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The Philanthropy Dance – advice on creating and funding dance company programs in the school

by Jasmine Rios
October 17, 2011
Most if not all non-profit dance companies are well-versed in educational outreach program development. To that end, it's fair to say a majority of dance companies are familiar with the philanthropy dance — a metaphor of sorts, describing the process which dance organizations pursue grant support for their outreach programs. Often challenging, the footwork in this production/tap dance must capture, impress, and sustain the interest of a highly selective philanthropic audience.

During this performance, both artists and dance company administrators are in the spotlight. In the first act, each step is pivotal to the next; the program concept/choreography should be unique and executed seamlessly. Act II can be a rather slow dance — the lengthy period dance companies must wait before they learn whether their story has a happy ending (a grant acquisition) or a not so happy ending (a decline letter).

Naturally dance companies wonder how grant makers decipher between the hundreds and thousands of grant applications they receive. Unless a key question is asked, the answer will remain a mystery. The question — What makes a strong educational outreach program?

Common educational outreach programs of dance organizations include in-school performances/assemblies and free/discounted theatre performances. In many cases, these programs are the extent of some dance company outreach repertoires. Programs as these represent excellent vehicles for making live performance more accessible for young audiences and are ideal methods of stimulating intrigue within the art form. Sadly though, fewer grant makers are now funding these programs. Because these performance-based programs represent the cornerstone of most outreach program repertoires, a large number of dance companies have yet to fully embrace the harsh reality that funding toward these programs is diminishing.

One expert, Craig Watson, Director of the California Arts Council in Sacramento provides some valuable insight: "Many grant programs emphasize funding to help those in the greatest need in our society, but there are much deeper issues at play that involve the entire educational sector that needs to be examined here."

Budget cuts in education have been escalating for decades; each year becoming more serious than the previous. With such drastic cuts in the classroom, in the arts, physical education, and extra-curricular activities, it's no wonder more grant makers are modifying their support program focus.

Watson continues, "There's been a gradual move away from the performance model for the performing arts and more towards a goal of active participation for the students. When the arts are cut from our schools, the children lack a sequential, standards-based program – and a touring company presenting one or two performances per child may only have a limited impact in these situations. Our own Artists in Schools grant program at the Arts Council requires professional teaching artists to work with students on a deep, ongoing level and do not currently provide funding for assembly-style performances at this time."

Also sharing his expertise on educational outreach is Lane Harwell, Director of Dance USA in New York City. He shares, "The future of dance (makers and audiences) requires a robust and fluid approach to dance education. Dance companies that diversify their efforts, and also those that think across sector and discipline, may both broaden reach and impact and attract new income sources. The possibilities for dance and its role in society are endless. New programs that serve unique constituencies or clearly meet alternative educational goals, can create new ways for expanding the reach and impact of dance and attracting new support. Dance makers should think big and out of the box as they develop educational programs."

Some dance companies in cities such as Seattle, Denver, and Dayton have created unique outreach programs that target specific populations such as incarcerated teens, children with multiple physical disabilities, women recovering from breast cancer, homeless citizens, and geographically isolated and financially restricted communities. Because these dance companies target such specific populations in need and they have designed programs where the impact and results are measurable, grant makers have been enamored with these programs.

Concerned about the elimination of arts and physical education programs in Chicago schools, artistic director Nan Giordano of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago (GJDC) shares how her company developed an outreach program that satisfies grant maker goals while also making a difference in their community. "We knew we wanted to expand the outreach program and include health and science. The students receive dance instruction from company dancers and our administrators teach basic anatomy, nutrition, and injury prevention. They're also taught how to take a pulse."

GJDC's Health & Science outreach program was created by former development program administrator Tom Camacco. With the advice of a 7th grade Chicago school teacher, it was decided that the program would be most suited for 4th and 7th graders — when science is more heavily introduced into the curriculum. Since the program's inception — five years ago, GJDC has received generous annual support from multiple philanthropic sources.

Currently, GJDC has an ongoing partnership with two schools: Swift and Pierce Elementary Schools in Chicago's Edgewater district. More recently, GJDC has taken their Health & Science outreach program to Stagg Elementary school in the Englewood district. "We have some angels involved," says Giordano. "No one goes into the Englewood area. It's very challenging, but we're passionate about serving these students. We send two teachers to Stagg and work with their 3rd and 6th graders since we had to tone down the program for them. There's a very under-served body of students where a large population doesn't speak English."

GJDC is proud to offer a variety of outreach programs; one of which includes the student performance program model. Giordano advocates the importance of student performance programs; at the same time she feels: "Any company can give away tickets …. Our Health & Science program is so much more….. We've really put ourselves out there. It's who we are. "

Committed to furthering the success of the Health & Science outreach program, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago is producing a video to capture the program in action.

Final thoughts from Director Craig Watson of the CAC: "All arts non-profits need to keep in touch with how schools are changing for their educational outreach programs. The traditional student matinee performance and in-school assembly model may not be within many schools' reach these days, or an ideal program for schools and students. The dynamic of the school day has changed – a situation that has affected arts education across the board, not just visiting arts groups….. Another key component is the lack of in-school, daily dance education. According to 'An Unfinished Canvas,' an analysis from the Irvine Foundation in 2007, the percentage of schools providing daily, standards-based dance education in middle school and high school is in the single digits. Some exposure to the arts is available in K-6 grades, but only about a third of schools have dance, according to the report. Performances from professional companies are primarily utilized to enhance and complement an ongoing program in the schools. But if there are no ongoing programs, there's no base of study for the performances to enhance. It doesn't help that dance education rates are the lowest of the four disciplines (music, theater, dance, visual arts), as a school with music or theater classes is more likely to bring in professional music groups or theater companies than dance – if they bring in a performing arts company at all. These are circumstances we would like to see change, but it will take a sustained effort by several stakeholders to reverse these trends."

Closing thoughts from Lane Harwell of Dance USA: "Proceed with caution in aligning mission, organizational capacity, constituent opportunity, and funder interest. Do what you can do and are good at… not every dance maker can or should create programs for incarcerated teens even when there may be resources to do so."

Philanthropic goals change with the times, just as dance does. But the philanthropy dance process does not change. Outreach program standards will remain high among philanthropists and competition for these grants will only increase. To survive and master the philanthropy dance is to design programs that speak directly to the philanthropic audience and the outreach program beneficiaries. By exploring ways to enhance existing outreach programs through adding a curriculum component and investing time in creating new programs that address relevant issues in today's educational system, the fruits of this labor will lead to many happy endings (grant acquisitions) and a much deserved standing ovation from that very hard to persuade philanthropic audience.

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California Arts Council

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago
Celebrating 50 years in 2013!
Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

Photo © & courtesy of Cheryl Mann

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

Photo © & courtesy of Cheryl Mann

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

Photo © & courtesy of Cheryl Mann

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

Photo © & courtesy of Cheryl Mann

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