When I was 5 years-old, my mother took my twin sister and me to see the Bolshoi Ballet at McCormick Place in Chicago. I am positive we were the only African Americans in attendance that day, but somehow our mom was forward-thinking and felt her girls needed both the exposure and the experience. Even today, I still recall being pulled in by the dancers; transported to their world; enamored by the staging; in love with the movement, and enthralled by the costumes. It was at that tender age that my life path was mapped out for me—a passionate lover and promoter of the arts was born.
Although I initially set my sights on a career as a dancer, my life changed dramatically after joining the front office of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I had the incredible fortune of working for nine years alongside DTH founder and its former Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, a premier dancer in his own right,was the first African-American male dancer with the New York City Ballet.
DTH was comprised of incredibly talented and beautiful dancers whose grace, agility and talent earned them world renown. My job was building bridges with the African-American community, and engaging and cultivating audiences to attend the performances around the country. In each tour city, I formed a national Audience Development Task Force, a coalition of dance lovers and those new to dance, and we were able to engage the community in unprecedented ways. We also increased the company’s revenue by close to 45-percent.
While my Audience Development consultancy includes many areas of the arts, my passion for dance has never waned. Over the decades since that first encounter with the Bolshoi Ballet, my love of dance has grown to include modern, contemporary, folk, African, Flamenco, hip hop, tap and jazz. I also have had the honor and privilege of providing marketing and audience development services to a diverse array of companies, including:
- Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
- Ballet Hispanico
- Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
- Chez Bushwick
- Dallas Black Dance Theatre
- Dance Theatre of Harlem
- Dances for a Variable Population
- Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
- Gabrielle Lansner Dance Company
- Martha Graham Contemporary Dance Company
- New Dance Alliance
- Otis Sallid
- Sampradaya Dance Creations
Why dance? Martha Graham once explained it this way: “I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living…art is eternal, for it reveals the inner landscape, which is the soul of (humankind).”
When I first started working at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), choreographer Randy James said to me, “Donna, you have to make this place a home for dance.” I really thought about this and my first step was to create a Celebrate Dance Advisory Committee. This robust, active and fun group of local dancers, choreographers, and artistic directors became an incredible resource for cultivating dance audiences at NJPAC. Their mission remains advising, engaging and promoting. Building upon a solid foundation already established prior to my arrival at NJPAC, together we have developed several initiatives. Our initiatives have increased both the diversity and number of attendees for performances at NJPAC by local, New Jersey-based dance companies, as well as for the larger companies, such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Dance Theater of Harlem and the State Ballet Company of Russia. In addition, we have developed a series called “In Your Community,” which offers free dance workshops at dance studios in communities throughout the Newark area and suburban towns, led by local choreographers.
Last month, we had a new experience in conjunction with Barnes and Noble and Whole Foods, our newest neighbors in downtown Newark. We worked with both stores to promote the annual Alvin Ailey Mothers’ Day weekend. Another NJPAC community outreach program is Books on the Move, which was launched three years ago, in partnership with local libraries, to provide a reading program about multicultural, artistic figures. The children, grades 1 to 5 have read several books, including stories about Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz and Alvin Ailey. The program will soon expand to 30 libraries, and the children will all be reading Misty Copeland’s book, Firebird.
For the past two years, I also have had the pleasure of working with Dance USA on their Engaging Dance Audiences Initiative. This program, with funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, provides a choice of technical assistance consultants to approved grantees from the dance community. Last year, I partnered with Toni Hendrix of The Hendrix Group, and we worked with seven dance organizations from around the country to help them create an audience development initiative.This experience reinforced what I held to be true—that there is a dedicated commitment to diversity and inclusion within the dance community, irrespective of the genre of dance or the ethnicity of the principals of the dance company. This project will continue for a third year, and I look forward to assisting these dance troupes with their plans to expand their audience demographics.
I am so appreciative of the interest and fortitude of our dancemakers who are working to ensure that dance audiences grow into the future, attracting young and old, multicultural lovers of dance. It’s incredibly enriching to continue to explore with them how best to ignite the passions of diverse audiences through exposure to dance, as well as to other art forms.