How Boise Became a Regional Dance Hub 

Drawing (and keeping) talent in the Treasure Valley's dance community

Idaho Dance Theatre performers rehearse with the company's co-artistic director, Marla Hansen.

Patrick Sweeney

Idaho Dance Theatre performers rehearse with the company's co-artistic director, Marla Hansen.

Above the black, rubberized floor of the Morrison Center rehearsal space, audio-visual hookups dangled from a matrix of pipes like the clutter of a spaceship hatch. Seven young Idaho Dance Theatre performers in tank tops jetted across the floor, scuffed with the years of twirls, pirouettes and leaps of young dancers.

As IDT dancers rehearsed for "Catalyst," the tentative title of a dance to be performed as part of IDT's Fall Performance (Nov. 8-10), the practice space's heavy use underscored IDT's venerable role within Boise's dance community. For a town not widely perceived as an artists' mecca, Boise is becoming a thriving cultivator of a native population of dancers, as well as a draw to dancers from across the nation.

The 2013-2014 season marks IDT's 25th. Despite early financial and administrative struggles, the company has persevered, training scores of dancers and choreographers who have either remained in Boise to raise the next crop of young performers, or perform themselves in larger dance markets.

"This is such a vibrant place because for these dancers, this is their home," said IDT Co-Artistic Director Marla Hansen.

Hansen and her husband, Fred, and Carl Rowe founded the company in 1989. From the start, it faced administrative and financial hardships. The company had no paid staff and didn't put dancers on contract--rather, they were paid per performance and rehearsal time was unpaid. A lack of funds meant dancers would stay with IDT for a season, then move on, often away from Boise.

"There were times when we thought, 'We can't do this anymore,'" Marla Hansen said.

As the program became more established, donors provided funds that helped stabilize its finances, and IDT was able to develop an administration and curate a stable of dancers. In the mid-1990s, a donor provided about $60,000 to the program and IDT hired its first paid staff member in 1996.

"It really gave us the opportunity to keep our finest dancers," she said.

Another gift of $40,000, followed by several more large gifts in the early 2000s, helped IDT continue to expand. The company now puts its dancers on contract and has an operating budget of $180,000 per year.

IDT's business success corresponds to an increased interest in dance in the Treasure Valley, and local dance companies have responded to that interest with increased organizational sophistication. Ballet Idaho's West Side Academy, opened in September, is a case study in who's reevaluating the area's dance culture, and how.

In 2011, Ballet Idaho began researching a possible satellite campus when it discovered a significant portion of its young ballet students were commuting from western Ada and Canyon counties. Demographic research opened an avenue for the company to grow.

"The population growth in the valley is centered around Meridian," said Ballet Idaho Executive Director Paul Kaine. "How far are people willing to go to come to our studio downtown?"

Finding the right spot for a new academy required a hard look at the kinds of students already targeted by Ballet Idaho.

"We were looking at families with children of a certain age ... who participate in extracurricular activities. [West Side Academy] is right in the middle of where that's happening," he said.

As regions west of Boise continue to expand, so has interest in Ballet Idaho's youth programs. Growth of its footprint is one of Ballet Idaho's long-term goals, and without commenting on the cost of the West Side Academy, Kaine said he expects to recoup his investment in the program within two years.

In the cavernous Balance Dance Company rehearsal studio on the top floor of Boise Contemporary Theater, BDC alumna Gracie Whyte led company members through a rehearsal while founder Leah Clark, herself a former IDT dancer, discussed the evolution of Boise's dance community--a process she described as having turned Boise into a "cultural conduit."

"We train dancers that are capable of going into any community outside of Boise," Clark said.

The 2013-2014 season is Balance's 16th, and currently there are 13 in the dance company, 12 in the second company and more than 100 in Balance's various classes, ranging from 3-year-olds to college students.

Clark's theory is that her students should be prepared to enter professional dancing and understand the work needed to produce and perform dance in an affirming atmosphere.

"I think [BDC dancers] are developing strong voices as artists without compromising themselves," she said.

The multitude of dance companies serving Boise's young dancers, ushering them into a variety of dance forms, Clark said, is ultimately good for Boise's cultural standing. Part of the reason why Boise exports--and imports--so many dancers is that there are plenty of ways a dancer can study dance or dance professionally. Those include, but are not limited to BDC, Ballet Idaho, IDT and Trey McIntyre Project.

"There are a lot of windows into dance here," Clark said.

That's true for Mallory Welsh, who has danced for Boise Dance Co-Op and Lauren Edson + Dancers since moving to Boise in 2012 to be with her boyfriend, TMP dancer Travis Walker. Welsh, who works as a pilates instructor, trained at the The School of American Ballet in New York before dancing with Ballet San Jose. She turned down offers from a couple of prestigious ballet institutions to move to Boise, but has found the City of Trees to be an invigorating community in which to continue her dance career.

"Boise feels much fresher and more creative than what I'm used to," she said.

The open framework of Boise's dance community has given Welsh an unexpected inroad back to her profession.

"My moving here was a personal choice but I was happy that I could work here," she said.

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