Dancing Lessons: How Engaging Dance Audiences Is Educating the Field

By Karyn D. Collins

VPL field trip to Mass MOCA, pre-performance talk by Brian Rogers, work in progress showing by Beth Gill and post performance talk.
VPL field trip to Mass MOCA, pre-performance talk by Brian Rogers, work in progress showing by Beth Gill and post performance talk.

How many grants encourage you to come up with your own plan, experiment mid-stream with what works and what doesn’t, and engage in discussions with other grant recipients while in the midst of your grant cycle?

Welcome to the Engaging Dance Audiences (EDA) program.
The program, which was first launched in 2009 by Dance/USA, the field’s national voice for professional dance, is an effort to get dance organizations to experiment with new ways of reaching out to audiences. EDA is funded with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and is now in the midst of its second grant cycle, working closely with 19 dance organizations across the United States.

Washington, D.C. arts consultant Suzanne Callahan, who is program manager for EDA, said this engagement initiative was a response to concerns in the dance community about dwindling audiences. “There was a real concern, particularly in the dance field, about future audiences,” she said. “I always say the grants are only a means to an end. The end goal is for the field to get better, not just at getting people to attend, but at involving its audiences in what’s being presented.”

Dance/USA executive director Amy Fitterer said dance organizations are aware that just putting on great performances isn’t enough to ensure survival. But, recognizing that reality and doing something about it are two different things, she said. “We absolutely have to find thoughtful ways to engage our communities in our art form. We’re hoping to find more ways to develop longer term relationships with community members,” she said.

Fitterer said an important component of the EDA grant program is that it includes opportunities for groups to share strategies with the rest of the dance community. The Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, for example, came up with what it called its “Recipe Book” for EDA. Each grantee is required to not only put together a report about its project but to participate in face-to-face discussions with other grantees. This material, including reports from grantees, is available to the field online at danceusa.org/engagingdanceaudiences. Specific inquiries can be emailed to: eda@forthearts.org.“We’re in the business of trying to help all the other dance organizations, learning from what’s being done,” Fitterer said. “I don’t think that audience engagement is rocket science. We’re not trying to build a space ship that’s never been built. What we’re trying to do is find the ways that are the most meaningful, that bring results where audiences are engaged.”

She added: “We also want to find ways to support organizations to incorporate this important business practice. The things we used to do need to constantly be refined and refreshed. How can we take advantage of all the new technology that’s out there? How can we adapt? How can our efforts be more relevant and appealing?”

The first round of EDA grant recipients conducted their projects between January 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011. First round recipients and their projects were:

ODC: I Speak Dance (encouraging college students toward a
lifelong interest in dance)
• On the Boards: On the Boards TV (online streaming)
STREB: Slam Remote (live performances created from remote
The American Dance Festival: Audience Perception and
Memory Research Project (improving audiences’ kinesthetic
memories to enhance the viewing experience)
The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts
(building a cooperative dance community within a city, as well
as dance affinity group)
Trey McIntyre Project (building loyalty among dance fans at
home and on tour)
Walker Art Center: Speakeasy (creating a new environment
for dance novices to talk and share)
Misnomer Dance Theater: Audience Engagement Platform
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Dance Savvy (adapting
visual arts curriculum to dance in order to increase audiences’
understanding of the art form)
The second group of grant recipients is in the midst of their
grant cycle, which ends June 30, 2014. Second round grantees are:
Audience Architects: Dance: A Moving Canvas (interactive
showings and discussions at art galleries)
AXIS Dance Company: AXIS Explored (package of new and
existing activities for dance and disability audiences)
BalletX: three-part educational program
Bandaloop: adapting ODC’s I Speak Dance project to
encourage employees at Bay Area technology and design firms
Cleveland Modern Dance Association: supporting a new
program that will include development of a dance fan group
Gina Gibney Dance, Inc.: DANCentricity (enrichment
program for high school students)
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre: traveling tour with related
in-person and live-streamed activities
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival: Seeing Dance, Talking
Dance (new series of engagement activities including forums,
discussion prompts on campus and online)
Joyce Theater: several programs including pre-show and
post-show events, and interactive workshop for audiences to
create dance score
Misnomer Dance Theater: Misnomer/UpClose (web
Moving Arts Projects: Dance Up Close (creation of HD
dance videos with preview articles)
Pacific Northwest Ballet: Discover Dance Program
(expansion to increase family participation)
Pentacle (DanceWorks, Inc.): Metro STEP (to adapt and
create engagement materials and provide related training to
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art: adapting YBCA’s
Dance Savvy program for visual arts audiences
Stephen Petronio Company: Constellation (moderated
online forum about work created by the company, plus
bimonthly insight videos)
STREB: Maverick Action (pop-up SLAM interactive
performance plus audience conversations with experts in a
range of areas)
University Musical Society: development of Dance Guides
audience ambassadors program and activities for Dance
Novices program
Vermont Performance Lab: VPL Performance Club
Wesleyan University: DanceLink Fellowship Program
(students intern with professional companies and later serve as
ambassadors) and Dine/Dance/Discover event before and after

Grantees said the EDA program is especially timely since the issue of dwindling and aging audiences is a universal concern for the dance community. “I think people had been having conversations all along about how can we better reach our audiences,” said Joanne Robinson Hill, director of education for the Joyce Theater Foundation in New York City. “I think the shift in the conversation for many of us was from, ‘How do I get audiences to buy a ticket?’ to ‘How do we engage an audience and what does that mean?’” And, she added, the component of the grant in which grantees share their progress and struggles with each other during the year is another uniquely helpful feature.

“You get to see and hear what other people are doing and learn from each other so you don’t feel you’re out there alone,” Hill said. “You don’t feel you’re in competition but that you’re part of a group working together to try and expand people’s awareness and knowledge of the art form.”

It’s not just the sharing across the field that is unusual though. Grant recipients said the overall thrust of the EDA program sets it apart from other initiatives. “It’s been freeing. It was revelatory to me when, after we received the funds and then went to a workshop, that the people in charge of the program were reiterating ‘try things, experiment’ and ‘we want to hear about the failures as well,’” said Heather Hartley, executive director of Audience Architects in Chicago.

“That’s kind of rare that you hear that and people really mean it.” But if that freedom to experiment is a unique challenge, it also reflects a bigger challenge for grantees, and for the field as a whole: finding what works for their particular organizations, audiences and communities. Grantees said they have been pleasantly surprised by how even the simplest initiatives have struck a chord with audiences. “We have learned a lot about just listening to our audiences and responding to them instead of just designing programs that are just about what we want to do. We have really started to think in terms of designing these programs so that there’s a real resonance with audiences and with the participants,” said Susan Meyers, co-managing director for STREB.

Meyers noted that another key theme for success in engaging audiences was the participatory element, something that both of the STREB projects have included.

“There’s a sense, I think, that to be engaged in dance there are so many different, wonderful points of connection and if you get people doing as well as seeing, learning as well as watching that their understanding and appreciation will resonate, not just in their heads but in their muscles too,” she said. “In the tiniest of ways they can become movers and action heroes, as we say in the STREB world.”

Sara Coffey, director of the Vermont Performance Lab, said the EDA project had also highlighted some incorrect assumptions she and others had been making about what types of work and activities would appeal to audiences. “I would like to say I don’t bring any assumptions, but I do. Sometimes I think, ‘This will be easier for the audience to understand.’ What has been surprising to me is that the group of audience members we’re working with has been much more interested in experimental work and more abstract work,” Coffey said. “It’s really exciting to me. Nobody has said, ‘I didn’t get it.’ The internal concern we often have is will our audience understand this?” But Coffey found that audiences were willing to be challenged: “Not only have people been understanding and appreciating it, but they’re gravitating to that work and conversations about it, which is very exciting for me to see.”

Hill of Joyce Theater echoed that discovery and said she and others had been surprised to learn how eager audiences were to be involved more. “Just giving attention to audience members by inviting them has been extraordinarily rewarding for us and for the invitees,” she said. “They have been just so excited by the fact of them being invited to participate.” Firsthand contact, Hill discovered, is also valued by audiences. “The other thing is they are very thrilled and engaged by being able to meet someone who is in the dance field and to have a conversation with them.” Hill said even the simple act of having audiences come into the rehearsal studio had met with success. “To be close to the dancers in a studio is something many of them had never done before so that was extraordinarily successful,” she said. “The purpose of that was to provide them an opportunity to learn the dancers’ language and provide them with tools for them to look more deeply at dance and that does happen. It’s really a transformative experience for them.”

While many organizations worked on projects that utilized the latest in digital technology, some organizations that incorporated  a digital technology component into their projects initially, said when they simplified their programs in order to sustain them once their grant had ended, they were still able to see their programs succeed in involving new audiences. “When we first got the grant, we wanted to do so many things and some of them became almost too complicated,” said Julie Voigt, senior program officer for performing arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “The big hits for us were our Speakeasy program and other things that are so simple in concept and in execution, but were the ones where people really felt the most connection.”

“The programs that succeeded the most gave people an opportunity to just gather together and talk instead of all the other things we were doing around new technology,” she continued. “We found that just getting people together and sharing their thoughts in a really safe environment was just huge.”

Joel Tan, director of community engagement for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, said his key takeaway from participating in the program was how empowering it was for audience members to be encouraged to discuss art while sharing a meal. “The model is powerful. We give people the tools and the permission around viewership. It’s not just look at what’s onstage and focus on form or focus on what we tell you in the program notes is important,” Tan said. “And there is so much peer learning that happens on the spot. You hear it, feel it. Besides offering people viewership, there’s the dinner aspect of it. It’s a humanizing social element that continues to give us great results in terms of a feeling of belonging and bondedness.”

A bigger challenge, recipients said, will be to find ways to sustain these efforts once the grant has concluded, something the first year grantees are already grappling with. “We’re getting this to pay for itself actually,” Tan said. “And I think there are going to be other foundations and other folks who will support it. We’re in our third year with this program and we’re finding that other organizations are having success with it as well.”

Said Voigt of Walker Arts Center, “We found that we’ve had to really focus on the things that were working and let a few others go. But we’ve found that the majority of the things we did because of the grant are still continuing now and have become a natural component of almost everything we do.” The bottom line for Voigt: “They were too successful for us not to find a way to keep doing them.”

This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of In Dance.

Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for 30 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, Life and Beauty Weekly Magazine, In Jersey Magazine, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Bloomfield College in N.J. and a faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, N.J. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.