Dancing to Make a Difference

November 28, 2001

For our Whole Dancer Issue, Pointe looked at how dancers nurture who they are both inside and outside the studio. We found that dancers in companies all over the country spend much of their time off supporting worthy causes in their communities. In addition to giving themselves to audiences night after night, giving their time to those less fortunate adds an extra dimension to their own lives. And as dancers, they have something especially inspiring to share with others: their art.

The Tough Get Going

Three years ago, Jenna McClintock, then dancing for Richmond Ballet, came across an ad for a juvenile detention center that was seeking volunteer art and music teachers.

“I remember calling them and thinking to myself, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ ” she says. “I didn’t even have a program devised. I just told them I was a dancer and would love to help if they had any room for a dance teacher. They said yes!”

When McClintock showed up at the Bon Air Juvenile Correction Center for her first session with some of its teenage girls, she says, “It was scary. They all just stared at me like, ‘Who the hell is this woman? Ballet?’”

But, having lived through some difficult times during her own adolescence, McClintock felt that she could relate to her students. “I too came from not the best place and was always getting into trouble,” she says. “I wanted to give them something to do besides staying in their rec room all day.”

She taught a series of workshops to varied groups of five to eight girls who had demonstrated sufficient good behavior to be allowed to take class. She found that once she got going, the tough vibe changed. “As soon as we started stretching or learning movement,” says McClintock, “all of a sudden they turned into little girls and the daggers in their eyes disappeared.”

McClintock, who now lives in California and dances for Oakland Ballet and Diablo Ballet, says the work she did at Bon Air deepened her view of what dance can do. “I’d always wonder, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But when I’d leave, my heart would just feel so expansive.” By sharing the difference dance made in her own life, she realized, “You don’t have to just be a dancer in a tutu looking like a piece of candy on stage; you can actually help lives. As grandiose as that sounds, that’s kind of what ballet did for me.”

Dance For Life

In addition to offstage service, many dancers find that giving their time onstage can make their artistry more meaningful. Every year in Chicago, an organization called Dance for Life presents a one-night concert of dance by Chicago-based companies such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Chicago Dance Company and the Joffrey Ballet. Proceeds from the performance, which can amount to several hundred thousand dollars, benefit local charities such as the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Participation is entirely voluntary.

Stacy Joy Keller, a 10-year veteran of The Joffrey Ballet, has taken part in Dance for Life for several years. “It’s something that I really love to do because I can give back with my artistry,” she says. “It’s a different emotion when you’re dancing for a cause.”

Part of what she enjoys about Dance for Life is working alongside Chicago dancers outside the Joffrey. “It’s always so inspirational because of the other companies that come; the energy is amazing. We all stand backstage and watch each other. Performing with these talented people is one of the most rewarding experiences a dancer can have.”

And it’s not just the dancers and the charities who benefit; the audience gets a kick out it as well. Says Keller, “They really enjoy everything that you do. As soon as you step on stage, they go crazy, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I haven’t really done anything yet!’ We’re all here for one reason and that’s pretty uplifting.”

Shut Up & Dance

Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Jonathan Stiles understands that vibrant connection between audience and performers when all contribute to a common cause. This year will be his second as producing director of Shut Up & Dance, an annual concert staged by the PB dancers to benefit MANNA, a Philadelphia-based organization that helps provide food for people with life-threatening illnesses. Shut Up & Dance, now in its 17th year, began as a show at a night club that made $1,200; last year’s performance at the Forrest Theatre brought in $130,000. The concert is choreographed, produced and performed entirely by PB dancers volunteering their time.

“For a lot of dancers in the company, it’s one of the highlights of their year because our audience is so appreciative and enthusiastic. There’s always an electric atmosphere at the theater,” says Stiles. He has been participating in the event in one way or another (as a dancer, choreographer, videographer and now production director) since he joined PB in1999.

“What has kept this event going all these years  is the dancers’ sense of ownership,” he says. “This is the one time that dancers get to choose what we want to dance in, and what we want to choreograph.”

For Stiles, many rewards come with Shut Up & Dance. “Anyone who is fortunate enough to be a professional dancer goes through some frustrating times in their job. It’s great to see dancers at the end of the day volunteering their time, having fun and goofing around, as well as putting together these really great pieces.”

Does he think dancers are inherently generous, despite their relative poverty? “I think,” says Stiles, “if your goal in life was a lot of financial gain, you wouldn’t be a dancer in the first place. Ballet attracts people who have other goals and desires.”

But he points out that PB dancers do reap real benefits from participating in Shut Up & Dance. Those who choreograph get their work seen. And those who perform get that jolt of audience appreciation. “At the end, the performers come out on stage and the lights go up in the house and everyone usually stands up and cheers for several minutes. It’s not just altruistic. We get that immediate gratification from the audience reaction.” 

In giving back, all of these dancers found a sense of themselves beyond their ballet company lives. Says Keller, “I feel like in performance you give a little part of yourself to the audience, and in real life, dancers would do that for just about anyone. I think it is a common personality trait in dancers.”

Perhaps it’s this foundation on which the dancers’ commitment to service—whether on stage or off—is built. After all, “Anytime you put on a show, especially when it’s on dancers’ free time, there are stressful moments when people feel like they’ve taken on too much,” says Stiles. “But when the curtain goes down, most everybody feels it was worthwhile, and they’d do it again.”

McClintock agrees. “I was actually given a hard time for volunteering by some of my friends,” she says. “They’d say, ‘You don’t have time for this, you’re not getting paid any money.’ But that’s the whole point; I’m not doing this as a job. I want to be there, and that makes it a completely different story.”

Lea Marshall writes about dance and directs Ground Zero Dance Company in Virginia.