Dancers’ Group celebrates 30 years of art and service

The Bay Area has one of the largest and most active dance communities in the country, with many movement styles represented, from ballet, to hip hop, to tango, to contact improvisation. These different kinds of dance all find a home at the dance service and advocacy organization called Dancers’ Group, which turns 30 this year.

Dancers’ Group was founded in San Francisco in 1982, at a studio called Footwork at the corner of 22nd and Mission streets. Originally conceived as a training center and a forum for choreographers to show work and share resources, it has evolved to become the primary non-profit organization serving dance artists in the entire Bay Area.

From the simple idea of “just dancers in a space,” as Executive Director Wayne Hazzard puts it: Dancers’ Group has come a long way. “Nobody knew that we would be around five years, let alone 30 years,” Hazzard says.

Choreographer and performer Jess Curtis remembers being a young, inexperienced dancer coming down to San Francisco from Chico State to take his first professional class at Footwork in 1983. “If I remember right,” he says. “I walked in and watched the end of one of Ed Mock’s jazz classes with all of these hot sweaty jazz dancers from San Francisco and I was just amazed and afraid. Because everybody was so beautiful and so good.”

Joe Goode, artistic director of the Joe Goode Performance Group, says that back then the building seemed to always be full of dancers. “We had more students than we could possibly know what to do with,” he remembers.

Choreographer Robert Moses presented much of his early work at Dancers’ Group. “I did everything onstage that I wanted to do,” he says, “from ripping my hair out and burning it, dancing with skeletons, to straight-up lovely dance pieces. And all of that was supported by the work that they did for me administratively, and being there as sort of a cheering section in a way that says 'go ahead and do your thing.'”

Although the 80s and 90s were a creative and experimental time in the dance community, it was also the time of AIDS. Goode says the epidemic cast “a pall over [the dancers’] creativity.” Two of three artistic residents at the time died of AIDS related causes. “I was the only one who lived,” Goode recounts. “It was hard, it was a hard burden to carry.”

Goode remembers the last months of one of those residents, Ed Mock, as still being full of dance. “I can remember,” he says, “when [Mock] became ill with AIDS, his students would set up a blanket for him in the front of the class. And he’d have to have a little bit of brandy. And he’d have his little flask of brandy and his blanket. And even though he was very weak, and he couldn’t really conduct the class, he would sort of preside over it nonetheless.”

Vernon Fuquay, the founding executive director, died in 1989. Wayne Hazzard, who had until then been in charge of the dance training programs, stepped in as interim executive director, a position he held for 11 years.

Near the end of Hazzard’s first stint as executive director, the organization faced a crisis. In 1999, the dot-com boom was changing the feel and the finances of San Francisco. Goode recalls, “Suddenly our little neighborhood pubs were serving $14 martinis that we couldn’t afford to buy.” Hazzard remembers seeing limousines and valet service for the first time in the Mission district. A new owner bought the building that housed Dancers’ Group and raised the rent 500% – from $3,000 to $15,000.

Moses remembers the feeling that was prevalent among dancers at the time. “The city was being sort of swallowed up by people who we thought didn’t care about the city, about the cultural life of the city,” he says.

Choreographer and theater artist Erika Chong Shuch says Dancers’ Group’s dilemma sparked insecurity throughout the performing arts community. “It was like a crisis,” she says. “I remember the dance community, the theater, the performance community was really alarmed and terrified about what that meant.”

It soon became clear that the rent increase was untenable, and Dancers’ Group would have to leave their beloved building. But the dancers did not leave quietly. “In 2000, the community rallied around us,” says Hazzard. “We did a big street closure, and sort of closing party for the space, and really, almost a wake as well.”

“It was the original Occupy movement. They occupied 22nd Street!” Shuch says.

Dancers and their supporters filled the building and spilled out onto the street for impromptu performances and creative protest. People drew and wrote remembrances on the walls of the dance studio. “I was there with two of my collaborators,” recalls Shuch. “And we had this bathtub that was on wheels and we wheeled it around because the whole street was shut down. There was this amazing mixture of celebration, but then also people were angry at what was happening in the city.”

“The loss of the space became for me this flashpoint ... it became bigger than, obviously, us who had started and built Footwork. It felt like it became this moment of giving back to the community,” says Hazzard.

After Dancers’ Group lost the space on 22nd Street, it moved to an office and shifted its mission to encompass more advocacy and administrative support for dance artists. It no longer had a dance studio to program or give classes in, but focused more on presenting dance in public sites.

Jess Curtis appreciates the representation that an organization like Dancers’ Group can provide for independent artists. “We don’t always register on the political landscape,” he says, “until somebody like Dancers’ Group can say we have this many members … hundreds of independent dancers that make up the contemporary dance scene in San Francisco.”

These days, Wayne Hazzard has returned to the helm of the organization and they have more programs than ever before. That includes events like Bay Area Dance Week, which presents more than 600 free events throughout the Bay Area every year, and the Rotunda Dance Series, which brings some of the region’s most acclaimed dancers to perform at San Francisco’s historic City Hall. He says "[It] feels really good to be able to say I was there at the beginning, and here at this point 30 years later."

Shuch sums up her feelings about the organization like this: “In some ways it feels like: ‘Dancers’ Group has been around for 30 years, that’s a long time’, but Dancers’ Group should be around for 300 years!”

Goode also has a simple message. “Happy 30th, Dancers’ Group. I’m so happy that you’re still there.”