New Dance Program Aims to Build Community with Audiences

Emerging choreographers will showcase new work at a free public event.

Black female ballet dancer on stage
Carmen Felder dances during a NWA Ballet Theatre performance. Photo courtesy of Max Grubb.

While the arts are flourishing in Northwest Arkansas, Karen Castleman says there’s more that can be done to support dance. Castleman is an independent dance artist who recently conducted a dance ecosystem development study and as a result of that research, she’s launching a new program to fill the opportunity gap for artists. DanceChance NWA will make its debut at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at 214 in Springdale.

Castleman has been a dance educator in the region for about six years. Teaching primarily high school students, she noticed graduates leaving the area to continue studying dance in college because the opportunity to stage engaged with the artform in Arkansas is “extremely limited.”

“In my mind I’ve always been processing what are the things that are missing, what are the things that could help create pathways and keep individuals involved in a beautiful artform longer in their life,” she says. 

Those questions were analyzed as part of the Northwest Arkansas Dance Ecosystem Development project. Castleman managed the year-long study, which was funded by the Walton Family Foundation and fiscally sponsored by Rogers Experimental House. One piece of the report was a survey which found that while there is a high interest in dance performance attendance and participation, there is a lack of knowledge about events and low awareness of current groups and cultural offerings.

To bridge the gap, Castleman is launching DanceChance NWA, an event that will function similar to an open mic for dancemakers. Four choreographers were selected at random a month ahead of time and they will present new work at Wednesday’s event. The evening will end with a moderated question and answer session between choreographers and the audience. 

“The goal for this event is both an opportunity for choreographers to develop work and see it on stage, but also to provide a vehicle for feedback and conversation around dance,” Castleman says.

DanceChance was created by Julie Nakagawa, artist director for DanceWorks Chicago. Castleman was a resident and dancer in the Chicago community for six years. Witnessing the benefits of this program firsthand inspired her to bring it to Arkansas.

“When I was thinking of strategies for building community around dance, for me this was a natural potential project that could really have far-reaching effects in our community,” she says.

Marissa Culbreath is one of four choreographers selected to showcase their work at DanceChance NWA. Culbreath primarily teaches hip hop fitness classes and plans on bringing some party tunes and having fun while breaking a sweat.

“I want to show the community that sometimes dance isn’t for everybody else, sometimes you want to dance just for you,” she says.

Culbreath performed with her high school’s dance team in Bentonville for four years and as the only Black person on the squad, she felt like no one understood her and her artistry. That changed in college when she performed at Arkansas State University alongside other Black dancers. 

Growing up, communities of color didn’t have anything to foster their love of the arts, Culbreath says. While the minority population is growing in the region, there’s still a lack of access to various artforms. To that end, Culbreath has created the Be You Arts and Community Center. Right now she’s focused on dance, but one day Culbreath hopes to have a center where she can offer additional artforms like theatre and music, as well as mentorship and after school programs. 

“And it just be a place where we as Black and brown people can just be ourselves and that’s why I call it Be You,” she says. “I call it that because it’s like we’ve never really had that space and I hope to be able to bring that one day.”

There’s a lot of potential for the dance ecosystem in Arkansas, but several changes need to happen in order to create more opportunities for dancers and audiences. In addition to more education, Culbreath says she’d also like to see a loss of gatekeeping. 

“You don’t have to be a certain size, you don’t have to have a certain amount of money, you don’t have to be from a certain background to want to dance and to want to be educated in dance,” she says.

DanceChance NWA debuts at 7 p.m. at 214 in downtown Springdale. Admission is free, but a $5 donation at the door is suggested. Masks are required for all audience members. More information about the event is available on Facebook

The full report on the Northwest Arkansas Dance Ecosystem Development project is available here.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.