In honor of Danceworks’ 20th Anniversary, we are sharing 20 stories of individuals who have made an impact on—or who have been impacted by—Danceworks and our programs. This counts as the third and fourth in our series, “20 Years, 20 Stories.”
The call came two days after I had submitted a resignation. I was ready for a new challenge but had no idea what it would be. I showed up at a Danceworks board meeting for an interview, and as I recall, was hired that night. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Polly Morris and Mary Newton. None of us would be. Without them, there would be no Danceworks! Read on to discover our delightful history and remember…sometimes new doors don’t open until you close old ones. -Debbie
Some thoughts from Mary and Polly… When we got together recently to reminisce about Danceworks, our common thought was that we barely recognize Danceworks these days . . . but that’s a good thing!
Our original mission of providing performance, outreach and instruction is clearly alive and well, but the activities and personnel that populate those focus areas have shifted and multiplied exponentially. That’s a logical outgrowth of the agile flexibility that has characterized Danceworks since its inception. When an organization is not tied to the vision of a dominant personality or the expectations of a traditional audience, it is free to explore new partnerships and take advantage of a shifting community landscape. It has been exciting, but not surprising, to see Danceworks thrive in the midst of constant change.
Looking back 20 years to the beginnings of Danceworks, we were both in a similar phase of life, with young kids and bodies that moved a lot easier than they do these days. We were also both on a hiatus from our academic and professional lives, and we had the mental energy to take on the organizational challenge of creating and growing a new non-profit. Fortunately, our skill sets were complementary, and we usually agreed on where we needed to go. As an added bonus, our personalities meshed as easily as if we had grown up together, which may be why we were often mistaken for each other.
More people than we can count seemed to appear just when their skills or talents were needed. Some stayed with us for just a short time, and others—like Amy Brinkman-Sustache—are still with Danceworks. Regardless of their tenure, they were all critical to our success. We really feel that we had the best, be it teachers, performers, accountants, office workers or financial angels. And the students and audiences always showed up, too, as we moved the studio from Milwaukee Street to Bay View and back to Water Street, and performed in diverse venues from the tiny Walker’s Point Center for the Arts to the grand old Pabst Theater.
Along the way, we developed computer skills (starting on an old Apple IIE!) and became experienced at grant writing, both of which have paid long-term dividends. We also developed expertise in the more dubious specialties of bulk mail and VHS tape dubbing, for which we now find little demand. Achieving UPAF membership was a significant milestone, permitting the gradual turnover of the operational and artistic direction of Danceworks to paid staff. It’s been great to watch from the sidelines as Debbie Farris, Sarah Wilbur, Dani Kuepper and the others have moved Danceworks forward.
We’ve moved on now to other things. Polly first went to UW-Milwaukee as an arts administrator, and now is the Director and Curator of the Lynden Sculpture Gardens in River Hills. Mary teaches reading and spelling at the Children’s Dyslexia Center in Milwaukee, and advocates for improved reading instruction statewide through the Wisconsin Reading Coalition. Our seven kids, one of whom wasn’t even born when we started Danceworks, now range in age from 19 to 30. We all continue to treasure our many Danceworks memories and wish Danceworks the very best as you enter the next 20 years!