On your toes By Suzanne Shelton Austin Texans are turning on to dance. During the last two decades this once-taboo art has emerged from the shadow of Southern Baptism and become an accepted theatrical and popular pastime. Today Texans are dancing more and seeing more dance; why this is true is culturally complex. Texans have always had lots of space to move in and have resisted becoming a sedentery society. The average Texan’s body language is relaxed, open, and free. Now that living space has dwindled a bit, dance has become an energy outlet, along with drill team marching, jogging, and football. UNLIKE CONTACT sports, dance appeals to anti-establishment types who equate games like rugby with mindless violence. A sport like ballet offers a chance for individual expression and intellectual stimulation. “I find ballet more interesting thah most sports,” an architect told me, “because ballet fuses body and mind. What you’re doing with your body is not separate from what you’re doing with your mind.” What’s more, dance is no longer considered sissy, especially by college-age men who are crowding PE ballet classes. “It’s in vogue for males to be sensitive,” one burly ballet enthusiast explained. Several years ago when Julius Whittier hung up his UT football helmet and joined Austin Civic Ballet, more than one eyebrow was raised, but no one blinked when Houston boxer George Foreman recently added ballet to his training regimen. Dance appeals to physical fitness freaks, and Texans’ interest in dance has bloomed alongside the popularity of yoga, health foods, and organic gardening. Health nuts aren’t the only dance fans around: in towns like McAllen and Wichita Falls, young Texans jam dance schools while their parents patronize performances. The dance climate in Texas is, in a word, hot. Not that this is exclusively a Texas phenomenon. Throughout the country, dance is booming, and Nancy Hanks of National Endowment for the Arts has called dance “the fastest growing performing art in the United States.” In a Ms. Shelton is herself a dancer and and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Dance magazine. She is a frequent contributor to the Observer and regularly writes our “Coining Fortnight” feature. survey conducted by Association of College and University Concert Managers, ballet had the highest average gross attendance of university concerts during 1972-73. Dance even outdrew rock concerts, by 11 percent. More important, dance is decentralizing, and the mecca that was New York has become perhaps Dallas, Houston, or even El Paso. In 1964-65, according to Association of American Dance Companies figures, 27 percent of U.S. dance audiences lived outside New York, while in 1970-71 the ratio was dramatically reversed, with 73 percent of the nation’s dance-watchers being non-New Yorkers. Texas has been particularly blessed with a healthy dance climate, due partly to the postwar influx of professional dancers into the state. The state is full of old dance types, many of them Europeans who performed with major companies and came South to retire. Texas lured them with lucrative university contracts, civic ballet companies, and dance school positions. This dance boom was especially big in the Fifties, and during that decade a generation of famous dancers settled in the state: the Russian ballerina Natalie Krassovska in Dallas, Fernando and Nancy Schaffenburg of Ballets Russe de Monte Cairo in Fort Worth, Frank and Irina Pal of Prague Opera in Wichita Falls. Added to those glamorous imports were a smattering of native Texans who came home, dancers like Andrea Vodehnal who left National Ballet for Houston, or Jerry Bywaters Cochran, who did the whole Julliard-Paris-New York trip, only to come home to Dallas again. MANY OF these dancers came back to Texas because of money. State and private universities created dance departments and hired big names to head them: Ballet Theater’s Igor Youskevitch Schaffenburg at Texas Christian University. A few old pros simply came to Texas because they liked it. Juana de Laban, daughter of the famous dance notator who created Labanotation, has worked with Dallas Theater Center and currently lives near Temple where ‘she teaches a few classes at the civic center. As they settled throughout Texas, these dancers and teachers founded civic companies and began training dancers. The Fifties were foundation years, and only in the Sixties did Texas begin turning out quantities of professional dancers. Today, Texans are commonplace in professional companies, and company directors like Robert Joffrey swear that Texas dancers are bigger, healthier, and stronger. These dancers come from cities throughout the state, and each dance capital has a distinctive climate. Dallas is known as a disastrous dance town because of petty rivalries. At least three polished companies and numerous weaker ones perform in Big D, but their infighting and mutual antagonisms are legend. San Antonio has the reputation of being artistically moribund, again due to petty politics, but that reputation is changing. Fort Worth has it cushy, and TCU even boasts a separate building for dance with specially designed floors and rehearsal rooms. Houston may well be the strongest dance city in the state, with Texas’ only fully professional company and a host of talented civic troupes. Those cities with cultural inferiority complexes produce the best dance companies. Chalk it up to a we-try-harder attitude. Austin claims the state’s most innovative dance idea, a sign of the times that tells us a good deal about where Texas dance is headed. Austin Ballet Theatre, under the direction of Stanley Hall, performs once each month in Armadillo World Headquarters, home of country rock. While balletomanes sit at tables sipping beer, the company performs a changing repertoire of ballet, modern dance, and jazz. Their audiences have been averaging about 1,000 since ballet at Armadillo began two seasons ago, and clearly the popular trend is toward informal, spontaneous, proletarian dance. Companies are finding that their open-air performances are their most well-attended ones. Other companies around the state offer dance of surprisingly high quality. Festival Ballet of San Antonio, a joint project of Ron Sequoio and James de Bolt, is a new company of paid dancers who’ll present January 31, 1975 13
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