Two dancers with successful performing careers are turning their passion for the art into solid business acumen.
Chanel DaSilva and Nigel Campbell, co-founders and artistic directors
Date founded: 2015; 501(c)(3) status granted in 2020
Operating budget: $315,000
Full-time staff: 3 (including co-directors and managing director Niya Nicholson)
Range of programming:
• Young Professionals Program (tuition-free, year-round mentorship and conservatory prep for dancers ages 13–18)
• S.W.E.A.T. (summer intensive)
• Open Access intensive (for Tri-State Area dancers ages 13–18)
• MOVE the Field (job-shadow opportunities)
Best friends Nigel Campbell and Chanel DaSilva have been cheering each other on since the tender age of 10: from their early training at Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts; from The Juilliard School to distinguished performing careers. But five years ago, the pair put their friendship to a new test when they launched MOVE|NYC|, an educational organization with an ambitious vision to make the dance world more diverse and inclusive. DBW asked this dynamic duo about their process of building a business and how what they’ve learned will take them into the next five years—and beyond.
Take the Time You Need to Start on the Right Foot
Back in 2013, Campbell was dancing for a company in Sweden, where DaSilva (then based in Idaho as a member of the Trey McIntyre Project) came to visit. Over burgers in an Irish pub (yes, in Sweden!), talk turned to their incredible reality: Two African-American New Yorkers who grew up with limited financial resources had nevertheless successfully followed their dance dreams around the world and back. The ensuing wish to support young dancers of color just like them planted the seed for what is now MOVE|NYC|.
“But just to put it in perspective, we didn’t launch to the world until the end of 2015,” DaSilva says. “It took about three years of constant conversation about how we would do this and in what capacity we could do it.” It wasn’t until both artists moved back to NYC that they felt prepared to lay down a curriculum and finally unveil their idea to the public.
Spend Money Where It Matters
Before the two even had a chance to figure out that they’re both gifted at fundraising, they needed materials to market MOVE|NYC| to prospective donors. The problem? “At that time in our lives, both Nigel and I were flat broke!” says DaSilva.
“We put our pennies together to get a professional-quality trailer made to introduce MOVE|NYC| to the world,” she says. That trailer cost $250—which they had to arrange to pay in installments. “We knew we also needed a website—so I built it myself on Squarespace.”
They went on to raise $25,000 for their first year of business. When they pitched their business idea to Gina Gibney, she pledged her support with a generous space donation and access to administrative services of the Gibney organization. MOVE|NYC| recently received its official not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) status. (They had been, most recently, under the fiscal sponsorship of New York Foundation for the Arts.) The annual operating budget is now $315,000. “It was just as hard for us to raise $25,000 as it is to raise $300,000,” says Campbell. “The stakes just keep getting higher.”
You Can Have Both a Dance Career and a Business—But You’ll Have to Work for Both
Every good entrepreneurial origin story starts with naysayers who tried to dissuade a founder from putting an idea into motion, and MOVE|NYC| is no exception. As DaSilva says, “A lot of people told us not to do it. They said, ‘This is not the right time to start a business or organization. This is the time for you to keep dancing and do what you want to do for yourself.’” DaSilva and Campbell (then in their late 20s and arguably at the peak of their performing careers) fundamentally disagreed with those people.
“We actually thought it was the perfect time for us to start MOVE|NYC|,” she says. “A: We felt called to do it. B: We were in the time in our lives when we had the energy to both be in our careers and give back to young people.” It’s a lot to manage, though. DaSilva has an active freelance choreography practice and Campbell is co-director of Gibney Dance. “We are blessed and very stressed to be doing it all ourselves,” he says. The co-directors now pay themselves a small salary and this year were able to bring on a full-time managing director.
Let Your Idea Show You How It Wants to Grow
DaSilva and Campbell originally envisioned that MOVE|NYC| would offer only a summer intensive, in large part because their schedules were already filled with the varied obligations of freelance dancer-choreographers. Plans changed when, after the first intensive, they began to get requests. “After the three weeks were over, if there was a young dancer who wasn’t in a full-time after-school training program, they called us to ask what they should do after school,” says Campbell. “If there was a parent unsure whether their child should follow this career path, we had dinner with the family to talk about it. We realized the heart of what we were being called to do was deeper than the work in the studio.”
Soon, performing opportunities for their students began to show up—which in turn brought about field trips to performances. “Unless you see professional dance, you don’t understand the level to which you’re aspiring,” Campbell explains. All told, it took two years of evolution before the Young Professionals Program took its current shape as a year-round, tuition-free conservatory prep and mentorship program. “Current” being a key word: DaSilva says she doesn’t trust her own imaginative limits anymore to predict how MOVE|NYC|’s component programs will grow and change in the coming years.
Be Smart Enough to Know What You Don’t Know
“One of the biggest aids to us actually starting this was naïveté,” says Campbell. “We didn’t know how hard this was going to be, or how much work it took to do this right.” But while ignorance might get things started, Campbell and DaSilva learned quickly that expertise gets it done.
“None of this happened without advice,” says DaSilva. “Though we’d been part of the nonprofit sector as dancers for so long, we were evolving into a new realm as leaders and as directors. We knew we needed to ask people about the new territory in which we found ourselves.” That brain trust includes their own teachers and mentors, plus board members and artistic advisory council members from companies in which they’d each danced. Their advice to arts nonprofit founders following in their footsteps: Consult business owners who just started out, who are five years in, and 10 or more years into the process—because every stage has a new set of business lessons.
Helen Rolfe teaches dance and has written for Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.