DC Dance Collective’s ’60s sensibility gives teachers freedom and students choices
By Jennifer Kaplan
Some people collect spoons, others, first-edition literary classics, or even Pez dispensers. Nancy Newell collects dance—of all genres—for her eclectic three-studio space in Northwest Washington, DC. With offerings that range from belly dance to Zumba, the three-story walkup is hopping and popping from 9:00 a.m. to midnight, or even later. Newell calls the 11-year-old operation DC Dance Collective (DCDC) because to her, an expert rhythm tapper, “that collective spirit is something I really like. I didn’t want [this place] to be ‘Miss Nancy’s School of Dance’; I’m a team player.”
While Newell says tap is her first love, she wants all dance genres to stand on equal footing at DCDC. A tap teacher for 47 years, as of last fall she was teaching an astonishing 32 classes a week at DCDC and various studios in metropolitan DC. So aside from the eclectic decor featuring cushy sofas, a magazine-strewn coffee table, batik throws, and cozy blankets that make the lobby feel more like a living room, DCDC is an anomaly among studios in the region for both its collective approach and its vast offerings.
The schedule features varying levels of break and belly dance, modern, flamenco, capoeira, salsa, hula, ballet, tap, jazz, and Zumba. Newell doesn’t oversee or create a curriculum for her instructors to follow. She’s adamant about allowing her teachers creativity and independence. If that means offering advanced jazz without a beginning jazz class, that’s OK. What DCDC may lack in depth, it makes up for in breadth, including a fall 2009 schedule of more than 70 classes a week.
While Newell directs the studio and a separate nonprofit corporation—DC Artists Collective, which runs workshops, performances, and classes—there’s a 1960s sensibility about the place that has turned many teachers, parents, and students into stakeholders, even true believers, in Newell’s mission. “I don’t want to be in a position where I have to make a judgment about somebody, what they teach, and their style of dance,” Newell says. She values all genres equally, and under her guidance DCDC has become known as one of the most supportive studios for the burgeoning hip-hop and street dance styles in the DC area.
Newell, with her coppery, cropped curls and collection of tap shoes that coordinate with her outfits, notes the kinship that tap, originally a vernacular dance, has with current street forms. And she’s proud of the range of hip-hoppers, b-boys and fly girls, breakers, poppers, and lockers who have found a home base at DCDC. Among them, Boogie Bots, which competed on season 2 of America’s Best Dance Crew, featured teachers from the DCDC family.
“I think it’s cool that this is a studio run by an older white woman who is a tap dancer and there is so much urban dance,” says Ashley Shey, 18, a hip-hop student who volunteers weekly at the front desk in exchange for classes. “I decided tap wasn’t for me when I was younger. Right now I’m interested in hip-hop, and right here are the biggest hip-hop groups in the area, so you can get exposed to so many different groups.”
Karen McLane has been teaching belly dance at the studio since it opened in 1999. Although she has had opportunities elsewhere, McLane, who goes by the name Najwah onstage, remains a popular teacher at DCDC, home base for her company, Ancient Rhythms. “The studio has a very warm, welcoming feel to it,” says McLane, an interior designer. “Nancy is a very generous, inclusive, appreciative person for all forms of dance. She instills a sense of camaraderie. And, although of course she wants to make a profit, it’s clear that her higher goal is to celebrate dance in its diversity. That’s what draws me to DC Dance.”
The studio typically offers classes from 30 or more teachers weekly; some may teach a single class each week, others, half a dozen or more. “One of Nancy’s principles is that if someone has a dance style or new technique that they want to teach,” says Susan Galbraith, a longtime tap student and member of the advisory board, “if there is space and time for them, they can sign on and teach.”
Newell doesn’t oversee or create a curriculum for her instructors to follow. She’s adamant about allowing her teachers creativity and independence.
Galbraith, who oversees a program teaching English to foreign students, introduced her daughter, now 16, to tap. “It’s not like one person runs the whole show; Nancy is obviously the director,” she says. “But there’s much more opportunity for many more forms of dance to be represented and for people to chip in.”
And it’s also a place where anyone, of any age or skill level, is welcome. Five years ago Gwoping Yang took a chance on a few hip-hop classes after spending nearly 30 of his 35 years studying multiple forms of martial arts. “I wanted to find an activity that was a little less prone to injury with the same level of intensity and competition,” he says.
Today Yang teaches two popping classes at the studio and assists behind the scenes with online marketing and publicity. By day a computer database administrator, he says that teaching keeps him connected and giving back to the community that took him in when he was looking for a new experience. “I didn’t anticipate that urban dance would be the next phase for me, but it turned out that it had that same kind of energy and competition. But it didn’t hurt as much.”
Yang, like many teachers, students, and parents, has put in regular hours throughout the year to keep the studio running. He refers to the five or more hours a week he spends on DCDC as his “community service.” Newell is the only full-time employee. The desk assistants work in exchange for classes—every four hours at the desk equals two classes. A part-time bookkeeper manages the accounts and payroll, and one volunteer serves as the operations manager, training all the desk assistants to track class sizes, run credit cards, count heads, and get teachers to sign off on their class enrollment. Galbraith manages the rental schedule for outside rehearsals.
Newell decided early on that as a collective, all teachers, no matter the genre taught or years of experience, would be paid equally according to class size. Teachers receive half of what each class takes in and they must sign off on the attendance sheet to verify that their count matches that of the desk assistant. This means that teachers who market themselves can reap rewards of larger classes and a higher pay rate; Newell says that some of her teachers print and distribute their own postcards or flyers. Others are content with a smaller number of regulars. Students can pay by the class ($17 per one-hour class) or purchase cards of 6, 10, or 12 classes per session, which are discounted accordingly.
Like most studios, Newell’s has seen a drop in attendance over the past 18 months due to the economic downturn. But she still insists that her teachers teach, whether one student shows up, or 20. “I realize that everybody who comes to take a class either left work early, skipped dinner, or got a babysitter, and specifically planned to be here. Their lives revolve around that, so we should honor our commitment,” Newell says.
While the studio has about 300 active students on its books, receipts are down, so the number of classes per week or month they take may have dropped. To make up the gap between class and rental fees and the growing expenses, including a $4,000-plus monthly electric bill, Newell charges an annual registration fee of $15 per student.
Besides teaching and directing at DCDC, Newell choreographs about a half-dozen musicals a year for regional high school and community theaters. It’s rare that she has a moment to plop down on her cushy sofa and put her feet up. “Even though it’s a collective, ultimately the buck stops here,” she says, gesturing to herself. “I know that everybody here can just walk out the door except for me.”
But Newell thrives on the collective spirit she has nurtured at the studio: “I love the fact that I’m not insulated. If I don’t agree with something, it’s not like it’s my way or the highway. Everybody’s philosophy is totally valid.” That’s the DC Dance Collective way.