The Evolution of the Connecticut Dance Alliance, 1999 – 2017
By Jill Henderson
In 1999, under the auspices of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, the state’s dance community joined together in a series of think tank sessions to examine the needs of its community. The result was the creation of the CONNECTICUT DANCE ALLIANCE, a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization incorporated for the purpose of organizing and strengthening the Connecticut dance community, building audiences, and increasing the awareness and presence of dance in the state.
From the outset, the premise has been that if the dance community engages in dialogue and shares its strengths, resources and heartfelt commitments to this most energetic and dynamic of art forms, it will continue to grow and flourish. Through a statewide membership, the combined energy and activism of the participating dancers, educators, choreographers, directors and presenters served to reinvigorate and strengthen awareness and support for dance throughout the state.
CDA’s Board of Directors has always comprised the leadership of Connecticut’s major companies, dance academies, college dance departments, dance presenters, non-professional troupes, and independent teachers and choreographers. The first President was Brett Raphael, 1999-2009, who shepherded the organization through its first decade, followed by Jill Henderson, 2009-12, and then Robert Reader, 2012-2014, Barbara Ally, 2014-2019 and our current President, Susan Murphy.
In addition to building the statewide membership base for the organization, the Alliance Board originally identified a statewide festival for all interested professional and non-professional Connecticut dance companies and ensembles, as a major priority for 2000-2001. In October 2000, with the help of a $10,000 Strategic Initiatives Grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, the Alliance presented its first festival. Entitled Connecticut Dance Alive! it was co-sponsored by Connecticut College and the Garde Arts Center in New London. Over thirty-five dance companies, schools, and independent choreographers were showcased along with master classes and panel discussions open to members of the dance field and the general public. At the same event, vendors and presenters from around New England participated in a Dance Mart to publicize programs and products relevant to the dance community. An opening dinner featured guest speakers John Ostrout, Executive Director of the Commission on Culture and Tourism and Samuel Miller, Executive Director of New England Foundation for the Arts. Lifetime achievement awards were presented to Ernestine Stodelle, Martha Myers, and Jennifer Tipton for their pioneering work in dance both in-state and nationally. Chris Arnott, Managing Editor of New Haven Advocate, had this to say about the event:
Technically, this was a superior festival event. CDA proved a lot, from believing such a widespread event could happen to actually making it happen and having an audience there to prove it happened. All this networking and gawking among dance companies can only help further the diversity of themes and styles, but, as we were shown over and over for hours, there’s already enough variety and talent in current Connecticut dance to sustain days, weeks, months, years of more CDA festivals*.
The success of the Festival and the organization’s membership drive led to the holding of a second statewide festival in April 2003, at the Bushnell’s Belding Theatre and the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. In addition to numerous master classes, workshops, and showcase performances, the Festival featured a commissioned work by eight Connecticut choreographers, Geographical Preludes, set to original music by Connecticut composer, Neely Bruce.
Subsequent to the establishment of the organization, a statewide print publication entitled Dance Alive! was created to inform all members of our community and the general public of important events and issues and serve as a clearinghouse for resources and job openings. This was replaced by the CDA website; an electronic newsletter, “Newslinks” (established in 2008); and now a monthly email blast, Facebook page, and Twitter, allow CDA to reach a wide on-line audience.
Throughout the years of our existence, CDA has created and presented numerous events, networking meetings and performance opportunities. Several events became firm annual favorites such as the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Dance ––a day celebrating the African American dance tradition and held in Hartford and New Haven alternately; the Dance Educators’ Forum, a one-day workshop exploring differing issues of dance pedagogy (now replaced by the Dance Educators Network); and the CDA Awards event designed to acknowledge distinguished achievement in the field featuring a showcase performance and networking reception. Over the years, Distinguished Achievement in Dance Awards have been presented to the following dance heroes:
- 2000 Martha Myers, Ernestine Stodelle, Jennifer Tipton
- 2001 June Kennedy, Enid Lynn, Mariam McGlone
- 2003 Lee Lund, Betsy Mahaffey, Pilobolus Dance Theatre
- 2005 Pamela Tatge and Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts
- 2006 Sharon Dante, Judy Dworin
- 2007 Susan Matheke, Kim Stroud
- 2008 Noble Barker, Cheryl Smith
- 2009 Kathy Borteck Gersten, Olivia Sabulao Ilano-Davis, Catherine Fellows
- 2010 Barbara E. Feldman, Dee Dee Handy-Morris, Dorothy Silverherz
- 2011 Connecticut Ballet, The Ted Hershey Dance and Music Marathon Michael Uthoff
- 2012 Carol Autorino Center for the Arts, Saint Joseph University; Deborah Goffe, Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts
- 2013 Linda Burns, Brad Roth, Elena Rusnak
- 2014 David Dorfman, Tracy Dorman, Thomas Giroir
In 2011, CDA founded and developed a very successful summer scholarship annual competition, the “Connecticut Classic”, a competition for pre-professional classical ballet students. The judges were always prestigious individuals in the national and international ballet world and each year many summer scholarships were offered to acclaimed schools on the East Coast and across the country, plus several cash prizes. The event took place at Westover School, Middlebury, for the first three years and then, as it grew in size, moved to the Warner Theatre, Torrington in 2014. The weekend event took place over two days and comprised a day of master classes on the Saturday, with the judges teaching, and the junior and senior competitions on the Sunday. Additionally, Healthy Dancer seminars and panels on Planning a College Career designed for students, parents, and teachers were presented.
The Connecticut Classic was created by CDA in order to reach out to the ballet studios in the state, and owing to its overwhelming success and growth, in 2015, the competition became an independent organization that will move the event into the next phase of its development. In the four years it was under the auspices of CDA, the number of participants had doubled, and the CDA board felt it was time to let the Connecticut Classic move on and to focus its attention on other statewide goals for dance and dance education.
Another way in which CDA has endeavored to contribute to the Dance Community is through student scholarships. Sometimes these have been donated in memory of much-loved dancer or teacher. The most recent, the Elena Delvecchio Rusnak Dance Education Scholarship is in memory of Elena Rusnak, a dedicated and passionate dance educator and an important member of the CDA Board of Directors. Before she passed in 2014, she offered to give an annual scholarship to a student embarking on higher education with a dream of becoming a dance educator. The first two awardees have been Emily Aubrey of the Hartt School Dance Division, University of Hartford(2015), and Jade Johnson, a dance major at Naugatuck Valley Community College(2016).
CDA’s current project, The Dance History Project, has been one of its primary endeavors since 2014. This ambitious statewide project was created in partnership with the Connecticut Historical Society and with funding from the Connecticut Humanities Council and the Edward C. and Ann T. Roberts Foundation. A Connecticut dance history of this kind has never been attempted before and with its innovative, crowd-sourcing process, it could prove to be a nationally recognized initiative. Through grass roots networking, the project endeavors to capture and share, through the art of photography and scholarly writing, a cultural and historical documentation of the rich and vibrant dance heritage in our state.
The project has an ever-growing collection of images on the project’s open Flickr site and currently has 2,000 images (https://www.flickr.com/groups/2734781@N25/).
The collection in no way represents a comprehensive or chronological history of dance in Connecticut; rather, it is a collection of snapshots and portraits of Connecticut’s dance culture and history as represented by 2,000 photos. In addition, the project’s team has gathered a compendium of 75 essays, articles, and memories representing diverse dance stories that are truly unique, each one a Connecticut original.
The culmination of the project is the creation of a touring exhibition entitled “Connecticut Dances”. This exhibition is curated, designed, and produced utilizing the on-line photographic collection of images and includes selections from the project’s compendium of contributed written material. The goal of the Dance History project’s touring exhibition is to bring to life the valuable part dance has played in the cultural vitality of Connecticut. The content of the exhibit represents a thematically and historically organized portrait of Connecticut’s significant dance heritage, representing a wide variety of dance forms, important historical dance events, the work of individual dancers, choreographers, companies, and the impact of schools and teachers on the field of dance. The exhibition opens in Hartford at the Connecticut Historical Society on Thursday, January 19, 2017 (snowdate: Thursday, January 26), and then will be toured around the state as an educational resource at major dance events, performances, conferences, festivals, schools and various other community sites, including libraries and museums.
In addition to the Dance History project, other initiatives of CDA include the further development of regional network consortiums to increase communication, partnerships, and opportunities for Connecticut’s dance community; dance education programs; and a statewide Newslinks project.