Without the glamour and security of metropolitan dance companies, local Santa Cruz dancers have struggled to find a home and voice in the city, operating independently and thriving on quiet ambition. Now, with a little creative collaboration, local dancers have created an empire, joining together to get the word out and help the spring season in Santa Cruz boast yet another unique aspect — a season of dancing.
This season begins with Abra Allen, a local community dancer with an eye for networking and creating opportunities. As Allen did more and more work in Santa Cruz, she began to notice not only the abundance of talented dance artists, but also the senseless categorization of local dance groups.
“We have somewhat of a segmented dance community here, from UCSC to independent dancers to Cabrillo students and even studio dancers,” Allen said. “People who have been dancing in Santa Cruz for 10 to 15 years were never coming into contact because they were in little subcultures. I wanted to bring the dance community together and help alleviate the segmentation that was going on.”
In response, Allen created SantaCruzDance.com, a Web site for dancers seeking publicity and a dance community. The site boasts Santa Cruz’s first official dance season, in which local and visiting performers will perform at various local venues.
The season kicked off in February with a performance and workshop by Scott Wells and Company from San Francisco. This headed off the winter/spring dance extravaganza, showcasing the works of nine different artists. The season will close on June 28 with a performance by a group of local aerial dancers. While this year marks the premiere of the organized season, many of the featured artists have been producing themselves for years.
“We all do this anyway, we’re all performing all the time,” said Karl Schaffer, whose show “Imaginary Numbers” will grace the season on May 15. “[The season] is just a way for us to be more organized and cooperative.
“The season is really an expression of what goes on in our dance community, an acknowledgement of the things we already do,” Schaffer continued. “It gives both the artists and the public a sense of community.”
Through this sense of community, dancers hope to widen the local dance spectra. Allen envisions that SantaCruzDance.com will double as a forum and spark conversations with the public.
“I would like the Web site to be a place where we can create a language around dance in Santa Cruz,” Allen said. “I think contemporary dance really lacks a language here. Not many people are aware of it, people don’t understand it, and my hope is that SantaCruzDance.com is going to create a space where conversations can be had. I think more people will seek contemporary dance if there is a better understanding of it.”
Allen expects these conversations to transform Santa Cruz into a base for the local dance scene.
“The dance community is thriving and well on its way to becoming more prosperous,” Allen said. “I want to build a community where there is a desire for dance, where dancers can make a living and where dance is highly supported.”
Cid Pearlman, a dancer based in Santa Cruz and an instructor at Cabrillo College who presented her show “Emotional Geographies” in March, believes that the season has been well represented in the community.
“I’ve noticed there’s a lot more interest from the press since Abra [Allen] ganged us up as a season,” Pearlman said. “There’s been something about dance [in local papers] almost every week. It has given us a single voice and I think it brings great visibility to dance in Santa Cruz.”
Having danced in Los Angeles and San Francisco prior to Santa Cruz, Pearlman was concerned about the availability of dance in the quaint beach town. So far, she’s felt no obligation to leave.
“Santa Cruz is an exciting place for dance. There really are wonderful, creative dancers here,” Pearlman said. “While we don’t have access to funds, we have access to each other. In a town this small, you really have to figure out ways in which we can all support one another.”
Lisa Christensen agrees that collaboration has been the name of the game, as many artists have assisted one another with funding, show openings and other various forms of support. Christensen’s group of aerial dancers will close the current season with “Red Wine and Frivolous Things.”
“It’s a close-knit community and there’s a lot of support for our work,” Christensen said. “I hope we can have another season. So far I’ve seen really incredible performances, very provocative and well-attended, which I’m happy to say.”
National Dance Week
Along with the stream of artists decorating the Santa Cruz dance scene, Allen is also using SantaCruzDance.com to produce and promote National Dance Week, an event celebrated in Santa Cruz for the past 15 years. A prominent part of this year’s celebration will include open dance classes free to the public, collaborations with local artists and galleries, and spontaneous performances in restaurants, bookstores, sidewalks and other unlikely places.
A nationwide event established in 1981, National Dance Week was created to recognize and foster appreciation for dance across the country. Although Santa Cruz has acknowledged and participated in the holiday for the past 15 years, Allen has a fresh and ambitious outlook for this year’s celebration.
“My goal this year is to make National Dance Week Santa Cruz its own nonprofit, so it’s more sustainable in the future,” Allen said. “We’re hoping to be working with public arts in the future, especially since this is such a community-oriented event.”
For Allen, National Dance Week lends itself to a diverse program, including Balinese, Brazilian, aerial, contemporary and various other dance styles.
“National Dance Week will have a huge range of movement this year,” Allen said. “For its size, Santa Cruz has as much diversity in movement as any metropolitan area. We have a lot of specific groups who are really big here.”
This aspect of the event reflects many values locals have about dance in Santa Cruz. Tandy Beal, an instructor at UC Santa Cruz who has been involved with the local dance scene since the school’s opening, is especially appreciative of the community’s diversity in dance.
“The dance community here in Santa Cruz is small, but there’s an enormous focus on world dance,” Beal said. “It’s one of Santa Cruz’s great gifts — you can take a salsa class, a tango class, or an African dance class any day of the week. It’s really wonderful.”
For Marcea Marquis, whose Brazilian dance classes will be performing on the streets of downtown, the openness gives dance in Santa Cruz a unique flavor.
“There’s a lot of freedom of expression in Santa Cruz,” Marquis said. “That’s why people come here. I think that transfers very well into the art we create here.”
Marquis said that National Dance Week’s intimate relationship with the outside community is also a vital part of making dance palatable for everyone.
“I think bringing dance out into the community really educates the public,” Marquis said. “It encourages people to get involved with things they might not have normally. National Dance Week is a perfect opportunity to collaborate and create a visual for the public. It’s going to be fabulous.”
Random with a Purpose
While the city’s dancers work to create a solid community with SantaCruzDance.com and National Dance Week, UCSC dancers have also caught the collaborative vibe. As Santa Cruz remains one of the few UCs without a specific dance department, many of the university’s best movers and shakers feel the school’s support for dance education leaves something to be desired. However, for the past 17 years, these rootless dancers have collaborated to create “Random with a Purpose,” a student-produced dance show and saving grace for the restless dancing Slug.
Fondly referred to as “Random,” the annual show is put on by UCSC’s theater arts department and will conveniently nestle in with National Dance Week. The directors of Random plan to present select pieces in the festivities downtown, hoping to create a bridge between the city and the university.
“Our vision from the beginning, besides creating a great show, was to bring dance on campus out into the community,” said first-year Charlie Nelson, one of Random’s three student directors.
“We want to start networking so that people in Random know about all the dance opportunities in Santa Cruz,” Nelson said. “We also want people in the community to know about what the students are doing here.”
In past years, Random has sold out night after night and generated a contagious buzz among campus dance buffs. Nelson said that the enthusiasm of past audiences highlights a void in UCSC’s recognition of the arts.
“I think the show is so well-known because people want more dance,” Nelson said. “I think it gets that attention because it’s the only thing of its kind that’s done every year and that there should be more.”
Dancers with Random have found strength through collaboration and sheer numbers, with a production of 22 dance pieces and a cast 96 strong. Second-year Kaylie Caires, another Random director, hopes the show will help gain visibility for dancers on campus.
“In this theater department, dance is not recognized as much as other forms of theater, so having something collaborative like Random really brings that awareness,” Caires said. “It shows that there really is a large group of dancers here.”
Natasha Dadour, a fourth-year health sciences major and proud Random cast member for the past three years, is considering spending a fifth year at UCSC for the chance to perform in the show one last time. Dadour said that the lack of an organized dance department, although unfortunate, has led dedicated dancers down a common path.
“When you’re placed somewhere like Santa Cruz, where there is no [official] dance community, we just attract each other like magnets,” Dadour said. “We support each other, we encourage each other, and that’s how we become better. Every year I’ve gotten something out of Random. It’s one of the highlights of my college career.”
Students like Dadour are happy to see that they are not alone in their commitment to art. While arts funding still remains somewhat amiss, it seems that dancers across Santa Cruz will continue to pop up like daisies this spring. For dance instructor Tandy Beal, this is as good a time as any.
“This really is a fabulous time for dancers across the university and the community to celebrate dance together,” she said. “It’s going to be wonderful.”