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 July 1, 1999

Dance Festival No. 3 in nation, but budget dwindles

BOULDER — Usually a burglary is no laughing matter, but Michelle Heffner Hayes can’t help seeing the funny side.

The burglary happened recently at the Walnut Street offices of the Colorado Dance Festival, where Heffner Hayes is the artistic director, when someone kicked their way in through ceiling tiles before making off with a VCR.

Of course it’s not really funny, but Heffner Hayes is genuinely amused at the irony that anyone would think of breaking into the dance festival in the hope of finding money.

Like so many non-profit performing arts groups, this one operates on a shoe-string budget that has been slowly shrinking in recent years until it’s begun to look positively anorexic.

Each year organizers breathe a collective sigh of relief at finding the festival is still solvent, but the same nagging question remains: Can this event, which enjoys a nationwide reputation, survive another season?

“Every year we just squeeze through, but it’s becoming more and more difficult. It really shouldn’t be this much of a struggle,” says Heffner Hayes.

As part of its year-round program, the festival hosts touring shows, runs master classes and helps stage some two dozen activities, many in Boulder County schools. But the jewel in its crown is the summer season which runs July 4-July 31.

This feast includes a heady mix of 50 classes, courses and workshops, weekly dance parties and a series of concerts featuring Flamenco Latino, Haitian and tango, plus the popular David Dorfman Dance.

At least 10,000 people are expected to pour into Boulder for this festival. Other events during the year reach between 2,500 to 3,000 children and their parents.

More people — including adult beginners, school students and families — will attend this month’s classes. Half of them will be from Colorado, the rest from around the United States with a sprinkling from overseas.

The festival’s signature is its vigorous promotion of many dance traditions and cultures — African, South and Central American, Native American, Caribbean and even Japanese. Organizers are proud that minority races make up on average a quarter of festival audiences.

Though it was founded only in 1982, the event is widely regarded as one of the country’s top three dance festivals alongside Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts and the American Dance Festival in North Carolina, both of which began in the 1930s.

But whereas those other two wallow in budgets of more than $3 million, the Boulder-based festival has to scrape by on about $400,000, which is actually 20 percent less than it had three years ago.

“Over the last three years the budget has been shrinking,” says Heffner Hayes. “The pattern has been to decrease expenses, trim staff, postpone capital improvements and try to negotiate artists’ fees downwards.”

The three staff and governing board of directors put together a budget and create each season’s program, but often the money does not come in until much later. As a result, life can become an exercise in brinkmanship which is not for the faint-hearted.

Heffner Hayes says because budgets have always been lean, the festival has never been able to establish a cash reserve that would give it a measure of security and sustainability.

The festival earns close to half its income from ticket sales — the Boulder Theater concerts usually attract 600 people per show — and class tuition fees. Most of the rest comes from private, corporate and government donations and grants.

Among the lifelines are the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund which has pledged $50,000 per year for four years, the National Endowment for the Arts, worth around $30,000, Colorado Council on the Arts, about $20,000, and a share of the revenue from the area’s sales-tax fund, worth about $11,000.

While the festival is earning more each year from its audiences, growing demands upon foundation and public funding have made that an increasingly uncertain source.

“The festival also suffers because among all the performing arts, dance traditionally receives the lowest level of funding. We are the poor relation,” says Hayes, who holds a Ph.D. in dance history and theory.

Despite the trials and tribulations of running the festival, Hayes says she remains positive about the future.

“I see this as an opportunity for the whole community to mobilize and maintain something which enhances the quality of life in Boulder.”

Those sentiments are pretty much shared by Betty Van Zandt, acting president of the board of directors, who’s both concerned and confident about the festival’s long-term future.

“I am always worried about cash flow, but we have a very passionate, hard-working and motivated board, and I’m optimistic we can keep this wonderful festival going,” she says.

“A lot of people around the country know about us, but a lot of local people don’t, so we have to interact and communicate more with our community. If the festival were to close I think we would be missed, but we’re not going to let that happen.”

BOULDER — Usually a burglary is no laughing matter, but Michelle Heffner Hayes can’t help seeing the funny side.

The burglary happened recently at the Walnut Street offices of the Colorado Dance Festival, where Heffner Hayes is the artistic director, when someone kicked their way in through ceiling tiles before making off with a VCR.

Of course it’s not really funny, but Heffner Hayes is genuinely amused at the irony that anyone would think of breaking into the dance festival in the hope of finding money.

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