During the last weekend of April, downtown Iowa City will be inundated with dance. For the tenth year in a row, audiences will be treated to a series of free public dance performances, master classes and installations. InterDance, the nonprofit organization run by dancer Nora Garda, is the force behind Iowa Dance 2016: Dancing Our Visions, and its goal, she says, is “to educate and entertain.”
That goal is not one necessarily associated with dance, which is usually confined to theatres and limited audiences who may have a presumed knowledge or existing connection to the form. “Dance for a long time has been considered an underrepresented art,” Garda told Little Village last year.
But with a substantial new grant from the Iowa Arts Council to fund the festival’s tenth anniversary celebration, the mission to make dance both edifying and fun should be realized. Come spring, audiences will have the chance to take in modern, jazz, hip-hop and ballet performances, as well as Irish, African, Near-Eastern and Indian classical dance. At FilmScene, University of Iowa faculty member Eloy Barragan will screen video-dances, an experimental form of dance conceived for the screen, in which the dancers are recorded. The festival will be kicked off with an event at The Studio (700 S. Dubuque St.)
The performances and events are free and open to the public, and in some cases impossible to miss. They’ll be held at the Iowa City Public Library, Old Capitol Center, United Action for Youth, the Pentacrest and the Ped Mall. This use of public spaces is deliberate: one of InterDance’s goals is to bring dance to those who might not otherwise see it.
In addition to regular residencies in public schools, events were held last year at Fair Grounds Coffeehouse, Trumpet Blossom Cafe and Chait Galleries — all venues that might be encountered without the premeditation, planning or price of admission usually required to see dance.
Angie Hayes of Travelers Dance has been instrumental in the festival since its inception. She’s seen it evolve, striving to make dance accessible around the city despite financial and space constraints. Over the last decade, Iowa Dance has taken the form of week- or month-long workshop programs supplemented by a limited number of formal performances, as funding has allowed. In more recent years, concerts have been held at the Coralville Center for Public Arts, but the use of downtown Iowa City spaces allows the events to be more widely attended.
Iowa Dance, as the only event of its kind in the state, also sees its role as uniting the wider dance community. At the beginning, Hayes says, “[The festival] was a chance to show my work, but mainly to start a process of connecting dancers from across the state … we have always hoped that other dancers, choreographers and companies in other cities would consider hosting similar events.”
Garda got the idea for Iowa Dance after participating in a dance festival in Spain in 2006, and hoped to bring its spirit home. The festival seeks to “invigorate” the dance community across Iowa, she says, and it also “promotes local business, statewide collaboration and outside recognition.”
And some of that recognition has arrived: Iowa was one of only nine states recognized by UNESCO’s International Dance Council in the last two years, acknowledging it as a hub for dance.
In recent years, the festival’s ability to foster a state-wide community of dancers has grown with the help of contributions from local hosts and businesses. Garda believes the collaboration and interaction that happens at the festival between local and visiting artists “should have a long-term impact on their work.” Iowa Dance 2016 will include dancers and choreographers from Ames, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines and Fairfield.
The festival’s commitment to inclusion and diversity extends beyond geography. Performers and workshop participants are of all ages, come from different cultural backgrounds, and represent a full range of dance ability. Those differences — and similarities — of experience are brought into conversation through dance, which Garda sees as “a vehicle to promote cultural exchange.”
Combined Efforts Theatre and Infinity Dance, two Iowa City-based disability-inclusive dance groups, bring an average of 30 performers to the festival. Accommodations for disability access are made at all venues, and events take place during daylight hours and in close proximity to one another.
The staging of a large-scale event like Iowa Dance is dependent not just on funding like the Council grant, but on the support of a community behind it: the people offering beds and meals to out of town dancers, coordinating venues and ensuring that the days of packed events run smoothly. Volunteers pitch in around 1,500 hours of help to the festival each year, and Garda says that in addition to the dancers, crew and staff whose help is evident, “businesses, organizations, city government and audiences” are also critical to the festival. Fifteen business, 10 local organizations and the City Council all help “provide a welcoming atmosphere for local and visiting artists,” she says.
This integration is by design. Bringing dancers into public spaces and inviting the community to participate and support them starts new conversations and establishes new connections. “There are opportunities for artistic discussions, networking and personal interactions between performers, audiences and local supporters,” Garda says.
InterDance’s reach stretches beyond the festival, with its long-term commitment to providing workshops, performances and residencies in public schools. One of Hayes’ roles is facilitating the donation of tickets to families who want to see dance but otherwise couldn’t.
That mission of broadening dance audiences has been important to Iowa Dance since its early days. Garda sees the festival as “both educational and inspirational, encouraging future exploration of [audience members’] own and other cultures, learning about new subjects and in new ways, all at affordable prices or no monetary cost at all.” She hopes, above all, to expose audiences to different art forms.
This year’s anniversary celebration will again bring dancers from across the state right into the middle of downtown Iowa City. On a stroll through the Ped Mall, you might pass a step-dancing troupe. Stop in the library and you might happen upon a modern dance master class taught by a visiting artist. And Barragan’s innovative video-dance screening at FilmScene is a must-see experience. Garda promises that Iowa Dance 2016 will “celebrate and honor Iowa’s artistic and cultural diversity”––just as it’s been doing for the last ten years.
Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name Nora Garda. It has since been updated. Little Village regrets this error.
Lucy Morris read Dance Magazine for ten years straight, which helped prepare her for her new role editing Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village 190.