Moving on up 

Welcoming all to the new Downtown Dance Collective

As Heather Adams talks about her vision for the new Downtown Dance Collective (DDC), she keeps coming back to a common phrase: “Everybody can dance.”

It’s a sentiment uttered throughout history both inside and outside the dance world (Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, was a big proponent), as well as practiced on some of the world’s most prominent stages. Liz Lerman’s Washington, D.C.-based Dance Exchange features intergenerational performances; New York choreographer Bill T. Jones is credited with moving beyond stereotypical dancer body types; and the Judson Church Group, started in the early ’60s by luminaries like Trisha Brown and Meredith Monk and continued today by Mikhail Baryshnikov, set the benchmark with regular audience members often moving alongside the art form’s biggest names.

There’s no question everybody can dance, but in Missoula there’s historically been one deal-breaking catch: limited space to prove it. Beyond children’s dance schools and the University of Montana’s dance program, local classes catering to all ages, skill levels and disciplines have been scattered at best, and mostly nonexistent. That’s now about to change. 

“What we’re trying to do is bring all of Missoula’s existing dance community into one, central downtown space so we can, as a group, raise the awareness of dance in the community,” explains Adams. “I firmly believe that everyone can dance—that everyone should dance. And now we’re finally going to have a place where that can play out.”

The spacious room at 121 W. Main St. doesn’t quite look like the next building block of Missoula’s art scene—but that’s only because it’s still being built. On a recent Thursday morning, a power saw whines in the background while visitors are asked to imagine a sprung hardwood floor in the main studio, a separate back studio, track lighting from a dropped ceiling, and art exhibits on the exposed brick walls. Workbenches and ladders fill corners of the space, the frame of an end-to-end mirrored wall is visible against one side of the room and a ballet barre occupies the other. As the DDC renovation reaches the final stretch—Adams recently announced a May 2 grand opening—how it’s happening and why it’s being so doggedly pursued makes for one of the more anticipated art openings in some time.

“The feedback I’ve been getting from everyone—teachers, students, volunteers, the financial people, everyone—has really reinforced my belief that a space like this is so important to downtown,” says Adams. “Everyone keeps saying how we will fill a need.”

Specifically, Adams says DDC will offer 35 different classes taught by 15 specialty teachers. The lineup includes many popular local dance classes that already meet throughout Missoula—from ballroom to hip hop, salsa to West African—but that have historically been forced to make due with awkward accommodations like church basements, local bars or, as Adams puts it, “anywhere we have a roof and enough room to move.”

In addition to the full slate of classes, DDC will also be available for small performances—approximately 100 seats—by local dance troupes and theatrical companies, or for special events like business seminars. Adams intentionally made the space flexible enough to meet various needs.

“I’ve been trying to listen to what people are looking for and I think what we’ll be able to offer is a little bit to everyone,” says Adams. “But more than anything, it’s a downtown home for artists and dancers. I want people to feel comfortable, to feel inspired and creative, as if they’re stepping into my own living room.”

And in a sense they are: Adams refinanced her house to secure funding for DDC. While she’s confident in the business plan, she’s keeping with the community feel by asking for help with donated labor and materials to finish renovating the space. So far, she counts a volunteer work force of more than 40 assisting in daily tasks—everything from painting to framing. During a one-hour interview, four different friends or colleagues stopped by to say hello to Adams, check on the building’s progress and offer any assistance.

“It speaks to how badly people want something like this,” says Adams. “It seems like every day that people find out this is actually happening, I’ll hear from another teacher or someone else who wants to be a part of it.”

Tarn Ream is one of them. She’s taught weekly West African dance classes in Missoula for approximately 15 years and touts a revolving group of more than 75—“from mothers with small children to 75-year-olds”—among her students, in addition to six drummers who sit in for every class. For Ream, DDC’s arrival is long overdue in a city that prides itself on providing for the arts, yet lacks a central arts facility.

“We just want a space where we can do what we do,” she says. “Dance is a healing art. It actually heals. And I want that to be accessible to everybody. Even if they don’t like my class, maybe there’s another form of dance they will like. That’s the nice thing about Heather’s plan—it will have something for everyone.”

Amy Ragsdale, artistic director of Montana’s only professional touring modern company, Headwaters, is another longtime local dance advocate excited about DDC’s arrival. As soon as she heard of Adams’ plan, she not only started thinking about more intimate performance opportunities—“There’s no question local dance groups need something like that”—but also about teaching dance classes to different demographics.

“There are so many women who have had dance as part of their lives and who want to dance still,” she says. “This is the first real time since I’ve lived here that someone has tried to tap into that. And then there’s movement for boys—that’s another area where I think we could be offering more, and now we have that chance.”

Ream’s and Ragsdale’s enthusiasm is indicative of what Adams has heard since she secured the space that was once Jay’s (as in the bar below Jay’s Upstairs). The community’s enthusiasm coupled with pop-culture’s newfound fascination with dance—à la hit shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Best Dance Crew”—makes Adams feel DDC’s launch couldn’t be coming at a better time. After all, her initial support is coming from Missoula’s existing dance community, and if the thought that “anyone can dance” catches on locally, DDC could grow exponentially.

“You know, it’s a good problem to have,” says Adams, “but in some ways I feel like—even before we’ve moved in—we’re going to grow out of this space.”

More information about the Downtown Dance Collective can be found online at www.ddcmontana.com. The grand opening is scheduled for First Friday, May 2.
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