coffee, or just step outside for some fresh air…and it is okay to do that whenever you feel like it.
(5) Never turn down an invitation to grab drinks.

You never know what might happen!

Christy Bolingbroke is the Director at ODC Theater, a member of the conference host committee, and is thankful for having had the opportunity to attend the Dance/USA Conference for the past three years running–Houston; Washington, DC; and Chicago.

This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of In Dance.

Christy Bolingbroke is the Director at ODC Theater, a member of the conference host committee, and is thankful for having had the opportunity to attend the Dance/USA Conference for the past three years running- Houston; Washington, DC; and Chicago.