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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company: Still Going Strong

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company opened its 50th season with the world premiere of The Bench, A Journey Into Love.
Scott Robbins
Dayton Contemporary Dance Company opened its 50th season with the world premiere of The Bench, A Journey Into Love.

A dance company is more than graceful bodies moving across a stage; it’s also the people behind the scenes making sure the artists can create.

The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) has been presenting dance “rooted in the African American experience” for half a century. DCDC has weathered the ups and downs of the performing arts in a small Midwestern city for a long time.

"We are 50 years old. That means we’re grown up. That means that we have some wisdom, we have some knowledge, we have, I think, great experience behind us, but an even brighter future in moving forward," says Ronita Hawes-Saunders, chief executive officer of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

Since 2009, the company has been located at the Central State University Dayton Campus, in a sprawling building on Germantown Street. It was the home of Reynolds and Reynolds, before they moved their operations to Kettering.

With extensive renovations, like raising the ceilings so the dancers could rehearse lifts, there’s now a hum of creative energy coming from both the studios and professional offices. Everyone, from the dancers to the tour coordinator, from the costume designer to the grant writer, is hard at it.

Hawes-Saunders has been the company’s CEO for the past 13 years, and when she arrived, she was one of only three administrative staff. Today, there’s a staff of twelve, along with thirteen dancers, and an annual budget of near 1.4 million dollars.

"That’s a lot of money," says Hawes-Saunders. "And people are not aware of this, we don’t have a major national organization that just writes us a check or a guaranteed grant every year, we have to raise that amount of money in this community each and every year."

Early on, one of her challenges was raising DCDC’s visibility in the Dayton area.

"We could go to Detroit and have a sold-out house. We could go to a large city and people know who we are. But it was not as prevalent for folks to know about DCDC in the way that I knew that they would and could and should here in the Miami Valley, so we’ve worked very, very hard to be able to establish that."

But a dance company doesn’t run on ticket sales alone. To generate more revenue, Hawes-Saunders forged an innovative business model based on dance education.

This was something that I really felt was necessary in order for us to be able to sustain ourselves because of the challenging economy," says Hawes-Saunders. "So, what I wanted to do was to have strong partnerships with Wright State University, the University of Dayton, Central State University, and so the change of moving from Main Street downtown to the Central State University Dayton Campus was something that was a major change."

This strategy has paid off; not only does the company now have its own studios and offices, but during this 50th anniversary year, DCDC has had the resources to premiere new works on stage, travel to Historically Black Colleges and Universities for residencies, and mount tours to China, Kazakhstan, and Russia, even selling out a performance at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

"And so I think being 50 years old and being from the birthplace of aviation allows us to be able to stand tall and to say and look what we’ve been able to create and do and be here in Dayton, Ohio," says Hawes-Saunders.

But DCDC is not alone in spreading the Gospel of Black dance; it’s alive and well in major cities throughout the U.S. And this month, some of the very biggest names in black dance are coming to Dayton for the annual conference of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, including the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater   DCDC's late founder, Jeraldyne Blunden was also one of the founders of the IABD, and today, her daughter Debbie Blunden Diggs, the company's artistic director, is on the association's board. 

"Even though DCDC is firmly rooted in Dayton, Ohio and we are proud to be, we carry the Dayton name everywhere we go," says Blunden-Diggs. "We’re a global company and if you come and participate on any level, even if it’s just the performances, you will get a really wonderful insight of where DCDC sits on a national, international, and global level in the contemporary dance world. Because we want Dayton to be as proud if it as we are, and so join us. Come see."

From January 22nd through the 27th, the International Association of Blacks in Dances conference will gather over 800 dancers and administrators from all over the world for panel discussions, master classes, auditions, and performances at venues throughout Dayton. Learn more at https://www.dcdc.org.

Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.

Jocelyn Robinson is a Yellow Springs, Ohio-based educator, media producer, and radio preservationist. As an educator, Robinson has taught transdisciplinary literature courses incorporating critical cultural theory and her scholarship in self-definition and identity. She also teaches community-based and college-level classes in digital storytelling and narrative journalism.
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