The CUNY Dance Initiative

Building Bridges through Vacant Spaces

Julia del Palacio and Alyssa Alpine

Despite New York City’s status as the dance capital of the United States, rising real estate prices are challenging the city’s ability to serve as a creative incubator, with space — an essential resource for making dance — in waning supply. Choreographers and dancers need to work in a large open area with a sprung floor, but as real estate values climb, long-standing dance studios are being bought by developers and converted into residential or commercial spaces.

Few dance companies in New York City have a permanent location, and most rent rehearsal space by the hour at independent studios in Manhattan.1 Studio dimensions vary, and the cost correlates to the size of the space, with most facilities starting at $40 per hour. Grants for “subsidized rehearsals” by private and public funders underwrite a portion of a studio’s overhead costs, allowing artists to pay a more wallet-friendlyrate ($10–$30 per hour). A limited number of these subsidized hours are available, however, and usuallyon schedules that are less than convenient.

The CUNY Dance Initiative (CDI) is directly addressing this problem. Led by the City University of New York (CUNY) — New York City’s public university system and the largest university network in the country — CDI is a new model for collaboration that connects institutions of higher learning with professional dance artists. CDI offers rehearsal and performance space, as well as staff and technical support, on CUNY campuses to dance companies based in New York’s five boroughs. In return, choreographers and dancers teach workshops and master classes to CUNY students, and in some cases present free or ticketed performances.

Using two case studies, interviews with participating CDI artists and staff, and data gathered from 2012 to 2014, in this article we describe the benefits of a model that connects public institutions of higher education with professional performing artists. We also explain that although bridging geographic gaps for artists, students, and audiences has not been formally part of CDI’s philosophy, it achieves this purpose by encouraging dancers, students, and funders to travel to the outer boroughs to attend performances and classes. We also share some of the challenges CDI artists and administrators have encountered. Lastly, we propose that a CDI-like model may work well in other cities and for other disciplines.


In 2010, the Mellon Foundation funded an ambitious study conducted by NYC Performing Arts Spaces that examined the space characteristics and finances of 121 dance studios in New York City. Titled “We Make Do,” this report concluded that though income rises and falls with the market, studios’ expenses remain consistent. Of the 121 studios surveyed, 58 percent were renters themselves, and half of these were not confident about renewing their leases the following year.2 The report also noted in “Areas for Further Investigation” the possibility of giving dance companies access to local universities and public schools, whose academic calendars allow space to go underutilized during certain periods of the year.3

At least half of CUNY campuses have a performing arts center or dance program, or both.4 The majority of classes at these institutions take place during weekday hours, so studios go vacant for long periods of time, including weekends, nights, and during summer and winter vacations. Recognizing the potential of these underutilized spaces, we launched the CUNY Dance Initiative as a pilot program in 2012–13 with nine dance residencies on four campuses. In its first complete year (2014), CDI received 179 applications and provided residencies for nineteen dance artists at ten CUNY campuses in all five boroughs. In 2015, after receiving 145 applications, eleven campuses are offering residencies to twenty-six dance companies and choreographers.

The selection of resident artists occurs annually through an open application on the CDI website. After all the applications are received, each college narrows its selections to three to five finalists, which are reviewed by CDI’s manager. Significantly, no more than two colleges have asked to host the same artist during any given application period, underscoring the diversity and unique interests of all parties. The final selection of residency projects is made through an assessment of the artistic quality of work, the spaces and technical capabilities of each college, and the time frame requested by the artist.

On average, CDI residencies are for forty hours of rehearsal and set on a schedule that is mutually agreeable to the artist and the host college: some residencies are spread out over several months, while others happen in an week or two. In conjunction with the residencies, the host’s performing arts centers and dance programs organize events, for example, open rehearsals, informal showings, and master classes, attracting patrons from local neighborhoods and members of the academic community, while providing students with unique learning opportunities.

CDI’s budget is largely underwritten by private funders and provides a subsidy for each residency. Alloca-tions vary based on the services and activities agreed upon by the partner college and the company, and a stipend is guaranteed to the dance company to help defray costs associated with rehearsing at the campus. Campuses are reimbursed for a portion of the marketing, technical, and administrative costs associated with the residency, although they cover the balance of expenses themselves.

CDI: Decentralizing the Dance World?

Although real estate prices are steepest in Manhattan, dance artists, audiences, and funders still usually travel to Manhattan to attend performances (if they live in the outer boroughs). The opposite happens much less often. Because Manhattan is the central hub of transportation, dance companies prefer to rehearse there despite high prices and low availability. Therefore, if New York City is the dance capital of the United States, Manhattan is the dance capital of New York City.

Out of the eleven campuses that participated in the program in 2014 and 2015, only four are located in Manhattan. Of the remaining seven, three are located in Queens, two in Brooklyn, one in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island.

TABLE 1. Foundation giving for arts education by number of grants, 1999 and 2012

Artists clearly prefer to rehearse and perform in Manhattan, as table 1 shows. Out of 179 applications submitted in 2014, Manhattan colleges were chosen widely over any in the boroughs, except for “Q3,” which is located one subway stop from Manhattan. During the first year, our application allowed candidates to choose as many or as few locations for their residency as they wanted, which accounts for the skewed result. In 2015, we adjusted the application to allow prospective resident artists to select a maximum of two Manhattan colleges and as many options as they wished in the other boroughs. While Manhattan colleges still had the highest numbers, the final result was a much more balanced distribution of applications. This modification also pushed artists to look at outer-borough colleges as realistic venues for developing their work.

Dance students are also “crossing bridges” to attend classes taught by CDI artists at campuses in different boroughs. In the words of a dance professor on one of the campuses farthest from Manhattan, “when students see artists coming all the way here to teach, they are encouraged to travel to Manhattan to take classes. They realize it is actually okay for a kid from a far neighborhood in Queens to take a class with some famous dancer.”

CDI is helping reverse the trend that consistently takes artists from the boroughs into Manhattan by:

  • giving incentives to artists who live in outer boroughs to stay closer to home and build relationships with colleges in their communities.
  • encouraging CDI artists to make specific, quantifiable gains toward their creative goals.
  • stimulating students to attend CDI activities at other campuses, participating more actively in the dance world outside their own college.
  • establishing new relationships between participating colleges and the professional dance community, strengthening the educational infrastructure in the long term.

Case Studies

Tiffany Mills Company

Composed of six dancers — including Tiffany Mills, founder and choreographer — this modern troupe rehearses approximately nine months of the year and is developing a new piece, “After the Feast,” which will premiere in 2016. In 2014, the company was awarded a CDI residency at Queensborough Community College in Queens, and they are continuing their residency in 2015.

Mills was in residence for forty-five hours of rehearsal during September and October 2014. The company rehearsed in large blocks of time (five to six hours), a schedule that would have been virtually impossible to secure at a rental studio. Queensborough is one of the most far-flung colleges in the CUNY system, and it takes Mills and her dancers an average of ninety minutes to travel to campus. For Mills, the journey is worth it: “[At Queensborough] we’re able to rehearse in a 40 × 40 feet space (typically we’re in a 25 × 35 feet studio at best). This vastness opens up so many creative possibilities… Additionally, having a consistent space gives us a real sense of a ‘home’ for our current project.”

CDI is mutually beneficial for the host college and the company. Emily Berry, director of the dance program at Queensborough, describes the impact of Mills’s master class: “Tiffany’s class as well as the examples provided by her company members created a transformational experience for our students! It was incredible to see how she pulled them out of their shells as they explored movement in ways they had never done before.”

Based on this experience, Berry invited Mills to teach and choreograph for the dance program in 2016. The company will also perform at Queensborough in 2016.

Syncopated Ladies

Syncopated Ladies is an all-female tap dance band created in 2003 by choreographer Chloe Arnold. Led by Arnold and her sister Maud, the seven members are known for their rhythmic footwork to pop songs and for straddling the traditional theater world and the commercial sector.

Through CDI, the Syncopated Ladies was awarded a two-week residency at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater in Manhattan during October and November 2014. They used the stage for rehearsal, working intensively for six to eight hours each day on their first evening-length show, We Are the Music, which premiered at the end of the residency to a sold-out audience of 650.

While Chloe and Maud are based in New York, the other dancers are scattered around the country, so scheduling is the hardest thing for the company. “Having concentrated rehearsal time,” said Maud, “was the only way we could have made this show happen.” Additionally, the challenges that most dancers encounter in securing studio time in New York City are magnified for tap groups, since few studios allow tapping, and rental rates for those that do hover around $60 per hour. Residencies for tap companies do not exist, which makes the CDI opportunity a rare one.

The success of their New York show and a review in the New York Times helped the Syncopated Ladies put together a strong set of materials to send to presenters, which led directly to a December 2014 booking at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Johanna Whitton, managing director of the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, was delighted by the audience’s response to the Syncopated Ladies: “I think Chloe and Maud are a huge inspiration for women and girls. Seeing the audience response to the show was impressive. What Chloe and Maud are doing to promote this genre of dance will change the game.”

Indeed, CDI’s participating colleges, as explained by Steven Hitt, managing director of LaGuardia College Performing Arts Center, are striving to not only provide crucial support to dance organizations but also “to be an artistic partner in their work — not just a landlord for space.”

These two case studies and the roster of dance companies and choreographers in residence through CDI demonstrate the wide interest that the initiative has produced and the crucial need for dance companies (big and small, emerging or established) to have access to appropriate rehearsal and performance facilities.


Partnering with a mix of dance departments and performing arts centers makes for a variety of scenarios and challenges across the CUNY campuses. For colleges with a dance program, it is logical to schedule CDI events during an existing class period. However, although several colleges have well-equipped performing arts facilities, they do not have dance classes on campus, much less a formal dance program. Lacking a built-in audience, they need to be proactive in their outreach to students, academic departments, and their community about CDI activities.

The specifics of scheduling, advance planning, and connecting with students and faculty are intertwined with marketing and audience building. For example, CUNY colleges are committed to building audiences for dance on their campuses, but they struggle around scheduling events like open rehearsals. The space needs to be available preferably at a time that is convenient for students, artists, and the working public. While 2:00 p.m. on a weekday may be suitable for students, it is not ideal for other parties.

CDI: A Model for Other Cities, Other Schools, Other Disciplines?

The CUNY Dance Initiative offers a viable model for other disciplines in the performing arts and could be applied on a smaller scale in other cities of the United States, especially in college towns that have the appropriate facilities but not enough users throughout the year. What this project would look like outside New York City and how artists can benefit from underutilized facilities should be the focus of a separate article. In the meantime, we pose this possibility through a series of questions:

  1. Are real estate prices threatening the arts in your city or town by pushing dance studios, small theaters, and arts nonprofits to close their doors?
  2. Are dance companies, independent choreographers, or theater companies affected by a lack of rehearsal and performance spaces because space rentals are too expensive or because there is no availability?
  3. Are there institutions (universities, high schools, performing arts centers) whose facilities go underutilized at certain times during the year?
  4. Are there specific populations that may benefit from artists’ presence in their neighborhoods or schools, for example, performing arts students or underserved audiences?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, a program like CDI might be a route to explore in your community.


CDI operates from the understanding that dance — as an art form — is an essential part of the intellectual and cultural fabric of New York City and the CUNY system. By identifying a way for dance artists to complement the college system’s goals related to education, audience building, and quality of campus life, CDI has implemented a win-win program that benefits all involved. We are in the early stages of realizing these payoffs and anticipate they will multiply in the coming years.


  1. New York City is comprised of five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island.
  2. “We Make Do”: More Time Is Better but Budget Is King. A Report Assessing Dance Rehearsal Space Needs and Availability, Focused on Mid-Career, Single-Choreographer-Led Companies (New York: Exploring the Metropolis, Inc./Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 2010), 20.
  3. Ibid., 23–24.
  4. The City University of New York is composed of twenty-four campuses in all five boroughs. CUNY offers programs to more than 269,000 degree-credit students and 247,000 adult, continuing, and professional education students. See