Does a Dance Company Executive Director Need To Have a Dance Background?

By Gavin Larson

Zenetta DrewNot necessarily, but an honest comprehension of and deep appreciation for dance and dancers is, for most, what compels them to commit to the mission of the dance company. Otherwise the days are too long and the salaries not lucrative enough for those not truly invested in the field. A few dancers transition into careers in arts management or administration (Paul Vasterling of Nashville Ballet and Margo McCann of Texas Ballet Theater are two examples), but more commonly, a dance company’s ED hasn’t danced extensively him- or herself. Without personal dance experience, what might fuel that passion?

  • Dan Hagerty, MCB Executive Director: “I am not a dancer, and have not had personal dance experience — but ballet is the art that moves me more than any other, and you don’t have to have been a dancer to have that appreciation. Being married to a dancer helps me understand the intense demands and difficulties a dancer faces. I have enormous respect for dancers — their dedication, the commitment they make at an early age, and the physical hardships they endure in the service to their craft.”
  • Jason Palmquist, Hubbard Street Executive Director: “Although my early interests were in theater, I’ve been working with dance and dancers for nearly twenty years. The first dance engagement I was responsible for managing (while working in artistic programming at the Kennedy Center) was a two-week run of Balanchine ballets staged by Suzanne Farrell Ballet, with principals and soloists from around the world and The Washington Ballet serving as the corps. It was quite an introduction to the art form, to say the least, and since then I’ve enjoyed an extraordinary practical education in dance, culminating in the work we do here at Hubbard Street.”
  • Zenetta Drew, Dallas Black Dance Theater Executive Director: “My eye is not trained. I want to see the choreography in the same way as the general public, in the same environment and frame. I don’t have a clue artistically, but that creates even more objectivity in my ability to make adjustments from the business side of what we need to do to improve the public consumption of the art that’s being created. I learn from the artistic director. At the forefront of my mind is always, ‘What is the highest level of artistic excellence we can achieve, with the resources we have, with what we’ve been given.’ That’s the priority.”
  • Dean Richardson, Board of Trustees, Oregon Ballet Theatre: “One can reach the appreciation of what it takes to be a ballet dancer and to make a ballet in many ways, but I expect one can never really appreciate the remarkable blend of mind, body, and spirit that a dancer brings to her art without having been an artful mover in some fashion oneself. Running with a football as a teenager — following the choreographed play, my teammates opening the way for me, and then breaking loose in an improvisational burst of elusiveness and speed — was one part God-given talent and one part the byproduct of exhausting team practices. I understand what it means to be called to the dance.”

Further reading:

The Executive Pas de Deux
Streamlining the Chain of Command: Nashville Ballet

Gavin LarsenGavin Larsen danced professionally with Oregon Ballet Theatre, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. She retired from full-time performing in 2010 to focus on teaching, coaching, and writing about dance. Her articles and essays have been published in Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, and the Threepenny Review. She lives in Portland, Ore., where she is on the faculty of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre.



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