Until the early 1950s, viewing beautiful, powerful dance performances was limited to urban centers across the United States. The national dance landscape began to change in 1956 through the commitment, hard work, and vision of the National Association for Regional Ballet (NARB). Its prime purpose, later continued by Regional Dance America (RDA), was to decentralize dance in America by fostering quality at all levels of development in order to provide pre-professional performance opportunities for dancers and audiences throughout all North American communities. RDA was founded in 1988 to further promote the artistic development of dance companies throughout the United States.
Anatole Chujoy, founder/editor of Dance News, thought that bringing together dancers and choreographers within a specified region for a dance festival could make the quality training traditionally found in larger metropolitan areas more accessible to the smaller corners of dance across America. Chujoy proposed the festival concept to Dorothy Alexander, a visionary leader and director of Atlanta Civic Ballet. Ms. Alexander enthusiastically developed the idea, and in 1956, the Atlanta Civic Ballet hosted the first regional festival in its home city. Eight Southeastern companies were invited to participate. The success of this event immediately led to the formation of the Southeastern Regional Ballet Festival Association.
By 1958, a group of interested individuals devoted themselves creating a regional dance movement. The group included Dorothy Alexander, director, Atlantic Civic Ballet; Anatole Chujoy, founder/editor, Dance News; Doris Hering, associate editor & principal critic, Dance Magazine; Lydia Joel, editor, Dance Magazine; P. W. Manchester, managing editor, Dance News; Ben Sommers, president, Capezio – and better known as “Mr. Capezio”; and Alice M. Bingham of Capezio. The group developed into a committee, with Ms. Alexander elected as chairman, to create the National Association for Regional Ballet.
By 1959, the festival experience expanded to other regions of the US. Alexi Ramov, director of Scranton Ballet Guild, was so inspired by his attendance at the first Atlanta Festival that he promptly set out to organize a similar organization for his area — the Northeast Regional Ballet Association. In 1959, the Northeast Region held its first festival event. Barbara Weisberger, director of the Wilkes-Barre Ballet, joined Ramov in sponsoring the festival.
Word of the regional festival movement spread across the country with the support of Ben Sommers, president of Capezio Ballet Makers. In 1963, the Southwestern Regional Ballet Association was formed and held its first festival, hosted by Barbara and David Carson of the Austin Civic Ballet. This was followed in 1966 by the formation of the Pacific Western Regional Ballet Association with its first festival hosted by Deane and Barbara Crockett of the Sacramento Civic Ballet. Lastly, the Mid-States Regional Ballet Association was formed and held its first festival in Kansas City in 1972, hosted by the Kansas City Ballet.
In 1963 the National Association for Regional Ballet was formally incorporated as a nonprofit organization and chartered under the laws of the State of New York. NARB continued to evolve in order to meet the needs of its member companies. The original advisors of NARB became a Board of Directors, which expanded to include an elected representative from each Region Association. A strong bond developed between the Regions and the National Board. Ever since the first festival in Atlanta and under the guidance of the NARB, the regional ballet movement gained impetus and became one of the liveliest of all grass roots, cultural activities.
In the beginning, there were perhaps thirty-five local or civic companies spread throughout the United States, which existed in great isolation. The regional movement created opportunity for companies who were committed to standards and the festival experience to locate and connect with other like-minded companies. NARB produced an enormous impact on dance decentralization in the United States, shouldered a great deal of responsibility for the much-talked-about ‘dance boom’ of the 1960s and 1970s, and played a significant role in the development of renowned professional companies.
In 1972, support from the National Endowment for the Arts enabled NARB to hire Doris Hering as Executive Director and to open an office in New York City, NY. The central office became the nucleus for information sharing and archiving as well as connection among the Regions. The national office organized the National Choreography Plan to commission choreographers to travel to 46 member companies to produce new ballets. NARB provided choreographer fees and transportation, and received substantial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Southern Arts Federation, Pennsylvania Arts Council, New York State Council on the Arts, California Arts Council, Michigan Arts Council, Florida Arts Council, and L. J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation. In addition, quarterly newsletters, company and choreographer rosters, and videography and costuming services helped member companies to learn and grow. In 1977, NARB established a Professional Wing to assist those member companies that were growing in stature to make the transition to professional dance companies.
Regional Dance America, RDA, was founded in 1988 to further promote the artistic development of dance companies throughout the United States, continuing the important work of the NARB. The annual Festivals within each Region continue to be the focal point of the regional dance movement and have raised public awareness, knowledge, and accessibility of regional dance throughout American communities. Each Festival season, highly esteemed adjudicators tour the regions to select works by member companies and arrange Festival programs. The Adjudicators provide constructive feedback to member companies to elevate their accomplishments. The season culminates at the Festivals, where participants attend master classes, seminars, and college roundtables during the day, as well as perform each evening. Member company dancers are seen by college and professional training program recruiters and have the opportunity to audition for awards and scholarships. Member company directors network with well-known dance educators and choreographers.
Over three hundred companies, including more than two-dozen nationally recognized professional dance companies, have been NARB or RDA member companies. Alumni professional companies who had their start as members of NARB or RDA include: Atlanta Ballet, Augusta Ballet, Ballet Austin, Ballet Pacifica, Ballet Metropolitan, Ballet Oklahoma, Ballet South, Berkshire Ballet, Boston Ballet, Carolina Ballet, Charleston Ballet Theatre, Dallas Ballet, Dance Alive!, Dayton Ballet, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Delta Festival Ballet, Ft. Wayne Ballet, Grand Rapids Ballet, Harbinger Dance Company, Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, Louisville Ballet, MADCO, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Philadanco, Princeton Ballet, Richmond Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, Southern Ballet Theatre, Tulsa Ballet Theater, Utah Regional Ballet, and Washington Ballet.
Since the very first Festival, there has been a desire to help new choreographers develop their craft and raise the standards of choreography throughout the United States. The Summer Choreography Conference, now known as RDA’s National Choreography Intensive, was developed in 1961 under the guidance of Josephine Schwarz, artistic director of Dayton Civic Ballet. Over the years, national interest and funding from the NEA, Monticello College Foundation, and other sources have brought great success to the conference. The annual intensive is a multifaceted program, providing dancers, emerging choreographers, and seasoned choreographers the unparalleled opportunity to work, study, and create under the guidance of nationally recognized professionals in the fields of dance and music. Through the NCI, the regional movement continues to be the source of some of America’s most meaningful choreographers and talented dancers.
In 1990, Regional Dance America was invited to perform at the International Ballet Competition (IBC) in Jackson, Mississippi by artistic director Thalia Mara. Each RDA Region presented one piece at an RDA Exhibition Performance on the single free day of the competition. This afforded RDA exposure to an enthusiastic international audience. RDA has sent many dancers, choreographers, and pieces to the IBC throughout the years.
A milestone and significant change for RDA came in 1997, when the Regions joined together for the first ever National Festival in Houston, Texas. 100 companies, 1,500 dancers, and 500 artistic directors, teachers, chaperones, and board members attended five full days of classes, seminars, performances, scholarship auditions, and networking events. Glenda Brown, artistic director of Allegro Ballet, served as Festival Host with the support of the National Board and member companies from across the country. The success of the first National Festival inspired three additional National Festivals — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2007, Montréal, Québec in 2012, and Phoenix, Arizona in 2017.
The 2007 “See America Dancing” National Festival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania celebrated 50 years of regional dance. As with the first National Festival, over 2,000 participants experienced a diverse Festival, with national and international faculty who offered new insights, performances that provided inspiration, and networking opportunities that connected all attendees. The 2012 National Festival was international — moving across the border into the “City of Lights,” Montréal, Québec, Canada. A thriving and diverse dance population embraced the RDA membership for this “Festival de Danse.” The 2017 National Festival in Phoenix, Arizona once again provided a unique and positive experience for dancers, choreographers, directors, chaperones, and faculty members from around the US to learn, connect, and grow in an inspired environment. Dispersed between years of Region Festivals, RDA National Festivals traverse the country to fulfill dancers’ passion and audiences’ appreciation for the art of dance throughout the US.
The future of RDA lies in its steadfast commitment to dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, and pre-professional dance throughout the US. RDA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit whose mission is elevating the future of dance in America – giving dancers experience and directors perspective. Regardless of geographic boundaries, dancers and choreographers are provided quality training at annual Festivals in order to master their craft. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are given to dancers to attend prestigious professional training programs, colleges and universities, and intensive programs throughout the country. Through the annual Adjudication process, Regional and National festivals, and the National Choreography Intensive, RDA inspires a growing community of excellence in dance education and performance.