Recently Sixto Wagan, Director of the Center for Arts Leadership visited with Stephanie Todd Wong, Executive Director of Dance Source Houston. This March marks the one year anniversary of their management of “The Barn” venue for dance and performance adjacent to the BBVA Compass soccer stadium. They discussed Ms. Wong’s journey from dancer & choreographer to the leadership of Houston’s dance service organization. Ms. Wong will also be one of the local arts leaders speaking at the Leadership in the Arts Summit - April 4 & 5.
Wagan: Prior to coming to Houston, what was your role in the arts?
Stephanie Todd Wong: I was working for Dance/USA in Washington, DC running the Metro D.C. office. When my husband got transferred to Houston, they are the ones that helped get me connected [to the Houston dance community]. I met [Dance Source Houston Founder] Christina [Giannelli] at one of the national conventions and we hit it off. So when I moved here 7 months pregnant with baby number two, I already had a job waiting for me when I was ready to get back to work.
Was that your first significant leadership role? Besides being a choreographer? As an arts administrator, yes. I was working part-time at Dance/USA’s Metro D.C. office for about a year when the director left unexpectedly. I then had to manage the work of two people with a major program on the horizon, so I went to the Executive Director, saying that something needed to change. At that point, Dance/USA was already stretched because they were in the middle of two national job searches and Andrea [Snyder, the Executive Director] asked me what I thought should happen. I told her that I needed to take over. It’s what was best for the programs, for me and for the community. And she agreed, and I became the director.
Was it your goal to be an arts administrator? No, I was trained in the artistic side. I got my Bachelor’s degree in Arts at Mercyhurst College in a ballet based program. I got married, moved to DC, where I taught and danced, then got my MFA at George Mason University with an emphasis in choreography. After graduating, I danced for Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company and taught a small dance group of girls in Vienna, Virginia for a private high school.
Do you miss being an artist? I don’t miss performing but I miss creating. I miss being in the studio, but I feel like I create in a different way now. There’s creativity in crafting the programs that meet the needs of others. This community is also exceptionally appreciative of this service, and that helps a lot as well. Choreography was always like solving a puzzle for me, now it’s not about solving things with bodies in space, but about putting programs together that serve a community.
How is solving this puzzle for a service organization different from being a choreographer? The puzzle for a choreographer, depending on who you are as a creator, could be really personal. As an administrator, it is not personal in that way. It still allows me to get a bird’s eye view and dig into that idea. That’s how I worked choreographically – getting the big idea and then digging into that. For DSH, I’m looking at the community from that bird’s eye view, and analyzing what I’m seeing – what holes need to be filled, what needs to be pulled this way, or pushed - and taking the large idea and figuring out the pieces behind it to make it all work as a whole.
What is the relationship between Dance Source Houston (DSH) and the community? I feel like we only partially lead Dance Source Houston. As a service organization, we are responsive part of the time to what the community needs, but DSH is also able to take a 30,000 feet view and look at the patterns that people in the trenches are not going to see. We help plan for those things as well.
How is Dance Source contributing to a broader, community vision? We work to increase ticketed audience at performances across the city and to empower the community to grow artistically and administratively so that they can make their best work. There are plans to try to help companies be more tour-ready. Creating a flow of ideas is important and we are trying to help artists and organizations to get out of Houston and have other ideas coming into Houston. Also part of the goal is to raise money for [choreographers and dancers] to go to conferences to help see what’s going on elsewhere.]
Why invest in conferences and not new work? The ability for ideas to cross geographic boundaries is harder in Texas opposed other parts of the country. Coming from the East Coast, I could travel in 3 hours and be in 4 different states and see different communities and artists, whereas here you’re lucky if you made it to Austin in 3 hours. It brings a different sense of audience and perspective to your own work with the expanded network the conferences can bring.
And is DSH going back to being a presenter of dance? Though Dance Source is doing a dance exchange with Austin, we are programming a season for a bigger service goal for the community. Presenting is not the goal. The priority is still the service.
How do you make the leap from being an administrator to being a leader? There’s something about that label that feels a little uncomfortable. If I look at the facts of the situation - I am leading the service organization for the dance community in the 4th largest city in the country - I am a leader, but I have trouble putting that label on myself. To some degree it’s acknowledging that life is leading you, as opposed to where you think you’re leading yourself.
How does being a mother influence your ideas of leadership? I have 2 daughters and I love being able to be a model for them. I see everything differently now -the whole feminism glass ceiling thing. They are young enough to not see the barriers, even though I know they are there. It’s important for me that they see me working. One of the benefits of where I work is the flexibility. I still can drop my kids at school and pick them up every afternoon. There are not a lot of benefits to small arts businesses but flexibility is highly valued one.
What will be part of your legacy at DSH? As the community changed, Dance Source also needed to change and grow and I think I’ve been able to facilitate that. But my personal soapbox is to inspire every dancer to be able to contribute to the field in places other than the stage. I feel the field falls short on training patrons – in converting dancers to support the field in other ways. How would it be for a doctor to understand an injury and your dancing? Or having a photographer that anticipates clicking the button because they feel it in their body? Having leaders that can speak with passion for the field because they have been in that position? Having leaders that can speak with passion for the field because they been in that position is important. There are so many ways to stay connected in the field even when you’re not performing.
This is the latest in a series of interviews as part of partnership between Arts+Culture:Texas Magazine and the Center for Arts Leadership at University of Houston. The Center for Arts Leadership investigates, creates and tests leadership practices in the arts through gatherings and strategic partnerships.