Boom In Brooklyn?

Real estate explosion threatens downtown's dance ecology.

"It seems that almost every successful dance studio in New York is on Broadway," says Andrew Cohen, managing director of the 550 Broadway Dance studio. "We cater to the downtown scene. I live in Williamsburg, so I'm not skittish of the boroughs, but Manhattan is just a center."

Students hesitate to travel more than 45 minutes each way to class, but "I would follow the teachers," says Amy Wong, a former architect who recently quit her job to dance full-time. Others agree that good teachers would draw them just about anywhere, but many are reluctant to walk long distances from subways to class in strange neighborhoods, an attitude that affects outlying Manhattan spots as well as Brooklyn. And affordable space in Brooklyn is becoming difficult to find; rents in the north end of Williamsburg are comparable, says Cohen, to what he now pays in Soho. In Dumbo, developers have bought up the buildings and will only offer very short leases.

In the '60s, Simonson remembers, the Times Square area was all dance studios, with dancers shuttling to and from nearby theaters. Marian Horosko, associate editor for education at Dance Magazine, says Manhattan had 60 performances a weekend and 207 studios in 1980— the year landlords began to raise rents 200 to 300 percent on very short notice. Some studios folded, others moved to more hospitable cities. By 1984, only 27 schools remained. Horosko describes the damage as "inestimable. We have lost the precious gift that we had in New York, which was to be able to train young people at the highest level." Dance Magazine itself, based in Manhattan since 1927, will send a good chunk of its operation to California's Bay Area in November; among other factors affecting the decision was the loss of its 60th Street office to a bidder offering almost twice as much.

Betsy Hallerman, a psychologist and dance student who also acts as Dance Space's publicist, says the studio's directors are looking to buy: "We want a place that can't be taken away."

"We're not asking for wall-to-wall carpeting," says Simonson. "We need uncluttered space, natural light, and sprung floors." They seek 30,000 square feet but could easily fill 50,000. In its own building— which they expect will cost $5 million— Dance Space could house students and guest artists' companies, many of which are too small and on the road too much to afford a full-time rent. Dance Space would manage a "space share," guaranteeing each company a studio when it's in New York.

Dance Space has many fellow space-seekers. Pentacle, Movement Research, Lotus Music and Dance Studio, Djoniba Dance and Drum Centre, and Soundance have all expressed interest in a space share. The Paul Taylor Dance Company and the José Limón Dance Foundation (which is bursting at the seams) both know they'll have to move when their leases expire— Taylor's in 2002 and Limón's in 2004.

The future of dance may lie in Brooklyn, but for now, observes Allison Ellner, owner and director of midtown's Broadway Dance Center, "there's more little tushies to fill those theater seats here than anywhere else." Horosko, who in the early '80s petitioned Mayor Koch and the Board of Estimate to control commercial rents for nonprofit arts organizations, thinks it would be a shame if lack of government support forced all dance training out of Manhattan. "Every church has an exemption. Come on."

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