Leadership Corner: Melanie Rios Glaser, Artistic Director, The Wooden Floor, Santa Ana, Calif.


Editor’s note: From the Green Room continues its feature, Leadership Corner, disseminating the voices and experiences of leaders in the professional dance field across the United States. Comments or discussion can be posted below or on our Facebook page.

Born and raised in Guatemala, Melanie Ríos Glaser has been a part of The Wooden Floor family since 1999. In Santa Ana, Calif., The Wooden Floor works with at-risk youths, committing to a long-term multi-year program of dance education and academic and social service support along with  college preparation for students who make a parallel commitment to the dance and academic program. Melanie received her BFA from the Juilliard School, was named a Kennedy Center Fellow in 1998, and a Fulbright Scholar in Paris in 2003. Late last year, The Wooden Floor, which serves 375 youths and their families in Orange County, Calif., announced a new licensing program for its model arts-for youth program. Rios Glaser and her staff have developed an online training module and will consult with arts groups around the country in replicating The Wooden Floor’s unique immersive approach to breaking the cycle of poverty through a long-term dance immersion process, combined with academic support, college and career readiness programs, and family services. The Wooden Floor will be providing each partner with fee-based consulting, training and curriculum based on its well-tested model.  

Melanie has choreographed more than 30 pieces for groups that include University of California Irvine’s Dance Department, Group Motion Dance Theatre Company, Ballet Moderno y Folklórico de Guatemala, Ballet de Cali, her own Mosquito Dance Company, and The Wooden Floor. REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in Los Angeles presented her piece “La Tribu” in 2012 and she has participated in the site-specific series HOME LA. Her work has been performed in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, France, Colombia, Brazil, California, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

Melanie Rios Glaser: I’ve been here at The Wooden Floor full time for 10 years. I was hired by the founder to come into the role of artistic director, but I was choreographing for the organization since 2000. So I had come in as a guest choreographer and would be in residence for about six weeks a year. That’s how I got to know the organization.

Dance/USA: When the founder, Beth Burns, retired and moved on, what made you want to take the helm of what was then known as St. Joseph Ballet Academy?

MRG: I knew the company relatively well through my residencies and I always thought it as just outstanding. The joy of being able to move this mission forward was such an honor. My happiest times were when I was here choreographing with the youths and meeting the stakeholders. That made me want to take on the role … and the challenge.

D/USA: You came from a primarily freelance background and worked with organizations with a much smaller capacity. Tell us what did you need to learn quickly to take charge of this organization? What kind of skills did you find you had to access?

MRG: One of things that was very important was creating relationships with all the stakeholders and getting to know them; that included students, board members, donors, staff, and the community at large as well. Another learning curve was in the area of arts administration such as strategic planning for arts organizations. I had done that for smaller groups but this was a larger organization. There was board management or helping the board to manage itself and find its best governance practices. And fundraising, I had to learn how to fund raise. So I basically ordered every single book I could find on non-profit management and read vigorously every evening and went to seminars and conferences on the topic of best practices.

D/USA: So you really taught yourself on the job. 

MRG: I taught myself on the job. But there were a lot of people here who helped me who were already on staff. I learned a lot about the organization from them.

D/USA: You talked also about creating relationships with stakeholders. What sources did you turn to, or was it simply about being out there, being in the community, shaking people’s hands and asking them what they needed? 

MRG: I think I learned that from people, little by little. I wanted to get to know who our mission was geared to. I wanted to hear what their needs and wants were, so there was a lot of listening at the beginning, learning how to listen to our different constituents to make sure we were living up to their expectations.

D/USA: Looking back at what you did when you started and comparing it to what you do now with regards to relationship building, what has changed?

MRG: It’s been pretty consistent. When I came in, there was an artistic director and an executive director; we both reported to the board. It was a dual-leadership system. Then we went through a transition and I was the artistic director and the executive director. I did that together for about three years. Then I proposed to the board that I go back to being the artistic director and we promote someone from within to take on the executive director role. For the past three years now we have been in a co-CEO relationship. My relationship building and work and visibility and advocacy has changed in the sense that now my work is more focused toward the dance community, toward the people we serve. I still have relationships with donors, board directors and other stakeholders, but that’s much more guided now by the executive director. I don’t define the development strategies anymore.

D/USA: It’s interesting that you’ve held both roles, artistic director and executive director, and now you have co-CEOs. That evolved, I imagine, due to the organization’s needs

MRG: Absolutely. That was part of it. I went on a sabbatical, which the board very generously gave me early on. And I realized that what I was leaving behind was my own artistic practice and my ability to stay relevant and connected to the dance community on a national level. The demands of the executive director often impose themselves in moving the organization forward artistically. Additionally, I also requested some time – 10 weeks during the year – when I can do my own work outside of The Wooden Floor so I can continue to be a practicing artist. I thought that would be a benefit to the organization as well.

D/USA: Since you have this great perspective of having taken on both the artistic director and executive director roles, what can you tell us about working with the artistic director as an executive director, and vice versa? How do you forge a collaboration between the artistic and executive roles?

MRG: When we created this collaborative leadership system, we went on a little retreat. The executive director and I created certain basic principles on which our relationship would be founded. Those were: trust, speak in one voice, communication, and a few other basics like that. We also created a very important document that summarized our basic responsibilities separately, listing each of the things we did, and then the in-between the responsibilities that we shared. That way we were very careful not to step in each other’s sandboxes, so to speak. When in doubt, we ask whether this is something that should belong in the middle and both of us should work it out together or something that’s solely in my sandbox so to speak. All the important things, like strategic planning, visioning, some parts of programming, advocacy, visibility, fundraising, all fall in the center. But finance definitely falls in the executive director role and artistic programming falls with me alone, for example.

D/USA: Previously you have taken on the ED role, so I’m curious about what you would advise artistic directors in building a strong working relationship with their executive director. What would you tell them about working with and understanding their executive director?

MRG: I think artistic directors can work very well with their executive directors if the expectations are clear as far as what each expects of the other. I would say that sometimes because the AD might have more visibility in the community and with the constituents, they feel that there is more resting on their shoulders. But the fact is that the ED has just as much weight resting on her or his shoulders. To know that both of you are sharing the responsibility equally is very important. And it’s not always going to be equal: Sometimes one will have to bear more than the other. At those times it’s just important to take care of each other and be very attuned to each other. 

D/USA: I’d like to hear your perspective on managing growth. The Wooden Floor has a cap on how many students you can serve. You are very conservative about instituting new programs and take multiple seasons to plan. Is that a conscious choice?

MRG: We had our auditions in October. We’re only limited by the size of the campus and resources. We had 407 children audition for 65 spots. So, that tells you the need is out there. Our hearts go out there to all those children and we will be working in the next few years to change that. And, we’re making this model replicable. We’re creating a toolkit for future opportunities. We’ll have everything available: an online manual along with coaching. That’s an end goal. 

We’re a very prudent organization. We’re not averse to risk, but we’re cautious and responsible. We’re making our plans and following the path in its own time. Since I’ve been here for 10 years, our organization has grown. We offer more programs. Our retention rate has increased. That means we have more teens and they require more programs and our college readiness programs have graduating classes that have become larger and larger. That also requires more funds because we give out college scholarships. So we have seen controlled growth, even in our current footprint. 

D/USA: What is your breakdown between the artistic programming and academic programming? 

MRG: It’s hard to distinguish between them, but I would say that the majority of my time goes toward the dance education program and the performance opportunities and related activities pertinent to dance.  Then a small percentage, maybe 30 percent goes into college readiness, academic and family services. We offer lots of services for the families. We have lots of social service situations that we address in this population. 

A services director and the staff work with college readiness, the tutors, the family center. That staff is there to support the children to enable them to stay and continue thriving in the dance classes. So both dance faculty and the academic staff, all of us, are working toward the same mission. College readiness isn’t on its own track. Everything is integrated and links back to the basic tenets of our dance program.

D/USA: You have your students sign contracts.

MRG: Yes. We actually tell the kids and the parents when we meet with them the first time [after auditions], we look at them and look at their parents and say: “You will graduate in 2025 from The Wooden Floor and from high school and you will enroll in college that same year. For parents that might be the first time they’re hearing this. We’re thinking that far ahead and we’re committing to them for nine or ten years. We will see them through, with their help of course. That’s one reason we have those staggering graduation rates. We’re at 100 percent. Dance works.

D/USA: Do you find you get enough time in the studio to work with the students and to work creatively on your own?

MRG: Not yet. I have to make the time. That’s on me. I would like to add that 92 percent of our income comes from individuals, corporations and foundations. So we have almost no earned income. I think that’s very unusual for arts organizations. I think it also helps the community to feel a sense of ownership about the organization because we depend on the generosity of so many. Our annual budget is $2.4 million.

D/USA: What would you advise to a young person who wants to prepare for a leadership role in the arts?

MRG: Acquire as much knowledge as possible and learn to talk about the mission from the heart and make the work compelling. They should hold themselves to very high standards from the beginning, no matter how small you are. Always strive for excellence. Here at The Wooden Floor, by giving the children the very best, they will rise to the best. That’s why we have such a beautiful campus. And we give them a unique performance experience that doesn’t condescend to them, but the opposite, it brings them up to where they deserve to be, where they should be. They’re given the best opportunities possible. I’d also say, if somebody is starting out, it’s going to be a tremendous amount of work and blood, sweat and tears. As well, you need to clarify your mission. Finally, really be clear about what it is you’re doing and what you want to do. 

Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications, including DanceDance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week.

Photo courtesy of The Wooden Floor. Photo credit: Edie Layland.

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