DANCECleveland has been presenting dance in Northeast Ohio for nearly 60 years. Its annual season of four to seven events at PlayhouseSquare in Cleveland and at the University of Akron’s EJ Thomas Hall, features a diverse range of national and international dance companies, as well as educational and community programs. DANCECleveland reaches an audience of approximately 11,000 annually.
About the Project
DANCECleveland created a 15-member Dance Advance Team (DAT) to serve as its ambassadors in the community. Comprised of dancers, choreographers, teachers and other dance professionals, Dance Advance Team members serve as active advocates, working through their own personal networks—called “affinity groups”—to publicize DANCECleveland events, bring audiences to dance performances, and promote learning about dance.
Recent closures in the dance community in Cleveland had left DANCECleveland alone in the landscape—the only area organization solely dedicated to the presentation of national and international modern dance. Despite its own success in maintaining and even growing a core mainstage audience of nearly 7,500, DANCECleveland staff saw the potential erosion of an audience that was predominantly older, affluent and white. Niche marketing and careful programming had helped to diversify the audience on a performance-by-performance basis, but staff were having difficulty converting these single ticket buyers into consistent patrons.
Good data about the audience—which the organization had in abundance—could only go so far, and staff knew they needed more manpower to do the kind of grassroots, personal outreach that could help overcome the community’s general ambivalence about dance. Pam Young, Executive Director of DANCECleveland, says she wanted to know more. “There’s so much about those single-ticket buyers that we don’t know,” she says. “What motivates them? How can we increase their loyalty to us? We had never really analyzed them in depth.” As they began to drill down, Young says they identified a critical “social factor.” People were “game to go because someone was inviting them,” she says.
At the same time, Young knew that the audience was “a moving target,” and building audiences, especially among 20 and 30-year-olds, was “a really new focus for us.” Young describes a sense of urgency about developing new language and communication approaches to reach this audience. “We realized that if we didn’t start bringing people into the performance for a first experience, then they were never going to come back for a second.”
The problem was finding a practical way of making these personal invitations in an organization that was understaffed and not particularly diverse itself. Wondering where they might get help, staff came up with what Young calls “a half-baked idea” to use dance professionals to help them spread the word in an organized way. Would it work? Young says they didn’t know, but the Incubating Innovation program gave them the time and space to begin imagining what such a program might look like.
About Incubating Innovation
Incubating Innovation is an 11-month program of the Cleveland Foundation’s Engaging the Future initiative. In Incubating Innovation, an EmcArts facilitator works with a carefully selected innovation team comprised of key staff, artists, board leaders and stakeholders to incubate and test innovative strategies that address adaptive challenges in their organizations. The program includes group facilitation, an offsite three-day Intensive Retreat, and a variety of extended support systems specifically tailored to the organization’s needs.
Not really knowing what to expect, DANCECleveland staff jumped right into their “half-baked idea.” Dance Advance Team members learned as they went along and soon began to see themselves as a tool for understanding how various kinds of communication might work within the affinity groups. Would social media be more effective than traditional postcards and mailings? Would videos be useful in capturing attention? Where would familiar education events, like pre- and post-performance discussions fit in? “We tried a lot of different ways of communicating and engaging the affinity group members,” says Special Projects Coordinator Jessica Hodges. “That’s really what drove the success of the program—listening to suggestions from the Team and testing them out. Some things worked and some things didn’t, but the process deepened the experience for both the Team members and their affinity groups.”
One of their most successful experiments, Hodges says, was a video from the Trey McIntyre Project. Hoping to overcome what they saw as a disconnect between audiences and dancers, the Dance Advance Team encouraged TMP dancers to make a video while they were on tour prior to arriving in Cleveland. “It really worked,” says Hodges. “We shared the video on Facebook and Twitter and through email so that our affinity group members could get to know the dancers.” Using experiments like these, the Dance Advance Team was able to work more closely with dance companies scheduled to perform in Cleveland to develop materials that would better serve DANCECleveland’s goal of building the affinity group network.
Not all their ideas worked as well, Young admits, and she cautions others to take care when developing and testing new approaches. For example, thinking that transportation might be a barrier that discouraged people from attending performances at the University of Akron about an hour away, the Team decided to offer a free van from Cleveland to Akron. To everyone’s surprise, no one took advantage of the free ride. Young says, “It felt very intuitive that a bus or a van was a good idea, but that just goes to show that your intuition may not be the best tool judging what will and will not work.”
Changes in Assumptions
Everyone involved in the project is quick to say that their assumptions changed during the process. First of all, says Young, “we learned immediately that an easy idea does not mean it’s simple.” As staff initially began to explore who would comprise the Dance Advance Team, things got complicated right away. How would the staff speak to speak to the DAT? How would Team members in turn communicate with their affinity groups? How would Team members get feedback? How would affinity group members get tickets? How would staff create survey materials and track results? “Quite frankly,” says Young, “we realized it was going to take a great deal more coordination and effort than our first thought—which was to spread the work across current staff.” That’s when Hodges, a dancer herself, came on board.
Perhaps the most dramatic shift in assumptions came when DANCECleveland convened its Dance Advance Team for the first time. Having assumed that the attraction would be to support the organization’s outreach and marketing efforts or to receive special perks, Hodges says they were astounded to discover that “the motivation didn’t lie in typical benefits like swag.” Instead, she and Young say, “We found that they really wanted to build a foundation for a strong ecosystem and viewed this as an opportunity to share the art they love, build a new respect for dance, and give themselves the tools to talk about dance more broadly.”
Members of the Dance Advance Team report that their assumptions changed as well. Antwon Duncan says he knew that DANCECleveland was a hub for great art in the area, but he adds that he was not aware that the organization was so passionate about expanding dance education. “I had no idea they weren’t just concerned with their subscribers or the people that were already supporting dance.” His colleague on the Dance Advance Team, Jennifer Eccher, agrees, saying, “I thought DANCECleveland was just a presenter, but I learned there are many layers” to the organization.
As work proceeded and people got to know each other better, a subtle shift occurred in the language they were using to describe the project. Originally, staff had called the Team “ambassadors,” but as they all came to understand that the impact was potentially much bigger than simply promoting DANCECleveland, the language began to focus on advancing dance appreciation and learning. As a result, the Team name was changed from Ambassadors to Dance Advance Team.
The idea—so uncertain in the beginning—began to grow beyond everyone’s expectations. Duncan describes a moment midway through the process where he felt as though “the adhesive had set in and the Dance Advance Team was onto something. No longer was it just dancers from the local area, but we had brought in other dancers, professionals and advocates from different cities. I thought, ‘Oh, this is a big deal—this is a really big deal’—and I knew was part of something much bigger than I had expected initially.”
Obstacles and Enablers
Bigger, everyone agreed, was indeed better, but success presented the usual obstacles. Time continues to be an issue for artists who are busy with teaching and touring. Eccher admits it can be “overwhelming.” Duncan agrees that scheduling can be a challenge, but not the biggest one. “We had no idea where our initial idea would go,” he says, “and I think that was the biggest challenge—expanding our minds’ eye as to what it could be.”
Organizational capacity can be an issue, too, and Young offers some serious advice to others who might want to try a similar project, saying they should take a close look at their own organizational financial and staffing capacity. “There are a lot of moving parts,” she says, “and you need to be very adaptive and responsive—able to get information out quickly, hear feedback, and see what is working and not working. That’s a pretty onerous kind of process for an organization that doesn’t already have staff dedicated to it.”
What does an organization need to overcome these obstacles? Regular meetings with the Dance Advance Team were critical to fostering good communication and designing effective materials, and an emphasis on personal relationships with Team members between meetings helped maintain solidarity. Hodges says, “Accessibility and one-on-one relationships really go a long way,” and she is careful to make Team members feel comfortable about contacting staff at any time by phone, email or text.
Being willing to cede authority also was critical to success. As Young explains, “We curate an experience for our Dance Advance Team, and they curate an experience for their affinity groups. So we lose a little bit of control… and that can be scary at times.” Eccher praises DANCECleveland staff for giving DAT Team members the authority to define their own affinity groups and develop individual communication strategies.
Finally, Young credits the Incubating Innovation Program with giving them much needed space and time to suspend business as usual and re-imagine audience development from a different perspective. The program also helped them be adaptive and open to change. Hodges added, “Not everything is the way you’ve done it before and being open and adaptive, listening to what your organization and teams might need is huge in this line of work.”
By the Numbers
Affinity groups turned out to be much larger than anyone had anticipated. Eccher, for example, says she was expecting 10-12 students, but when her students invited their friends and family, her affinity group grew to 30. Duncan says he started with his students and friends in the dance community, but then, he adds, “my friends began inviting their spouses and friends, and my students began inviting their parents, cousins, sisters, and even friends who danced on their competition teams. It just started to develop beyond our vision… [and] we were blown away by what happened in the end.”
Dance Advance Team affinity group members are now a visible part of DANCECleveland’s audience—as many as 110 people per performance—and they have had a significant impact on annual attendance. Nearly 10 percent of the audience now comes from the affinity groups, and about half of these are first-time attendees. An overwhelmingly high percentage, says Young, report that they enjoy the performance, feel comfortable in the theater, and would like to come back.
Staff are just now beginning to take “a deep dive” into the surveys they’ve been conducting, so it’s a bit early to make too many big claims, cautions Young. She does point to one telling example, however: at the beginning of the process, DANCECleveland had fewer than 300 Facebook “likes.” That number now has risen to nearly 2,000.
New Pathways to Public Value
Fundamentally, DANCECleveland attributes its success in attracting new audiences to its creative team approach. “The Dance Advance Team is our front line,” says Young. “They’ve really become adjunct members of DANCECleveland. We’ve become good listeners, and they’ve had great ideas. It’s a little daunting… and we’ve had to step back and ask for input from the group. It’s changed us as an organization — how we look at our programming, how we think about audiences, how we think about communication and language. It has impacted us in every part of the organization.”
Inviting Dance Advance Team members into the curatorial process has indeed created a new way of doing business, and staff say they are ready to give over one production a year to the Team, while at the same time offering Team members opportunities to learn more about dance presenting. Young reports that dancers have told staff that they are better educators thanks to the Dance Advance Team experience, and Hodges adds that she has been amazed at “how dedicated” the Dance Advance Team members are with their work. The benefits of that work have been tangible to Duncan, who says, “Hearing the ideas expand with every meeting, we feel like we’re doing something remarkable and different and innovative that has the potential to do something no one else has done, and we realize we’re also getting encouraged and strengthened by asking questions among ourselves.”
An unanticipated—and profound—outcome of DANCECleveland’s work has been a stronger dance community—which can only help create additional access in the long run. Early on, Hodges noted the lack of cohesion in the Cleveland dance community, with many artists unaware of what was happening outside their own genre. “The astonishing thing was that all of these people didn’t know each other,” she says. “We all had each other on our radars, but we never had thought of connecting on a deeper level.” Through Dance Advance Team, artists now meet regularly, share information about each other’s performances, create social gatherings, and exchange ideas about how to promote dance more effectively.
Engaging artists in inviting others to the dance has created new pathways for audiences as well. As Young says, “You have someone who’s your guide to a new experience, and it doesn’t feel quite so daunting.” In fact, artists describe what they see at performances as “exhilarating.” Affinity group members sit together at performances, and the group has grown substantially. Eccher says, “When I see a large group from different backgrounds, different understanding of what dance is, it’s really exciting to see them all come together mixed with professional and pre-professional dancers. There is a sense that people are very relaxed.” Duncan agrees. “Most people feel lost at a dance performance because they go in, sit uncomfortably next to someone they’ve never met, and never have a chance to talk about what you’ve seen. Now, you see some familiar faces and you know they are part of someone’s affinity group, and it’s kind of like a reunion… it builds the extended family, and that’s really cool.”
Young is proud to say, “Our little test knocked our socks off in terms of how successful it was.” So where does DANCECleveland go next with its” half-baked idea?” In recognition of the success of Dance Advance Team, the organization has been accepted into the Engaging Dance Audiences Initiative of DanceUSA, and Young hopes they will be able to take their project “to the next level.” She is enthusiastic about the possibilities. “The wonderful part of incubating a test idea is just that: It doesn’t necessarily have to be successful—you are trying something and learning in the process. We are very fortunate that our project was successful, but the amount of learning has also been extremely deep and wonderful.”