Dance umbrella seeks rainmaker

“I miss the hyperactivity of Dance Month,” S. T. Shimi said over coffee at Lazarus café near the end of May — whose 31 days have been dedicated to music-based movement since 1999.

Jump-Start Performance Company Artistic Director and performance artist S.T. Shimi has been a fixture in the dance community since the mid-’90s, when she was a belly dancer with Karavan Dance Company. Now she’s a part of Works-in-Progress, a monthly performance workshop, which began as a Dance Month headliner. If Shimi’s unhappy, is anyone in the dance community happy?

If Dance Month 2008 was missing the hooplah that surrounds, say, Contemporary Arts Month, some community members blame the San Antonio Dance Umbrella. As its name implies, SADU serves as an umbrella for more than 150 small, independent dance companies, studios, and members. SADU founded Dance Month as a means to expand San Antonio’s exposure to dance. The event consists of dance recitals, workshops, and special performances. This year the calendar was still full, but gone were dance events held at public libraries.

Although SADU wasn’t directly involved in organizing annual events like Dance Around the World, SADU Executive Director Bill Lewis says that this year the organization helped with W-I-P Crème, Anna Sokolow’s Frida performance, and also had a few board members involved with various dance events.

“I think it’s probably an inadvertent tribute to the efforts of the Dance Umbrella that there’s so much activity going on beyond the Dance Umbrella — we don’t have to do it because it’s being done. But that doesn’t excuse us,” Lewis said. “While `SADU` may not be doing stuff we’ve done historically, a lot of people are doing a lot of things.”

A full slate of dance activities isn’t the point, Shimi says. She misses the early days, when San Antonio Dance Month felt like a community rather than each dance company fending for itself. She reminisced about the beginnings of Dance Around the World, which featured a sampling of dance from different countries, with many SADU-supported dance companies heavily involved in the event.

“SADU really needs to take a step back and evaulate the way the organization performs,” said Office of Cultural Affairs Director Felix Padrón. “In my opinion, SADU is not one of the strongest components in the creative community.” He acknowledges that it’s a “unique service organization that represents an entire discipline,” but he also knows its shortcomings: SADU needs to increase its membership, diversify its funding portfolio, and seek grants.

Padrón says he understands that the past few months have been rough for the organization. SADU suffered a series of sudden personnel changes following Executive Director Suzanne Dunmire’s departure in April 2007 after just two years. Over the course of the next few months, two executive directors and one development director quit. That much turnover in such a short period of time “creates a leadership void for the discipline,” said Padrón. Finally, last October, former Carver Executive Director Bill Lewis stepped into the executive director position, a development that could turn the organization around, Padrón says — with adaquate resources, of course.

According to Padrón, the reason for the personnel changes is an inadequate salary: SADU doesn’t have the budget to support a director. The executive-director position requires more hours than a normal 9-to-5 position and the salary is minimal. The multitude of responsibilities ahead of Lewis entail keeping up with dozens of dance companies, planning Dance at Radius (a monthly series of free concerts), and improving the after-school dance program.

SADU is a membership organization supported by dues, but also by funds from the
Office of Cultural Affairs, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and grants from private donors like the Zachry Corporation. Lewis declined to discuss SADU’s budget in detail, but according to Padrón, SADU received $18,315 in operational support from the city in 2007 and 2008. On top of that, SADU was awarded a stabilization grant of $15,600 primarily to support the development-director position. Lewis said that his job and the development director’s are contract positions, with his salary coming out of the $18,315.

“We’re in a process of revamping the membership and trying to strengthen that part of the organization, because that’s going to lead us into the future,” Lewis said. “We’re growing, too. We have a bigger budget going into next year than we had coming out of this year, and it was bigger this year than it was last year.”

Lewis added that the organization is now eligible for support from theFund, a cultural-capital program that, like United Way, solicits private donations through the workplace. To apply for funding, an organization has to have an operating budget of at least $100,000. SADU is eligible, but according to theFund President and CEO Rod Rubbo, the program is not accepting new funding applications until theFund receives more financial support from donors.

Shimi says that in the last two years she has seen a resurgence in the local dance community, which could mean that if SADU can get through this tough period, its brightest days are ahead. “It’s not that certain types of dances died in SA — everything old is new again.” She cites the Texas Folklife Festival and other essential San Antonio events. “We are a dancing-fool city,” Shimi said, evidenced by the popularity of W-I-P. She says that the monthly event is in a “good place” at the moment and they’ve already booked performers for next year.

SADU webmaster and freelance choreographer Kristina Kuest Mistry, who sends out the weekly email blast “SA in Motion,” believes the changes could be beneficial for the organization. “I think that the dance community is starting a new renaissance,” Mistry said via email. “By reaching out to the community, I think we are starting to build an appreciative audience.”

Lewis’s goals for SADU include developing the programs with the broadest appeal, such as SADU’s educational program, and involving younger kids. “We would really like to continue to impact and shape what we’re calling the ecology of dance in San Antonio — the shape, the nature, the texture of dance in San Antonio,” Lewis said. Although local dance is gaining more attention, it still hasn’t achieved the public profile of the visual arts, or even theater, in the city.

SADU isn’t a producing organization, notes Lewis and he’s not interested in producing shows, but he is interested in sponsoring extended visits from touring groups and sponsoring events on unexpected stages. “I’d love to see people have dance experiences in places like H-E-B and the bank,” Lewis said. “Y’know, you go to the bank and suddenly someone breaks out in dance.

“What I’d like to see is our life in the community infused with dance just as it’s infused with the visual arts.”

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