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TU Dance’s CULTIVATE program nurtures dancers’ dreams

Four women form a circle in a dance.
Last years' CULTIVATE trainees (left to right) Laren Chang, Sa'Nah Britt, Suzette Gilreath and Samantha Meryhew rehearsing Gregory Dolbashian's Quiet Home. (Photo credit: Canaan Mattson)

TU Dance in St. Paul  is building on its mission to diversify the landscape of the Minnesota dance scene with its new CULTIVATE program.

CULTIVATE is a paid training for dancers between the ages of 18-26 looking to increase their chances of breaking into the competitive field. The program was co-created by TU Dance Co-Founder Toni Pierce-Sands and Artistic Associate and Teaching Artist Laurel Keen. 

But Pierce-Sands says it all started with a nudge from Executive Director and Teaching Artist, Abdo Sayegh Rodriguez, during the height of the pandemic.

“I remember he was like, ‘you need to make a five year vision.’ And I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ And it was the most helpful thing, because what it did is ground me in where we are. And so, crazy enough we developed a new program,” said Pierce-Sands.

Sayegh-Rodríguez says CULTIVATE’s incorporation of the business side of dance felt like the logical next step in TU’s programming to help Minnesota dancers establish themselves in a sustainable career.

“Our students would come back to Minnesota from prestigious college dance programs, and would be like ‘I don't know what to do now.’ So this was a time for us to say, okay, let's dedicate time to nourish these artists,” said Sayegh-Rodríguez.

A woman stands to the left with hands behind her back observing a group of dancers balancing on one leg.
Toni Pierce-Sands instructs this year's CULTIVATE trainees in a Horton-based modern dance class. (CBJ Photo/Jasmine McBride)

Participants are both engaged in rigorous physical training and learn about such things as auditioning, writing contracts, social media branding and networking, depending on the unique needs of each group. CULTIVATE is limited to 5-10 students; participants get direct feedback on their dance skills through classes and mentorship with seasoned national dancers. And they are supported in creating a solo of their own. 

Keen says this program is transformational because it recognizes that the artistry of dance is not all that is needed to establish a career.

“Toni, and I were like, ‘what do we need even more so in Minnesota?’ And it was this training program,” said Keen. “It's just been really exciting for Toni and I to remember what we needed at that age, and then to build it into craft.” 

It’s fitting that TU Dance is launching this program, since the creation of the company itself stemmed from a recognition of unmet needs.

Black and white headshot of a woman
Toni Pierce Sands (Photo courtesy of TU Dance)

As a young dancer, Pierce-Sands danced with companies such as Minnesota Dance Theatre, the Tanz Forum in Germany, Rick Odums in Paris, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. On a trip home to the Twin Cities, she noticed that while other sectors of the community were diversifying, the local dance scene was still very white. So despite having the connections and resume to start a company anywhere, she chose to found TU Dance in the Twin Cities with her husband Uri Sands. 

“I know what it was like to train in a school where there were very few of us, what it was like to walk the streets and take the bus, what it felt like to be in school as an artist and feel alone. And as a kid of color I know what that feels like, having to continue to move into spaces that I didn't feel comfortable in until I went to New York,” explained Pierce-Sands. “But the landscape has changed, and TU Dance has contributed to that. That was the focus. That was our mission. To see that the landscape and the work has shifted in the 20 years I've been back – it's more than gratifying.” 

Keen’s connection to TU Dance dates back to when Pierce-Sands was her dance teacher when she was a teenager. She says this inspired her to go off to dance with a Black-led arts organization in San Francisco, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, before returning home and giving Pierce-Sands a call.

“And so when I [came] back in 2012, there was no question that I was going to come back to TU Dance because I had been used to a dance organization that was diverse, representing the wide breadth of humanity,” said Keen.

That diversity is a major draw to young dancers. CULTIVATE trainee Sam Meryhew says, having danced with TU Dance for over a decade, it is the rich diversity that has kept her engaged and evolving, not only as a dancer, but as a person.

“Coming into TU Dance, it was not only very encouraging, but seeing other dancers of color, teachers of color – it is very inspirational. To see that diversity was very helpful to my growth beyond just the techniques,” said Meryhew.

“TU Dance is an opportunity for me to invest in my artistry, and it's honestly unbelievable,” said CULTIVATE trainee Gabby Abram. 

And so what started with a desire for diversity has evolved – been cultivated – into real change within the Twin Cities dance scene. 

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