The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
Everyone Is A Dancer
By The Editors
We recently had the chance to chat with the intrepid Jess Burgess, director of Dogtown Dance Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, where Quail Bell was founded. Admittedly, it's hard for us to turn down the opportunity to hear what badass ladies have to say. So when a Dogtown staff member reached out to us, we bit. Curious about this dance haven and the inspiring woman who runs the show? Then read on!
What's your elevator pitch for Dogtown Dance Theatre?
Dogtown Dance Theatre’s sole purpose is to provide independent dance artists with resources and opportunities to help transform Richmond into a destination for exceptional, professional dance. To make this a reality, Dogtown created the Artist Resource Program to provide artists with the tools, monetary stipends, performance opportunities, and industry knowledge to alleviate the financial and professional burdens that are associated with self-producing art. Our goal is to educate and create a community of artists that have the skills necessary to sustain a vibrant independent choreographic voice in RVA.
How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I would like to think of myself as the lead by example type of leader. Everything we’ve built at Dogtown has been from the ground up, and there are so many times when I’m in the trenches doing some of the nitty gritty work with staff and volunteers. It takes a village to make an organization like Dogtown grow from nothing into something, and I don’t think the friends and dance family that I work alongside daily would be willing to go on this journey with a leader that wasn’t ready to be right beside them the whole time. One day, as Dogtown grows and we continue to expand and find financial sustainability, we joke that we’ll have more crew and staff so that we don’t have to wear all the hats all the time. But for now, it’s what it takes to keep this place buzzing. My experiences as the director of Dogtown have definitely shaped who I am and how I lead my life. So much of my life is dedicated to this organization now that my personal time and professional time blur into one another. My leadership at Dogtown has given me the personal security to know I can truly overcome and achieve anything.
What do you love about dance?
When I was a little girl, I had dreams of being a dancer. A professional dancer. That’s all I wanted. My childhood bedroom was full of dance posters, and pointe shoes, and pictures from years and years of recitals. I knew that I wanted to go to college to study dance, and then from there go on to audition all over the country and the world to dance with professional companies.
During my undergraduate years at James Madison University, all of that changed. On June 19th, between my freshman and sophomore years, I was involved in a really bad car accident. I suffered extensive injuries, and the doctors didn’t know if I would make it through the first night. But, I did. Then after countless surgeries, and weeks in the hospital, my mother (who has always been my biggest fan), asked the spine specialist: “Will she dance again?” His answer was, “I’m more concerned with her being able to walk. Not dance.” So, there it was. An ultimatum from the universe. And for anyone that knows me well, I am about as stubborn as they get. So I was not ready to accept “just walking.”
Fast forward, and now, though the majority of my upper body is rebuilt with titanium, I'm able to dance. I finished JMU, ready for the next step in my adventure. But at an incredibly young age, I had to make the decision to switch my train of thought, to re-evaluate what my life meant as a dancer. I can still dance, and I do nearly every day. I teach dance to students that range in age from 7 to adults. I choreograph and direct an amazing company of dancers, RVA Dance Collective, who keep me inspired everyday. I am setting work on some of the most talented youth I’ve seen in this city and beyond, at the Center for the Arts in Henrico, and the Specialty Center for the Arts at Thomas Dale, Trillium Performing Youth Company in West Virginia, and CORA Youth Dance Project in Brooklyn, New York. I’m not done dancing yet. But I know my body has an expiration date in terms of being able to continue as a “dancer.”
When I moved to Richmond, I immediately jumped into working in the arts nonprofit sector. My first job was at Richmond Ballet. And then from there I went on to work at VCU, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I knew somewhere inside of me, that learning the intricacies of the nonprofit sector, would keep me relevant in the arts industry. And I also knew that my clock was ticking in terms of the physical limitations the car accident put on my body.
And then, there was Dogtown. I will never forget the night Rob Petres, former artistic director at Dogtown and a dear friend and mentor of mine, invited me to dinner to “chat.” When he offered me the position, I was floored. Confused and excited, but ready. I accepted pretty much on the spot, and started making the necessary changes in my life to go on this new adventure. Dogtown is everything to me. Watching the tremendous growth we’ve seen over the last four years since I became director, I have truly come alive. The same ferocity of spirit that got me through the car accident filled inside of me, and I knew I was going to do whatever it took to make Dogtown successful, and something amazing for the dance artists in this community.
What do you think are the most common misconceptions about dance as an art form?
I think one of the major misconceptions about dance art and being a dance artist is the idea that you have to live in a big city and a tiny apartment, actually really be a waitress, and audition relentlessly for short contract gigs with a professional dance companies. After my car accident, I had to really look at what being a “dancer” meant, and I think making the choices I did to learn arts administration and look at the dance art form as an industry has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. As a direct result, we created a year-long program dedicated to helping young emerging dancers and choreographers to survive as artists. I get to see dancers grow from the beginning stages of their careers to successful professional artists.
What are some trends you've noticed in the broader dance community since you started dancing?
While I feel like the explosion of dance into mainstream media is both a blessing and a curse, as a leader in the dance community I tend to lean towards the side that exposure of the art form overall is great. The current mainstream dance that the general populace can consume (So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, America’s Got Talent, and all of the burgeoning dance competition scenes that have cropped up nationwide) show athleticism and commitment. Which I think, overall, are important attributes to equate with dance as an art form.
As a presenter and producer of dance art, I have taken a keen interest in dance film, or dance for camera. A dance film is a film in which dance is used to reveal the central themes of the film, whether these themes be connected to narrative or story, states of being, or more experimental and formal concerns. In such films, the creation of choreography typically exists only in film or video. At its best, dance films use filming and editing techniques to create twists in the plotline, multiple layers of reality, and emotional or psychological depth.
We host a three-weekend festival every spring, Richmond Dance Festival. Each season, we grow in the number of submissions we receive, and we are presenting some phenomenal live dance from local choreographers alongside regional and national choreographers. We also present dance film in the festival, and in the last four years I have seen the most progressive choreography I’ve ever seen in some of the dance films we’ve presented. It allows the dance artists to take themselves almost outside of reality and the present state, to create a story through dance, which when done well, can be one of the most memorable pieces of dance you’ve ever seen.
How might dance be empowering for women in particular?
Dance is empowering, period. Anyone that’s ever felt that moment in a class, or performance, or while teaching, where they know they are in their element, truly, where they belong—that’s empowerment. I think where dance plays an important role for women and empowerment can mean a lot of different things to many women. For myself, it’s empowering because I took a passion and turned it into my career. And I think that is true for anything women are passionate about. Dance gave me the ability to go for the dream, jump into the unknown, and turn the impossible into possible. I feel like that’s what dance has given me. I think that story is the same for many women, from many different backgrounds, the details of their story are probably just different than my own. Dance has the power to change lives, I’ve seen it. And I think that’s what makes it so empowering - all of the options for dancers.
What specific efforts do you make to include low-income women in the Dogtown community?
Dogtown’s Artist Resource Program answers the needs of two underrepresented populations that are currently living in the Richmond community. One population consists of the independent dance artists seeking an accessible space to create and present artistic projects. The second populace consists of the surrounding Dogtown community of Manchester, which has historically lacked access to affordable arts and cultural programming in their district. Dogtown's unique model of supporting dance artists has made it a cultural hub for dance classes and performances that support a wide variety of dance genres and dance populations, therefore a wide variety of dance audiences. Dancers and patrons of all ages, genders, economic backgrounds, and faith can find something to enjoy through Dogtown's Artist Resource Program. Systematically this program includes opportunities for women of all backgrounds regardless of income. I’ve seen mothers able to put their young daughters into dance class since Dogtown opened, and I’ve seen young women choreographers trying to start their career succeed as artists because of our mission to provide the inherent needs to these artists. The benefits span the spectrum in terms of the types of women that find themselves struggling financially to make dance, culture, and community a viable option in their lives.
What advice do you have for women who might be hesitant to take a dance class?
I tell everyone that comes through Dogtown’s doors that EVERYONE is a dancer. As humans, the need to move is inherent in our day-to-day lives. The great thing about Dogtown is we have so many classes, in so many styles and genres that are specifically geared towards all ages and levels. Dogtown offers free classes and the majority of our classes are drop-in, which means you can shop til you drop at Dogtown. Find the class that’s right for you, that makes you sweat, or allows you to relax, or challenges your brain with footwork and counts. It’s all right here in Manchester.
What's the best way for newcomers to experience what Dogtown has to offer?
As Dogtown continues to grow, so does our class and performance offerings! There are so many opportunities at Dogtown to experience dance on your own terms; financially, emotionally, physically, etc. There are open level classes every day of the week, we have a new performance almost every weekend, and Dogtown’s Mainstage Performance Series has three major productions in the winter, spring, and fall. Everyone that walks in the building is “home.” We want all dancers to feel that way, and everyone that joins us for a class or performance will definitely find something that they can call theirs.
How would you describe Richmond's dance community?
One of the best things I have learned about Richmond is the overwhelming number of varying dance genres and styles this city has to offer. Richmond has excellent choreographers and dancers in the area that excel in modern and contemporary dance, African, Filipino, salsa, Flamenco, ATS Tribal Bellydancing, competitive pole dancing, hip hop, break dance and street dance of all styles, the list goes on. All of these styles of dance bring their own sense of understanding movement and the body, and how it relates to yourself physically, emotionally, metally, etc. Having such a robust offering of genres and dance styles under one roof has been eye-opening to me as a professional dancer and dance administrator. And to see dancers try a blend of all these genres to complement and enhance their training is really awesome.
Richmond also has so much potential to become a dance destination city. As dancers graduate and are looking for a city to pursue their career, I hope Dogtown helps make Richmond a community that professional dancers seek out. Richmond has so much charm and a thriving artistic community, and Dogtown injecting a strong independent choreographic voice into that art scene can make a difference in that decision.
What's one thing you'd like to see change in Richmond's dance community?
Going on fifteen years in this city as a dancer, choreographer and administrator, and now as the director at Dogtown, one thing we are actively trying to change is the idea that dance artists should operate in silos, not collaborating or creating shared projects. For the longest time Richmond’s dance scene felt almost Darwinian, “May the strongest survive.” With the resources, space, and programming we started creating at Dogtown, that seemed so backwards from how we could grow our community, build audiences, and a space that art patrons can come enjoy no matter what. One of our most successful collaborative projects, the Dogtown Presenter’s Series is specifically designed to produce the work of Richmond choreographers that are collaborating with other dance artists, visual artists, film artists, musicians, etc. We want to encourage Richmond dancers to explore their creative ideas with one another, sparking evolution in their own art, and growing the potential to reach new audiences as well.
Learn more about Dogtown Dance Theatre here.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.