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Behind the Southern Vermont Dance Festival

In a small town located in southern Vermont, there resides a whole lot of talent and enough character to make an entire city thrive. Once a year, Brattleboro, Vermont, attracts even more life, character and brilliant art than usual; a week in July known as the Southern Vermont Dance Festival hosts a wide variety of performance art and classes that culminate in an experience of much more than just dance. As I step away from my weekend here, one word comes to mind: connection. Not only with myself as a dancer, but also with others—dancers and non-dancers alike; something that Brenda Siegel, the founder and Artistic Director of the festival, had in mind when she founded it in 2011.

Photo by Jeffrey Lewis

That same year, Hurricane Irene struck and flooded Brattleboro, not only damaging properties but also damaging the town’s economic stability and residential security. Brenda and her son lost everything, but with the disaster came a flood of ideas for Brenda—looking for something to rebuild the town’s standing that was, “an economic driver, and not [just] a quick fix.” The arts and local businesses must survive in a symbiotic relationship, as “every day, more than 100,000 non-profit arts and culture organizations act as economic drivers – creating an industry that supports jobs, generates government revenue, and is the cornerstone of our tourism industry” (Arts and Economic Prosperity IV Report).

With a great deal of experience behind her, from her degree in dance from Hampshire College, to choreographing for and teaching countless students outlets from breakdancing to yoga, to interning for Bernie Sanders’ office, she was ready to pursue her lifelong dream of creating a dance festival for everyone to participate in. Taking this disaster, reclaiming it, and creating something sustainable and artistically diverse, truly reveals itself in Brenda’s dedication and drive to pursue this: not for herself, but for the collective—the businesses, the artists and the future generations of audience members, artists, art lovers and community members.

Photo by Allison Clarke

Not only does this festival showcase its brilliant works in traditional galas, but also creates a factor of inclusivity within the community: holding performances among local pedestrian settings, a magical outdoor promenade gala at Scott Farm, countless classes from “Dancing Upside down,” to traditional ballet, a wide variation of class levels, and an uplifting atmosphere unlike any other. Within the walls of these performances are works of boundless energy, diversity, and expression. Not only in the nature and aesthetic of the work but in those performing and bringing the works; from emerging choreographers and pre-professional performance companies to well-known professional companies who have toured internationally. Though the diversity is striking, the mission is the same across the board, or, marley floor for that matter: a love for dance and passion to show it to the world, no matter the stage.

Photo by Jeffrey Lewis

The community driven approach to showing these works and holding classes is done very specifically, a necessity in artistic endeavors. As Brenda says, “we have to bring dance to the community, not the community to dance.” In many ways, this art form is often something not everyone thinks they can experience, whether it be through classes or performances. By giving access to a myriad of different kinds of works, this allows the community to experience dance in a way that they thought was out of the question, even bringing them to appreciate dance in a way that they never thought they could – a necessity in the understanding of an art form and further, supporting it. Not only are the arts supported through this festival, but the businesses are as well. “The businesses and arts cannot survive without each other in local communities;” a quote in which Brenda founded her philosophy on the structure of the festival – both economic and collective.

Photo by Jeffrey Lewis

In order to bring this to the community, the Southern Vermont Dance Festival team creates a class environment that is accessible to the community as well. In much of the dance scene, world-renowned teachers aren’t accessible to lower level and beginning students, something that can be extremely beneficial for them, as Brenda points out. The varying levels and offerings within class selections allows not only for younger dancers and professionals to connect and dance together but also for more beginner or recreational dancers who come for classes to experience teachers and a class environment that they may not find anywhere else. In order for this to work, however, everyone must be appreciative of each other’s work – on stage and off, an environment in which Brenda has seen thrive, parallel to the stability of the array of works throughout the festival.

Photo by Jeffrey Lewis

Coinciding with this environment of “joy and generosity,” as Brenda observes, shines light on how “it can be demoralizing the way [dance] is perceived in the world.” In a society where the entertainment and feeling that dance and other visual art evokes seems readily available, the audience is the reason it can be done. Without an audience, though there will always be art, there would be no business in the arts. Through a community based, accessible, sustainable platform for performing arts, blossoms a lifetime of the availability to art of all forms. Growing on a stem of respecting and appreciating the arts, blooms a changed perception, even if that doesn’t always mean an understanding of every work of art you may witness. “Dance should be accessible to everyone,” Brenda states, as the Southern Vermont Dance Festival tries to bring dance “where it is not always.” So, I call upon you – reach out where you would not always. Seek investigation into the arts where you would not always. Find a way to immerse yourself into an art form where you would not always. Support the arts in a way that you would not always: because you, as the audience, have the power to keep art alive and thriving.

“Amid changing demographics, a new political climate, technological advances,
and globalization, small and mid-sized community-based arts organizations
offer artistic excellence and innovation, astute leadership connected to
community needs, and important institutional and engagement models for the
arts field. This essay underscores the crucial contributions of this segment of
cultural organizations in the cultural ecosystem and toward achieving healthy
communities and a healthy democracy.” – Ron Chew

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Written by Jorgie Ingram

Jorgie IngramJorgie is an artist, activist, writer, and dancer currently finishing high school online. She has a passion for helping others, and does so by pursuing her creative passions and artistry, to further inspire and help others through her creative work and activism. Jorgie is also the founder of the environmental activism group Kearsarge Changing Climate Change, and is a passionate advocate for global climate activism.

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