It’s hard to even know where to begin with Ellen Chenoweth. On paper, she is Dance Exchange’s Managing Director. That’s a pretty hefty job for a young arts professional, but Ellen also helps coordinate DC’s Kitchen of Innovation, attends more art events than anyone else I know, is a member of DC’s Emerging Arts Leaders, and is a passionate and thoughtful advocate for the arts and artists across the region.
Ellen has been an amazing asset to Dance Exchange, and as Managing Director, has set a tone for Dance Exchange that allows the artists and staff to thrive, innovate, and build deep relationships with our community. I’ve never met anyone so focused on creating opportunities for artists, and we’re very lucky to have her here.
I could go on. But I’ll let Ellen tell you more about her road to Dance Exchange, her role in the organization, and the lessons she learned from Dance Exchange’s transition in July 2011. Enjoy!
What is your background?
I started out working in international development. Right after undergrad, I moved to Bolivia for a job in a democracy-building NGO, which led to a job in their DC office.
And how did you wind up in the arts?
I landed in international development without a clear intention, and it didn’t feel quite right to me as a long-term career. I applied for a job at the Kennedy Center in their education department, and I had a great boss there who was willing to take a chance on me. The job at Kennedy Center was great: we ran post-performance discussions for music, dance, and jazz, so I got to see a lot of performance. I’d never been exposed to modern dance before that job. One experience that stands out from that time is watching Suzanne Farrell teach class to young dancers in her Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell program. That class was a masterpiece! I loved how tightly constructed it was, and how much of an intellectual exercise it was.
I fell in love with dance by watching it, but I had never taken a class before. In 2006, I moved back to my hometown of Denton, Texas and sort of wandered into the dance department at Texas Woman’s University and told them about my interests in dance history and criticism, and said, “Should I come to school here?” And they were very warm and welcoming despite my unconventional background. It was very humbling as a 27-year-old graduate student to take class alongside 17-year-olds with much more dance training. I had to work so hard! It was humbling and incredible to try totally new skills. A theory-based program probably would have been ideal for me, but I did the “physical theory” for five semesters with very patient teachers and now am so glad to have had that experience.
How did you first hear about Dance Exchange?
I heard about Dance Exchange when I worked at Kennedy Center. Some project we were working on led me to Dance Exchange’s online Toolbox, and I was blown away by the tools. I thought it was really generous of the organization to share their tools with anyone on the internet.
And how did you begin working here?
In 2009, I moved back to DC. It was a really hard time to be looking for a job in the arts. I started volunteering for Dance Exchange, and a full-time position opened up after I’d volunteered for just a couple of weeks. I started out as Projects Coordinator, and then became Projects Manager. It was so eye-opening to work here—the pace was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I was blown away by how smart and committed everyone on staff was. I’m still amazed by the number of projects we do at once.
Can you talk about the transition into your current role as Managing Director?
It’s a bit of blur! I came into the organization knowing that Liz was leaving, and that Dance Exchange was going through a major transition. It was a fascinating process to be a part of and I feel like my background in international development prepared me well for the financial side of this job.
I think we’ve done a good job absorbing lessons, and staying flexible and communicative. It’s a really thrilling time here, and I think it is representative of a larger generational shift going on in the arts world. We’re an example of the organizational shift happening in many companies, and we’re looking for new and sustainable models. We have a young, energetic team here, and we do a good job of paying attention to what’s happening in other organizations. I’m really thankful for the mentorship I’ve received from other heads of organizations—people have been so generous and supportive. Special shout outs to Carla Perlo at Dance Place and Jose Dominguez at Pyramid Atlantic!
What’s an average day like for you?
Usually I have at least one internal meeting with staff members, one external meeting with potential partners or staff of other organizations we’re working with. I also address the email avalanche, and contact the dancers we bring in. No static time here—lots of movement!
I used to love reading your blog Widening the I. Are there any connections between your dance writing work and the work you do at Dance Exchange?
I think it just comes from wanting to know as much as possible about the field. Dance Exchange doesn’t make work in a vacuum—we seek inspiration from a variety of sources and I think that is a sort of Dance Exchange trait I have. I go to lectures, films, all kinds of performances. I like being a sponge and being fed from diverse places.
Are there any highlights of your time here?
I just love that work gets created here, and that the staff is included in the rehearsal process. Our opinions are valued in the feedback process for a new work, and so we contribute to the development of the work here. I like being around in-process work. I also love to see the company in performance. It really showcases the individual—you see individual personalities and strengths. No one is interchangeable in the works that get made here because the dancers bring their whole selves to the process. Onstage, you see how unique everyone is.
Any lessons you’ve learned in your time here, and from the transition?
How we measure success is changing, and we’re in the process of figuring out new ways of measurement and questioning if bigger is better. We’re questioning growth and what its purpose is. If we’re not measuring success by the size of the budget, what are the metrics we use?
Any advice for someone wanting to get into the arts?
Persistence. Just showing up, and showing up again. Make yourself available and valuable and stick to it. And, love. You have to love it, or its not gonna work.