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ARTS A Great Leap Forward

While other groups have folded, Dallas Black Dance Theater is better than ever.
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ON A PLEASANT OCTOBER AF-ternoon in 1987, in the grandest ballroom of the Adolphus Hotel, the two pillars of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre-executive director Zenetta Drew and founder/artistic director Ann Williams-sat chatting with representatives of JC Penney company.

JC Penney’s was about to announce a donation. A big one. As the guests, 80 or so representatives from corporations around the Dallas area, awaited the speeches, the question already was forming.

Why, they wondered, was JC Penney doling out another $100,000 to a struggling minority arts organization housed on the campus of dying Bishop College?

By the end of the evening, the guests were well acquainted with DBDT and the audacious plan that had impressed JC Penney. The dance company’s goal was to move into prominence alongside the Dallas Museum of Art and the Dallas Symphony, and abreast of the nationally famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Joffrey Ballet.

Four years later, DBDT is on its way to realizing that goal. This November, the company showed off its latest big production, Deep Ellum Nites. This season has been a triumph, with a tour of Peru and Italy that won rave reviews from foreign press, and appearances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (largely paid for by a grant from Austin Industries) and at Dallas’ Shakespeare Festival.

While other arts groups, including the Dallas Ballet, have folded amid hard economic times, DBDT has prospered. It has reorganized its staff and streamlined its expenses. Thanks to a recent Meadows Foundation grant, DBDT now has an operating cash reserve, a rare and happy circumstance for any arts organization.

“The company itself has grown artistically over the past few years because they have been bringing in some outside choreographers,” said Jo Ann Robertson, president of the Dallas Dance Council. “That has resulted in some very excellent work being presented to the public.”

Observers agree that DBDT’s current good fortune traces back to 1987, when the company’s board of directors decided to dream big. That meant going after larger grants and hiring a professional staff. That was the year they found Zenetta Drew and paired her administrative skills with Ann Williams’ artistic vision.

The Southwest’s only predominantly black dance company was founded in 1976 by Williams, who holds a master’s degree in dance from Texas Woman’s University. She was teaching dance full time at Bishop College when the Dance Theatre of Harlem visited Dallas.

Inspired by the New York company, Williams recruited black dancers from El Centra, SMU, Dallas Metropolitan Ballet and local magnet schools. Her first troupe numbered four dancers who worked other jobs during the day and rehearsed at night and on weekends. The company’s first grant was $4,000 from Mobil Foundation, Inc.

From the beginning, Williams recalls, the company “began to get bigger than we thought it was going to be.” Requests for performances came streaming in. But for years DBDT remained a low-budget operation. Bishop College charged them minimal rent and the money from donations and grants was used to pay the dancers $200 to $500 per event.

The company’s fortunes took a leap upward in 1986 with its production of Deep Bllum Blues at the Majestic Theatre. JC Penney gave DBDT its first $100,000 grant and commissioned a new work. With the retailer’s marketing help, Deep Ellum Blues generated a lot of publicity. Dance critics saw the group as enthusiastic, but lacking polish, and perhaps performing works too ambitious for their skills.

Nineteen eighty-seven was a turnaround year. An expanded board of directors brought more business savvy and community experience to DBDT. The company also hired New York consultant Carolyn Adams to inspect DBDT’s operations. Adams reported that among the company’s most crucial needs was retaining its best dancers.

Surveys were taken at each DBDT performance seeking patrons’ opinions and expectations. Grant applications were rewritten with revised budgets and more attention to detail- Board members made personal loans and co-signed others.

Until 1987, DBDT had pretty much been a one-woman operation, and that one woman was Ann Williams. In January of that year, the board hired Zenetta Drew as DBDT’s director of administration, later changing her title to executive director.

Chosen for her business acumen, Drew handles all adminstrative chores, including finances and soliciting grants. This leaves Williams free to concentrate on DBDT’s artistic direction. Williams oversees all aspects of the repertory, as well as rehearsals, set and costume design, music and lighting.

“Very few people are willing to hand over the authority and influence of something they founded to someone they really don’t know,” says Drew of Williams. “Now, ours is a partnership. Ann wants to create something beautiful. I say, ’wonderful, but here is all of the money you have to do it with.’”

Drew came to DBDT after 12 years at ARCO Oil and Gas Co. A native of Kilgore, she was the company’s first black female supervisor in accounting. At ARCO she did everything from jumping from a helicopter onto an Alaskan oil rig to managing the windfall-profit unit.

Drew, Williams and the rejuvenated board of directors shaped the plan that would take the company through the 1990s. The plan included moving DBDT from Bishop College to a permanent facility, strengthening the dance repertory and touring schedule and putting the company on a firmer financial foundation, one that, Williams says, “now allows us to fully concentrate on what we were created to do.”

The $123,000 deficit that faced Drew when she arrived has been pared to less than $45,000. Five years ago, DBDT’s budget stood at $175,000 in cash and in-kind funding; they now have in excess of $650,000 cash and $200,000 in-kind for the current season. The administrative staff has grown from two to five, including a full-time touring manager.

Performances and dance services that numbered only 30 just five years ago reached a record high of 223 this past season, including visits to area schools and in-studio recitals.

In March, entertainer Harry Belafonte helped DBDT net $70,000 at its largest fundraiser yet, surpassing the previous high of $10,000. Board members recently extended the contracts of the company’s ethnically mixed roster of 11 dancers to 11 months of full-time employment.

Next year the company is scheduled to perform at the International Black Dance Conference in Los Angeles, and in Frankfurt. Germany. In February, at the Majestic Theater, the DBDT’s Black Cultural Awareness series will feature Edward Morgan, a former DBDT dancer and principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet.

But the last four years haven’t all been easy. By mid-1988, the company found itself in financial trouble. The first $100,000 grant from JC Penney had been spent mostly on Deep Ellum Blues, the second $100.000 was being paid in $25,000 yearly installments, and DBDT was depending heavily on revenue from ticket sales. (The norm for similar-sized organizations is 35 to 40 percent of revenues from contract performances and ticket sales.)

There had been some good fortune that year. Lucy Crow Billingsley provided a new home for DBDT: three years rent-free in a building on Flora Street in the Arts District. But right after the company moved in, says Drew, financial commitments from public and private sources were slow to be fulfilled or never came in at all.

“It was like they questioned whether we could handle the responsibility of this major facility and do all the things we were saying we were going to do,” says Drew. “It was like they were waiting on or expecting us to fail. Perhaps they figured we were growing much too fast.”

DBDT also had to battle the perception that every dance company in Dallas was dying. (After months in a near-death state, the Dallas Ballet finally disbanded in August 1988. During those same years, Dancers Unlimited Repertory Company made administrative cutbacks and trimmed its operation, performing more on a project by project basis.)

Undaunted, Drew and the DBDT board concocted an aggressive campaign that solicited a $500 donation from each of 500 corporations and businesses. Not one came through. Drew then approached individual CEOs about making $100 personal donations. Only one pitched in.

By Christmas 1988, the company was forced to lay off some office support and send the administrative staff home without pay for two weeks. “We were at our wit’s end,” says Drew. “We didn’t know how we were going to do what we had publicly said we were going to do, but we had to find some way.”

One way was to go to the city for help. In December, 1988. Drew and Williams asked Mayor Annette Strauss to tell Dallas about DBDT. They wanted the city to know that the company, despite its troubles, was enjoying larger audiences and increased ticket sales.

Strauss relayed the message that unless DBDT received $100,000 by the end of January 1989, the company would be out of business. Her plea raised $35,000 in less than a week: the rest arrived in time to save the company.

Slowly, things began to change. Corporate givers, who now donate 46 percent of DBDT’s budget, began to return. On one day’s notice, American Airlines funded an arts education program in the Dallas Independent School District, allowing DBDT dancers to tutor and entertain 7.500 third-graders. Mervyn’s, Target, The Dallas Morning News, The 500, Inc., Southwestern Bell Foundation, Frito-Lay, ARCO. Mobil and others also funded DBDT activities.

Then, in July 1991, The Meadows Foundation announced a $100,000 grant to DBDT to reduce the company’s debt by $25,000 and to establish an operating reserve of $75,000. “It’s our feeling that the organization has had some trying times in gelling to this plateau,” said a Meadows official. “It is also our hope that they can breathe a little easier and have the opportunity to continue to represent Dallas and be one of the finest dance companies in the country.”

The Meadows Foundation had contributed to DBDT before, but president Curtis Meadows Jr. explains that the dance company’s ability to either reduce debt or present a reasonable plan for satisfying debt was one of the primary reasons for giving the largest lump sum ever awarded to DBDT.

“We’ve been interested in their efforts all along, but what impressed us this time was the whole new direction of operations taken by the board and Zcnetta Drew,” says Meadows. “That, and the board’s diversity, commitment and involvement

prompted us to help them along.”

Lisa Hembry, Southwest regional marketing manager with The Staubach Company, an officer of the Texas Commission on the Arts and former DBDT board president, says the Meadows grant is a sign the dance company now is a major player in the arts community.

“With the process of gaining funds .. . becoming a more competitive one, arts organizations must prove they are fiscally sound, have a committed board and a strong administrator,” says Hembry. “DBDT and other [arts groups] didn’t have that, but Zenetta Drew’s business background and enthusiasm brought to DBDT that level of professionalism.”

Dallas Theater Center managing director Jeff West agrees. “I think there’s credit to be handed out to DBDT for its guts and tenacity during these depressed economic times when private donors aren’t as giving.”

“We have grown from a grass-roots community organization into a midsize professional organization, and our next step is to go national and international,” says Williams. She notes that the company’s reputation is better outside Dallas. “That’s something that doesn’t bother me because in order to be accepted in Dallas, you have to be big somewhere else.”

Another hurdle is the perception that DBDT caters only to blacks. Drew points to the ethnic diversity of the company’s 11 dancers (two are white, one is Hispanic), its administrative staff (two are white) and its multicultural audience (59 percent black, 34 percent white, 6 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian).

“We present an art form from a black point of view, but that doesn’t mean a black person has to always be the presenter,” she says. Acceptance from the city as a whole, she adds, will bring other minority arts organizations out of obscurity. They, in turn, will improve the qualify of life in Dallas.

Local support is growing. Drew points proudly to the allocation expected this year from the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs- $50,000 to $60,000.

“I still have to struggle to get into the door,” says Drew. “But when I go prospecting for DBDT, I’m competing with the big guys because DBDT is in a position to be as big or bigger than they are one day.”

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