Thursday, May 23, 2019

Interview with TU Dance

Good morning
"And the beat goes on................"

Note: This is the third in a series of interviews with Aroha Philanthropies Vitality Arts grantees delving into their launch, management and continuation of creative aging programs for seniors - this one a beautiful marriage of dance and writing.  

TU Dance: Founded in 2004 by Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands in Saint Paul, Minnesota, TU Dance is a leading voice for contemporary dance. The 10-member, professional company is acclaimed for its diverse and versatile artists, performing work that draws together modern dance, classical ballet, African-based and urban vernacular movements.  The TU Dance repertory features original work by Uri Sands, as well as renowned choreographers including Dwight Rhoden, Ron K. Brown, Kyle Abraham, Gioconda Barbuto, Katrin Hall, Gregory Dolbashian and Camille A. Brown. Through celebrated performances of the professional company and accessible dance education at TU Dance Center, TU Dance provides opportunities for everyone to experience the connective power of dance.

Project Description:

Our current project was working with Dancer/Poet Mary Moore Easter and dance/movement instructor Thern Anderson to present the workshop "Dancing Your Story" with Adults 55+.  Our partner organization was Episcopal Homes (A senior living complex down the street from us) who we did the first two workshops with onsite before moving the third workshop to our center.

Here is a sample of the class description and bios of the instructors:
Join Thern Anderson & Mary Easter in a workshop that combines dance and writing. Movement will be explored in concert with writing exercises to create a history or explore some aspect of your life, be it real or imagined.
Students will expand their range of motion through practicing set choreography and creating movement phrases, gaining knowledge of how the human body moves with the understanding that each body holds its own unique history. Students will hone their observation and listening skills to support fellow artists.

Thern Anderson is a dance educator with a wealth of experience teaching children, adults, professional dancers and community groups. Thern brings somatic movement principles and improvisational skills to her teaching of modern dance techniques. In teaching dance to beginning adults, her philosophy is that anyone can dance and find pleasure in movement. Classes include the study of body and spatial awareness, rhythm and phrasing, ensemble dancing, and injury prevention. Students learn through modern dance phrases as well as improvisational structures.

Mary Moore Easter’s first poetry collection, The Body of the World, is forthcoming from MadHat Press in 2018. The manuscript is also a finalist for the Prairie Schooner Bok Prize in 2017. A Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and Cave Canem Fellow, Easter is published in POETRY, The New York Times, Seattle Review, Water Stone, Calyx, Pluck!, Persimmon Tree, Fjord’s Review, The Little Patuxent Review and the 2015 anthology Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota. She holds a B.A. from Sarah Law- rence and an M.A. from Goddard. Born in Petersburg, Virginia to parents on the faculty of then-segregated Virginia State College, she was as immersed in their artistic and intellectual interests as she was in limitations segregation imposed on her black world. She re-rooted as faculty at Minnesota’s Carleton College where she was founder and director of the Dance Program.


Barry:  What made you want to pursue a vitality arts program for seniors?  Had you had previous experience with crafting programs specifically designed to appeal to seniors?

TU Dance:  This is our first time offering programs that were explicitly for adults 55+.  We offer adult modern and ballet classes and had received some feedback from some of the older participants that they would love a class geared towards them which made this opportunity with Aroha and Lifetime Arts a great match.

Barry:  Your project focused on elements within the dance discipline.  Can you elaborate?

TU Dance:  Our project highlighted the expertise of our two teaching artists and focused on joining their art mediums of dance and writing to give participants multiple ways to share their stories.  Thern  and Mary began each workshop session in a circle format. Participants created a warm-up based on their name on the first day that eventually became a phrase they danced together as a greeting to each other at the beginning of each class.  Participants explored the movement potential in their bodies by doing improv exercises and dancing set choreography that intersected with their writing assignments.  Through the 8-week workshop, dance phrases and short stories took shape in the forms of solos and trios.  All classes were accompanied by live piano.

Barry:  When you conceived the project, what obstacles and barriers did you identify, and was the reality of designing, then implementing, the project pretty much as expected, or were there elements that surprised you?

TU Dance:  One reason we decided to collaborate with Episcopal Homes was because we weren’t sure we would have a decent number of attendees initially. Both TU Dance and Episcopal Homes were excited about this opportunity and initially didn’t identify any immediate barriers.  However, we did offer the class at no cost to participants to eliminate any economic barriers present. We definitely had a learning curve in regards to how drastically the curriculum and structure would need to change for each population. We realized that the 8-week format, enrollment ideals and culminating event didn’t suit the needs of our seniors with challenging health conditions who needed more support from nurses and aids during the second workshop. We had a great experience, but greatly shifted the program to meet their needs. Afterwards we realized that  we had already worked with everyone at our partner site who was interested, and had been hearing from the general public that the class taking place at an assisted living center was discouraging to some who were not at that stage of their life.  We shifted gears and decided to move the 3rd workshop to TU Dance Center to serve a different population and had a wonderful turn out!

Barry:  Who did you target as participants in the project?  Was recruiting senior participants easy or difficult?  How did you deal with issues such as non-native speaker participants, diversity recruitment, dealing with transportation issues of the senior participants etc.

TU Dance:  Initially we targeted the residents of Episcopal Homes, a large senior living complex, along with those who were in our mailing and social media circle.  Recruiting for the same workshop at a partner site multiple times was difficult but we adjusted as I mentioned above.  We did not run into any non-native speakers and struggled with diversity issues.  Providing programming to people with a diverse cultural background is  very important to our organization’s mission yet this has been challenging with this age demographic.  We have realized that statistically, assisted living homes tend to be overwhelmingly middle class, white women.  Transportation issues with the partner site didn’t apply as most were residents and they could provide their shuttle for the final culminating event at our center.  Quite a few of our participants used local “metro mobility” services to arrive to class.

Barry:  In creating a budget for the project, what line items were included?  Were there expenses that were unanticipated?  Did you leverage additional funding from other sources?  What sources and how difficult was raising the additional funding?

TU Dance:  The dominant part of the budget included appropriate compensation for both teaching artists and the accompanist.  We did include a small line item for notebooks the participants could use for their writing exercises.  Due to the shifting nature of the curriculum, logistics of changing locations and collaborating with the partner organization and teaching artists, the project coordinator ended up spending more hours on this project than were budgeted.  We anticipate that it will require less time from the coordinator going forward after learning from these experiences. We did not require additional funding beyond that which was originally provided.

Barry:  Did you accurately identify the workload and time involved that management of the project ended up taking, and can you describe that workload and the time involved.  How did you develop your team to oversee the project?  What elements did you include?

TU Dance:  TU Dance’s Education and Outreach Coordinator was the project coordinator. We underestimated the time needed to coordinate all the activities related to this project. The project coordinator was involved --alongside with the teaching artists-- in adapting the curriculum and structure for each population we served. This was necessary in order to understand and learn from the experiences, helping us to adapt the offering in future programming. Furthermore, the project coordinator was in constant communication with Episcopal Homes personnel about marketing and logistics, then sharing relevant information with the teaching artists.  The project coordinator was also in charge of the culminating events which included invitations via social media and printed materials, as well as arranging for the space and introducing the teaching artists and providing the respective grant acknowledgement.

Barry:  What kinds of marketing did you employ in recruiting senior participants?

TU Dance:  Due to the collaborative nature of the first two workshops with Episcopal Homes, we approached recruitment and marketing with them to engage their residents. We posted information about each workshop on TU Dance’s website, created paid advertising through TU Dance’s Facebook page, posted flyers at Episcopal Homes and TU Dance Center along with a few other community locations, and sent email promotions using Constant Contact via TU Dance.

Barry:  The Aroha projects mandated inclusion of teaching artists to conduct the training for the senior participants.  How did you go about recruiting those teaching artists, or were they affiliated with your organization already?  Was there anything involved in their training and involvement for this program, that you didn’t anticipate at the outset?  Were there benefits to the teaching artists involvement that came as a bonus?

TU Dance:  Thern Anderson was already a teacher for our adult classes at The School at TU Dance Center. She has an extensive background teaching movement and dance to a vast variety of populations. She has a gentle approach to dance.  We know Mary Easter through her work in the community both as a dancer and writer, but we had not worked with her directly previously.  Thern and Mary happened to have danced together by chance a few decades earlier and were working on a performance project with a local choreographer last year.  I believe that because both teaching artists happened to also be dancers who were 55+ it helped build rapport with their students. TU Dance is proud to be able to provide both Thern and Mary with opportunities to continue to share with the community their expertise and passion.

Barry:  How did the collaboration with Episcopal Homes work?  How did it come about?   How critical was it to the success of the project?

TU Dance:  Episcopal Homes is a senior living complex less than a mile away from TU Dance Center.  It spans a few blocks and encompasses numerous living options including independent living to long-term nursing care. Due to our close proximity it felt natural to approach them as a partner.  It is also important to us as an organization to offer programming beyond the 4-walls of TU Dance Center in order to stay connected with our community.  Having a supportive partner actively recruiting participants and supporting the project was essential to the success of these workshops!

Barry:  What criteria did you use to determine if the project succeeded from the organization’s point of view?  How did you evaluate the project during its course and post completion?

TU Dance:  We administered surveys as part of the grant to document feedback but most importantly, it was apparent that the project was a success when we saw the confident, expressive dancers and writers present their work at the culminating events.

Barry:  What lessons did you learn from your experience with the project in the provision of services to seniors in the creative aging arena?  How will you apply what you’ve learned to the sustainability of offering new and additional projects to the senior community in the future?

TU Dance:  Location is important and can become inviting or limiting depending on the group of seniors you are targeting.  We are continuing to approach partner organizations for these workshops as well as incorporating it into the programming at TU Dance Center in order to expand the reach of these workshops.

Barry:  What were the overall pros and cons, logistically and otherwise, in designing, creating, and implementing the project?  What benefits were there to the organization - e.g., new volunteers, new support, new audience members, greater community involvement, media coverage, expanded organization image within the community etc.?

TU Dance:  Although cultivating relationships with partner organizations requires a time commitment, and includes more logistical issues, it is well worth the effort if your goal is to offer this program to multiple populations of adults in this age group.  Benefits included greater community involvement and realization of TU Dance’s mission to provide opportunities for everyone to experience the connective power of dance.

Barry:  Would you recommend that other arts organizations consider creating and launching their own creative aging vitality arts programs?  What are the major considerations arts organizations ought to consider before embarking on the launch of their own programs?  What are the specific considerations in your experience that dance organizations ought to consider in planning a creative aging vitality program?

TU Dance:  We would highly recommend other arts organizations consider launching their own creative aging vitality arts programs.  Consider who in this age group you would like to reach and pay special attention to making sure you are not limiting access by how you market or where you hold your workshops.  Finding the right teaching artist(s) is essential for the program to be successful.

Barry:  What advice would you give those organizations gleaned from your experience?

TU Dance:  Meet each group where they are and don’t be afraid to change plans!

Barry:  Do you intend to continue to offer these kinds of program to the senior community?  Why or why not?

TU Dance:  Yes!  We have received funding to continue this programming for the next year and plan to actively search for ways to sustain future workshops.

Participant 1 Observations:

Profile.  Female.  58 Years Old, currently on disability due to a chronic health condition, but still works occasionally part-time.  She previously worked developing community programming around urban farming.  She describes herself as very active, interested in nutrition, organic foods and farming, writing, outdoors, the Boundary Waters in northern MN, and teaching others to be more connected to nature and the food they eat.

In responding to why she decided to participate in the creative aging vitality arts program, she said:
'She was driven to enroll in this workshop to aid her healing from a chronic disease she was diagnosed with  5-6 years ago.  She was originally introduced to some dance elements in a yoga class.  After her yoga teacher recommending dance she attended one of our adult modern classes at TU Dance Center but found it too structured and difficult to participate while taking care of her health needs. She heard of this programming for adults 55+ and thought it might be a better fit.'

She rated the program very highly and said that it exceeded her expectations.  Benefits included sisterhood and profound healing.  “The Beauty of this class was that there was some freedom with how you move.” She believed this was critical for people dealing with chronic pain issues which is common in older adults.  The use of imagination and making connections through writing and movement along with the live music provided a safe space for people to move. She loved watching everyone unleash their inhibitions go into other creative realms and the ability of the teaching artists to coax them into that was highly skillful. Approaching stories from your life and from childhood and growing up and accessing it in ways other than our brains was profound.

Asked if she would continue to pursue the art form learned in the program?
She said: She would consider joining a class with other people like this if it  was fashioned in a similar way--  free to move how your body leads you and not in regimented ways.  Interest is very high but has to be a unique format.  She does not like the 8-week format. She would prefer an ongoing class without the performance aspect of the culminating event.  She disliked the class when the focus shifted to preparing for the culminating event even saying that it ruined it for her. She did not attend the culminating event.

Asked if, as a result of the program, she might become involved with the sponsoring organization in other ways - say as a volunteer, or audience member, or financial supporter or?
She said she had been to 8-10 TU Dance performances in the past and has always loved modern dance.  She will say that because she lives on disability and has low-income that paying for classes is challenging.  She shared a story of how her partner gave her some money for her birthday and she chose to donate $20 to a few organizations she supported, and TU Dance was one of them!  She also made a point to mention that as she ages and due to her experience with chronic health issues, daytime classes are better, as by the time evening comes she is too exhausted to attend a class.

Asked what advice would she give to other people who might be thinking of participating in this kind of program, she offered?
“I would say that it would be totally worth giving it a try!”  One of her friends showed up for this workshop and she said that “My people would be interested in this sort of thing.” She wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to people with chronic and disabling chronic illness especially for people who are trying not to re-injure."
Participant 2 Observations:

Profile.  Kelly is a 73 year old former Mental Health professional, now retired, male, interested in
music, exercise, workshops, and being around people.

Asked why he decided to participate in the creative aging vitality arts program?
"I was Intrigued with the title."

Had you participated in any arts program like this before?
"No.  But I love to dance.  I had written poems in the past.  I loved playing with Andrew, the piano player, and I liked Thern and Mary they were very good at encouraging us."

Did it meet - or exceed - your expectations?
"It exceeded my expectations!"

What were the benefits of participation?
"Letting go, getting in touch with being in my body, movement. We had lots of different people. People in wheelchairs, people that were brave, people dealing with difficult situations and we were all dancing."

Were there any negatives to participating?
"No. When they danced I was having an off time so then I just played my harmonica."

Will you continue to pursue the art form that you learned in the program?
He started to recite a poem he wrote in the workshop by memory: “My room is filled with pictures on the wall …….Pictures remind me I’m a part of the all.”

What advice would you give to other people who might be thinking of participating in this kind of program?
"I would say go. Bring your body and practice letting go."

Thanks to Kaitin Kelly Benedict and Abdo Sayegh Rodriguez at TU Dance, and to the participants.

More interviews in the Series in a week or so.

Have a good weekend.

Don't Quit