Alice Wheeler

Only recently has walking into the lobby of the Velocity Dance Center become as enjoyable as entering its beautiful performance space. Gone is the cramped hallway that served as a lobby before; gone--dance patrons will breathe a sigh of relief--is the narrow, dingy bathroom. Recent renovations have made the lobby a spacious, open area with two bathrooms, each clean and pleasant. "We're upgrading the space as much to welcome the audience as to support the artists," said Co-Artistic Director KT Niehoff. "I can walk into any performance and pretty much know everyone in the audience; we hope to expand dance beyond the bubble of its current subculture."

Dancer/choreographers Niehoff and Michele Miller moved to Seattle from New York in 1992. By 1996 both had decided they wanted to make Seattle their home, but Seattle had some drawbacks. "We needed a dance community," said Niehoff. Miller concurred: "I teach at Cornish too, and it was hard to watch all these talented students leaving town. To encourage people to stay, we wanted to bring in artists from outside Seattle, so that dancers wouldn't feel they had to leave Seattle to get exposed to the larger world." Both wanted to open a studio. As Miller was more focused on teaching and Niehoff wanted a venue to foster original work and present performances, they felt their skills were complementary. So in 1996 they started renting a huge ballroom in the Oddfellows Hall on Capitol Hill. "There was a lot going on, at least we thought there was, and when we opened up we discovered we were right."

They quickly built a curriculum that could absorb beginners and professionals and that offered teaching employment for damn near every choreographer in town. In 1997 Velocity launched the hugely popular Strictly Seattle, a sort of summer camp for dancers: three weeks of classes and workshops from Seattle-based choreographers, but for students from all over the country (and increasingly, all over the world), culminating in a performance. Conversely, the Guest Artist Series invited choreographers from elsewhere (so far, Japan, Amsterdam, and all over the U.S.) to teach workshops or master classes and sometimes to present work as well. To encompass all this activity, Velocity added two more studio spaces, all still within the capacious Oddfellows Hall.

Niehoff found herself a little overwhelmed by what was going on, not having thought of her dream as a small business. "Michele, who had managed Dance Space in New York, was 'Of course, duh!'" said Niehoff. In five years, the annual budget grew from $30,000 to $250,000; in 2000 they went nonprofit, "because we weren't making a profit," Niehoff said. Velocity's needs, as with most arts organizations, exceeded its earned income.

Yet there was more to do. To truly build the community Miller and Niehoff sought, they would need to offer more than classes, so they added a performance series, Under Construction, that cultivates works in progress. Perhaps Velocity's most telling program is the Bridge Project, which commissions work from three choreographers, gives them dancers and three weeks of rehearsal space, and presents the results. But there's a crucial rule: These choreographers can't use dancers they've worked with before. This restriction encourages relationships with dancers new to the scene, like those fresh graduates from Cornish and the University of Washington that Miller had watched slipping off to New York.

Velocity's skill at pinpointing and addressing such concerns has made it a vital force--this year, their newest program will assist local choreographers in touring their work to Minneapolis and San Francisco. The organization's rapid growth has been driven by the needs of the community rather than the ambitions of its founders. "Velocity was never meant to be KT and Michele's dance studio," said Niehoff, "and it feels like it's become an ecosystem." Miller added, "People are moving from San Francisco and New York to Seattle to dance. As the city becomes more of a dance mecca, it needs a place like Velocity. It'd be great if there was another Velocity, started by somebody else--that wouldn't be a threat at all. But Seattle may not be big enough to support that yet."