Reports from the Front: Dance/USA

Victoria Smith and John Munger

Dance/USA has been gauging the impact of the recession on dance-based organizations in the United States through several means: a series of four Rough Waters Surveys that began in December 2008, with the most recent taking place in May 2010; conversations with our members in semiregular council calls; and regularly scanning published news articles for information about the successes and failures the dance field has experienced.

Based on the two earlier surveys, conduced in December 2008–January 2009 and April–May 2009, it was evident that both dancemakers and dance presenters had experienced serious shortfalls and cutbacks during the September 1, 2008 – August 31, 2009 season. Most survey respondents saw individual donations, corporate support, or both decrease in that time period. Many reported declines in ticket sales.1 There were a few catastrophes, while a handful of dancemakers and dance presenters witnessed improvements. Widespread collapse and panic were not the main concerns, however, as many organizations seemed to hang on at that time.

The two later surveys, conducted in January 2010 and May 2010, demonstrated that the current season (September 1, 2009–August 31, 2010) has been chaotic for those in the dance field. While many organizational dancemakers and dance presenters reported similar levels in ticket sales, donations, and support relative to the previous season or even gains on top of the past season, a nearly equal number indicated significant decreases relative to the previous season. Individuals noted experiencing a similar amount of change in their work in the field, with many describing a shifting set of roles and circumstances in the field. (One respondent wrote, “I take on different roles, including instructor, choreographer, performer and anything else that avails itself!” Another stated, “Working in exchange for benefits [for example, free class, etc.] rather than getting paid for my skills and work. Taking unpaid dance projects.” Yet a third noted, “I have not been doing my art.”)

It appears that reductions and declines have been more prevalent in responses to these surveys than in the years prior to the beginning of the current recession. However, the dance field is continuing to avoid widespread collapse and panic by making necessary, if difficult, changes in operation to ensure survival.

In the April–May 2009 survey, some of the most frequently mentioned elements in contingency plans included offering discounted tickets and changes in staffing (either by reducing staff numbers, wages, or hours). In the May 2010 survey, these same changes ranked near the top when respondents were asked what changes had been made since September 1, 2009. Notably, nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated that changes made between September 1, 2008, and August 31, 2009 (reported on the spring 2009 survey) were followed with further changes in the season that began September 1, 2009 (reported on the spring 2010 survey).

These changes have also been evidenced during semiregular conference calls Dance/USA holds with its members. While many adjustments reflect difficult decisions, some have brought an opportunity to change the way missions are filled. For example, a reported change is taking dance back into the community. For some dance companies, this means reaching out to the communities where they got their start. For others, this change means dancing in the community they reside in, rather than attempting to tour in a difficult market. (Dance/USA was fortunate to receive a pilot grant from MetLife to launch “New Stages for Dance” in three cities — San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia, where it was originally conceived — precisely to support dance artists/companies in their own home communities.)

Published news stories have supported the findings mentioned here. Articles describing the dramatic changes that were occurring were most prevalent in the immediate aftermath of the turmoil during the fall of 2008. By spring 2010, news stories focusing on the struggles of dance-based organizations had decreased measurably. While this may mean that dance-based organizations are not shutting their doors in large numbers, there is also no indication that the field is healthy. Long-standing issues, such as personnel compensation, audiences for dance, touring opportunities, global competition, and board governance, remain and have become even more dramatic.

To be sure, the economic rough waters have left a tangible mark on the dance field. Careful evaluation in the years to come will be necessary to determine how the field has changed in the recession’s wake.

1. Data drawn from the 91 completions to the Rough Waters Survey II (conducted April — May 2009) demonstrate the following:

  • 77 (84.6 percent) included revenue from ticket sales as part of plans. Of those, 35 reported that ticket sales have fallen short of plans by 5 percent or more.
  • 79 (86.8 percent) included revenue from individual donations as part of plans. Of those, 48 reported that individual donations have fallen short of plans by 5 percent or more.
  • 80 (87.9 percent) included revenue from foundation support as part of plans. Of those, 33 reported that foundation support has fallen short of plans by 5 percent or more.
  • 66 (72.5 percent) included revenue from corporate support as a part of plans. Of those, 42 reported that corporate support has fallen short of plans by 5 percent or more.