Scarcely two generations ago, viewing beautiful, powerful dance performances were often limited to urban centers across this country. However, the national dance landscape began to change in 1956 through commitment, hard work and a vision set by the National Association for Regional Ballet. Its prime purpose, continued by Regional Dance America since 1987, has been to decentralize dance throughout the United States by creating standards and fostering quality at all levels of development in order to provide pre-professional performance opportunities for dancers and audiences throughout the United States and Canada.
It became evident to Anatole Chujoy, editor of Dance News, that a festival which would bring together dancers and choreographers within a specified region could offer quality training found in larger metropolitan areas to the smaller corners of dance across this country. Chujoy proposed the festival concept to Dorothy Alexander, director Atlanta Civic Ballet. The seeds of the idea could not have been planted in a more fertile mind for Mrs. Alexander, a visionary and leader enthusiastically developed the idea. In 1956 the Atlanta Civic Ballet hosted the first regional festival in its home city where 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 it became apparent that there was a nucleus of persons consistently interested in the festivals and capable of objectivity concerning the aim of a regional movement. This group Dorothy Alexander, Atlantic Civic Ballet; Anatole Chujoy, founder/editor, Dance News; Doris Herring, associate editor & principal critic, Dance Magazine; Lydia Joel, editor, Dance Magazine; P. W, Manchester, managing editor, Dance News; Ben Sommers, “Mr. Capezio”; and Alice M. Bingham of Capezio; developed into an advisory board with Dorothy Alexander elected as chairman. From this point forward, The National Association for Regional Ballet continued to evolve in order to meet the needs of its member companies.
Expansion of the festival experience began because among the important guests who attended the first Atlanta Festival in 1956 was Alexi Ramov, director of the Scranton Ballet Guild. He was so inspired that he promptly set about organizing a similar association for his area—the Northeast Regional Ballet Association. So in 1959, the Northeast Region held its own first event. Barbara Weisberger, director of the Wilkes-Barre Ballet, joined Ramov in sponsoring the festival.
Word began to spread across the country with Ben Sommers, president of Capezio, Ballet Makers, being a great supporter and chronicler of the new phenomenon. In 1963, the Southwestern Regional Ballet Association was formed and held its first festival with Barbara and David Carson of the Austin Civic Ballet as hosts. 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. Finally, the Mid-States Regional Ballet Association held its first festival in Kansas City in April, 1972, hosted by the Kansas City Ballet.
In 1963 at the urging of the Regional Associations, the National Association for Regional Ballet was incorporated as a non-profit organization and chartered under the laws of the State of New York. The original advisors became a Board of Directors, which continued to act in an advisory rather than a legislative capacity. The Board was expanded and, most importantly, each Region elected a coordinator to be its representative on the National Board. Thus a strong bond between the Regions and the Board was formed.
After 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. Initially 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 connectivity of companies who were committed to standards and the festival experience. NARB produced an enormous impact on dance and its decentralization in this country and certainly shouldered a great deal of the responsibility for the much-talked-about dance boom of the sixties and seventies and a significant role in the development of renowned professional companies. Boston Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Atlanta Ballet, Washington Ballet, and Philadanco are companies representative of those who had their start as members of NARB or RDA. Today, due to NARB and RDA the number of member companies has expanded almost ten-fold from thirty-five to three hundred.
The annual festivals within each region continue to be the focal point of the regional ballet movement and have raised public awareness and knowledge of the scope of regional ballet in this country. Through the adjudication process, master classes, seminars, and performances, the festivals truly serve to raise the standards of those amenable, diligent companies and individual dancers. The evening performances of the three day festival give each member company the opportunity to demonstrate the development and growth of artistic standards. Hence, the festivals typically held in spring have become the season’s grand finale for both dancers and directors.
The Summer Choreography Conference (now known as the National Choreography Intensive) was first developed in the Northeast Region under the guidance of Josephine Schwarz, artistic director of Dayton Civic Ballet 1961 It was found to be so successful that with the support of the five regions the National Board assumed the role of running the conferences making it a national project. With funding from the NEA as well as other sources, the conferences were successfully presented for fifteen years, generally using the format of two summer conferences per year in alternate regions. This method of encouraging and raising the standards of choreography assisted in the development of many young choreographers who have gone on to productive careers as free lance choreographers and/or artistic directors. Dancers in attendance have also found it exciting and helpful in learning to work well with many genres of choreography and choreographers.
Since the transition of National Association of Regional Ballet to Regional Dance America in 1987, a two week Choreographic Conference has continued to take place in various regions of the country each summer through the strong support of the five regions. A unique experience is provided for dancers and choreographers. For the dancers, master classes in different genres and experiencing the choreographic process with emerging and young newly established choreographers adds depth and understanding for daily performances. The choreographers are given time, opportunity, and guidance to experiment and hone their craft. This equates to the regional movement continuing to be the source of some of America’s most meaningful choreographers.
In 1990 Regional Dance America was invited by Thalia Mara, artistic director of the International Ballet Competition, to perform in Jackson, Mississippi. Through an adjudication process, one company was selected from each of the five regions and an RDA Exhibition Performance was presented on the single free day of the competition. This afforded RDA validation as a dance organization that provided artistic standards of quality and exposure to an enthusiastic international audience. IBC continues to be in Jackson every four years, and RDA continues to be committed to the event sending dancers/companies from each of the five Regions to perform a selected piece of choreography.
A milestone—a significant change for RDA—came in the form of the first National Festival in Houston, Texas, in 1997. All five Regions, Mid-States, Northeast, Pacific, Southeast, and Southwest, comprised the 100 companies, 1,500 dancers, and 500 artistic directors, teachers, chaperones, and board members in attendance for the five full day experience. 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 ensuing National Festivals.
Gretchen Vogelzang, Managing Director of RDA and now RDA’s Executive Director has led RDA through three National Festivals. “See America Dancing” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the second National Festival which celebrated 50 years of Regional Dance. As with the first National Festival, over 2,000 dancers, teachers, chaperones and board members were afforded a diverse experience—national and international faculty provided new insight, performances offered inspiration, and time between classes afford connecting and networking for all attendees.
The third National Festival in 2012 crossed the border and became an international festival; a festival in the “City of Lights,” Montreal, Canada. “Festival de Danse” afforded RDA’s 2,000 dancers, 250 directors and teachers the opportunity to be embraced by a community with a thriving and diverse dance population supported by a very strong arts and entertainment district. Exposure to a diversified culture created a depth, and experience like no other festival, regional or national, for the RDA dancers.
RDA recently held its fourth National Festival in Phoenix, Arizona, in the spring of 2017. Like the previous three, the vision and success is accomplished through the dedication of the National Board and commitment of the Regions in order to provide a unified, positive experience for each company, each dancer, and each choreographer— to show that RDA is of significance to the dance world. National Festival by National Festival will see RDA traverse across this country Region by Region in order to fulfill dancers’ passion and audiences’ appreciation for the art of dance.
The future of RDA lies in its steadfast commitment to dancers and choreographers. It endeavors to elevate the level of dance across the nation through established rigorous standards in education and performance opportunities. Regardless of geographic boundaries, dancers and choreographers are provided quality training in order to master their craft. Through the effort of RDA and its Regions, tens of thousands of dollars are given to dancers to attend prestigious college/university, professional, and choreographic intensives throughout the U.S. RDA is an organization of distinction which provides situations that may open dancers’ eyes to the full dance experience—traveling to a new venue, a variety of dance genres, master teachers and corrections, auditions, performances to peers. Ultimately, revealing possibilities of enriching our country in world of dance.
This history was written by Doris Hering and Barbara Crockett with subsequent contributions by Gretchen Vogelzang.