FYI: What’s up in the dance community
Educator-Founded Festivals Focus on Community, Artistry
Two dance educators seeking positive performing opportunities for their students eventually decided to stop looking—and get really, really busy.
Melissa Chisena, who teaches at several colleges and studios, founded The Philadelphia Youth Dance Fest, which will be held March 25 and 26 at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. Marshall Ellis, a former Disney and Cirque de Soleil dancer and the owner of Marshall Ellis Dance School, created the I Dance Orlando Festival, which will be held April 29 and 30 at Orlando’s ME Theater.
The Philadelphia festival, founded three years ago, features master classes in contemporary, Caribbean, and hip-hop taught by professional artists, as well as a public concert, and (new this year) an injury prevention seminar. The Orlando event, founded two years ago, includes two public showcases featuring different performers each night.
Both festivals have attracted major attention from area dance communities—Ellis told Dance Studio Life that he received more than 60 applications for about 25 showcase slots from professional, studio, and community (including high schools and the YMCA) soloists and companies; the number of participating students (ages 13 to 18) in Chisena’s festival has risen every year from 100 to 200 to 275, with some students now traveling from Delaware and New Jersey.
Both festivals have the same aims: to build community among dance educators, studio students, and professional artists, and to create nonjudgmental arenas where dancers can showcase their talents. “This is an opportunity for studios to create choreography that is artistic, not just competition-oriented,” said Chisena, adding that performances from the mainly pre-professional students range from liturgical dance to tap to classical ballet.
“When I had to narrow down applicants, I gave [slots] to dancers with true artistic ability,” said Ellis, who arrived at a mix of 75 percent students and 25 percent professionals. “The festival had such a good feeling, with students dancing alongside pros. We showed both the early stage of training and where they can take it. I want to give students motivation.”
Martha Swope, Noted Theater and Dance Photog, Dies
Respected and prolific photographer Martha Swope used the understanding of timing, technique, and theatricality she gained as a serious ballet student to document the New York City theater and dance scene during the last half of the 20th century.
The New York Times reported that Swope, 88, died January 12 of Parkinson’s disease in New York. Swope’s distinctive photographs (mostly black and white) captured top NYC dancers and Broadway actors both in rehearsal and onstage. Her work appeared in books, newspapers, magazines, and marketing materials.
A native Texan, Swope was an amateur photographer and School of American Ballet student when Jerome Robbins invited her into rehearsals for the 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story. Swope left her dreams of a dance career behind when New York City Ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein pulled her out of an SAB class to offer her a job as photographer.
She would go on to take photos of many iconic artists and productions, from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Suzanne Farrell, Chita Rivera to Ben Vereen, A Chorus Line to Cats. The Times estimates that by 1978, Swope was photographing 60 to 70 percent of Broadway shows. In 2010 she donated her life’s work—which included more than 1 million images—to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Son’s Dancing Inspires Mom to Open All-Abilities Studio
Inspired by her 14-year-old son, Dehvin Brown—nicknamed “Dancing Dehvin”—childcare provider Kenya Flowers recently opened a studio in Fairfield, Ohio, for dancers of all abilities. At the January 21 grand opening for Special Techniques Dance Studio, Flowers thanked friends, followers, and Dehvin, a dancer with Down syndrome. Flowers first noticed Dehvin’s aptitude for dance when, at age 8, the boy would memorize and perform every move he saw on YouTube videos.
About two years ago Flowers’ videos of Dehvin joyfully dancing, which she posted with the hashtag #downsyndromestillrocks, started to become popular and requests poured in for Dehvin to perform during halftime at basketball games or at birthday parties. Inspired by the reaction—and by her son’s joy performing with SwagKatz, a crew of special needs hip-hop dancers—Flowers began to dream of a dance home for Dehvin and other special-needs children.
Flowers told Dance Studio Life that she’s been overwhelmed by the response from local and national news media and the public. Support—financial and otherwise—has come from organizations including New Birth Ministries, a church run by her parents (located next door to Special Techniques in the same strip mall), and Home Depot, which offered to build cubbies and coat racks. A friend gifted a sprung floor, and some of her eight dance and fitness instructors are volunteering their services.
The studio, decorated with motivational messages such as “Anything is Possible” and “Be Your Own Kind of Beautiful,” plans to offer ballet, hip-hop, tap, praise dance, and other techniques, along with special classes such as Rhythm and Wheels for students in wheelchairs.
“I just have this big dream. I see it, and I’m going to run for it,” Flowers told DSL. “This is not about having the biggest studio, but it’s designed to be inspirational. The inspiration comes from Dehvin. He’s the spirit of dance.”