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Banning Bouldin Boosts Nashville Dance Community with New Dialect

Photo by Eden Frangipane, courtesy of New Dialect

When you think of Nashville, country music and Southern cuisine come to mind. Contemporary dance? Not so much. But if Juilliard-trained dancer and choreographer Banning Bouldin has anything to say, the answer will soon be "Absolutely."

With life in dance hubs like New York becoming increasingly challenging and expensive, successful performers like Bouldin are relocating in search of more space to breathe as artists. Once there, they are finding ways to re-envision the energy and inspiration of the artistic communities they had enjoyed in the cities they left behind.

Since the Nashville native returned home in 2010, she has founded New Dialect, a nonprofit dance organization that provides training in modern and contemporary movement along with a professional performance collective of dancers who work on a 34-week contract.

"Right now, a large part of the population in the U.S. thinks the National Endowment for the Arts isn't necessary," Bouldin says. "That's because art isn't reaching people. We have a responsibility to take art to rural areas and smaller cities. We must dare to blaze a trail."


Ana-Maria Lucaciu and Banning Bouldin. Photo by Eden Frangipane, courtesy of New Dialect

The Need to Leave Home

Early in her training with the School of Nashville Ballet, Bouldin noticed she preferred Giselle's mad scene over princess poses. So she auditioned for the first-ever summer program at The Juilliard School to immerse herself in contemporary work, and a year later, she was accepted into their BFA early admission program, completing her senior year of high school and freshman year of college at the same time.

After graduation, she joined Hubbard Street 2 and moved to Chicago. But it wasn't long before the Big Apple called her back to work with Jacqulyn Buglisi, Lar Lubovitch and Aszure Barton. "I couldn't get NYC out of my system," she says.

A couple years later she left for Europe, where she joined Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm. Paris was her next stop. "In that five-year period when I was not as tunnel vision about my career, I opened up," she says. "It took space and time for me to grow as a teacher and choreographer."

Eventually, it became clear: She wanted to go home. "I spent so much time going everywhere else because I had to leave to get my education and career," she says. "I had been devoting myself to it for more than a decade. I felt satisfied with my experiences. I wanted to prioritize family, relationships and giving back."

New Dialect dancers James Barrett, Becca Place and Curtis Thomas. Photo courtesy of New Dialect

A Respectful Return

Once home, the idea for New Dialect was born, and she took care to become familiar with the local dance scene and its needs. Along with teaching privately, she served on the faculty of Vanderbilt University Dance Program and the School of Nashville Ballet, where she developed the contemporary technique and improvisation curriculum.

"In the three years I taught at Vanderbilt and Nashville Ballet, I realized there were many talented dancers here, who through lack of exposure, had little knowledge of choreographers or companies devoted to contemporary performance," she says. "In order to give them the opportunity to dive deeper into these new and different approaches, I would need to create an infrastructure that would allow me to bring guest artists to Nashville."

She connected with the Arts and Business Council of Greater Nashville for legal and business assistance to build the organizational structure for New Dialect. She learned about filing for nonprofit status, annual reports and how to incorporate, all spelled out in a 200-page packet.

New Dialect performs Atlas Kid, choreographed by Bouldin. Photo courtesy of New Dialect

Filling an Educational Vacuum

In April 2013, Bouldin created open community classes where teachers and students could explore and refine a variety of work. Since then she has added classes in various Nashville locations, offering diverse styles that range from ballet for contemporary dancers to contact improvisation and Feldenkrais.

"The emphasis is on the evolution of the contemporary artform," she says. "While we value the preservation of techniques that are codified (ballet, Graham, Cunningham, Limón), our practice is to use these, other techniques and our own improvisations, as a launching pad to uncover new territory."

Twice a year, she hosts an intensive for pre-professional and professional dancers that draws performers from across North America and Europe to participate in a research lab, working with prominent guest contemporary dance artists such as Yin Yue, Laurel Jenkins and Erin Law.

Another New Dialect project close to Bouldin's heart is Girl Power Camp, a weeklong summer intensive for young women that cultivates leadership and collaborative problem solving. "Historically, dance education praises dancers, especially young women, who take direction unquestioningly," says Bouldin. "So I want to facilitate an environment where young girls are in dialogue, choreographing and practicing. It is essential for the future of the artform. We practice how we can use our voices, even making proposals verbally."

Bouldin leads a rehearsal. Photo by Eden Frangipane, courtesy of New Dialect

Success Means Paying a Living Wage

In 2014, New Dialect added a professional company. Now, eight dancers, two apprentices and a rehearsal assistant work year-round. Since its first show, the company has been commissioned, presented and self-produced in theaters, galleries and outdoor spaces, as well as screened films throughout Nashville.

All told, Bouldin's seen her work pay off, not only in excitement surrounding the institution, but also in terms of people who want to volunteer and serve on the board. Currently there are nine members who provide everything from legal, fundraising and marketing assistance to physical therapy services. Two part-time staffers manage data and registration.

Administrative work is shared between Bouldin and her husband, a nonprofit development professional, who is one of the reasons Bouldin chose to live in Nashville. (The two met in 1997 and married in 2011.) He serves as development director for New Dialect, designs marketing materials, maintains the website and creates video trailers, while she programs classes, residencies and performances, and books tours and handles bookkeeping and communications.

"I had no idea about grant applications, development or even just cold-meeting individuals," says Bouldin, when asked if she finds any of this challenging. "You have to be able to talk about the project right out of the gate. It sounds simple, but it was the most uncomfortable aspect for me."

"Sometimes it feels like tilling concrete, not just to build the organization, but to also generate energy behind the arts movement in practical terms," she adds. "Our practice and the works we create and present are very different from anything else coming out of Nashville right now. There's no precedent. There have been other small dance projects over the last 20 years, but other than Nashville Ballet, very few of these companies had the infrastructure in place to offer their collaborators full-time work and a living wage."

Bouldin attributes much of her success to finding creative solutions, including collaborating with other local organizations. A partnership with Metro Parks and Recreation Dance Division, for example, gives New Dialect free rehearsal space in exchange for developing curriculum and teaching modern and contemporary classes. "Win-win," Bouldin says. "It won't happen if we don't come together to make courageous decisions. This is how it happens."

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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