Want to teach your dancers to pirouette with purpose? Get inspired by these successful dance fundraisers.
What happens when you combine tap dancing, a good cause and eight spunky women who also happen to be breast cancer survivors? Think pink, aka the Pink Ribbon Tappers. The tap dancing group formed 12 years ago to raise money for the Backus Foundation. Their goal? To take the stage at the foundation's biannual Survivors in Fashion show. The one obstacle? Lack of tap dancing experience. "We didn't even have tap shoes," says Pink Ribbon Tapper Barbara Chiangi, a two-time breast cancer survivor who produces and directs the fashion show.
The determined group enlisted New London, CT–based tap teacher Louise Neistat to whip them into performing shape. Neistat refused to take any payment for teaching the women, and a beautiful collaboration was born. Several years ago, Neistat also invited them to perform at her own annual fundraiser, which also benefited the Backus Foundation. Since then, the two groups have raised tens of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research.
Neistat and the Pink Ribbon Tappers are just one of many examples of the amazing things that happen when dance and philanthropy meet. Here is how she and other dance teachers have successfully made a difference.
Art with Heart
Salt Lake City and Orem, UT
Beneficiary: Shriners Hospitals for Children
Total Raised to Date: $250,000
Dance Club owner Sheryl Dowling remembers the exact moment that the idea for Art with Heart was hatched 10 years ago. she was at a dance competition and sitting with Dance Impressions studio owner, Kandee Allen. "We were talking about how much we'd spent on entry fees and it was a lot," she says. "We discussed how nice it would be to put that money in a place where it would do someone a lot of good."
A few years earlier, the brother of one of dowling's teaching assistants was born prematurely with cerebral palsy and other health issues. Through that family, dowling learned about shriners Hospital for Children, which provides medical services free of charge. "We did a lot of investigating. The hospital was a great fit for us because of its focus on children," she says.
Dowling and Allen came together with Connie saccomanno of The Winner school to put together a large-scale dance show with each studio producing 10 numbers. "We really did it big from the start," says Allen.
In 2011, the show celebrated its 10th anniversary and Allen says it has hit its stride. Guest choreographers like Jason Parsons and Joey dowling set many of the numbers, and the production has included everything from flashy indoor pyrotechnics to guest appearances of local utah celebrities. Anywhere between 250 and 350 dancers of all ages and levels take part, a strategic move, according to Allen. "When you only include your 30 best kids, you don't sell as many tickets," she says. "Including as many dancers as possible brings more people to the show, and that's what we want—more awareness and money raised for Shriners."
In 2011 the event also marked the impressive milestone of raising a quarter of a million dollars. Proceeds come from various sources—not only do students sell tickets to the november show, but donations are also collected year-round with an inspirational heart program. each dancer participating in the show is given 10 "hearts" to sell for one dollar apiece ("Most people are very generous and pay way more than a dollar," says Dowling). On Valentine's Day, the top-sellers from each studio plaster the Shriners lobby with thousands of hearts bearing names and dedications. "The kids get to see the hospital come alive, and it makes it all become real," says Allen. "It's such a big part of what we do." Allen says the fundraiser is a great exercise in studio collaboration, because responsibilities are divided equally among the three studios. (The collaboration also works well because the studios aren't competitors—each clientele covers a different geographical area.) Teachers are given the option to donate their time, and most happily do so. "It's really amazing for three studios to come together," says Allen. "We spend hundreds of hours preparing this concert, and it's so neat to see what you can do if you put your mind to it."
Dowling agrees, adding that it's a great growth experience for the dancers involved. "It gives little dancers an opportunity to see that there are unfortunate kids," she says. "You forget that not everyone can walk or dance—this gives them a chance to see how blessed they are and a way to help."
New London, CT
Beneficiary: American Cancer Society/Backus Foundation
Total Raised to Date: More than $100,000
Even to those who didn't know her, Louise Neistat's love of dance came through loud and clear. Whether it was the rhinestone "5678" pin she wore faithfully, her "5678" license plate or the constant sounds of live tapping coming from her attic- based studio, the 92-year-old tapper's name was synonymous with dance throughout her Connecticut community.
"She taught out of her home, the smallest little dance studio you could ever imagine," says Allison Nocerino, a longtime stu- dent. "When you saw the scope of her shows, you would say, 'How is that possible?'"
The shows to which Nocerino refers are Neistat's annual fundraisers, which were legendary in New London. Lively and entertaining, they featured a wide range of students— both female and male, across generations from tiny tots to grown dancers like Nocerino. The first show in 1966 benefited the American Cancer Society. Neistat's father and others close to her had died from the disease. "She was so determined to find a cure," says Nocerino.
In the early years, the show was held at Mitchell College, with an admission fee of two dollars. Nocerino describes the production as distinctly vaude- ville, with singing, acting and dancing. "Louise would run the show off her record player," she says. "She wanted to entertain people and have them come back again and again, and that's what happened. For many people, it became almost like going to Radio City, a tradition and highlight of their year."
To accommodate the growing crowds, Neistat relocated in the late '90s to the considerably larger Garde Arts Center. For many, the show's highlight was the kickline finale, in which Neistat, a former Rockette, would proudly show off her high kicks. "Louise wanted them to feel like they were at a Broadway show being greeted by ticket-takers and ushers," says Nocerino. "She was so excited to be able to offer a taste of Broadway without having to leave New London."
Neistat's daughter Margo adds, "Audiences always gave her a standing O—she was a force to be reckoned with."
Neistat passed away last November, surprising her stu- dents, friends and fans. She had shown no signs of slowing down; those around her were continu- ally amazed at her high energy and chutzpah. "People would ask when she was going to retire, and she would say, 'When you carry me out of my studio.' She never saw herself as old, and we never did either," says Nocerino. "When she said she was 92, people didn't believe her. She was one of a kind."
Her legacy lives on, as will the show in June—"Her Way," with the lyrics to the classic Sinatra song altered in tribute to her. Neistat had already com- pleted all of the choreography for the 2012 show before her death, so Nocerino says, "It's a matter of polishing and practicing. We want to keep it as true to Louise as we can, and preserve her choreography."
Dancing for a Cure
Beneficiary: Friends of Dana- Farber Cancer Institute
Total Raised to Date: $150,000
Dance Designs owner Susan Mendoza Friedman had already lost her father and a close friend to cancer when her best friend of 40 years, Karen Scheck, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005. At the time, three students' mothers were also undergoing cancer treatment.
"I said, 'Enough—we need to do something,'" she says. That something became Dancing for a Cure, a holiday Nutcracker performance and variety show that Friedman has staged now for six years to raise money for cancer research.
Friedman, who had no fundraising experience, began by enlisting the help of dance moms and faculty. "After putting up a sign, people started coming out of the woodwork and it just snowballed," she says.
Putting the show together was also a unique challenge. "We'd never been a Nutcracker studio," she says. She decided to mix Nutcracker variations with dance production numbers, performances by musicians and "Storybook Speakers" willing to share their own experiences with cancer.
The formula worked. For the first three years, Friedman hosted the event at her studio with "100 folding chairs in a space that was roughly 17' x 6'—it felt intimate and magical." Today the show has expanded to a local high school auditorium, with a cast of 80 to 100 dancers. Ticket prices are $15 for adults and $5 for children. The amount raised has also blossomed from $7,000 in 2006 to $38,000 in 2011.
Twenty volunteer commit- tee chairs oversee everything from raffles to refreshments. Sponsorship is a major undertaking and accounts for 40 percent of total proceeds, with giving levels ranging from "Reverence" ($100–$249) to "Grand Jeté" ($1,000 and up). Raffle and silent auction items are donated, as well as all production materials. "We have very low operating costs, because we beg, borrow and steal everything," laughs Friedman.
She is especially proud of the fact that 100 percent of money raised is donated to Friends of Dana-Farber, with half going toward breast cancer research and the other half toward ovar- ian cancer research. "There are other for-profit Nutcracker performances on Cape Cod, so when I call for coverage in the paper, they'll say, 'There are so many Nutcrackers,' and I tell them, 'Nothing like this one,'" she says.
Not surprisingly, the show has a highly emotional component, with storytelling by survivors and dancing by alumni, who return to lend their talents in lyrical numbers. As a new component added last year, audience members and dancers held signs dedicated to individuals they wished to honor. "Cancer is so prevalent and the kids involved are well-aware of what they're dancing for," says Friedman. "It's all about hope, love and inspiration." DT
Jen Jones Donatelli is based in Los Angeles.
Photos from top: top two by Misty Mathews, courtesy of Art with Heart; courtesy of Allison Nocerino; by Kathleen Cugini, courtesy of Dancing for a Cure