Nonprofit partner in action: Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center

Building Community Through Dance

The music that flowed through the Winter Dance Fest was haunting, sweet, and soaring at the same time. Featuring a Chinese lute, the piece was the soundtrack for a dance performed by the 15 – 18-year-old dancers of Company 5 at the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center (TWDCC).

The dance, choreographed by internationally acclaimed Babatunji Johnson of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, followed the journey of the lead dancer who was—as the piece was appropriately called— “Stepping Out Of/Into This World.” She was supported, and at times, literally held by her watchful fellow dancers. Each dancer showcased individual strength through the lyrical, complex, and demanding choreography, but the power of the piece came in their collective movements.

The dance itself, and the entire show, was a perfect representation of what Executive & Artistic Director Micha Scott says about the organization entering its 12th year, “TWDCC is more than just a dance studio and a dance organization. We are a cultural center, a community hub, a safe space, and a second home for many people in Santa Cruz.”

“At TWDCC, we use dance as a platform for cross-cultural communication and connection. Because once you're on the dance floor, it’s your body moving with other bodies; the difference in our cultures, color, and class become afterthoughts.

- Angela Chambers, Community Engagement Director

Chambers continues, "When you're on that dance floor, if you’re passionate and committed to your training, you're just as good as the person next to you. Everybody's sweating, hearts racing, and we’re picking up this language we all understand. When we showcase brilliant Black and Brown choreographers and performers to the predominantly white Santa Cruz audience, we actively shift who and what is considered valuable. It’s a powerful tool and a beautiful opportunity.”

Vivien Bassouamina, Diaspora Performance Project Artist in Residence

Supporting Emerging and Established Artists

At its heart, TWDCC is centered on the work and development of artists and artists-to-be. TWDCC creates a working home for artists to forge new ideas through community support and conversation, develop a broad base of work professionally, and to support themselves financially. Through its Diaspora Performance Project, TWDCC gives professional support to six selected cultural artists of the African Diaspora to develop new work, build a meaningful connection to our community, and to create performance opportunities. Simultaneously, TWDCC creates educational and outreach programs that connect youth to these professional dancers from all over the world in addition to offering a full slate of classes from ballet to modern and hip hop to contemporary jazz and more. Angela says, “Young people coming up in Santa Cruz, our Black and Brown youth, can see themselves represented in these visiting artists and guest choreographers. They can see themselves in either a new way, or have a new understanding, of what it can mean to be a professional artist of color.”

TWDCC Youth Company at Deep Roots Dance Fest (Credit: Devi Pride Photography)

Building a Safe Community

Micha explains that having a safe space for artists to work and learn is essential for them to thrive. “In order to take risks and grow as an artist, one must feel connected and safe.” Angela emphasizes that building a safe and inclusive community is a priority at TWDCC. “There’s opportunity for various cultural identities, economic backgrounds, and traditions to collide, to influence one another, and to just exist in a welcoming, supportive, engaging, and diverse place.”

To build and sustain this safe space takes a lot of time and intentional effort beyond traditional “office hours.” “This is not a business transaction,” says Micha, “we connect with people on a very real level. We know when a student passed the spelling test they studied hard for. We know when someone’s little brother lost a tooth or had a birthday. And let’s just say we go to a lot of birthday parties and bar and bat mitzvahs!”

Beyond the daily celebrations of life’s triumphs, the TWDCC staff knows when families are struggling too. In 2022, TWDCC served more than 700 adult and youth dancers, providing $50,000 in scholarships to remove financial barriers for 31 local youth. Thanks to collaborations with local nonprofits including Santa Cruz County Black Health Matters Initiative and United Way of Santa Cruz County, TWDCC partners to connect families to other financial assistance programs in the county.

Angela Hesse and the dancers of Company 5 perform “Stepping Out Of/Into This World" at the Winter Dance Festival

Sustaining the Arts

In addition to the Winter Dance Fest and the Diaspora Performance Project, TWDCC produces multiple events each year including the Deep Roots Dance Fest, the Santa Cruz World Arts Festival, and BBQueer Fest, an annual dance and arts celebration led by Queer Black, Indigenous and People of Color artists and community members. Beyond class tuition fees, grants and community donations are essential as their three-person operational staff works to showcase talent in public performances, curate festivals, and offer living wages to artists and teachers.

Micha shared her gratitude for what flexible funding can make possible.

“The grants we’ve received from the Community Foundation and their Rise Together initiative helped us sustain our scholarship program and expand the number of visiting artists we can bring this year.”

- Micha Scott, Executive and Artistic Director

Beyond the funding,” Angela says, “through the Community Foundation, especially the Rise Together coalition, we’ve been able to connect with other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led organizations working to advance racial equity locally, many of them through the arts and arts education.”

TWDCC level 2’s watching Level 5’s before their class (Credit: Angela Chambers)

Dancing into the Future

During the Winter Dance Fest’s curtain call, dancers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the visiting professional dancers from dawsondancesf who had just performed stunning works of contemporary ballet. The students’ happiness and confidence were palpable. "That moment”, says Angela, “is one of the many gratifying ones at TWDCC. This is the cycle. You have a youth dancer who witnesses artists of color and excellence, and who shares the same stage as these artists. And these older dancers are the role models for our younger dancers. They’re choreographing dances for youth and teaching the younger students. These emerging artists are brilliant.” Far beyond steps taken in a studio or on stage, TWDCC is an expression of movement — ever towards connection, inspiration, acceptance, and belonging.

Header photo: Brazilian master dancer Dandha Da Hora connects with a young dancer at TWDCC World Dance Fest (Credit: Anne Martinete)

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