Towards a Healthy and Sustainable Dance Ecosystem (excerpts)

By Dancers' Group


THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT of a longer paper and is the result of many consultations and conversations involving Dancers’ Group board members, staff, members, funders and other stakeholders. The authors are indebted to the many individuals who shared their candid and considered views on the state of the San Francisco Bay Area dance community. The ideas developed in this paper informed a strategic plan for Dancers’ Group, to be completed in June 2014. The full paper is available at This report is a culmination of work written by Alana Brown, Kyle Marinshaw and John Shibley with Dancers’ Group.

In October 2013, Dancers’ Group began a strategic planning process, with a goal to sustain and strengthen its role in supporting the dance community for the next 30 years. In considering an overall approach to strategic planning, the consultants at WolfBrown asked what sort of conceptual framework would allow for critical reflection and offer a holistic assessment of Dancers’ Group’s service to the dance community. Ultimately, we reached for the ecosystem metaphor (e.g., a rainforest) as a means of building a stronger understanding of the dance community and how Dancers’ Group’s various programs influence the larger system. Most importantly, the ecosystem framework provides a means of understanding the myriad interconnections between people and organizations in the dance ecosystem, and how they both generate and consume resources.

Ecosystems can be defined in many ways, based on factors such as geography, climate, shared resources, etc. Initially, we set out to explore “the San Francisco Bay Area dance ecosystem” and quickly realized its enormous diversity and complexity. We acknowledge that this frame of analysis (i.e., the SFBA dance ecosystem) is subjective, and that other definitions would be equally valid.

Species and Resources in the Dance Ecosystem
In the SFBA dance ecosystem, a species is defi ned as a grouping of organizations or people that occupy the same “niche” and engage in similar patterns of exchange. For example, audiences are a species; dancers and choreographers are species; and so are funders and philanthropists (see full paper for a complete list). In the dance ecosystem, an individual may be a member of one or more species in any given instance or exchange (e.g., a dancer may also be a choreographer, a teacher, an audience member, etc.) This is an important characteristic of the SFBA dance ecosystem, lending species vitality and improving their survival and sustainability.

Equally important to identifying the species in an ecosystem is the matter of what resources they exchange in fulfilling their intended outcomes. Our analysis identified five different kinds of resources: know-how (e.g., skills and creativity), money, meaning (as conveyed through art), fulfillment (feeling satisfied in that you are able to achieve a desired goal), and socially constructed resources such as legitimacy, respect, esteem, and recognition (see full paper for a complete description).

Assets are another type of resource within the ecosystem that are not readily exchangeable, but lay dormant in the ecosystem until “animated” by individuals who generate one of the aforementioned resources. For example, choreographic works are assets that require animation. Artists, both professional and non-professional, might also be considered as assets that require animation.

Having identified species and the resources they exchange, the next challenge was honing our skills at modeling a subsystem, before diving headlong into an analysis of Dancers’ Group’s programs. For this purpose, it seemed appropriate to start by diagramming the subsystem encompassing how some choreographers make artistic work (Figure 1). Since its inception as an artist-run organization, “making work” has always been central to Dancers’ Group, as reflected in its core values and its programs. Its fiscal sponsorship program, for example, exists to facilitate the making of artistic work. Indeed, one might argue that the capacity to “make work” is the essential process within the larger dance ecosystem, without which it would be a hollow shell.

Shorthand is used to illustrate some of the resources exchanged between species with “$” indicating an exchange of money, “F” signifying an exchange of fulfillment, and “S” an exchange of space (see full report for further discussion). This preliminary diagram allows for critical reflection on how choreographers make artistic work, exchange resources along the way, where they encounter barriers, and how their work is supported by Dancers’ Group and others. Of course, this diagram represents only one way of looking at the way artistic work gets made, and perhaps reflects a bias in western-based forms. We acknowledge that there are other, equally valid systems for making work that remain to be diagrammed.

This analysis helped to illustrate a few key characteristics that have direct applicability to the SFBA dance ecosystem:

  • Healthy ecosystems are characterized by diversity, resilience and equilibrium.
  • The growth of a species or individual changes the ecosystem. Dramatic growth of a species or individual threatens the stability of the ecosystem.
  • Species in an ecosystem “earn” their place through mutually advantageous exchanges of resources with other species in the ecosystem.
  • Most exchanges involve more than one resource.
  • Non-monetary resources are most commonly exchanged (i.e., fulfillment, know-how, and socially constructed resources).
  • Many individuals move between species, making them more likely to survive and making the ecosystem itself more resilient.

Observations and Discussion
The ecosystem framework sparked a good deal of discussion and dialogue amongst a cross-section of Dancers’ Group’s key stakeholders, including dancers, choreographers, teachers, administrators, and funders. A synthesis of these conversations offers the following key observations:

Observation #1: The SFBA dance ecosystem has grown by leaps and bounds since the 1970s and 80s in terms of the numbers of choreographers, companies and dancers and the volume and quality of work being made. Numerous stakeholders observed that the availability of resources has not kept up with the growth in artistic activity. Some described the ecosystem as “starved” for resources – like a rainforest existing in desert conditions. Yet, the dance community here persists and even flourishes.

Discussion: While monetary and physical resources (space) are in short supply for some individuals and species, non-monetary resources are in abundant supply, such as fulfillment, meaning, and know-how. Sweat equity is often substituted when money is unavailable, and a great deal of bartering occurs. This makes the ecosystem resilient, but at a high cost to certain individuals and species. Demand for additional financial resources is vast and beyond the capacity of existing exchanges between funders/donors and artists. This raises the question of what might be done to expand the pool of funders/donors or create new exchanges that catalyze new philanthropy.

Observation #2: Historically, the SFBA dance ecosystem has provided numerous subcultures and disenfranchised groups with an important creative outlet. With the professionalization of the dance community, monetary resources have consolidated in a few organizations, some argue, to the detriment of the ecosystem’s diversity. Others say that diversity of expression is alive and well.

Discussion: Diversity of species (and constant mutation) is a hallmark of a healthy ecosystem. Everyone in the ecosystem has a role to play in fostering a culture of radical inclusion. Dancers’ Group and its peers must always ask what more can be done to celebrate and support the artistic contributions of a wide array of subcultures and communities, and invite new voices to the table while supporting existing members of the community who bring continuity and depth.

Observation #3: Stakeholders described a significant change in the modality of artistic production – more artists are satisfied producing artistic work without a nonprofit infrastructure, and prefer to decide on a project-to-project basis how, with whom, and where to produce.

Discussion: One choreographer commented, “It seems as though everyone is moving to project-based work instead of a company.” With the breaking down of the “company” model of producing has come increased flexibility, individualism, and a more fluid exchange of artistic collaborations. Producing outside of the nonprofit legal structure is an artistic choice for some, not just a financial imperative. This highly adaptive aspect of the ecosystem contributes to resilience and productivity, and suggests that demand for fiscal sponsorship and related services is likely to increase.

Observation #4: Some stakeholders voiced concern over the lack of a sufficiently large pool of mid-sized dance companies. Individuals and small organizations are plentiful, they say, and large, well-established organizations command the lion’s share of resources. This suggests a break in the continuity of artistic pathways through the ecosystem, a sort of structural fault.

Discussion: This may be a naturally occurring phenomenon in the ecosystem, as when the tallest trees in a forest absorb most of the sunlight, limiting the development of shorter species that grow underneath. It may also be a result of the growing trend of more artists working outside the nonprofit legal structure (Observations #3). Regardless, the ecosystem benefits from a diversity of artistic expression and should allow for the emergence and growth of new aesthetics. Leaders in the ecosystem should investigate the extent of structural impediments to mid-sized growth and discuss what can be done to mitigate them. As one stakeholder noted, “There are artists that have the creative maturity and should be able to live here and run a 501(c)3 company.”

Observation #5: Numerous stakeholders are extremely anxious about the lack of affordable housing for artists and the deleterious effects on the ecosystem of the high cost of living in general. Whereas young artists in the 1970s could work 10 to 15 hours a week to pay the rent and devote the rest of their time to artistic ends, they now have to work full-time just to survive. Some cite an exodus of artists from San Francisco to Oakland, where living costs are lower.

Discussion: The dance ecosystem is vulnerable to changing economic conditions (i.e., the effects of another ecosystem). Individuals and species can be expected to relocate where conditions are more favorable for their artistic work – for example, several stakeholders commented on the shift in energy from San Francisco to the East Bay. However, as long as artists stay in the SFBA, the ecosystem is not weakened by this migration, although there may be second order effects on other species, as when a studio closes and moves to another neighborhood. Long-term harm to the ecosystem can occur when species leave the ecosystem entirely. This is a complicated and vexing problem, driven by forces beyond anyone’s control. It is also a test of the dance ecosystem’s “self-efficacy” – its capacity to self-organize, diagnose the problem, and formulate solutions.

Observation #6: Stakeholders voiced a concern that access to resources is not purely Darwinian, as in a biological system, but influenced by historical biases such as classism and racism.

Discussion: The ecosystem metaphor has limitations, specifically in the context of species that don’t have equal access to resources. One stakeholder commented, “While competition for resources can be a healthy catalyst for growth, not all species are in a position to compete.” Whether this liability arises from natural conditions or entrenched biases, it raises the question of whether certain species should be prioritized for resources and/or supported in order to level the playing field. The environmental movement, for example, has a well-developed system for protecting endangered species. When an individual is threatened, it does not constitute a systemic threat to the ecosystem. But when a species is threatened, there is cause for intervention. Whose job is it to protect endangered species in the dance ecosystem?

Observation #7: Among the resources that flow through the dance ecosystem, space plays a pivotal role.

Discussion: Much as a musician cannot play without an instrument, or a painter cannot paint without a paintbrush, “space is the biggest issue for dancers.” In our interviews with stakeholders, we heard much about the key role that space plays in allowing artists and artistic work to flourish. When appropriate space is not available, the ecosystem adjusts and work is diverted to suboptimal spaces, but at a cost to the ecosystem. Several voiced the opinion that San Francisco lacks a sufficient number of mid-sized dance venues. Others cited lack of affordable and accessible rehearsal and performance spaces in general. While most facility development projects come about to meet the needs of an individual organization, “solving” the long-term space needs of the dance community is very much an ecosystem-level issue.

Observation #8: As the “stock” of artists and companies matures, some artistic activity will inevitably sunset. Generational shifts are inevitable, but the ecosystem has little existing capacity to support end-of-lifecycle transitions.

Discussion: Birth, growth and competition for resources, and dying and regeneration are all necessary for a healthy ecosystem. “The reality is that everything, every place, every institution or act is temporary, and at any given moment is in the process of growing or of dying.”1 Historically, funders and service organizations have focused on incubating new infrastructure and sustaining existing assets. While it may be unpleasant to talk about, the ecosystem will inevitably reveal end-of-lifecycle events with increased frequency. Extraordinary leadership will be required to support artists and organizations through their endings while preserving artistic assets and ensuring their legacies.

And, as with all ecosystems, the SFBA dance ecosystem is in a constant state of flux, adapting to changing conditions both within and outside of the ecosystem. Unlike a rainforest, the dance ecosystem has a cohort of stewards – individuals and species who choose to nurture, support and sustain the ecosystem, including Dancers’ Group. While their resources may pale in comparison with the demands of the ecosystem, they can still play a catalytic role in identifying need and strengthening and democratizing the natural exchanges between species.

While much of the full paper focuses on Dancers’ Group, we hope that it provokes others to consider their role in the dance ecosystem both individually and collectively.

The dance ecology belongs to all who inhabit it.


Figure 1. The “Making Work” Subsystem 1. Darrell grant. “the Jazz scene As an ecology.” (unpublished manuscript)

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