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Dance community stunned as funding ends

Waves of dismay are rolling through the region's dance community in the wake of an abrupt decision by the William Penn Foundation to cease funding Dance/UP, a branch of Washington-based Dance/USA and the sole organization serving the entire community.

Germaine Ingram watched by "the master himself" - Prof. LaVaughn Robinson - during "DanceBoom!" 2003. (Credit:
Germaine Ingram watched by "the master himself" - Prof. LaVaughn Robinson - during "DanceBoom!" 2003. (Credit: more

Waves of dismay are rolling through the region's dance community in the wake of an abrupt decision by the William Penn Foundation to cease funding Dance/UP, a branch of Washington-based Dance/USA and the sole organization serving the entire community.

The foundation, which provided the funding in 2006 to launch Dance/UP and has supported it ever since, gave no notice that it would not renew that support, said dance officials, nor did it offer to finance a transition period for Dance/UP (formerly called Dance USA/Philadelphia) to wind down and transfer programs to other groups.

"It's like cutting off the legs and cutting out the heart," choreographer and dancer Melanie Stewart, now an associate dean at Rowan University, said of the funding denial. "Dance/UP is essential."

After the grant denial in early November, Dance/UP asked the foundation about the possibility of transitional funding that would allow an orderly, more protracted termination. The board of William Penn is considering that request now and will make a decision at its meeting Wednesday.

If transition funding is denied, Dance/UP will close Dec. 31. It is holding a series of meetings with the dance community to discuss current and future needs in light of the closure. The first is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St. (Information on the Dance/UP website,

Closure will mean the departure of executive director Lois Welk, widely regarded in the dance world as indefatigable and wholly focused on supporting individual artists and dance organizations throughout the region.

In 2011, Dance/USA received a 30-month grant of $950,026 for Dance/UP operations, similar to its previous three-year grant; also, in 2011, a grant for $200,000 funded the 2013 Dance/USA national conference in Philadelphia.

"Philadelphia was poised to be a great American dance capital," said Welk. "Now we're a little less poised. . . . We're certainly looking at options to sustain programs and services. We're committed to leaving as much value in the community as possible, which would be a little easier with transition support. I love the Philadelphia dance community."

Without Welk - whose salary, she said, was "in the mid-70s" - and her small staff of seven part-timers, programs of small grants, performance ticket passes, and dance in public places would vanish. Her informal meetings, open to all dance professionals, and her personal grant-writing help would disappear, as would the Dance/UP calendar and its e-newsletter full of invaluable grant, job, and performance listings.

Partnerships arranged for local groups and artists with national and international counterparts, the Dance/UP movable rehearsal floor, and other amenities would vanish as well.

"This is a very diverse collection of dance communities," said Welk, who sought to make her Dance/UP open to all of them. "Dance is not going to die."

David Haas, president of William Penn, referred all requests for comment to foundation spokeswoman Rebecca Morley, who said she could not comment beyond a board-approved statement prepared Nov. 19. In it, the foundation first praised the "significant role in advancing the dance sector in Philadelphia" that has been played by Dance/UP, which has "contributed to the vibrancy of the arts and culture community in a meaningful way."

Nevertheless, the statement continued, "with more than 600 cultural institutions across the region, there is an increasing demand for financial support, and the foundation is sometimes faced with making difficult decisions regarding where to invest its finite resources at any one time.

"With that in mind, the foundation continues to seek ways to maximize the impact of its grantmaking while also working to ensure that its grants do not represent the majority of any one organization's budget. For many years, Dance USA/Philadelphia has served the local dance sector with intelligence and great energy, and we were proud to be able to support its work. Dance USA/Philadelphia's closing is an unfortunate illustration of the challenges the sector continues to face, and highlights the need to find solutions for a more-sustainable arts community."

Officials at the foundation and in the arts community say that the William Penn is now seeking to limit the size of its operating support to any one organization. Since 2013, with exceptions made case by case, the foundation will not finance more than 25 percent of an organization's general operating costs for more than three individual years in any given five-year period.

Dance/UP and Dance/USA officials in Washington say they were never told by the foundation that their grant's continuation depended on rapid diversification of funding and a reduction in reliance on the foundation. Nevertheless, Dance/UP already was seeking other funders and had attracted several, if not of the magnitude of the $2 billion William Penn. Dance/USA was pressing Philadelphia to diversify funders and become wholly independent, said executive director Amy Fitterer.

She said she was stunned when the foundation simply cut off all funding: "To find out it was completely zeroed out, and, 'Oh, by the way, you do great work' - that was a complete shock."

The impact of losing a service organization for something as fragmented and financially fragile as the dance community is virtually impossible to measure. Dance budgets tend to be not small but minuscule.

In its recently released statistical portrait of the region's cultural sector, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance noted that regional dance companies have operated on much smaller budgets than organizations in any other discipline, with a median amount of $43,000 spent annually to create and disseminate work. (The median for music groups, the next smallest, is $114,000.)

There are 2,000 to 3,000 dancers, choreographers, and other professionals involved in the discipline in the Philadelphia area, according to different estimates. They attract a total audience of 400,000 to 500,000, says the cultural-alliance report Portfolio.

According to recent conversations with dozens of dance professionals, funding to present work and attract audiences is ever harder to find.

"It's increasingly difficult to survive," said Joan Myers Brown, whose internationally known Philadanco company and school have operated out of West Philadelphia for nearly 50 years. Brown says she has had such a difficult time obtaining funding from Philadelphia-area foundations that she now seeks support solely out of town.

"People like Lois are few and far between," she said of the Dance/UP executive director. "When you see the rug snatched out from under her, you start worrying about who's next. .. . . Not only was she helping Dance/USA, she was helping everybody else. It's not just the survival of that organization; its the survival of all who depend on her."

Germaine Ingram, an independent dancer and choreographer, who is finishing a two-month residency in Brazil, said, "The loss of this organization will be profound.

"I am one of three Philadelphia-based dancer-choreographers who within this calendar year have been able to experience a two-month residency at the Sacatar Institute through a new partnership between the Institute and Dance/UP," she said. "It distresses me to know that other Philadelphia dance artists will not have this partnership and other international relationships that Dance/UP has nurtured, as a conduit for . . . spreading knowledge of the vibrant reservoir of talent and energy that resides in Philadelphia."

She and hundreds of others signed a petition at supporting transitional funding for Dance/UP.

Terry Fox, head of Philadelphia Dance Projects, has for years seen companies and organizations rise and fall. Dance continues, but she mourns the disappearances and absent legacies resulting from lost funding.

"The dance community will keep on," she said. "But it's what might have been. We'll never get to live with the legacy of great artists who've moved on."