Misty Copeland streaming @ UMBC Mar 6, 2024 6:00pm

In the broad interest of building connections within regional dance universe, Misty might have some fans out there…

Program description: https://umbctickets.universitytickets.com/w/event.aspx?id=3152

Join us for a special evening with Misty Copeland, the first African American female Principal Dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre and New York Times best selling author. In conversation with Kimberly R. Moffitt, Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at UMBC, Copeland will explore a variety of topics related to dance and her career.

The evening will open with three works performed by UMBC dance students.

To watch… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgGglln3qFI

Engagement Prospects at Large Dance Companies

The one “job” (urgh…) that is critical to a dance company is… dancer. Even if it’s just one dancer, without that person, it may be a company (of some sort…), but it’s not a dance company. At that end of the spectrum, a single person does everything. Today we’ll look at the other end.

Expanding the scope a bit from some previous work, I offer a brief look at engagement prospects within the million-plus-dollar non-profit dance company world. Based on 2019 data, there are 116 of these companies in the United States. I found information about the company dancers for 102 of them during the 2022 Nutcracker season. This approach does get a little tricky – I’m using one time period (pre-pandemic 2019) to pick companies, and another (December 2022) to count dancers, and the number of dancers active with a company can vary instantly. That pandemic window probably also has some impact on this specific question, but I think this will work to a rough approximation (eventually reasonably complete 2022/2023 financial data will become available, and maybe I can revisit this).

The $1 million cutoff is also arbitrary, but at this level, the dancers probably have few demands beyond learning their choreography and delivering a polished performance to an audience. I figure this is about as “dance” as a “dance career” can be.

Counting Bodies

Combined, those 102 companies engaged roughly 2560 dancers – about 25 dancers in each (range is 3 to 93).

The largest companies (by number of performers) are (of course… also by budget) New York City Ballet (NYCB) and American Ballet Theater (ABT), each engaging more than 90 dancers.

The six Balanchine-legacy companies represent more than 15% of all dancers engaged by the $1+ million companies (occupying four of the largest five companies by company size…). Among the other solidly-Balanchine-influenced is Miami City Ballet, whose artistic director Lourdes Lopez is not just a NYCB alum, but served as Executive Director of the George Balanchine Foundation. Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), under the artistic direction of Peter Boal and former co-artistic direction of Francia Russell and Kent Stowell (all NYCB alums…), came to New York City in 2013, and in at least one reviewer’s opinion, out-Balanchined Balanchine’s own company, on Balanchine’s own turf.

[New York] City Ballet’s performances of this [“Concerto Barocco“] and “Agon” certainly don’t project in the David H. Koch Theater as these performances do at the smaller City Center. And though City Ballet has some fine individual dancers, it is less unified in its understanding of Balanchine.

Alastair Macauley, “Performers from the West Coast Serve Up Balanchine,” New York Times, 14 February 2013.

There are many other companies in this group that have some sort of Balanchine legacy – the current artistic director (Susan Jaffee) of ABT is a School of American Ballet (SAB) alum (though probably not so deeply Balanchined…). Other current artistic directors that are NYCB/SAB alumni include Zalman Raffael, Gen Horiuchi, Steven Wistrich, Melissa Barak, Ib Anderson, Edward Liang, Ethan Stiefel, Maria Kowroski, and even Brenda Way.

I’m sure there are more, but these put another 450 (18%) of jobs in a sort of indirect-Balanchine-legacy category, meaning at least a third of all engagement at this level operate under some degree of Balanchine influence.

14 of these million-dollar companies engage fewer than 10 dancers – Charlottesville Ballet, Northwest Dance Project, BodyVox, BANDALOOP, Trisha Brown Company, Stephen Petronio Company, Dance Brigade, Pilobolus, Urbanity Dance, AXIS Dance Company, Urban Bush Women, STREB,and Minnesota Dance Theater.

Within these companies, we have here just under 200 Principals (8%), just over 200 Soloists (8%), just over 500 Corps (20%), and about 230 Apprentices (9%) – leaving a bit more than 1400 “generic” dancers.

A Digression on Apprentices

Only about a third (37) of these companies engage “apprentices,” which are technically “bound to work in return for instruction.” I’m sure the actual terms of engagement vary from company to company – but apprentices are most likely to be in a situation where they are unpaid or even paying for the opportunity to perform.

It’s not a fair assumption, but removing the apprentices leaves only 2330 dance positions at these companies.

Those companies that describe some of their dancers as apprentices average about one-fifth (20%) apprentices, but it ranges as high as 50% (Madison Ballet), and as low as 4% (American Ballet Theatre).

The companies most-dependent on apprentices are Madison Ballet (50%), Saint Louis Ballet (48%), Grand Rapids Ballet (43%), Nashville Ballet (40%), Parsons Dance (36%), Alabama Ballet (33%), and Ensemble Español (33%). Interestingly, all of these have steered away from the “corps/soloist/principal” language for their other dancers.

The number of apprentices may also meaningfully (or not…) reflect the company’s anticipated “replacement requirements” – a company may keep a certain number of apprentices “in the pipeline” as a way to ensure that the show goes on when dancers of higher rank leave. Strategies about this vary, or there may be no strategy at all. Something to explore…

Capacity (from a Great Distance)

Of course, the meaning of “Principal,” “Soloist,” “Corps,” and “Apprentice” will vary a bit, particularly as you wander further away from very traditional ballet structures… and the terms of engagement will very even more. NYCB dancers are union-represented (AGMA) and have 9+ month contracts. Charlottesville Ballet contracts were closer to 6 months – and that’s just contract length.

One potential approach to measuring capacity is annual company expenses per dancer. As usual, this is not “fair,” because some companies have huge operating expenses for things like buildings and schools, and others just don’t. Some have second companies, and most don’t. Some spend a lot on production, and some don’t. Just to poke around this a bit…

On average, these companies spend about $250,000 per year per dancer (not all of that, or even most of that, goes to the dancer….). At the highest end, we have NYCB, supporting 93 dancers with annual expenses around $92 million – just shy of $1 million per dancer. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is right there too (46 dancers on a $45 million budget). After those two, it drops quickly – San Francisco Ballet‘s expenses-per-year-per-dancer is a bit less than $720,000 for its 79 performers.

At the other extreme is City Ballet of San Diego, which manages to keep 37 dancers (16 company members, 12 studio company members, and 9 apprentices) engaged while spending just $1.1 million – less than $30,000 per year per dancer.

Opportunity vs. Tenacity

Only a fraction of these 2560 (or 2330, if you discount apprentices…) opportunities is available in any given year. Getting one is not nearly as challenging as the small handful of artistic director openings (I used a higher $5 million cutoff for that analysis), but still very few openings at this level.

Naturally, once someone has one of these positions, they are very likely to hang on to it as long as possible – until promotion or career-ending injury do they part. Teresa Reichlen stayed with NYCB for 22 years, from apprentice to principal, retiring in February 2022. Susan Jaffee also managed a 22-year stage career (1980-2002) at ABT. These are the two largest (and best resourced) companies in the United States. They probably take very good care of their performers, which may contribute to these long stage careers, but as the length of the career in years approaches the number of performers in the company (average 25…), the number of openings approaches one per year – and there are only about 116 million-dollar companies.

Hopefully, all this goes some distance toward appreciating just how extraordinary these “jobs” (urgh…) are.

The Million-Dollar Companies, Class of 2019

2020 changed everything, but before 2020, there was 2019, and in 2019, there were 116 non-profit dance companies in the United States spending more than $1 million that year.

This analysis is flawed. There are conflicts and gaps in the source data. Some of these are just dance performance companies, but many also operate dance schools, which is an important thing to do, but complicates the expense structure (and makes it hard to compare…). Some are part of conglomerate organizations that include a bunch of not-[directly]-dance operations (looking at you, Dayton Performing Arts Alliance). Fiscal years don’t align (I need some extra capacity to sort that out, but it’s possible… someday). I’m also not adjusting for inflation (for the record, it’s about 8% 2014-2019). This is a first-stab at the last “pre-pandemic” data that’s available – it’s not “correct.” Dance economics data is… messy.

Some observations….

Between 2014 and 2019 (an arbitrary 5-year window), 105 (90.5%) of these companies grew their budget, only 11 (9.5%) shrank, and none went out of business (though one of them, Odyssey Dance Theater would voluntarily shut down their performance operations in 2022, and RIOULT Dance NY would fold in 2021, just after opening their $6 million forever home). At least at the $1 million+ level, dance companies are surprisingly stable.

There’s an outlier (Ping Chong and Company), which had a suspiciously low 2014 reported one-year expenses of just ~$109,000 when their annual expenses were otherwise well above $500,000, but other than that, the company demonstrating the greatest growth (4.7x) from 2014 to 2019 is Charlottesville Ballet. Other companies that more than doubled their budget are Pureelements (3.3x), BalletX (2.8x), American Midwest Ballet (2.8x), Urbanity Dance (2.8x), Gibney Dance (2.7x), Step Afrika! (2.5x), Urban Bush Women (2.4x), Collage Dance Collective (2.3x), Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (2.2x), New Ballet Ensemble (2.2x), Newport Contemporary Dance (2.2x), Metropolitan Ballet Ensemble (2.1x), and Northwest Dance Project (2.1x).

The companies that shrunk didn’t actually shrink that much – Pilobolus (0.6x) took the biggest hit, Trisha Brown Dance Company (0.7x), Mystic Ballet (0.7x), California Ballet (0.8x), DIAVOLO (0.8x), Koresh Dance Company (0.9x), and Madison Ballet (0.9x). Boston Ballet, by far the largest company to shrink in this period, lost less than 5% of its budget, and STREB Extreme Action Company, Limon Dance Company, and Lone Star Ballet were all within 2% of their 2014 budgets in 2019, if on the short side.

Charlottesville Ballet was founded in 2007, and managed to get to $1 million by 2019 (or maybe 2018 – missing some data there). As impressive as that is, Dance Downtown LA (founded 2012), Urbanity Dance (founded 2011), and American Midwest Ballet (founded 2009) got there just a bit faster.

The total 2019 expenses for this group is $796 million, and the average is $6.9 million. 32 companies have budgets larger than this; 84 are smaller. These same 116 companies spent $668 million in 2014 (average $5.4 million). Averages aren’t really fair here at all, but a bit surprising, that – the average million+ dollar dance company grew by $1.5 million in 5 years? $300,000 per year? Did not see that coming…

Archiving ClancyWorks Dance Company at 25

As ClancyWorks approaches its 25th year, they announce a partnership with ChromaDiverse to digitize and preserve their “records, programs, and choreography.” They’ve secured funding from the Maryland State Arts Council, but need another $5000 to complete the work.

ChromaDiverse is a relatively new organization (founded in 2019 by Dance Theatre of Harlem alum Judy Tyrus). While I have no personal experience with the organization, as someone that spends a lot of time poking around in dance history looking for lessons, I can only say that preserving this sort of thing is immensely important.

If you can spare a few dollars (ClancyWorks suggests $25…), please consider donating.

While I have a moment of your attention, particularly if you teach dance, check out ClancyWorks’ DETI – the Dance Educators Training Institute, coming up August 1st through 3rd, 2023, and all the other programs they offer… Here’s the DETI schedule [pdf].

…and longer-term, if you know of a hidden cache of dance material, please try to preserve it.

Ladies of the Dance

I recently explored the Lords of the Dance. Dance performance and participation is overwhelmingly female… Artistic Direction (AD) in dance, not so much. There’s a fascinating case to explore of modern dance rising as a reaction to this gender dynamic in ballet, but that’s not today.

Today is about current female artistic leadership in large-budget American dance companies.

First, it’s important to state that this is just one job title, and only looking at a very few, very large companies. This doesn’t explore executive leadership, board participation, choreographers, or the people running the studios and rehearsals… and this is all binary-gender, because I can’t find any evidence of any gender-expansive humans in the AD position at these organizations (Dance Data Project did, but not in the United States [and no longer in 2023…]. Get your budget up, trocks 🙂 ). I’m going to use pink and blue gender associations in chart. Also, this is based on pre-pandemic FY2019 budgets, and only companies with budgets of $5 million or more. It’s an arbitrary cutoff. There are 41.

Female Artistic Direction

Today, just under 32% of the largest United States dance companies have female-identifying artistic directors, which is up a bit in recent history.

Since 2020, 9 of these companies changed artistic directors, making a remarkable 22% (and it’s going to be at least 24%) turnover in just three years (there’s more to explore about the pandemic and other recent shocks as an impetus…) and five of those were women.

More interestingly, four of those women replaced men, and in three of those cases, these women were the first female artistic directors in their company’s history.

In the same period, two men replaced women, and both of those women stepped up, not out. Susan Jaffe left Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for a much larger ballet station at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and is replaced by Adam W. McKinney, and Alejandro Cerrudo replaced Hope Muir at Charlotte Ballet in 2022. Hope Muir also landed at a larger ballet station, the National Ballet of Canada – more than triple her previous charge (in US dollars), but outside the United States, so… she escapes the rest of this discussion.

This year (2023) Dani Rowe becomes the first woman to hold the position at Oregon Ballet Theatre in its 34 years and Jodie Gates assumed the AD position, succeeding Victoria Morgan at the Cincinnati Ballet after 25 years. Robert Garland will replace Virginia Johnson at Dance Theatre of Harlem in July – he’ll be the 10th post-2020 AD transition.

Last year (2022), Tamara Rojo replaced Helgi Tómasson at San Francisco Ballet (a position held for 37 years), becoming the first female AD in that company’s 90 year history, and Susan Jaffe replaced Kevin McKenzie, who held the position for nearly three decades at American Ballet Theatre.

And in 2021, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell assumed the artistic director position at Hubbard Street Dance, becoming the first woman to do so in that company’s 45-year history.

This post-pandemic female AD cohort joins the ranks of Lourdes Lopez at Miami City Ballet, Julie Kent at Washington Ballet, Jodie Gates at Cincinnati Ballet, Stoner Winslett at Richmond Ballet, Brenda Way at ODC Dance, Janet Eilber at Martha Graham Dance Company, Virginia Johnson at Dance Theatre of Harlem (for a few months), Karen Russo Burke at Dayton Ballet, and Gina Gibney at Gibney Dance. The fact that this list is short enough to fully enumerate reveals several challenges for dance in America.

Women of the Baby Balanchines

I also recently explored the “Baby Balanchine” companies. As a tiny case-study in female artistic leadership, these are interesting. Women (well, more precisely, Balanchine women…) were deeply involved in most of these, and held the role of artistic director for half of the babies in 1963. I’m not counting New York City Ballet as a baby (it’s the “parent”), and Mr. B did not let go of his ballet station… and it’s been men the whole time.

Boston had E. Virginia Williams, who started teaching at age 16 and founded the New England Civic Ballet in 1958. Under her direction, the Boston Ballet explored rock ballet with Louis Falco‘s The Gamete Garden (1971). In 1974, she took a bold chance on the then-10-year old Winterbranch by Merce Cunningham – and managed to chase some of the audience out of the room. Williams is succeeded by Violette Verdy (also deeply connected with Balanchine) in 1983, and then by Bruce Marks (from Ballet West) in 1985. Anna-Marie Holmes brings the feminine back to Boston as a co-artistic director for several years before a brief 3-year run as AD starting in 1998. Since 2001, it’s been Mikko Nissinen.

Houston had Tatiana Semenova who started a ballet school in 1955. In 1959, Robert Irving, New York City Ballet’s principal conductor (those Balanchine connections run deep…) led the Houston Symphony for the world premiere of Semenova’s Enigma. There was some drama, and part of the Ford Foundation funding was lost with her departure in 1966. After a somewhat complicated transition, Nina Popova held the AD position until 1975.

The National Ballet never had a female artistic director, but had Jean Riddell as president of the National Ballet Society. It’s Washington, D.C., so things get complicated, and the company folded in 1974.

Perhaps the deepest Baby Balanchine connection was Barbara Weisberger, founder and artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet until 1982, and who also founded the Carlisle Project and served as an artistic advisor for Peabody Dance in Baltimore. Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet) hasn’t seen a female artistic director since she left in 1982.

But that auspicious recognition of women in artistic leadership roles among the Baby Balanchines would erode… Houston’s AD was male by 1976, and by 1985, men ran them all, with a brief respite from 1993-2001 in Boston. AD gender at the Balanchine-legacy companies (including NYCB) looks like this:

Just a hint of pink at the far-right in that image, Tamara Rojo brings a Spanish (by nationality) and British (Royal Ballet and English National Ballet) sensibility to the San Francisco Ballet – a change away from both male gender and Balanchine, with a powerhouse $57 million annual budget (much more than double the English National Ballet’s $23 million).

Perhaps worth noting here, Balanchine shared his perspective on gender in ballet… the “ballet is woman” quote is often attributed to him – but there’s more.

But if you watch the stage you will see something more beautiful. The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.

“Mr B Talks Ballet,” George Balanchine, Life Magazine, 11 June 1965, page 97.

… a sentiment that maybe does not age all that well.

Budget Equity

The new ADs represent significant cultural changes in each company, but the post-2020 net change is only +2 for the ladies – so far (that will drop to +1 in July). There’s a very different story if you look at the economic change these women represent.

The four women that replaced men now direct more than $120 million a year to their artistic vision, almost doubling the financial resources available to female ADs at these top-tier dance companies. Jaffe’s transition from Pittsburgh to ABT gives her access to more than four times the budget (although it’s in a city that’s much more expensive…).

I don’t have data to support any sort of “first time in history” claim, but this huge shift in resources appears to have achieved AD gender “budget equity.” For at least a few months of 2023, the 32% of companies with female artistic directors represent 32% of the aggregate annual budget at the largest 41 dance companies in the United States.


Congratulations to the new female artistic directors of American dance (and you too, Hope Muir!). May your tenures be amazing. Please don’t forget to reach back and offer a hand-up. We need more of you.


Dance Data Project US Artistic Director History Data Byte [pdf] is only ballet companies, and based on the largest 50 by budget, so different base data set, but it has an interesting point of comparison. Their data says 46% of the largest 50 ballet companies were founded by female ADs – but only 30% are lead by female ADs as of July 2021. The erosion of female artistic leadership seen in the Baby Balanchines looks more widespread.

Where are the Women in Ballet (WBUR, 2015)

Sexism in dance: where are all the female choreographers? (The Guardian, 2013)

Agnes de Mille’s Artistic Justice (The New Yorker, 2015)

Last year, 69% of works performed by the 50 largest ballet companies — including Joffrey and Hubbard Street — were choreographed by men. Women in dance are trying to change that. (Chicago Tribune, 2021)

Leading Ladies (Dance, 2016)

Update (26 May 2023) – added note about Dance Data Project Global Leadership Report 2023.

Lords of the Dance (the Artistic Directors)

Today I offer an excursion into artistic authority – Who gets to decide how the resources of American dance companies are applied? (I use “lords” advisedly – it’s mostly men at this scale, more on that later).

The Biggest Companies

Limiting myself to the largest non-profit dance companies in the United States (because my sanity requires some limits), and using pre-pandemic budgets (because nothing newer makes any sense yet…). There are just 41 companies operate in the $5+ million annual budget range (there’s some wiggle room – some of these are not just dance companies). Those companies had a combined FY2019 budget of just over $660 million, and more than a third of that is with New York City Ballet and the Baby Balanchines.

The average age of these companies is 57.6 years (with some room for interpretation). Average age of the artistic directors is just about the same – 57.9 (also missing a few data points here…).

Btw, start planning to celebrate Martha Graham Dance Company’s 100th in 2026…

Captains of the Ballet Stations

Artistic directors tend to stick around a long time, sometimes a very long time, and this makes perfect sense. Once you’ve got a “fully armed and operational ballet station” at your disposal (apologies to both Emperor Palpatine and the few not-“ballet” companies below…), there aren’t many reasons to give that up (especially if the company has your name on it).

CompaniesYears with Current AD
ODC Dance52
Mark Morris Dance Group
Richmond Ballet
Alonzo King LINES Ballet41
Gibney Dance32
Tulsa Ballet28
Nashville Ballet*25
Ballet Arizona
Ballet Austin
Boston Ballet22
Milwaukee Ballet21
Houston Ballet20
Martha Graham Dance Company
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Colorado Ballet17
Ballet West
Joffrey Ballet
Sarasota Ballet
Ballet Hispanico
Dance Theatre of Harlem
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Dayton Ballet
Miami City Ballet11
Ballet Metropolitan (Columbus)
Kansas City Ballet
Philadelphia Ballet9
Atlanta Ballet
Washington Ballet
Nevada Ballet Theatre6
Paul Taylor Dance Company5
Carolina Ballet
New York City Ballet
Hubbard Street Dance
Orlando Ballet
American Ballet Theater
Charlotte Ballet
Cincinnati Ballet
San Francisco Ballet
Texas Ballet Theater
Oregon Ballet Theatre
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
* Nick Mullikin will replace Paul Vasterling in June 2023. 
† Robert Garland will replace Virginia Johnson in July 2023.
‡ Dayton Ballet is advertising the position of artistic director.

Change Has Come

Since the pandemic, the rate-of-AD-change seems to have picked up significantly – two new ADs in 2021 seems fairly normal, but there were five in 2022, and we’re not even halfway through 2023, and there are already two, with at least two more coming…

This isn’t just the pandemic (that does make a convenient point-of-reference) – there are tectonic social, economic, and political forces at work in this early-21st Century world. We live in interesting times.

Interesting times are ripe with confusion and drama. Also, opportunities.

Are You Next?

If you’re interested in being one of these artistic directors, the search is on to replace Karen Russo Burke at the Dayton Ballet.

Struggling with a Balanchinian Legacy

The George Balanchine legacy is complicated, and I’m not even going to pretend to grasp its varied dimensions. That said, one interesting bit I’ve come to call the “Baby Balanchines” changed the landscape of dance in America profoundly more than half a century ago. The resources applied at this inflection point would commit much of dance in America to Balanchine’s style for generations – and at great expense to others across the universe of dance in America.

The Immigrant and the Impresario

Today our story begins in 1904 with the birth of George Balanchine in St. Petersburg in the Russian Empire, the son of an opera singer and composer. Three years later, Lincoln Kirstein is born in Rochester, New York, son of a salesman. George spent his youth in ballet training, Lincoln’s wealthy family sent him to private school and eventually Harvard.

The two intersect in London when Kirstein sees Balanchine perform as Koschei in Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballet Russes Firebird. Kirstein eventually convinces Balanchine to come to the United States, and together with Edward Warburg and Vladimir Dimitriew, they form the School of American Ballet (SAB) in 1934. Kirstein’s support of Balanchine’s vision was complete, enabling him “to do exactly what he wants to do in the way he wants to do it.” Balanchine, and thus SAB, fully embraced the Russian Imperial Ballet School (now Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet) approach to ballet training.

Balanchine and Kirstein spawn a number of ballet ventures (including the American Ballet, Ballet Caravan, and Ballet Society which would eventually consolidate into the 1948 formation of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), but before they do, American Ballet and Ballet Caravan merge into American Ballet Caravan, and Nelson Rockefeller (as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) arranges a tour of South America.

Just a few years later, Kirstein would become managing director of New York’s City Center, and with this engagement, brought the resources of the Rockefeller Foundation to ballet (and opera).

In 1950, Lew Christensen becomes NYCB Ballet Master, and just three years later, relocates to the west coast to direct the San Francisco Ballet.

Space to Dance

By the 1960s, the New York City Ballet is well-established, having toured North America, South America, Europe, and Asia (more than once with U.S. State Department support) and even a couple televised Nutcrackers (see the 1958 version).

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signs a bill in 1961 authorizing the construction of the New York State Theater for the 1964 World’s Fair – with a combined state and city allocation of $30 million (this would be over $300 million today). This space, would become the new home of the New York City Ballet, was designed to Balanchine’s specifications and completed at a cost of $19.3 million.

Essentially simultaneously, work begins on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which opens in 1966 and becomes the official “summer home” of the New York City Ballet.

Artistic Concentration – The “Baby Balanchines”

In 1963, the Ford Foundation launched three national arts and humanities initiatives – one to “increase the supply of quality curators and directors for the nation’s museums of fine arts,” one to strengthen “the role of independent arts schools and conservatories of music in setting standards for professional training”, and, most interesting here, one to “develop the country’s training and performing resources in ballet.”

The Foundation appropriated $8 million for a national program to help develop training and performing resources in ballet, a medium that only in the last three decades has become an important American art form. The major components of the program are:

  • strengthening of the School of American Ballet as a national center for advanced professional training;
  • support of a cooperative system between the School of American Ballet and ballet teachers in different parts of the country to improve the professional preparation of promising young dancers;
  • strengthening the role of the New York City Ballet as a national company. The increased funds will help the New York City Ballet perform services for professionally developing companies elsewhere, and will provide partial assistance to new works needed in the company’s repertoire.
  • assistance to the San Francisco Ballet Company and School through a matching grant for their long-term development;
  • matching support for new professional companies and schools in Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
Ford Foundation Annual Report, 1963, page 12.

Ford backed Balanchine’s own New York operations (School of American Ballet and City Center of Music and Drama with almost $6 million, and picked five (eventually six) companies based largely on Balanchine’s recommendations and extended massive funding – Boston Ballet ($144k), Houston Ballet ($174K), National Ballet ($400K), Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet) ($345K), San Francisco Ballet ($644K), and Utah Civic Ballet (now Ballet West) ($175K) was added in the following year.

This $8 million ballet program (though only $7.8 million was disbursed) represented more than 6% of new project appropriations by the Ford Foundation in 1963, and in today’s dollars would exceed $78 million. Balanchine offered his advice, music, costumes, and choreography, and the artistic leadership of these institutions were deeply connected to Balanchine, the person, and so the “Balanchinian” legacy was baked-in from the beginning.

By the mid-1960s, Balanchine’s individual concept of dance stood on a foundation of at least seven of the best-funded schools/companies in the country and two performance venues.

Economic Concentration

Even with the loss of the National Ballet in 1974, the remaining six Balanchine-legacy companies represent a combined annual budget around quarter-billion dollars, and half of the ten largest dance companies in the country (and Ballet West is #12, which is pretty extraordinary given its home city). Economic concentration just happens in the absence of intervention (for a fun diversion, check out the Yard Sale Model), and this works in at least a couple ways for these companies – these are big cities (#24, #4, #23, #1, #6, #17, and #122 by population today; #13, #7, #9, #1, #4, #12, and #65 in 1960 – Salt Lake City is definitely an outlier in this group), so they generally have access to sizeable audiences (and patrons). At the very top, the New York metropolitan statistical area (MSA) is home to some 20 million people, each providing an average of about $4.56 to this one company every year (the Salt Lake City MSA is much more generous – about $10.75 per person per year for Ballet West).

All of these companies are the biggest ones (by budget) in their local regions:

The Big CompanyBudget RatioThe Second Biggest Company
Boston Ballet15Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre
Houston Ballet45Metdance
Philadelphia Ballet14Koresh Dance Company
New York City Ballet2American Ballet Theatre or Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
San Francisco Ballet9Alonzo King LINES Ballet or ODC Dance
Ballet West15Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company

This disparity isn’t unique to the Baby Balanchines – it’s true throughout dance economics (and economics in general…). Washington, D.C. lost the National Ballet, but its big company is now The Washington Ballet, 6 times larger than Step Afrika! and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet is about 17 times larger than Spectrum Dance Theater.

Dive Deeper

This is but a hint of the Balanchine legacy – for a contemporary view, checkout Harper’s Magazine, September 1964, “Ballet in America: One-man Show?

Life Magazine, June 11, 1965, “Mr. B Talks about Ballet

Vanity Fair, December 1998, “Balanchine’s Dream

Dollars for Dance: Lincoln Kirstein, City Center, and the Rockefeller Foundation

New York Times, May 8, 1977, “Kirstein The Man Who Brought Us Balanchine

National Endowment for the Humanities, Humanities, Vol 37, Issue 1, “George Balanchine and the United States

Baba Melvin Deal

It is often repeated that the best place to start is the beginning, but this will be a non-linear exploration. I’ll start with my personal revelation, and follow the threads from there. I’m going to leave a lot of really intense material just a half-thought away from the content here. The African Heritage Dancers and Drummers (AHDD) start in 1959, and those times (search for Melvin Deal on the 1966-1976 map), as today, are complicated.

On the passing of Baba Melvin Deal (Kwame Omobowale Ochunremi Alibi Agyei), obituaries make note of his legacy in Washington, DC, and his connections to Howard University, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and DanceAfrica Festival. They recognize his recent role as a Grand Marshal for the 2021 Martin Luther King Holiday Parade in Washington DC. These are real, true, and important, but represent only a tiny scratch in the surface of this man’s life. I don’t think it’s so important to recognize that he was a Grand Marshal for a parade – it’s much more important to understand why he was a Grand Marshal for a parade.

I offer at least one reason – Melvin Deal brought dance, and importantly, African dance, to tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of kids.

This post will, I hope, go some distance toward that understanding. It is a tiny, tiny, thing, but I will attempt to gather here, not just words about Melvin Deal, but some context that hints just a bit more deeply at his amazing, half-century-long impact on dance, not just in and around Washington, DC, but deeply and seriously in Baltimore.

Melvin Deal came to my attention while I was digging through archives and libraries chasing the history of dance in and around Baltimore. My experience with Melvin Deal is entirely remote – a [literally] dusty, tedious, and distinctly un-dance-worthy desk experience. His company, the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, appeared occasionally in Baltimore area news coverage, but only occasionally. In the hundreds of pages of notes gathered over years of reading, I found about a half-page worth of references to this company. Media coverage of dance is bad even in the best of times, and this is no exception. Even dance-focused DC coverage mentions this man and his company only once, and then only in the context of a personal year-in-retrospect and bringing “Melvin Deal and his African Heritage Drummers and Dancers to a Kennedy Center stage for the first time.” – which is incorrect. AHDD graced the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater stage under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society in 1980, and that was a big deal. Even in 1980, George Jackson of the Washington Post opens his article with “The rarest of events took place last night — a home-grown company danced at Kennedy Center.”

Under-recognized and under-appreciated for a half century, I cannot pretend to do this story justice, but I will offer what I have gathered. There is only a tiny footprint in media and online (as of this writing, just 23 subscribers for their YouTube channel). I hope it is correct, but if you notice anything I get wrong, please do let me know. I tried, unsuccessfully, to reach Melvin Deal in late 2019. This is from the perspective of dance in and around Baltimore – the work I’ve done and notes gathered mostly for a different purpose. DC is a different world and outside the scope of my original efforts.

The Melvin Deal Dancers and Drummers

The earliest Baltimore news item I found came from the Afro-American (usually just The Afro), August 10, 1968. In less than a dozen paragraphs devoted to the first Black Arts Festival, under the auspices of the S.O.U.L. (Society Of United Liberators) School, the Melvin Deal Dancers and Drummers join Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), and Frankie and the Spindels, among others for performances at Harlem Park Junior High School.

Like many dance companies, AHDD included the founder’s name in it’s name – it takes some level of ego to launch a dance company into the world, and with that usually comes some expectation of recognition. I don’t know why (this is someone else’s story to tell), but it only took a few years to drop Mevlin’s name from the company name (usually). Maybe the change recognizes something bigger than an individual, or a modest confidence. In any case, a new company name appears…

The New Thing African Heritage Dancers and Drummers

A year later, on June 21, 1969 the apparently recently-renamed New Thing Heritage Dancers and Drummers grace cover of the Afro-American with three photographs of dancers (Larry Richmond, Dennis Thompson, and Melvin Deal) under the banner headline “The New Thing Heritage Dancers.” Why “The New Thing” in the title? From The Afro, “they are an integral art of the cultural program at the New Thing Art and Architecture Center” (Founded in 1966 by Topper Carew).

Though the story is relatively light on text, it offers important details. “…formed four years ago by Howard University students,” “There are 30 young people in the company. They range in age from 9-25,” and “In their repertoire are 12 West African dances.” We also learn here that “the Baltimore community has recently been treated to several appearances of the group.”

… and that’s just about it. The Afro mentions the company a few other times, but generally as correspondence coverage from Washington, DC. The company name varies a bit from article to article – before settling in to “African Heritage Dancers and Drummers.”

African Heritage Dancers and Drummers

The company’s early performances in Baltimore go largely unnoticed in the news, with occasional mentions of festival (Baltimore Arts Festival in 1972, Preakness Festival in 1972, Odunde Festival in 1980, Artscape in 1983) and college (Harford Community College in 1971, Community College of Baltimore in 1973) performances. In 1979, the company engages at Baltimore Theatre Project for the first time. They also feature in a couple benefit events – for the African Heritage Center in 1977, and for themselves in 1982. By all appearances, this is a DC-based company that occasionally visits Baltimore – a footnote in Baltimore’s dance history at best.

Echoing that footnote status, Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History (2008) with more than 1500 pages spanning three volumes mentions Melvin Deal in a section on “Guinea Dance” – but just one sentence: “Melvin Deal’s African Heritage Dancers and Drummers is another example of a generation that has taught youth since the early 1960s.”

But the company is born in an era of deep social and political activity – and its members are deeply committed to their causes.

Not Just a Footnote

It is their 1982 Baltimore engagement at Dunbar Performing Arts Center (Dunbar High School) that opens a whole new perspective on Melvin Deal in Baltimore. The performance is a fundraiser for the company itself – an effort to fund the company’s move to “the Lansburg’s Art Center in Washington.” I believe this is in the 700 block of E Street Northwest (that particular project is a whole story unto itself). But the Baltimore Sun covers this, and brings two quotes from Melvin Deal…

They decided to present this benefit here, Mr. Deal says, because they consider the company “as much a Baltimore group as a D.C. group – half of the company lives in Baltimore.”

Then too, the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers have been performing in Baltimore under the auspices of the Cultural Enrichment Program since 1967. According to Mr. Deal, the group has given hundreds of concerts, dancing “in every school in Baltimore” – and often, he says, having to make up some of the costs out of their own pockets.

Deborah Papier, Baltimore Sun, March 26, 1982, page B6

This fundamentally changes everything.

Even if “every” school is an exaggeration… This company directly impacted thousands – more likely, tens of thousands – of children in Baltimore. Quietly, persistently, and with deep commitment, Melvin Deal brought [his version of…] African dance to Baltimore. More importantly, to Baltimore’s children.

One of the most revolutionary things Mr. Deal has done is to create a dance school where over 100 children and teenagers take classes for free (the 40 adult students pay for their lessons). Being unable to afford dance classes as a child himself, Mr. Deal resolved at that time to start an institution some day that would be open to any young person who wanted to dance.

Deborah Papier, Baltimore Sun, March 26, 1982, page B6

The African Heritage Dancers and Drummers website is long gone (it seems to have gone offline sometime during 2009). Before it disappeared, this was Melvin Deal’s Biography –

Melvin Deal
Founding Director, African Heritage Dancers & Drummers

The founding Executive Artistic Director of the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers is, Mr. Melvin Deal, a veteran artist of more than forty years. Mr. Deal, has worked tirelessly in researching African cultural manifestations to be used in the building of self-esteem and addressing the presence of violence, delinquency and dysfunctional lifestyles and abuse in African-American communities.

An accomplished dancer, musician, choreographer, researcher and director, Mr. Deal is a graduate of Howard University, with a BA degree in Fine Arts & Education. Mr. Deal has studied at Ghana University, University of Nigeria at Ibadan and at numerous cultural institutions nationally and abroad in the African Diaspora.

The recipient of many prestigious awards, among which includes: The Washington’s “Living Legends” Award, 1980, “Washingtonian of the Year, 1981”, “Mayor’s Arts Award, 1981”, “Baltimore’s Great Blacks In Wax Award”, 1995, “Philadelphia’s CODUND’ Award,” 1995 and many others.

Mr. Deal performs and teaches regularly in the African Heritage Dance Center and in many elementary & secondary school systems and conducts classes, seminars, master classes and lecture demonstrations for colleges, universities and special cultural input to motivational programs such as “Robins Research Institute,” National Association of Social Workers, National Association of Black Psychologist, Boys & Girl Scouts of America, Office of Criminal Justice and many others.

Mr. Deal is a consummate “performance artist,” focusing his revealing, magically colorful and insightful presentations on “AIDS” issues of, healing, prevention and revelation.

A community artist of uncommon perseverance, Mr. Deal remains true to his calling.

African Heritage Dancers and Drummers website, November, 2008. [Lightly edited for punctuation].

For more on Baba Melvin Deal (including some photos), a collection of notes and links, some of which may be paywalled, but all work as of this writing –

The drum is the centerpiece that connects the spiritual world and physical world that allows the voice of God to speak to the people

Baba Melvin Deal, MLK Holiday DC