Dance/USA’s 2017 Dance Forum Focuses on Engaging Audiences

By Karyn D. Collins

The crowded room of dancemakers at the 2017 Dance Forum

The crowded room of dancemakers at the 2017 Dance Forum

Food for thought and words of encouragement and inspiration to gird the dance community were on the menu during Dance/USA’s 2017 Dance Forum, which took place this year on January 6 in New York.

Almost 300 dance company administrators, directors, and consultants participated in a briskly paced morning of presentations centered on reaching audiences. Both leaders in the field and newcomers to Dance/USA listened to presentations on audience engagement programs and dance touring statistics, and they were galvanized by success stories from presenters representing a variety of disciplines and genres.

Dance/USA Executive Director Amy Fitterer said the snapshot format for the Dance Forum, which was moderated by arts consultant Lisa Mount of Artistic Logistics, was a way for attendees to gain quick updates and insights on important topics.

“We’re always trying to bring out ideas and current information to get people thinking, to get them out of the whole mode of ‘I have my own problems to solve and things to work on today.’ We want them to become aware of the bigger system that they’re in,” Fitterer said. “This is to get them thinking about how others in the field are doing their work.”

Fitterer added, “It’s food for thought, giving you things to go ‘Hmm, is that the way it works in my organization?’ Every year the Dance Forum helps us all understand our place in our industry better.”

Fitterer also encouraged Forum participants to use the arts as inspiration while girding themselves for a future of possible political uncertainty. “I want to reinforce for our members that dance is about reflecting the human experience. That is really a great gift that dance, all art really, provides. Dance can bring that gift to the public and remind audiences what it is to be human,” she said. “I wanted to remind people that times may be changing, but something very beautiful exists in our industry and we need to ground ourselves in that.”

Suzanne Callahan, of Dance/USA's EDA program, discusses audience engagement with her co-panelists Julie Sunderland and Holly Bass

Suzanne Callahan, of Dance/USA’s EDA program, discusses audience engagement with her co-panelists Julie Sunderland and Holly Bass

In the opening audience engagement segment, speakers shared the latest findings and observations from various initiatives, including Dance/USA’s Engaging Dance Audiences (EDA) program. Arts consultant Suzanne Callahan, who manages Dance/USA’s EDA program, multidisciplinary performance and visual artist Holly Bass, and Cincinnati Ballet’s director of education Julie Sunderland all noted different examples of how audience engagement has evolved.

Bass said one of the most important lessons she’s learned is to think of audience engagement as a continuum. “We need to think about how we can bring engagement from the very moment you enter the venue — and even possibly within the work and throughout — so that there’s a full continuum of community engagement,” she said. “The second lesson that was important for me is how the work can model this society and culture that we want to see before us.”

Sunderland spoke about the Cincinnati Ballet’s sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker and noted that despite the challenges of making a full-length ballet sensory-friendly for youngsters and others with special needs, the outcome was easier to do than one might think. She added that it is something the company will continue doing in the future.

“Audience engagement is intentional. It involves some planning,” said Callahan, summing up her findings from EDA grantees and others involved in audience engagement projects. “There’s always an element of experimentation and risk to it.” She continued, “Language really matters and the facilitation style matters. Some of the language we use doesn’t always relate to people who might not be [immersed] in the art form.”

In the second segment, statistics from touring programs took center stage with community engagement proving again to be key. New England Foundation for the Arts’ (NEFA) program director Sara Nash presented the latest findings from her organization’s 20-year-old dance project. Also speaking were Andrew Delicata and David Wannen, who presented some of the raw data they’ve collected so far from a study of arts presenters by the cooperative organization North American Performing Arts Managers and Agents.

“I think it’s notable that both artists and presenters point to community engagement as an area of growth,” Nash said, in an analysis of statistics from NEFA’s dance project. “When asked what models they anticipate using to meet their touring goals, the highest ranked model was pairing their tours with deep community engagement and participation.”

Indeed, Nash noted that 73 percent of presenters surveyed said they believed it was “very important” to include community engagement programs, while 58 percent said they planned to increase community engagement programs this season.

The final segment looked at how presenters are blending savvy marketing and community engagement initiatives. In introducing this segment, arts producer Kristopher McDowell of KMP Artists reminded attendees of the need for collaboration and cooperation as a “sustainable approach” for presenting dance. Said McDowell, “Dance transcends borders and cultures and many choreographers are rethinking the way we make dance in the spirit of performance inclusion and, dare I say, authenticity to have true dialogue with our audiences.”

Success stories followed. Charles Santos, artistic and executive director of Dallas’ TITAS Presents, Neil A. Barclay, president and CEO of New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center, and Amy Russell, director of programming for Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill each shared what worked best for them in their organizations.

Santos discussed how more dynamic marketing videos, particularly of lesser known artists, plus a programming shift toward a heavier focus on dance resulted in more people signing up for full season subscriptions.

Barclay explained that he saw his role as more than just a programmer: “We try to help the artist to deepen both our understanding of what it is they’re trying to communicate as well as how we communicate that to audiences,” he said. “Allowing artists to begin to explore how their work may be received equally and deeply in different kinds of settings is an important imperative for our field.” And Santos and Barclay agreed with Russell’s assessment that presenters are moving toward a focus on making appearances a “transformational engagement as opposed to the transactional engagement.”

Said Russell, “We’re trying to build more engaged audiences and more diverse and broad audiences.”

Attendees praised the forum for the wealth of timely and useful information provided. “The biggest thing I got out of this was [the importance of] having a more honest and open conversation with the artists,” said Siya Olivia, community coordinator for Positive Energy Arts Foundation in York, Penn. “I also liked the idea of really being thoughtful about your community — what they’re looking for, what’s going to resonate, and rethinking typical approaches.”

Arts consultant and Dance/USA board member Robert Dorf said the forum reinforced the importance of fostering connections between artists and audiences: “The key to success in the field is really about generating and cultivating relationships,” he noted. “It’s maintaining those relationships and having your audience engage in a proper environment with the artist on the creative side. And it’s about the distribution of that work and asking how can the audience participate in that distribution in a way that resonates on a personal, intellectual and emotional level.”

Karyn D. Collins

Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for more than 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, InJerseyMagazine, the Camden Courier Post, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, William Paterson University,Seton Hall University, and Bloomfield College in N.J. A faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque and Mahwah, N.J., Collins is also 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.  


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