Dance Redfined, Page 3

Birth of a Dance Company

“I realized that I had very talented, fresh students who hadn’t really been tainted by years and years of expectations about art,” says Way. So in 1971 she and a group of 14 students—dancers, musicians, writers, a painter, and a photographer—spent the summer camped out on Martha’s Vineyard, creating work, debating, dancing, and forging the beginnings of the Oberlin Dance Collective.

Why a collective? “I had been part of the feminist movement in New York, and the whole idea of different structures of leadership was very important to me,” Way says. “How can you have a strong organization that gives room for everybody to grow and develop? The idea that we didn’t need to outgrow our passion about the form just because our bodies changed was enticing, and, of course, connected with feminism, since it was so related to—are women ‘over with’ when they’re not pretty and young anymore?”

ODC continued dancing at Oberlin, toured in the summers, and in 1976 piled into a yellow school bus headed for San Francisco. Its members quickly found and renovated a rehearsal space, started a school, sponsored a performing-arts series of outside artists, and edited a nationally distributed magazine called New Performance. However, as former ODC dancer Jeff Friedman recalls in his essay, “Sprung Floor: A History of the Oberlin Dance Collective’s Performance Gallery,” their landlord noted the building’s valuable enhancements and evicted them in 1979, raising the rent dramatically. ODC responded by buying their own building, a former hardware store in San Francisco’s Mission District, a neighborhood of blue-collar workers and warehouses later gentrified in the 1990s.

“We had some luck getting the mortgage,” Way laughs. “You know, a bunch of girls called ‘The Collective’ going in for a mortgage—we didn’t look like a very tight package.”
The group poured into their company the same energy and versatility that went into their dances. For months, members and friends toiled on plumbing, wiring, and other building components. Running behind schedule, collective members worked in 24-hour shifts for the final weeks to install the dance floor in time for the opening event of their performing-arts series in January 1980.

“You know what I think is the key?” asks Way. “I never felt entitled. You have to enlist people—not demand. That is where I separated from a lot of my peers back then. While they were making demands, we were building a dance floor.”

As it turned out, buying the building was both timely and visionary. The economic boom and San Francisco’s dot-com economy propelled the Bay Area’s real estate market to stratospheric heights in the late 1990s. Rents for commercial space quadrupled, and at least seven San Francisco arts organizations lost their spaces, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, with many more at risk.

“People say, ‘Oh, it was so smart to buy a building,’” Way says. “But if you’re evicted, it doesn’t feel smart to not want to get evicted again. It seems like common sense. You have to be risky to make something happen. On the other hand, if there isn’t a solid core of realism inside the risk, it’s folly.”

View Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 of Dance Redefined

back to top