Face to Face: Dorothy Gunther Pugh

Ballet Memphis in Julia Adam’s Devil’s Fruit

Dorothy Gunther Pugh has a drawl so thick you could cut it with a knife—she’s homegrown, born and raised in Memphis. When the small ballet school she operated began attracting attention, she was approached with the idea of heading her own ballet company. In 1986, she launched what was then known as Memphis Concert Ballet with two professional dancers, a half-time business manager and a budget of $75,000. Thirty years later, Ballet Memphis has 24 dancers, eight trainees, a school, a stand-alone Pilates center and an operating budget of $4.5 million. The organization owes its success to Pugh’s innovative approach to programming. For instance, this month, the event “Pairings” matches four contemporary dance works by local choreographers with beer tastings from four Memphis breweries. 

On programming “I want to do things that the audience would want to come in and see. And if they’ve never heard of certain choreographers, it’s not gonna matter how fabulous the choreography is, if I can’t find a way to package it. Like the last time we did Pas de Quatre, it went on a program called “Where the Girls Are.” We did a lot of things that were really directed at how one looks at a woman. Up against Pas de Quatre was a piece called Four Women with music by Nina Simone, by one of our dancers who grew up in the projects of Baltimore. And we did The Awakening, the Kate Chopin novel. We do pieces in the context of, ‘Let’s come look at this together—let’s have a cultural conversation.’ Not just, ‘It’s time to do a romantic ballet.’”

On priorities “The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that when parents entrust the most important thing in their universe to you—their children—you very well better do your best. Because it’s such an honor for someone to say, ‘Here’s my child. Will you help in their greater development?’ That’s way more important than, ‘Here’s my child. Will you turn her into someone who can do multiple fouettés?’”

On ballet stereotypes “I think we could all, in the ballet world, nudge ourselves away from our assumptions. I think we need to do that aesthetically, about our ballet dancers. Sometimes you’re going to hire a dynamite dancer who’s gonna appeal to your audience, whether her thighs are a little too big or her feet aren’t completely arched. I’ve lived that way, anyway, for 30 years in hiring people. I’ve done it pretty quietly, but I’m getting more vociferous now.” DT

Training Studied under Edith Royal, Louise Rooke, Raymond Clay, Donna Carver and David Howard; completed teacher-training courses at the Royal Academy of Dance

Leadership Founding artistic director of Ballet Memphis (1986)

Photos by Ari Denison; both courtesy of Ballet Memphis

Don't miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

Teachers Trending
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.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.