A&E

Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center Celebrates 10 Years

Founder and executive director Cat Willis reflects on the first decade and what’s ahead

The Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center staff, from left to right: Angela Chambers, Micha Scott, Cat Willis, and Lisa Brenner. PHOTO: DEVI PRIDE

It didn’t take long for Santa Cruz, and everyone else, to fall in love with the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center (TWDCC)—and its founder and executive director Cat Willis—when it opened its doors in 2011.

First conceived by Willis in the ’90s, TWDCC was born out of both her childhood and extensive dance experience. Growing up in a Black church in Rochester, New York, singing, dancing, and community were a part of every weekend, she says. Willis also studied for many years with Garth Fagan Dance, the Edna Manley School of Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica, and the University of Legon in Ghana. 

“All of these very influential places taught me the power of the arts and cultural practice, mixed with strong community bonds, and how ‘placemaking’ was really central to a healthy human experience; all of this created a vision inside of me to create a cultural center of some imaginings. I actually confessed all of these imaginings and dreams to my dear friend and board member Mia Birdsong on her Brooklyn stoop in 1999.”

Now, TWDCC is celebrating 10 years as a hub of dance, culture, and creativity in Santa Cruz. Though Willis was relatively new to Santa Cruz 10 years ago, the community welcomed her. Volunteers showed up to help build the studio, artists signed contracts to teach—despite not having many students, initially—and some of the staff sacrificed salaries to pay the studio rent. This was all in the midst of the Great Recession, but Willis had a vision that couldn’t wait.

“I wanted to create something I was not really seeing in Santa Cruz,” Wilis says. 

Micha Scott, a longtime professional dancer with the Garth Fagan Dance Company who is both the TWDCC Board vice-president and the group’s artistic director, remembers having classes in the community area of the Tannery residences at first because there was no dance floor in the studio. There were about eight dancers and a portable CD player, she says. Many of those first dancers and teachers are still with the TWDCC family today.

“Looking back, I am not surprised how positively people respond to TWDCC,” Willis says. “Having a cultural hub that brings such a broad intersection of people together through performance and dance is a necessity, especially in times like these. I have always said that I could not have opened TWDCC anywhere other than Santa Cruz. There is an alchemy of growth and optimism that runs through the people of this town, and I see a hunger for connections that are deep and foster understanding.”

EXTENDED FAMILY 

Willis assembled a small group of founding advisors, including Scott and longtime friend and Tannery resident Yasmina Porter. Other familiar faces included Carmela Woll, co-founder of Motion Pacific, and George Newell, current board president. Willis also assembled a team of teachers including Haitian dance teacher Shawn Merriman Roberts, Congolese artist and dance teacher Vivien Boussamina, and Tango teachers Devi Pride and Luis Garza.

“A lot of times modern or indigenous art forms are considered ‘lesser than’ or ‘not as technical’ or ‘only for show.’ But there is a lot of richness and depth and tradition involved in these art forms, and it’s really important that they are showcased and elevated,” Scott says. “Creativity is a way that people solve problems. It’s not just about the dance, it’s about how to figure out the problems in life.” 

“Places like TWDCC create an anchor of stability and safety, and it is one of a few spaces in the county that has one of the highest demographics of BIPOC teachers, artists, and students,” Willis says. 

Part of having a successful dance and cultural organization is the teachers like Bay Area professional dancer Molly Katzman, but also the opportunities for summer intensives with dancers from around the world. TWDCC students have opportunities to study with renowned guests from all over the country like Gregory Dawson, Sharon Skepple Mayfield, N’Jelle Gage Thorne, Guy Thorne and Annique Roberts. 

“Cat and Micha aren’t fixated on one genre. They know that dance has different facets, like a diamond, and they can appreciate and know the importance of all of them,” Dawson says. “This appreciation, in my opinion, helps in creating a mindful artist and an incredible human being.”

“These days we talk a lot about intersectionality, and I believe that a community hub like TWDCC really gets to the core of what it means to bring people of many persuasions and backgrounds together,” Willis says. “When people are connecting in a safe space and sharing their cultural traditions and artistic practice, there is a lot of trust, inspiration, and creativity to go around, and people want to return for that over and over again.” 

INSPIRATION AND REPRESENTATION

Before Covid-19, TWDCC was serving more than 350 students a week—a big change from the initial tiny classes in the Tannery residences. Looking back on the last decade, Willis says that one of her proudest moments was in 2016 when TWDCC commissioned Micha Scott and Gregory Dawson of dawsondanceSF to create original works for the first annual Winter Dance Festival at the Colligan Theater.

“It was a sold-out show and the work was, as expected, extraordinary,” Willis says. “I was proud and humbled all at the same time by, once again, all of these people believing in the need for this level of work and artistry to be shown in Santa Cruz, and that Black artists were sitting at the top of the billing and shining in a place like Santa Cruz where there are so few of us here. Representation is critical to the work at TWDCC.” 

TWDCC has both adult and youth dance programs that are designed to be accessible to everyone and make all students feel seen, heard, and part of something larger than themselves. 

“In Santa Cruz, when you look around you don’t see many mixed-race kids; but when I’m at the studio and I see everyone around me that looks like me, it helps me feel at home and helps me feel safe,” 15-year-old TWDCC dancer and SCOPE scholarship recipient Eva Diop says. “In society, I see all these rich, white successful people, but I don’t see as many who are like me. When I see these amazing, powerful women like Micha, Cat, and Angela, it’s inspirational and it makes me feel like I can achieve that someday.”

Eva’s mother Noel Diop said that as a white mother to four biracial children, TWDCC is a place where her children can feel their Senegalese roots. For Noel, as a longtime student of African Dance, TWDCC was a place that her family could land when they moved to Santa Cruz six years ago. 

“I felt held and felt safe,” Noel says. “I felt like it was a home. Feeling Cat’s love and strength and her nurturing the community, it felt solid.” 

For Eva and Noel, TWDCC has been a dance studio but also a family. Many of the Tannery residents depend on TWDCC as a place that makes living at the Tannery so unique and special. “Cat wants a safe community and to have everyone come together and dance. And she accomplished that,” Eva says. “It makes me feel like I can go out there and do whatever I put my mind to.” 

The TWDCC’s Diaspora Performance Project supports the development of new work by artists like Oumou Faye. PHOTO: CLIFF WARNER

CLICK AND MORTAR

For TWDCC, it’s all about togetherness—and Covid-19 won’t stop that. Despite the obstacles that Covid-19 has thrown at everyone, particularly local nonprofits, TWDCC has launched several initiatives to support their dancers and community while everyone is staying at home. 

“Covid hit TWDCC the way it hit everybody … swiftly,” Willis says. “We were in the midst of planning our big Spring Showcase, taking our teen company dancers to New York to study with Garth Fagan Dance in the summer, bringing special guest teachers from the East Coast here to Santa Cruz for our summer Intensive, and everything got shut down, all of it.” 

But from Covid-19 sprung some good, too, including TWDCC’s Click and Mortar Program, an online dance class program for TWDCC students. TWDCC also wrapped up the dance season in June and hosted two virtual Summer Dance Intensives. Likewise, because the organization was operating online, TWDCC was able to hire teachers internationally—something previously impossible because of cost limitations—that created a unique opportunity for local dancers. While the pivot to online was unexpected, Operations and Facilities manager Lisa Brenner rebuilt the TWDCC website from scratch to accommodate online teaching.

“The goal in moving our operations online is to facilitate a tech space that incorporates everyone’s tech capabilities, one that gives students and teachers the assurance that they are savvy enough to take or teach a movement class from their living room,” Brenner says. “It’s an extension of the methodology that TWDCC has always practiced: Everyone who walks through the doors will be seen and held through what they need. Right now, the doors are virtual.”

The “Mind-Body Medicine: Intro to Self-Care” class has also taken on its own special importance to TWDCC and its students since Covid-19 began. Taught by TWDCC’s Development Director and Programming Manager Angela Chambers, the class initially started as a personal project for her aimed at helping students find the balance between dance and personal life, but the class has since shifted to support overall mental health, self-care, cohort bonding, and mentorship.

“This class has provided an exponentially rewarding opportunity for me to connect with our students during a time when it’s needed most, when so many of them are having difficulty navigating the challenges they and their families are experiencing in the time of Covid,” Chambers says. “So many students have opened up about their personal struggle with mental health, and being able to connect with their peers about it all and find common ground and support has had a visibly significant and positive impact.”

Despite the popular classes and positive reception TWDCC has enjoyed over the last 10 years, Willis says that one of the biggest challenges over the last decade is that many people still don’t know that TWDCC exists. 

“What’s amazing to me is that as soon as people who’ve never before visited TWDCC come to the campus, they are blown away and inspired,” Willis says. “The truth is, the Tannery Arts Center has yet to even begin its ascent as the robust arts hub it is destined to be. We’ve had some really tough times on the campus over the past 10 years. Keeping at it is just what we do; that resiliency in the face of a lot of darkness has defined us in many ways.” 

BLACK HEALTH MATTERS

With visibility and community outreach in mind, TWDCC has recently partnered with several local programs, including the Santa Cruz Chapter of the NAACP, Blended Bridges, and the SCC Black Coalition for Racial Justice and Equity, United Way of Santa Cruz County and County Part Friends, to launch their Black Health Matters (BHM) Initiative. BHM is aimed at creating more community support and resources for the Black community in Santa Cruz by providing more access to outdoor park spaces, TWDCC classes, and health resources—so far including a virtual family barbecue and a sunset surf session with Bella Bonner, founder of Black Surf Club Santa Cruz, plus mediation, dance, and nutrition classes.

“Black Health Matters was born out of the direct response to George Floyd and the movement for Black Lives,” Willis says. “I knew that I wanted to create a platform that could address what Black residents were facing in the county in regards to race relations, the lack of data on our community, and structural inequalities that were being highlighted because of Covid-19.”

BHM also involves a community assessment survey conducted by United Way of Santa Cruz County that will report information and feedback from the Black community to fill gaps in county data. “We want to make the invisible, visible,” says Keisha Browder, CEO at United Way of Santa Cruz County. “What gets measured gets done, and if we can start with the gaps, we can begin the work there.” 

Browder says that United Way has begun collecting data and a report will be released this spring. So far, she says some of the data they have released is eye-opening, particularly the income and education of Black community members compared to others. “The median household income for the Black community is a little over $78,000, but our Caucasian neighbors are at $123,000,” Browder explains. “So one can look at $78,000 and think ‘not bad,’ but there is a definite gap.”

For many, TWDCC is more than a dance organization—it’s a place of culture, education, and community. “TWDCC is our cultural hub; it is where the Black community gathers,” Browder says. “So while it may look like dance on the surface, it’s having that space and opportunity to look to your left and right and see someone who looks like you.”

THE NEXT DECADE

Looking to the next 10 years, Willis says that TWDCC will further cement its position as a place of cultural significance in the Bay Area. Willis says she also wants to continue to reinvent how the arts, technology, and community partnerships can create what health and sustainability looks like in today’s Covid-19 world.

“Ten years ago, Cat and I stood in this empty dance studio without a dance floor and we just looked at each other and knew that we had such high hopes for the organization,” Scott says. “We built an amazing dance program for youth and opportunities for adult artists coming in and now we are expanding on the cultural center part of outreach. We will continue to grow our school and provide amazing opportunities to our dancers, but we are also going to continue to develop and grow our cultural center side.”

In celebration of the last decade, TWDCC will fittingly be collaborating with the renowned Garth Fagan Dance—a prominent New York dance company. Garth Fagan is a Tony Award-winning choreographic mastermind behind Broadway’s “The Lion King” and will be collaborating with TWDCC to create a special production in Santa Cruz in the coming years. 

“I want to expose Santa Cruz to my roots and origins,” Scott says. “They are just an incredible group of dancers, and they are the supreme essence of Black excellence.” 

After seeing a Garth Fagan Dance Company production in California, Scott took a Greyhound bus across the country to Rochester in 1990, where she looked up the company in the phonebook. Impressed that she moved across the country alone, Fagan took Scott in as a student, and she eventually became a professional dancer there. Scott also encouraged Willis to join as a student in 1991. Today, Willis and Scott are literally sisters (in-law) and Scott says that the high standards of training and expression that she learned as both a student and professional dancer at Garth Fagan Dance have been very much been instilled in the TWDCC culture, too. 

“When we invest in building a powerful platform for these artists, we give a gift to our community,” Willis says. “We establish a professional and cultural institution that builds 

understanding, diversified knowledge, and equitable models of a healthy community.” 

As a hub of modern dance, TWDCC has brought in artists from all over the world and all areas of dance into the community fold, allowing artists to have an accommodating creative place of expression. TWDCC’s Winter Dance Fest choreographer Gregory Dawson of dawsondancesf says that TWDCC’s history of providing artists with a venue for creative expression and freedom in such an accommodating and welcoming way is rare.  

“The fact that TWDCC has leadership that believes in and understands dance, and knows how to invigorate and cultivate young artists, is a blessing,” Dawson says. “Cat and Micha are, as Black women, feeding their community motion, love, and thought. They are the right people, at the right time, for the community and the center.” 

Looking ahead, TWDCC hopes to have a virtual Winter Dance Fest—though the details haven’t been finalized, Dawson says he’s all in. Also, TWDCC recently teamed up with Motion Pacific to co-produce their first BIPOC Queer Fest, slated for this fall. “We’ve been inspired by our dance community and feel a sense of solidarity with them, especially during Covid-19, when our collaboration and partnerships ensure we all survive,” Willis says.  

Over the last 10 years, Scott says she has seen a progression of a higher caliber of dance in Santa Cruz. But, at the end of the day, she says that TWDCC focuses on the person as a human being, not just a dancer. 

“We are not one of those studios that just runs dancers through the mill and they come out the other side and they have an incredible extension and can turn in the air five times,” Scott says. “Yes, they will get the technical training, but they will learn creative expression. The bigger goal is to create artistry. Why are you doing this movement? There is a level of artistry and creative expression that can be achieved if it’s fostered and nurtured.”  

“What the campus was created for was every intersection of art-making and performance and connection to happen in one place,” Willis says. “We’ve achieved that in bursts, but the best is yet to come as far as I can see.” 

For more information on TWDCC, visit tanneryworlddance.com.

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