An evaluation of the Washington, DC metropolitan area was conducted in fall 2002 to create a factual census and assess the dance community. The census captured a thorough listing of dance-making entities in the District and five neighboring counties. The assessment employed both quantitative surveys and qualitative research throughout the dance community to define perceived needs and strengths. Below are some key findings from the evaluation of the metropolitan Washington, DC dance community:
Dance in the DC Metropolitan Area: A Needs Assessment
A Study Conducted by Dance/USA
John Munger, author
Libby Smigel, editor
This study represents the results of a yearlong effort to conduct a factual census of the greater Washington, DC area dance community together with an assessment of significant needs and strengths in that community. The census captures a thorough listing of dance-making entities in the District and five neighboring counties together with important and useful quantitative data about those entities. The assessment employs both quantitative surveys and qualitative research throughout the dance community to define perceived needs and strengths.
Of the numerous findings developed by this process, four stand out for their widespread impact. In many cases, they help to explain other findings and are supported in turn by findings of more detailed, but limited, scope. All four are supported by both quantitative and qualitative information and analysis. A full compendium of the 19 key findings follows this executive summary.
The Washington, DC area dance community is fragmented into numerous groups or “circles” that do not communicate well with each other and do not have stable mechanisms for collaborative efforts. This is not to say that there are deep divisions or conflicts within the dance community. To the contrary, many in the community report a general feeling of friendliness and support among their peers and colleagues. As discussed in the section of this report titled “The Perceptual Landscape,” this fragmentation is perhaps the most important finding to emerge from this study. It is the result of many factors at work in the greater Washington environment, and it affects many of the dance community’s salient characteristics, both positive and negative.
There is widespread agreement that diversity is the greatest strength of the DC area dance community. Not only are dance ensembles representing many cultures and nations scattered throughout the DC area, there are also many genres, levels of achievement, and types of structure. The variety of dance represented among the 186 dance-making entities captured in the census is notable. This strength in diversity bears a paradoxical relationship to the finding that the dance community is weakened by fragmentation. The presence of so many and such widely varied dance-making entities makes it inevitable that some fragmentation should be expected.
Chronic lack of financial resources for dance in the greater Washington, DC area creates not just one but several vicious circles, trapping dance artists in circumstances that they are powerless to remedy. Certainly, any dance community in the nation can say it does not have enough money. But dance companies often have problems that can be effectively addressed through technical support, improved communications, or other internal adjustments. Better strategy is sometimes the most cost-effective option. In the Washington, DC area, however, most of the weaknesses are not due simply to lack of technical expertise, lack of experience, destructive partisanship, or anything else that can be addressed through changes of policy. Over and over, the root of a given problem is either lack of money or some issue that cannot be addressed without an infusion of money.
Dance based in the Washington, DC area often receives less than robustly respectful treatment on many fronts, including within the field itself. Like the lack of money cited above, this challenge can be reported by many dance communities across the nation. The Washington DC area is not especially different from other communities where dance does not receive the media coverage, recognition among policy makers, or general support and understanding that it probably deserves.
The fact that this is a common problem does not diminish the importance of its impact on the Washington DC area dance community. Indeed, a number of respondents to this study’s surveys and interviews observed that the nation’s capital should perhaps do better than it already does in this regard. There are no silver bullet answers in these findings. There is too little agreement across the dance community about how needs might be addressed and too little consensus about how the important needs might be prioritized according to their urgency or impact. Certainly, some specific lines of inquiry and discussion deserve focus.
For example, the considerable diversity of dance in the Washington metropolitan area, when considered in new light, may lead to adjustments of policy at media institutions and funding organizations. The related lack of cohesion and communication between “circles” within the dance community may encourage additional discussions about a possible centralizing service organization. But, as the text of the study elaborates, views on a possible service organization were mixed, and debate over this possibility is in its infancy. Perhaps a different solution, not yet imagined, might address the need for greater cohesion and communication in the DC area dance community.
The geographic challenges described in “The Factual Landscape,” coupled with the lack of performance space, suggest exploration of the need for a new medium-size theater dedicated to dance. There is support for the idea within the community, but the question of location is grave. Underlying and exacerbating this question is lack of time. Creative solutions are needed to address the dispersion of energy, time, and resources among overburdened artists.
The question of visibility, image, and respect for local dance-makers in the Washington community as a whole goes back to the question of cohesion and communication. It will take time, money, and coordinated efforts to change the attitudes of an entire city, its media, its critics, and its policy-makers.
How might the richness and diversity of the DC area dance community be made common knowledge and a source of national pride? How might the region’s dance community come to speak with one voice, and should it even do so?
Finally, this study makes the case that more money is needed. Even if this point is granted—and it surely will meet with argument of various kinds from various quarters—the questions then arise how new dollars are to be found and how they are to be allocated. If these questions are not addressed, most of the other findings in this study are likely to see little headway made with problems and little advantage taken of strengths.
The willingness of the Washington, DC area dance community and the generosity of the foundations supporting this study are a testament to the potential for growth and improvement in the DC area dance community. The researchers and writers of this report are grateful to all concerned for their cooperation and support. Dance communities across the country have tried too often and for too long to make strategic decisions and visualize new possibilities in the absence of comprehensive information about the makeup and shared perceptions of their own communities. We hope that the value of this study will inform extraordinary progress for the Washington, DC area dance community and that other metropolitan areas across the nation will take note of Washington’s example.