Rockford Dance Groups Rely On Innovation And Collaboration

Nov 4, 2013

We continue our series on the arts in Rockford on a slightly different beat-- dance. 

A group of women gather Tuesday mornings in a Rockford Dance Company studio for a class on the basics of tap dancing. Instructor Theresa Sinks says the class is open to all ages and abilities and is part of a focus on improving wellness in Rockford.

Performers from "Bold Moves"
Credit Rockford Dance Company

“It’s not just the five-year-old in tutus. It can be people well into their adult lives.” - Theresa Sinks, instructor, Rockford Dance Company

Sinks is also a board member of the Company, which is celebrating its 40th year in the city. There are major transitions ahead for the Rockford Dance Company: Both the executive director and artistic director announced they’re both leaving within the coming months.

Artistic Director Matthew Keefe is stepping down after this season to focus on his family, which lives out of state. Keefe says he was attracted to Rockford because the city’s size makes the arts accessible to aspiring dancers and audiences.  Keefe says he would like to see city leaders use the arts as a selling point for Rockford:

“There are a lot of musicians in this town. Personally, I think that it’s something they need to say more of, and they need to be talking more about what makes this community special from a cultural standpoint,” Keefe said.

Rockford Dance Company Executive Director Cindy Jo Lantz says she’s leaving the organization at a time when it is on solid financial footing.

“It is so unusual for a small, regional dance company to last for 40 years," Lantz said. "The average is between five and eight years. So we have defied the possibilities and have grown and grown to become a cultural leader in the community, and we only have Rockford to thank for it."

Keefe also feels confident the Company is in a good place, but says there are plenty more opportunities to grab onto. He points to Austin, Texas, where a thriving music scene has helped create a cultural buzz that attracts new residents and companies.

Tap dance class at the Rockford Dance Company
Credit Jenna Dooley / WNIJ

Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey agrees that the arts should have top billing when it comes to forming a positive perception of the city.

“The world can tell whatever story it wants about Rockford. I don’t really care,” Morrissey said. “What’s most important is that we craft our own story and believe in ourselves. It’s going to be our arts and our arts community members to help to tell that story, who help us envision a place different from where we are today."

Prince Alonzo Russell formed the group “Fatally Unique” when he was 15 in the basement of his home. The dancers perform hip hop dance to upbeat music.

Fatally Unique, a dance group from Rockford, perform on season six of "America's Got Talent"
Credit NBC

"I went around Auburn High School with note paper. You didn't even have to be able to dance, you could just sign up and come on. To know that I went from the basement of my home to millions of people on national television is an unexplainable feeling. That's what the point of Fatally Unique was. It was to take teens off of the streets of Rockford and give them something positive to do, and it's gone further than I ever imagined."

Fatally Unique performed on a national stage during season six of “America’s Got Talent.”

Russell is also part of Rockford’s training ground for young dancers. He’s on an international singing tour now, but says he took advantage of everything the city’s arts community had to offer:

“I can honestly say that is why I have the passion that I have now. It started when I was young. I was an angry child. It was the arts that saved me at the end of the day.” - Prince Alonzo Russell, founder, Fatally Unique

Elaine Breck is a former board member for the Rockford Area Arts Council. She says Russell’s story is part of the reason Rockford is a great place to learn the arts:

“We have a lot of older artists who are willing to mentor the young artist. If you go to a larger community, I think it’s easy to get lost,” Breck said.

Both the Rockford Dance Company and emerging groups like Fatally Unique find that it is important to stay relevant in modern times. The two groups put on a show earlier this year at the Coronado Performing Arts Center blending their very different styles.

Matthew Keefe says his company also works with other modern dance groups like Evolve and Without Shoes to bring dance to a new audience.

"Before we had music... before we had painting...people were moving around. I love the world that we live in now. I love how fast it's changing. I think that using dance as a creative exploration allows people to connect with the roots of what existence and humanity is and also know that being spontaneous is what dance is."