“Think About Your Work Instead of Where You Put Your Foot”

Brenda Way offers advice for building a financially secure dance institution.

Brenda Way, founder and artistic director of ODC/Dance, in half profile, with sunflower bouquet behind her.
Brenda Way is founder and artistic director of ODC/Dance. Steve Maller, courtesy of Way

Brenda Way of ODC/Dance in San Francisco projects an enviable vision of staying power in a city that both celebrates its artistic culture and starves it of space. She and co-artistic director KT Nelson have created a thriving dance center in SF’s Mission District—with two buildings that house school, theater, gallery and even a health clinic for dancers. In this interview with Dance Magazine editor in chief Jennifer Stahl, Way shares the kind of wisdom that has earned her a reputation as a national dance leader.

Find your supporters.

“From the very beginning out here in San Francisco, my relationship with the board has been key. I was very lucky to find people who believed in building an interdisciplinary center. Three of my original board members are still involved. 

“My advice to young dancemakers today is to make friends. It’s sort of simple, and it will take the shape of whatever the characters are. I think we’re all on the same front here trying to remind a population about the importance of artistic contribution. We’re not just struggling for our own work, but to make a place for dance in the popular consciousness.”

Don’t be afraid to buy.

“I have great faith that if you can build a home for something, important things can happen because you can think about your work instead of where you put your foot.

“When we were evicted from our first space in San Francisco, our board members and I decided to buy a place. We wrote everybody we’d ever met and then managed to get a small business loan. Of course it wasn’t easy to do, but I wasn’t intimidated by it. I’d renovated a gym and made it into an inter-arts building back at Oberlin [College, where Way originally launched ODC and an inter-arts department in the late 1960s], then bought a house while still on a student loan in New York City. 

“The real issue is imagining that you can do it. But once you buy a building, you have your feet on the ground in a different way. Once we’d bought ours, funding agencies felt, Okay, you’re here to stay. Of course that actually makes you vulnerable, but I didn’t mention that!” 

Learn how to talk about your work.

“The ability to explain what it is you have in mind is not widely shared. You have to be able to communicate your vision to get support for it. We were good at painting a picture of this artistic environment we wanted to create in a way that people could get. I think being an English major helped with that.” 

Be budget savvy.

“I’m pretty good at numbers. That helps mitigate any bias that might emerge over me being a female leader. If you can carry on a conversation about your budget, you’re more likely to be taken seriously.”

Pay it forward.

“By now, ODC has the advantage of longevity. It feels safer for people to contribute to our efforts because they feel we’ll be here to follow through. So it’s our turn to nurture today’s emerging artists. We have four resident companies in our building, we run a pilot series of people’s first work, we have mentorship programs. We can be counted on to help next generation get a foot up, if not a leg.” 

The Bottom Line

Don’t give up. “The advice I always give to dancers and students is stay in the room. Perseverance is everything.”

Jennifer Stahl is editor in chief of Dance Magazine. This article first appeared on dancemagazine.com.