A 2003 National Endowment for the Arts report on nonprofit dance companies noted ruefully that “dance companies of all genres face the reality of a ruthlessly short lifecycle.” Now celebrating its 25th year of presenting world-class dance in Chicago and around the globe, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater has defied that trend through thoughtful leadership and planning. As the company enters its next phase, its leaders are working with the UChicago Community Programs Accelerator, a program of the Office of Civic Engagement, to map the road ahead.
In early 2019, Deeply Rooted joined the Accelerator’s associates program, which provides South Side nonprofits with general support over the course of a year to build capacity, complete specific projects, and connect with an array of University resources that help them strengthen their impact on the communities they serve. Deeply Rooted’s engagement with the Accelerator has included collaborating with faculty and student consultants who have helped company leaders define and refine the organization’s leadership structure.
“It’s critical for any organization to shake up its thinking,” says Kevin Iega Jeff, the company’s co-founder and current creative director. “Having the Accelerator as our thought partner is really helpful as we consider questions of how to enhance the lives of our staff while we seek to grow our organization.”
With the help of Accelerator consultants, Deeply Rooted evaluated its structure and developed a flexible new approach that keeps managers connected even when they’re not all in the same city. For example, technology now supports a remote office setup so co-founder and associate artistic director Gary Abbott can remain seamlessly engaged while continuing his work as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City.
“The Community Programs Accelerator offers us an environment for thought-sharing and critical thinking, where we’re challenged to share our perspectives and formalize ideas that have been gestating. That’s really powerful."
The Accelerator team also supported Deeply Rooted through the process of hiring a company managing director, and is helping to create a framework for a rotating leadership structure that formalizes job descriptions, deliverables, and processes while enabling the entire team’s involvement in both the artistic and management sides of the organization. “The Accelerator has created clarity for us as we look at institution-building and putting structures in place that will be transferable as people transition,” explains Jeff.
Through the Accelerator, Deeply Rooted has connected with other University resources, including the Civic Actor Studio, in which three staff members participated to build new leadership skills. Jeff is also currently working with the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on creating a South Side Dance Center to serve as a home for Deeply Rooted and a hub for collaboration among arts organizations.
And in late 2019, Deeply Rooted was one of eight dance companies to help launch the Black Dance Legacy Project, a multi-year partnership of the Logan Center and the Joyce Foundation. Accelerator consultants conducted needs assessments of the participating companies to help refine the project’s goals of enhancing the companies’ visibility and sustainability; supporting their succession planning and audience building; advancing dance training; strengthening connections among the companies; and, ultimately, safeguarding the legacy and future of Black dance.
Photo by Ken Carl