Cover Story: Staying on Their Toes

A roundtable discussion with the leaders of Greater Cincinnati's dance companies, who work to keep the art form thriving

Geoff Raker

'Dance Is the Best'

"Dance is the loftiest, the most moving of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life, it is life itself."

— Havelock Ellis, pioneer of human sexuality studies, from Dance of Life (1923)

Men in tights, budget cuts — I expected to hear about these in a roundtable discussion about dance. But iPods, football and such classic pop culture relics as The Ed Sullivan Show and Pete Rose?

Seven Cincinnati dance luminaries, plus a drop-in guest, sound off on their favorite topics here in the local scene: where dance performance is; where it's headed; and why the art form matters.

On a recent evening at Cincinnati Ballet's studios on Central Parkway, dance administrators, choreographers and current and former dancers took their places amicably at, yes, a round table. Most knew one another, and I believe all were eager to learn more about the others and their respective organizations.

Friendly conversations arose in pairs or trios before we began. By the end, there was a sense of desire for increased solidarity in spite of underlying or perceived competition — even a vibe of "Why haven't we all gotten together sooner?"

Most of all, they shared a common bond of passion for the art form that brings them together. And they laughed together often.

There was mention of New York City's annual Fall For Dance Festival, where 28 dance companies offer an inexpensive flat ticket price to all their shows for 10 days, followed by talk of "Why couldn't something like that happen here?"

Some subsequent comments: "(Financial support) would be from some foundation or some corporation that believes in what we're doing and in our city, because it's the two. I'm a strong believer that what we are doing is important to this community, and somebody rich must believe that."

The dialogue shifted to jokes about sugar daddies/mammas, and then this about government support: "We could camp out at City Council for about five years and see..."

Dance stands alone. This most ancient form, with its definitive essence requiring only physical movement, shouldn't require a lengthy introduction. Yet how has something so universal become so misunderstood in our competition-steeped culture?

With dancers' ever-increasing athletic prowess, why does dance still remain on the sidelines and take a back seat to other entertainment and even to most other performing arts?

Those in the local dance community often encounter people who go see plays and art but have never been to a dance performance. What's more, people might not know what modern dance is.

From talk of dance education, impressive athleticism and what defines an athlete to whether So You Think You Can Dance is a good thing or a bad thing for the arts, here's the roundtable discussion.

The players:
Devon Carney, Ballet Master-in-Chief for Cincinnati Ballet

Shellie Cash, Director of UC's College-Conservatory of Music Dance Division

Marvel Gentry Davis, Producing Artistic Director of ballet tech cincinnati

Jefferson James, Artistic and Executive Director of Contemporary Dance Theater

Victoria Morgan, Artistic Director of Cincinnati Ballet

Kirk Peterson, Resident Choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet

Patricia Rozow, Dance Department Head, School for the Creative and Performing Arts

Missy Lay Zimmer, Artistic Director of Exhale Dance Tribe

CityBeat: Talk about what dance means to you.

Victoria Morgan: I started dancing when I was 2. Dance for me is kind of the link to survival, really. I was raised in a really conservative community. Women were not thought of as people who should express their opinions, who should disagree or raise their voices. (It was) a really straight, straight Mormon community. ... The place where I learned I could have my expression and a place where I learned to be honest was in the (dance) studio. So for me, dance is a total survival mechanism.

Devon Carney: I had a different upbringing. I grew up with artists in my family. They were all artists. I discovered that dance was my art, and what I love about dance was that it was my way of being able to express how I felt about the world around me. ... And I had a pretty normal upbringing when it comes to athletics, and I came to dance a little bit later than normal for a guy, so I really enjoyed the discovery of dance ... that I could be athletic but in a creative way, and I really enjoyed that.

Missy Lay Zimmer: I started when I was 3. I've always danced. Being a professional myself now I'm coming around to the other end of giving back (through teaching), and that feels so incredible. Something feels very right to me about that. And it's my form of communication, my therapy. So I'm passing that on to a lot of kids here in town who use dance for the same purpose, which is communication.

Patricia Rozow: I guess for a female dancer I started rather late. I started at 12 and just sort of fell into it, ended up going to college and dancing and actually just by chance, fell into Ballet West to be a dancer. But it's my heart and soul and is something that's always been stable in my life. It's always been there. ... It's something that's really yours and nobody else can take that away.

Shellie Cash: I started when I was 3. My mom put me into dancing because my left foot turned in when I walked (she crooks her hand to demonstrate). She thought it would teach me grace, but in fact I still trip over cracks in the sidewalk. (laughter) I was blessed with an incredible studio in South Florida, where the teachers at the end, you'd go and you'd give the curtsey and the handshake and then you'd get a big hug and a kiss. It was really unconditional love. ... So I try to encourage that kind of learning as opposed to the old-school type of learning where you dance, but it's not who you are, it's something that you do. And you're still a human being first.

Marvel Gentry Davis: For me, dance is all about joy. I started dancing when I was 3 also, and I have danced all my life. I haven't focused on one kind of dance either — I've tried everything I could learn. I love just moving my body. I remember when I was a teenager and I was doing my kitchen chores and I danced the whole thing.

Jefferson James: (She mentions proudly that Contemporary Dance Theater is 35 years old this year to applause and congratulations.) I guess dance isn't really very important to me. (laughter) I didn't start at 3 or at 12, I started at 5 or 6 and I'm not sure how I started. I grew up in Alexandria, Va., which is near Washington, D.C., but had no dance. But Washington had dance, and luckily my parents took me into Washington after I told them at 5 that I was gonna be a dancer. How I knew that or what I had seen to make me think of that I have no idea. So then dance was just always the means of doing anything and doing everything — of learning about the other art forms through dance and learning about diversity of peoples and cultures through dance. So I stuck with it.

CB: Why do you think dance is still considered something of a "sideline" art form in broader culture?

Davis: I think people think they have to understand it and know something about it to enjoy it. And since they have never been (to a dance performance), so they assume they don't know, so they don't try it and they miss out.

James: I think it's also a matter of not being comfortable unless you can verbalize about something. Having emotions is about being human but being able to articulate them is what people find difficult, and when you see dance so much is a feeling you get when you do it, and if you can't talk about that easily I think it puts people off. I think it's also about the fact that they don't have dance in the schools, so they don't get an early appreciation or exposure to it. Hopefully that will change.

Morgan: I think that sometimes people say, well, it's the "younger" art form. You know, we have the symphony, we've had them for a couple of centuries. We've had opera. ... So they talk about dance, "Well, maybe it's because it's one of the younger organizations." I am baffled that not more people are crazy about it. People say it's abstract and it's esoteric, but to me it seems so sort of normal. It's your body, and what is more basic? I mean, you don't have an instrument, there's not a canvas, you don't have brushes. There's nothing that separates you from what you're trying to say. It's your body. ... It's a challenge getting people to come.

Cash: Maybe if there were companies against companies and there was gonna be a winner at the end.

Rozow: It's so sad, but that is the truth.

Cash: People go to watch football, and what's so great about that movement? I mean, there's some beautiful movement there, that's the main reason I go.

James: We are a civilization, a culture of winners. We have to have winners.

Zimmer: We can get evolved crowds to come and everyone else will watch So You Think You Can Dance on TV.

Rozow: I think in truth (most people) don't realize the athleticism. In our culture, people pay homage to the Reds stadium and never mind. ... And yet I remember a time when Pete Rose came to the (Cincinnati Ballet) studio to watch. And he came in with this real smug (face), "OK, I'll be here for like five minutes to have my picture taken." And he stayed all day. And he went (imitating his astonishment), "These are the same people who were here this morning ... and they're still working!" (laughter) But he was truly impressed and really turned around. One time I was in (physical) therapy with a Bengal. And he was like, "Can you do this?" I always thought we could get our legwarmers out and bring the Ben-Gay and announce, "So-and-so is dancing with a strained back, let's see if she's gonna make this lift." They play all that up in football.

James: Athletes are often described as being like dancers, of how graceful they are or what a dancerly movement that was.

Morgan: Quick-footed.

James: And we should start talking about how this ballerina has just made a tight end movement or the quarterback is lifting her. (laughter)

CB: Dance is also body-centered and physical. Do you feel there's some discomfort in American culture, particularly where the body is viewed as more sexual or something separate from the mind?

Zimmer: I do think it's reflective of those things for people. I think (dance is) very honest, and I think sometimes that scares people away.

CB: Do you think this is particularly true in Cincinnati?

Davis: It's American culture.

Morgan: It's probably a little less on the East and West coasts. But I would say generally there's a real paranoia about it. I remembered when I first arrived (here) ... and I won't say who I was sitting next to, but she's a pretty prominent person in the community, and we were having a conversation: "What do you do?" "I'm a ballet dancer," and I asked her, "Do you go to the ballet?" And at least she was honest with me, and she said, "Well, you know, I just can't deal with those men in tights."

Davis: That's one of my favorite parts! (laughter)

James: You have tried to alleviate that. You've taken them out of the tights.

Morgan: We have. We've done that.

CB: What do you think is the most important or critical element in drawing new audiences, to make dance relevant for them?

Morgan: Good marketing.

Davis: Good marketing helps. I think programming, too. That's one thing we try to do is just come up with the most off-the-wall, unique or innovative thing. ... We did a ballet in May that had a baseball game in it. If you can try to create one more junction point that is familiar and kind of bring them in on something else that they're interested in, while they're there they get to find out, "Oh my goodness, I enjoyed this dance performance."

CB: Are other groups trying different approaches?

Zimmer: We tried a thing on Fountain Square and it wasn't very successful because it was so small. ... I mean, I think people enjoy dance, but if they don't see it or haven't experienced it then how will they know?

James: I danced on the Fifth Third roof years ago when "happenings" were in. ... We're going back to all the things because it sort of worked. It did for a moment. People noticed it and looked at it, but did they come to the next performance? Of course, I think the interest in dance has fluctuated too, because when the National Dance Performance was supporting companies and there was more touring around the country, more audiences, more cities got a chance to see more different dance. And that disappeared.

Morgan: And the (National Endowment of the Arts) went down. I mean, we used to tour all over the place. And (now) we can't afford to tour. So You Think You Can Dance — you guys have seen it, right? I actually was really impressed with it.

Zimmer: I think some of the contemporary dancers are beautiful, but I think again, competing in art...

Davis: I've seen it, and it surprised me. Sometimes it was really good and sometimes I was going, "Oh my goodness!"

Rozow: It's like the kids who come to SCPA, "Well, I can do Hip Hop!" Still, can you work at being a dancer or do you just want to go and jive? Some of it's very balanced and some of it's very good and you could see when the (competitors) have had good, real dance training.

Zimmer: I think there's work out there for Hip Hop dancers. We get a lot of Hip Hop dancers at Planet Dance (our school), and they are all working in L.A. and doing great. So if that's what speaks to you as a dancer, I think it's important to have that outlet too. ... But, yeah, it's a different kind of training for sure.

Davis: But it's training. You can't just walk in on a video and do Hip Hop if you haven't been training. That's one of the things (about) So You Think You Can Dance and those shows like that: It's positive in that it's giving exposure, but it's negative in that it's not telling the real story.

Zimmer: We're finding this kind of mixed breed of a student that has classical training and has amazing, amazing classical Jazz training and Hip Hop and everything in between and, to me, is the ultimate dancer because they speak all languages. So that's the beautiful thing that's happening. I don't think it's all bad, that whole competition thing.

Morgan: But just to have people talking about dance...

Cash: We'll get people talking, and then you can educate them.

James: I guess that's one of things about marketing — maybe we need to say, "You've seen these things. That's not exactly what we're doing, but it's related." (laughter) And maybe talk about it in those terms, which is not something I would normally do.

CB: There aren't many pop culture references for dance.

James: You said pop culture, and I was thinking, "But dance is the first art form and it's the most human, so why are we having such a problem?" Every culture has it. It was part of the religion. That's what you did.

Morgan: You did it before you spoke.

James: Why have we become this world that is afraid to see other people? A lot of our audiences — or our non-audiences — probably go out and dance themselves, so why aren't they coming to see it?

Peterson: It just doesn't exist in the whole educational system generally. I mean, there are of course wonderful examples, but generally people don't even talk about dance in the educational system.

James: No, and when they did it was part of phys ed, which is probably not a totally bad place for it to be.

Morgan: No, but least it was there. I used to take modern dance in high school.

Peterson: I couldn't even admit I was taking dance when I was in high school.

Davis: That's American culture. I don't think it's like that in other cultures.

Rozow: We've had trouble with parents who don't want their sons, especially, to take dancing.

Carney: We were talking earlier about the art form in general — nobody understands the physicality of it, actually how difficult it is. And I think educating kids in schools is the right place to get that started so they start to understand it. My own experience in high school (is) I hid it as well. I mean, especially for guys, it's this just big, huge taboo. And I was a junior in high school when somebody finally actually saw me in a show and confronted me the next day. But a couple of the football players caught me in the hallway and really started getting on me about it, you know, just calling me all sorts of weird names. And I said, "OK, can you do this?" and I stepped back and I did a double tours. "Oh yeah, I can do that." And they went flying into a locker. And they went, "Wow" and never gave me another problem. But it took the stereotypical guy having trouble doing what appeared to be extremely easy, having extreme difficulty doing it, for them to get it.

Cash: When we were growing up, we watched The Ed Sullivan Show and (legendary New York City Ballet dancers) Violette Verdy and (Edward) Villella with the next act The Beatles. It was just cool. It was cool to have culture. And it wasn't like this scary thing.

Morgan: Our audiences, I'd say, are 70 percent women or more, which is a shame. I just don't understand it. If you're a straight guy ... you see all these scantily clad women doing these amazing things. What wouldn't be enticing about it?

Davis: It's the exposure. ... One guy said, "I never thought I liked dance until I came to your show. I love dance!" This is a grown man. He wasn't a kid. He was fortysomething years old. He had never been to a dance performance ever, ever.

Rozow: I don't find (the students) tittering so much about the guys in tights. It's more their parents might have some issue. And of course the younger (they are) the more they just accept it, and then they grow with that.

Peterson: The older they get, the more foreign it becomes, the stranger it becomes. They start hearing stereotypical comments about what it is and what it really means. It's education from a very early age.

CB: Do you think limited audience cross-pollination is due to taste variances, awareness or maybe the way the organizations are presenting themselves?

James: Certainly we can do more about communicating with each other and informing our audiences of what's going on. I was surprised this morning to read in the paper that the Alvin Ailey Company is coming. Now don't you think that this is the roundtable of dance in Cincinnati and why wouldn't we know? ... Those tickets will sell themselves probably, but why not make your dance community feel really excited and happy to have you instead of, "Oh gee, I saw the paper this morning and nice of you to let us know?"

Davis: I think part of it might be taste, but I think most of it's awareness. I think people don't know. It's not that we didn't advertise or that we didn't send out e-mails, but if you don't approach someone dead-on, head-on, they'll miss you.

Morgan: We can just say "Swan Lake," and you don't have to say what it is. You don't have to define it — people are just falling out of the woodwork. Sleeping Beauty was more ticket sales than we've ever had. And yet the stuff that is really meaty for our dancers ­ of course, those are both phenomenal pieces ­ but the stuff that's maybe connected to the future of dance or the next generation, it's so hard to get them to come and see this work.

Davis: They pay for ball games.

Zimmer: Is it a conservative town?

James: It's conservative in some ways, but it's not as conservative as people always say. Look at the Contemporary Arts Center. ... Cincinnati Ballet would not have a New Works program. Contemporary Dance Theater would not have lasted for 35 years, nor the Fringe Festival and Know Theatre and the theater companies that are developing.

Cash: If we knew, we'd have solved the problem and we'd have full houses.

Rozow: From the socio-economic group I'm with at SCPA, some of it is financial — that the kids cannot afford to go places, that they're screaming out at pointe shoes at $95 and $100.

James: There is that, but there's also the $60 tennis shoes they're wearing and theiPods.

CB: What are the greatest challenges your organizations face right now? Are they primarily financial?

Davis: Sure, even if we were selling all our tickets we still wouldn't have enough, but selling all our tickets would be a lot closer than where we are now.

Morgan: But I also think you sell those houses, people are there seeing it — that broadens your sponsorship, too. It's all connected to that. You can't have one without the other.

Rozow: I think Shellie and I are stuck with whatever comes down from the top (from the state.)

Cash: I've been there 14 years and there's still budget cuts every year — in the hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. At CCM they're down to paying some professors out of endowments every year because the general funds just aren't there.

CB: What's the current state of dance in Cincinnati?

Zimmer: I feel like since I've been back — I was gone for 10 years, came back — I feel like it's on the up and up. Maybe not financially or maybe we don't have the budget we all want, but I feel like the passion's there and that's inspiring for me as an artist.

Cash: I think we're all doing incredible work with what we've got.

James: It's also interesting that even though there hasn't been a modern company for years ... dancers have stayed in the city on the off-chance that they can dance once or twice a year and they keep up their technique. ... I'm not sure why they stayed, but I'm glad they did. It makes my life more interesting.

Morgan: Jefferson, have you seen it? Because after like 35 years is there a phase? Has it always (been up and down) but it's not lower than normal?

James: No. There was a period when Shawn Womack had a modern company and when that company closed and my company closed ... then it seemed really depressing, but that's not true anymore. And people have come back to make dance happen here.

CB: Is the future bright for dance in Cincinnati? How do you envision it?

James: I don't know about bright. There's a gobo (light) there. It's murky, but there is light.

Davis: Well, we have a new space, but I think that our city is really ready for some new things and it's just a matter of us figuring out how to get it out there in the right format and make sure that people know about it. ... We're all doing really great work. And I think it's going up.

Rozow: And with the new (SCPA) building I think that will encourage a lot of people. ... They say two years (for completion), so I figure, say, five. (laughter)

Morgan: I think there's a general recognition nationally that attendance at performing arts generally, and probably more specifically dance, for a variety of reasons, has been going down. And they talk about all of the options that people have today. There's just so much going on that didn't used to be going on.

Rozow: "If I can't get it on my computer, if I can't sit in my living room in my jeans with my beer ... oh, get dressed and go to Music Hall?"

James: Cincinnati for such a small city has an amazing amount of art that happens — performance art, visual art, literary art — now. I mean, just amazing. Even without staying home, people have all of these options, and it is hard to encourage them to come to your thing, which happens one weekend or two weekends. You know, it's not all week like the Playhouse. But dance is the best." ©