Raising the Barre

A Cambridge arts organization is poised to grow.

Roaming the creaky wooden floors of The Dance Complex on a Sunday, one hears alluring sounds waft from its studios. Tinkling classical piano music, played live as the teacher counts out a ballet combination. Castanets clicking amid the staccato thwack of flamenco dancers’ thick-heeled shoes striking the floor. A recorded rapper seems stuck as students replay a phrase to perfect moves for a hip-hop show.

Loudest are the drummers on the top floor, beating African djembes and dununs—picking up the syncopation as Sidi Mohamed "Joh" Camara leads his largely female class, dressed in bright lapas, across the floor in dances from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and his native Mali. “The Dance Complex is unique,” Camara says after class. “In one place you find so many different things—ballet, African, capoeira, hip-hop, jazz, tap, modern—all kinds of dance.”

African dance classes attract a range of movers, from professionals to serious amateurs to newcomers.
Photograph by Bill Parsons/Maximal Image®

The Central Square organization offers 38 genres and more than 90 classes a week, most of them open to anyone, professionals to first-timers, on a drop-in basis. “Everyone, from kids to grown-ups, of all different backgrounds and ethnicities, takes classes here,” says choreographer and dancer Wendy Jehlen, M.T.S. ’00, who teaches her own eclectic class, “Movement Explorations”: a contemporary, athletic mix of forms and techniques from Indian, African, and South American dance.

Founded in 1991 by Rozann Kraus, who also ran the organization until 2013, the complex is housed in an idiosyncratic, five-story 1893 building designed by H.H. Richardson, A.B. 1859, that sits across from the MBTA’s Red Line station on Massachusetts Avenue. (Originally it was a meeting hall for the International Order of Odd Fellows.) Kraus and other local dance supporters developed a cooperative, artist-centered, nonprofit business model, and have kept classes affordable.

While mindful of its broad audience and history, a new executive director, Peter DiMuro, has moved to professionalize The Dance Complex and raise its profile as an epicenter for dance throughout New England. “Like any organization that’s 20 years old, that’s like being a young adult,” says DiMuro, a seasoned dancer and arts administrator appointed in 2013. “The complex has gotten by on this sheer energy of collaboration; it was a typical Cantabrigian program. That’s still our roots, but the place has grown and I want to develop a sustainable creative business model that fosters all of the creativity and styles of dance we have here.”

The “Movement Exploration” class blends forms and techniques from South America, India, and Africa.
Photograph by Bill Parsons/Maximal Image®

Of the roughly 1,200 visitors a week, DiMuro notes, “About 200 of them are seriously pursuing dance on a professional level, and the other 1,000 are keeping us alive: paying our bills.” The latter include a large cadre, from toddlers to teenagers, who take classes through The School of Classical Ballet and Duncan Dance (which rent studio space), as well as adults who range from serious amateurs to those who just love to move for fun or fitness (or both) in classes like BollyX, Zumba, hula–hooping, belly dancing, or “Sassy Hip Hop.”

DiMuro wants to keep quality high and more explicitly promote the merits of the art form—for everyone. “The adults who continue to seek out dance past their teen years are really renegades from the societal norms in this country,” he says. “But the benefits of movement—for artistic expression, yes, but also for the mind and body balance that it can bring to people’s lives—are just now being supported by more scientific research and findings.” Whether a person takes classes for professional or personal or spiritual growth, he adds, “I want to see growth.”

The ballet school, which offers 28 classes (including modern and tap), serves 140 students, from ages 3 to 18. Dance, says owner and director Kirsta Sendziak, is especially important in today’s fast-paced, technology-saturated culture because it teaches children how to focus on what their bodies are experiencing, and on how to observe and listen, “instead of constantly talking and reacting,” she notes. “And it’s a physical activity: I can see that they feel better about themselves when they move.”

Each first and third Sunday at the complex, Harrison Blum, M.Div. ’12, and his fiancée, dance and movement therapist Amorn O’Connor, teach an experimental class called “Nectar.” Although not formally trained, Blum has always loved to dance and, as a Buddhist chaplain, views the art form as a useful moving meditation. He and O’Connor emphasize internally generated movement within a “no-talking” realm. He says that even the most physically inhibited people have found the class liberating, offering himself as a prime example of goofiness: “I might be doing some hip-hop moves myself, then walking along the edge of the room looking more like a disabled dinosaur.”

Carl Alleyne teaches hip-hop and the lively Saturday morning “Party Dance 101,” featuring the latest club moves.
Photograph Courtesy of Carl Alleyne

Blum calls the complex an unusually open, community-oriented space that simply “specializes in cultivating a love and practice of movement.” That said, under DiMuro (and what he calls a “revitalized” board of directors, led by Mary McCarthy, associate director of administration at Harvard’s physics department), the organization is also developing more artistic opportunities for Greater Boston’s established and emerging professionals. A three-tiered training program now feeds into the Boston Center for the Arts residency program. The Dance Complex is also producing the show CATALYSTS (during the weekends between January 22 and February 6) to spotlight the work of five young dancers and choreographers: Chavi Bansal, Callie Chapman, Michael Figueroa, Sarah Mae Gibbons, and Kat Nasti. DiMuro is “building something that Boston really needs: an infrastructure for dance,” says Wendy Jehlen, founder and director of the dance company Anikaya. “That will make it possible to exist as a professional choreographer in Boston.”

During the last year the center has also hosted more local and national companies, along with visiting dancers—among them, modern choreographer Doug Varone, tap artist Sean Fielder, and flamenco dancer Nino de Los Reyes (whose father, Ramon de Los Reyes, teaches at the complex)—who perform and lead master classes. And soon to open is a new, seventh studio and event space on the street level.

Further heartening was news of a windfall—a $500,000 grant from the Barr Foundation—in September. The money will supplement operating expenses, help pay for the new studio, DiMuro says, and give “us the time and money to explore more deeply what has already been growing here—this crossroads of genres, intents, multiple processes, and artistic products—and to look at what the future of dance is in this community.”

Read more articles by Nell Porter-Brown

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