Thursday, January 06, 2005

A Month of Motion: JCC's Celebrates 25 Years

The Jewish Community Center is a dance landmark for Houston. With festivals in January and the summer, year-round dance classes, and the I.W. Marks Jewelers Master Classes series, the JCC is a one-stop dance shopping mall. The annual post-holiday festival known as Dance Month turns 25 this year.

Dance Month all started with a complaint. Hilda Frank, then Chair of the Dance Committee, called Mark Lit, JCC’s former Cultural and Performing Arts Director, to voice her disappointment that the adult dance students were never given a chance to perform in the Kaplan Theatre. Lit took a look at the calendar and noticed that January was wide open. “I’ll take it, said Frank. “I had no idea what I was going to do with a whole month, but I wasn’t going to let it go.” Maxine Silberstein (then a dance faculty member), Pam Stockman (Dance Coordinator at the time), and Frank organized the first month of dance called Celebrate Dance: A Moving Experience. “In the beginning we were a mom and pop organization,” remembers Frank.

Dance Month was born in 1981 with a quiet performance for the adult students, Joan Karff’s New Dance Group, Camille Hill’s Discovery Dance Group, and an evening of mime with Linda Graham and Richard Zachary. “There wasn’t much dance happening in Houston back then, states Silberstein. Those early years featured performers Delia Stewart Jazz Dance Company, Space/Dance/Theatre, and Stanze Peterson Dance/Theatre. “I was honored to be in such excellent company,” remembers Roberta Stokes, a frequent Dance Month participant.

Frank, an avid folk dancer, was particularly interested in expanding the knowledge and training for the local Israeli folk dance scene. She brought in such renowned teachers as Dani Dassa, Ruth Goodman, and Yoram Rachmany for weekend workshops.

Dance Month grew savvier as time went on importing several Israeli Modern Dance companies. Vertigo Dance Company, Morena Amoora, and Inbal Dance Theater all made rare Houston pit stops. This tradition continues for the Silver Celebration with Sheketak, a dance and percussion group that gives Stomp a run for its money.

In 1985, Frank and Silberstein came up with a way to encourage young artists called Houston Choreographers x 6. “We have this whole pool of talent in Houston, why not showcase it?” asked Frank. This program featured choreographers from all ends of dance, from tap to ballet. Choreographers who showed potential were selected to perform on a fully produced weekend of dance. Dominic Walsh, Sandra Organ, Chris Lidvall, Sophia Torres, and Trey McIntyre each premiered work. Each of these artists have gone on to form their own company or, in the case if McIntrye, develop a national reputation. “Up to the 20th anniversary, we had not repeated a choreographer. During the following years we had some repeats and it was so interesting to see their growth,” states Silberstein. “Dancers called the Kaplan the launching pad.”

In 1991 the JCC collaborated with SPA to initiate the I.W. Marks Jewelers Master Class Series. Artists from Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Garth Fagan, and David Parsons, gave master classes for Houston dancers. This program continues year round whenever S.P.A. artists are in town.

Dance Month celebrates all kinds of dance-including ballroom. In 1997, they added a special ballroom event that includes a public lesson and performance. Today it’s one of the most popular events of Dance Month. Each year the ballroom evening has a new theme. This year it’s Cruisin’ the Caribbean. In the early years they collaborated with the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association (USABDA) to find entertainers. Today they are pros at decking out the gym and planning must-go ballroom events.

Dance Month hosted workshops in the body therapies way before they were household names, Dr. Rebecca Clearman gave lectures on dance injuries, and there were classes in the Feldenkrais Method, Pilates, The Alexander Technique, Yoga, and Tai Chi, filling a jam packed weekend.

To celebrate the Silver Anniversary, a special evening combining live dance performances and video is planned. Eleven groups will premiere six-minute pieces interspersed by a video montage that tells the Dance Month story. Early in the planning process Frank and Silberstein brought Joanna Friesen into the picture to help organize the literally truck loads of photos and videos of past performances. “While Hilda and Maxine spent hours being sure everyone was included, I focused on finding a manageable structure. Our combined efforts helped everything fall into place,” states Friesen.

Many key players in Houston dance appear on video. One of them is S.P.A. Executive Director, Toby Mattox. “Dance Month at the Jewish Community Center is vital to the Greater Houston dance community. First, it is an annual stage where local and regional dance companies and choreographers can be seen. The program helps generate a continuing interest in dance in addition to offering opportunities for dance companies from our region to be seen,” states Mattox.

Silberstein’s years of service were recognized last year when she won the first Buffy Award, Houston’s only Dance Award. This year’s festivities are in memory of Mark Arvin, a Dance Month frequent participant, former Houston Ballet Principal, and Broadway dancer, who passed away in December. “Dance Month has survived just like dance companies have survived,” states Frank. Houston dancers are glad it did.

Dance Month takes place at the JCC’s Kaplan Theatre from January 7-29. For tickets call 713-551-7255 or visit

Note: This piece originally appeared in the January issue of Artshouston.