Hartford resident Jillian Foley says she didn’t necessarily intend to become an entrepreneur running her own dance company. She was encouraged to launch The Dance Collective based on a need to provide an innovative platform for dance and create choreographic and leadership opportunities for women.
Putting Her Spin on Entrepreneurship
With a unique idea in mind, Jillian tested her business idea at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, NY. She had grown up performing in the theatre there and had some connections. In early January 2017, she presented her idea about doing something completely different with dance, making it more accessible to a broader audience.
“I remember explaining: There needs to be more space held for dance, because it doesn’t exist as much as it should,” Jillian recalls. “I had just graduated from the University of Hartford – Hartt School and knew many friends and colleagues who were talented dancers without jobs. I wanted to create another platform for dance to enable more people to experience it.”
The Proctor Theatre became The Dance Collective’s first fiscal sponsor. Currently, The Collective is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, which is a public charity. At the Proctor School, Jillian was able to utilize the school’s black-box theatre, which she wanted to transform to be less traditional.
“So many dance performances on stage are basically the same. To get more people interested in dance, I felt it had to be presented in a different way,” she says.
“I didn’t necessarily want the performances to be theater shows,” Jillian explains. “I wanted the space to be inviting and welcoming, so we set up tables and chairs and encouraged people to come in and sit wherever they were comfortable. We also had a bar, so it was more casual than a theatre-type venue.”
The first show was in July 2017. The dance format was unconventional—short performances interspersed with short breaks. The audience was encouraged to get up and move around and to intermingle with the dancers between performances.
“This is the format of all the shows. It’s a more interactive experience. You can engage with the dancers. It’s more of an inclusive way to see dance,” says Jillian.
Bringing the Concept to Connecticut
Hosting shows at the Proctor School helped Jillian refine her concept. “I was also able to realize what did and didn’t work,” she notes. With her business idea validated, she decided to try hosting more events.
Jillian had been traveling to Schenectady for the performances, and wanted to find a space closer to home, here in Hartford.
“I live near Hog River Brewing Co. and I go there all the time. I thought: This is a huge, beautiful space, and they host all kinds of events,” Jillian recalls. “I’m Operating Officer at Parkville Sounds, and through that connection I’ve been involved with different music events at Hog River. I talked to co-owners Ben and Joy Braddock, and they were down to provide the space.”
The first show at the brewery was November 2017.
“The performances are contemporary dance, so it’s all open to interpretation,” notes Jillian. “At the first brewery event, the dancers moved throughout the space and people gravitated to where the dance was happening. When the dance finished and the dancers disbursed, it was cool to see people chat about what had happened. It just kind of exploded from there.”
Momentum for The Dance Collective began to build soon after that performance. Jillian connected with Deborah Gaudet, Curator of Film & Theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art through one of her professors at The Hartt School.
In February 2018 The Dance Collective did a well-received performance at an Art After Dark event. From there, The Collective has been spreading the word via additional events, press, and social media.
What differentiates The Dance Collective from other dance troupes is Jillian’s commitment to make it entirely female. Her goal was to level the playing field for women in professional dance.
Although there are generally fewer men in dance, they typically receive leading roles and are often given an opportunity to choreograph and lead,” Jillian points out. She feels women are worthy of more opportunities to dance, choreograph, and be leaders.
At its core, The Dance Collective is run by a team of women, including Company Manager Jane Krantz, Fundraising/Social Media coordinator Frances Fuller, Artistic Advisor Marjorie Gross, Stage Manager Elizabeth Angleson, and Jillian, who is Founder and Artistic Director.
Another differentiator for the company is the fact that there isn’t necessarily a solidified company. “We have people who come in and out or perform in multiple shows,” Jillian notes, “But for each show we deliberately choose different female choreographers and then they choose their dancers. So, we have a different group of females for each performance.”
She emphasizes, “It’s about providing an opportunity for choreographers—more so than dancers, who are selected by the choreographers. I feel a choreographer is a leader in dance. They’re the person who tells the dancers what to do, and what is going to happen in each dance.”
The Dance Collective accepts auditions for choreographers through video submissions. It also finds people through word of mouth.
“People who have danced in the show before sometimes decide they want to choreograph the next time,” Jillian explains. “We’re trying to be inclusive and provide opportunities for choreographers and choose different people all the time—it’s hard to do that because you want to choose everyone, and you just can’t.”
Becoming A Business Owner
The transition from creative artist to business woman has been interesting for Jillian, who majored in ballet pedagogy and minored in performing arts management in college. She notes, “I had another minor in psychology—which I feel also helps with people management!”
During her senior year of college, Jillian was an administrative assistant for Shoen Movement Company, a small contemporary dance company out of New York.
Artistic Director Emily Shoen became somewhat of a mentor for Jillian. “Working for Emily, I’ve been exposed to a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff for years, so I learned a lot from that and I’ve been able to translate that into my own company,” says Jillian.
She has experienced some challenges with founding a collective.
“It’s interesting because my vision isn’t necessarily everyone else’s vision,” Jillian admits. “There are obviously things that don’t necessarily work. I’ve learned to be flexible, learn from the audience’s reaction and listen to the input from and learn from the choreographers I’ve hired. I listen to the input from those people because those are the people I’m catering to.”
Building an Audience
Jillian enjoys teaching dance to adults. Last summer, the Dance Collective provided open classes Great River Park in East Hartford in collaboration with Riverfront Recapture, which provided an opportunity for people to understand contemporary dance.
“Dance is for everyone, it’s not necessarily for a dancer,” Jillian underscores. “If more people become interested in dance and they can understand how we move our bodies, then may go and see a performance and relate to it a little more.”
The Dance Collective is working with a volunteer from Business Volunteers for the Arts, an initiative through the Greater Hartford Arts Council. They are performing research to try and figure out how to create more of an audience for dance.
“I’ve often related dance shows to music shows,” Jillian illustrates. “A lot of people like to go someplace casual where they can have a beer and listen to live music—why can’t it be the same thing with watching live dance? Attending a dance performance doesn’t have only be for wealthy theater goers, it can be for anyone. I feel like that’s the way to move forward with dance and make it more available to people.”