PCTP

Grant writing

In the fall of 2012, I was in the beginning stages of preparing to quit my day job to pursue freelancing in dance.

I decided to apply for my first grant, because I had been led to believe that the process was something you had to do to be a real artist. I also decided to apply because I am me. Before I go any further with this post, it’s also important that you understand something about my personality and how I got that way.

I’m a Philly chick from a lower middle class family. The two main ways that we identify our people is by our nasal-ly accents and our big old chips on our shoulders. People often say to me, “Philadelphia is an angry town.” They aren’t wrong. We booed Santa.

I’m not an angry person. I do, however, have an edge. I inherited a big-ass attitude, a tireless work ethic, as well as an outsized ambition that comes from some past entrepreneurial ancestor in the universe.

Since I was a child, if I heard any version of the phrase, “we just don’t do it this way,” I would do everything I could to prove them wrong. Actually, I love proving people wrong. It is from this place where my creative fires start burning and I begin most of my ideas.

So, the first grant that I decided to tackle was the Pew Dance Advance grant. I really had no business applying for that Pew grant in the fall of 2012, but somehow, my letter of intent slipped through the first round. My project was based on bringing my mentor, Heather Cornell, to Philadelphia to re-stage repertory from Manhattan Tap on Philadelphia dancers (and lead workshops, panel discussions…basically the whole nine yards that Pew likes to see). From October of 2012 until February of 2013, I wrote draft after draft, had conference after conference at Pew, revised budgets a hundred times, chased people for their own letters of intent, committed multiple venues, and filmed work samples. Despite many people raising their eyebrows at me and subtly (or not) telling me I should throw in the towel, I saw that grant proposal to the bitter end. On the day it was due, I walked the package to the Pew offices in an stupor, and then I literally collapsed with a weeklong flu. (This is why people hire grant writers).

Oh, and I also lost. I tried to be cool and not show my disappointment to anyone I knew, but when I received that rejection email, I still recall the feeling of how it sliced open my chest and brought a flood of hot tears to my eyes.

Weeks later, though, I pulled myself together and decided to listen to the panel feedback. I only recall one quote: “we are amazed you made it as far as you did.”

Back-handed compliment? Maybe. I took it as a challenge.

I dove into business for myself in July of 2013. Once I did, I took this grant thing by the horns. I won two grants quickly and right around the same time. Small But Mighty Arts awarded me $500 to produce the 11th and final installment of Philly Tap Teaser. Then, the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts awarded me $1100 to work with Dorothy Wasserman, Jane Goldberg, Philadelphia dancers and a jazz quartet on new and re-staged tap dance choreography by Dorothy herself. It was just the right amount of beginner’s luck to make me grind on and keep logging projects, shows, collaborations and the inevitable failures.

From 2014-2018, I wrote and won the PA Council award three more times, and I also won three grants from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. My primary focus of the grant writing in these years was to support new choreography commissions for the swirling tentacles of this organization that eventually became The Philadelphia Community Tap Project. I commissioned choreography from Heather Cornell, (we finally did the project that was originally rejected by the Pew), Max Pollak and Ray Hesselink.

I don’t regret the process of writing those grants for community projects, because it was what I needed to do at the time to crystallize my vision and strategy for my multi-faceted interests in tap dance. I love community work, but I love other things, too, like choreography and performance. I also learned so much by writing these proposals all by myself. Up until five years ago, I took everything associated with my dancing so personally. When you write grants, you have to learn how to separate your passion for your art from the purpose of your art. I had never written previously about exactly what I did and why it should be important to others besides me. I had never had to evaluate my projects as profitable (and therefore, doable).

I learned how to apply my knowledge of business: sales, market analysis, P&Ls and features and benefits to my artistic projects. Similar to how you might launch a widget or a new fashion line, every project needs a budget and a timeline. It needs to have a market. It needs to show some kind of profit margin. And, if it doesn’t, you need to be prepared to write off the loss and have a plan for how you are going to do that.

OK, but here’s where it gets tricky. It is hard to propose a new idea in the field of tap dance, if the market you are in….isn’t even really considered a market.

I live in Philadelphia, where our tap dance scene has been under-funded and under-represented for at least the last twenty years. What that means is: any past market data is not currently co-signed by any major presenter, venue or institution. It’s grass-roots and self-reported. In other words, we are trying to obtain funding for a market that nobody (in a position of arts power, anyway) believes to exist.

Here’s just the tip of the iceberg:

1) none of our academic dance programs have a tap dance major, which means we don’t have any kids training to be professionals in this art form;

2) as a corollary to that, academic teaching positions in tap dance are almost non-existent;

3) a lack of local young choreographers means that no major venue regularly supports new works in tap dance,

4) and, there is no reliable institutional incubator for emerging and established tap dancers or their work,

5) since it’s hard to see new works in tap dance, I encounter local professional dancers who admit they’ve never even seen tap dance performed live,

6) and since we don’t have a professional society or department or standard in this city, I witness provincialism, lowering standards, and a real lack of interest in maintaining the integrity of the art form.

Our art form needs true professionals who are committed to absolute excellence on a daily basis: people who teach at a high level, create at a high level and execute on an even higher level. Tap dance evolved alongside of live music accompaniment, and it will not persist into the future without it. If we can help it, we cannot accept any public, professional presentation of the art form to recorded music. We should not support any entity that allows the art form to be presented incorrectly. Tap dance will cease to exist, unless dancers train and perform and compose and play as strongly as musicians. In Philadelphia, especially, we have such a deep tradition of street hoofing and the artistry it takes to be able to execute at the highest level.

I wake up every day with the drive to preserve the art form of tap dance with honor, respect, and integrity. I received that drive from my mentors and teachers who taught me how to conduct myself as an artist. They gave me everything that they had. I have a deep responsibility to carry it forward. Since I was a child, I’ve given so much back to this city, and for free, because I love tap dance so much.

When I started out five years ago, I wrote grants because I believed I needed to state a case for tap dance. I wrote them because I believed I needed to legitimize the cause.

However, I have decided not to write grants for the foreseeable future, because when I look at how much time I have spent, and how much I’ve received from the city and the state in return, it’s pretty clear: I am wasting my time going this route.

(I am, however, NOT wasting my time continuing to build an infrastructure. Just Google me).

The applications are full of obstacles, hurdles, hoops, moving goal posts - you get the picture. I used to work in corporate America, and I am familiar with how frustrating it can be to follow every last regulation and rule to make that sale or win the customer. However, when I wrote the proposals back then, I was getting compensated for it. When I write grants, I lose money every minute I’m sitting at the computer, trying to write the perfect turn of phrase.

For example, here’s a feedback quote from an application I submitted this time last year:

“The panel felt that you needed to include more info about Philadelphia tap history and why it’s important to tap dance education.”

Where to begin?

Well, first, I focus on the word “more.” More implies that my response lacked information about Philadelphia tap dance history, and that the panel did not have enough information to understand why my organization’s programming is relevant today.

I re-read my response, which I felt included as much information and detail as I could provide in 750 words. Just to give you some context for my expertise in writing about this topic, I was interviewed on a nationally-syndicated public television program about Philadelphia tap dance history and I’ve also done numerous radio interviews on WRTI and G-Town Radio. I think I know my stuff, at least well enough for others to call upon me at times to be a credible source.

What did the panel feel was lacking in this one answer, where I explained the roots of Philadelphia tap dance, how I grew up as a part of the legacy, why I created my first community project in 2008 to preserve and promote the Philadelphia scene, how the project grew over ten years of time to spread the history to hundreds of people, and eventually, how the demand and growth for the educational programming was one of the factors behind my opening of the first dedicated percussive dance space in Philadelphia?

What does “more” mean?

What does “important” mean?

In short, the panel suggests that this project is obviously important to me, but they need some sort of tangible proof, besides audience and participation numbers, that it’s important to anyone besides me.

Remember - my community data and project participation history, while I think it’s impressive, is not blowing up the skirt of anyone else on the panel, and as of this writing, no established venue or presenter is co-signing it.

If it’s really a catch-22, then there is nothing I could write that would answer the question in the manner that the panel would like. See, that’s where the grant game begins - - where my job becomes a rabbit hole investigation of the panel’s current definition of the word “more,” “why,” and “important,” and I write myself into an endless editing corner….for a $700 check.

On top of all of this, there’s no guarantee that these definitions won’t change from year to year.

Which brings me to the numbers, the data, the profits, the proof that any arts project is viable.

Viability in the arts is a relative term, just like success is.

I define viability in the following ways:

- people liking what you do

- projects that contribute positively and necessarily to the field in which you practice.

What I’ve also realized about institutional viability is this: I’ve worked so hard and so consistently at building my own multi-faceted arts business that I’m not even working off the same financial playbook as the grant organizations.

If you want to make artists adopt good business practices, it’s bad business to take weeks of our lives to write grants and prove our worthiness via an online data portal.

I am a busy creative artist actively engaged in making, producing and presenting new projects in tap dance. In order to do that, I created and implemented my own scalable structure…that works. Here’s the proof:

www.soundspacephilly.net

www.takeitawaydance.com

www.phillytapproject.com

Grant organizations seem to be so afraid of giving artists autonomy over any amount of money that they require them to adopt revenue models that, as far as I can see, have no measurable impact on improving artists’ profitability. I would say they do a good job at decreasing artistic productivity, because now it’s become part of the standard practice to push applicants to watch webinars, set up frequent conference calls with administrators and hire professionals to make the models work the “right” way. The revenue models push us to pad budgets with ancillary professional services, in-kind donations, staff and perfunctory activities to improve the look of the overall yearly budget and therefore, the margin. I don’t understand why current best practices don’t encourage and reward true creative resourcefulness. My time is far better spent making fantastic art with brilliant people and then supporting it with a real donor base, audience sales and new revenue ideas.

Algorithms don’t support real, innovative, emerging and new projects in concert tap dance. What I do doesn’t fit neatly into a profit and loss model that will produce me a big fat check. And I’m totally OK with that.

I understand the need for the process, but I need to get myself out of this process, really, to grow. And, while I do that, I’m going to keep proving everyone wrong.

Birthdays

My oldest daughter turns twelve tomorrow. Shortly after I learned I was going to be a mother, I remember calling my own mother in a hormone-addled panic. "My life is over," I weeped. Give me a break: I was 25, and drama was still my defense mechanism. "Your life is just beginning," she said.

When Violet arrived on February 24, 2006, my husband and I were living in Charlottesville, Virginia with no other family around. My husband worked night shifts, and I worked a 9-5. I spent the first three months of her life, fumbling into my new role as a mother, alone. She was a terrible sleeper, and without me knowing any of the "sleep tricks" I know now, she woke up every two hours. I'd lie down with her at 6 pm, and by the time I'd have to get up for work at 6 am, in that 12-hour time span, I'd have logged about six hours of fragmented sleep. When Dale arrived back from work at 7 am, I'd hand her off to him, and I'd set off to do my eight hours of work. I'd take the baby from him as he walked out the door, and I'd do it all again, alone. Nothing or nobody could have prepared me for how hard this transition would be. Still, I gamely tried to find time for my dancing. One Saturday morning, when Violet was a month old and Dale was at work, I remember I hatched an escape plan. I'd pack a diaper bag, I'd bring her fold-up bouncy seat, I'd strap her into the baby carrier, and I'd lug all of the stuff and her to the bus stop so that we could get to my regular pre-baby dance class. Of course, we never made it out the door. But, just like all moms who dance, I came up with other plans that worked: you plan around naps, you multi-task, sometimes you just leave the baby with your partner and leave the house for two hours, no questions asked. In that regard, I've always been extremely lucky. 

My life had begun with the birth of my first daughter. Before she came along, I had no idea of my own strength, or how tough I really was, or what I was capable of accomplishing. My life in dance certainly might have been different and much more linear, if I hadn't become a mother, but being a mom and having only so much precious time to create and practice didn't deter me, it just made me that much more determined. 

I'm thinking about birthdays today, because this February also means I'm celebrating the tenth birthday of a community project that I birthed in February 2008 called "Philly Tap Teaser." I moved back to Philadelphia in June of 2006, and I was doing some dancing, but nothing really major. I put my choreography out in small showcases, and I was taking class. One night, I was knocking around some ideas with Jaye Allison for how to fundraise for her annual Philly Tap Festival, and I said, "how about we make a showcase?" It would be a "teaser" to get people excited for the summer festival. From February - April of 2008, I casually called people I knew, asked them to perform and I planned that first show to go off at the Community Education Center. Tap Teaser 1 premiered on Saturday, April 26, 2008. I wish I could find that first flyer I made or the first program. Well, maybe it's a good thing I can't. My first tries at promotional materials were HORRIBLE! And talk about low-budget: at one point during that show, I tiptoed to the side of the stage so that I could plug in a boom box and play a cassette tape of music for one of the performers. 

I don't even know what encouraged me to keep going after that. We did have a nice crowd at that first show. It felt like something that the audience enjoyed. It seemed like something that the dancers appreciated and wanted to keep doing. At the time, there was no showcase just for tap dancers who wanted to try out work or show a finished piece. I had long felt like Philadelphia needed something to jumpstart our tap dance scene, (I did a few interviews about this over the years, which you can read here). So, I thought, well, what if we do this show twice a year? In October of 2008, on the weekend of the Phillies World Series parade, (big mistake!), I put up Tap Teaser 2 at the CEC. Nobody came! But, for whatever reason - stubbornness, stupidity - I went on from there. From 2008-2014, I put up two shows a year around the city. Most of them were really, really small affairs, but then we'd have a barn-burner crowd, and I'd decide to keep organizing them. In 2010, I added a musician or even a jazz trio in every show, and when I put up the last show in November of 2014, every performer on that stage was performing to live music. I'm still really proud of that.

Show production is extremely hard, thankless and expensive. I put my own money into every one of those shows, and I lost money every single time. I rented the venue, I printed programs, I paid for musicians, I put in countless hours of admin time sending press releases, organizing dancers, putting out last-minute fires. Besides these shows, I was also producing master classes here and there, and tap jams when I could. Why on earth would I do all of this? Well, of course, I love tap dancing. I love Philadelphia. I have a freakonomics-sized skill at organizing. I loved giving people a chance to collaborate and be on stage. All of this. But upon many years of reflection, I think that all of this work was my long, convoluted way of finding my artistic voice, while also balancing the demands of motherhood. Since I directed the shows, I was able to try out my ideas in a low-key environment. I could try out musicians I liked, I could put pieces on stage that weren't fully formed, and I'd bomb many times over, but it was OK. Another thing that I'm really proud of about all of the shows is: the vibe was always friendly, fun and totally cool. Anyone could join, everyone was welcome, let's hang and learn from each other, let's build together.

And if you didn't already know this, I have a pretty hard-core work ethic, and it only got sharper and more focused, as I got better at putting up shows. The experience I gained doing this on my own was invaluable. There was no problem I hadn't encountered and therefore, there was no problem I couldn't handle. For example, in May 2009, I was in early labor with my second daughter, when we put up Tap Teaser 3 at the Painted Bride. I was afraid of moving and breaking my water, so I perched my nine-months pregnant self on a chair at the "front of house" and took tickets, while I texted the saintly Charles Tyson multiple instructions for running the "back of the house." When the last show went up in November 2014, I had just sustained a super-dramatic delivery only 8 weeks earlier and I still had my c-section stitches. Can't stop, won't stop.

I loved this dance baby I had created. I had so many great memories. By the time it had turned 6, I kept getting hints that it was time to set it free. Thanks to these mini-incubators twice a year, I had artistic ideas of my own that I wanted to produce and I realized that I needed to let this project go, if I really wanted to make those ideas a success. November 2014 was the swan song, and what a swan song it was: standing-room only crowd, killer live band, people dancing in the aisles. It felt like the perfect going-away party.

But the universe had other plans. While I was going about my life doing ten thousand things, I had been working with Jane Goldberg and Dorothy Wasserman on a new artistic idea that would allow Dorothy to set some of her choreography on dancers in Philadelphia. In September of 2013, I got an email from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts that I had won the grant! I was really excited about this development, because it seemed to indicate that I was moving in the right direction, away from community organizing, and towards other kinds of concert work. Fast forward a few months into the residency, and Dorothy mentioned that she had this fun, beginner level tap piece that she could possibly teach during one of the community workshops we had planned for the project. The idea kept snowballing, and I think I said, "what if we put that piece in the show, too?" About 20 people from all over Philadelphia signed up for the workshop, practiced the piece, and performed it with live music at my concert "Meet Us At The Corner" in June 2014.

The next iteration of The Philadelphia Community Tap Project was born - a education and performance platform driven by some of the most influential folks on the scene. In 2015, I did the same thing. I put out a call for anyone who was interested to learn a piece by my mentor, Heather Cornell, and the work was featured on an episode of Articulate. In 2016, I finally had my first studio space at 1525 North Bailey Street, and I was able to hold rehearsals whenever I wanted! Max Pollak created a body percussion piece which sounded off the charts at Rittenhouse Soundworks. In 2017, I put out the call again, and almost 50 people showed up when Ray Hesselink came to my "new" studio at 2511 West Girard Avenue. His appearance and the opening of the new studio snagged me a nice mention in an article in Dance Teacher Magazine.  

Over these last four years, the project has grown up in ways I could have never imagined. As much as I try to get away from it sometimes, (FYI: grant writing is one of the worst forms of torture, as is asking people for money), I love this work. Community tap dance projects give people a chance to share themselves in all of their shining, beautiful glory. I firmly believe that sharing ourselves and our gorgeous music-making humanity is one of the most political things we can do with our bodies. Tap dance and music brings people together, across any divide. Just hearing the tap shoes outside, anywhere, draws an instant crowd. And, the process of learning new stuff with other people forms instant bonds - bonds that might never have been made outside of the studio. Through my own practice of teaching the art form to absolute beginners, I have witnessed that people learn a whole lot about themselves when they are presented with a challenging task. Learning how to move your body to make music opens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you confront fears. Through the learning, you communicate freedom and joy. Boundless joy. 

I have three kids of my own, now 12 (!), 8 and 3. Motherhood is my mantle for life, and I love every minute of it. So, is there a next ten years for my other tween-arts child? It looks like it! The adult performance group continues! I now have a traveling youth tap ensemble that is sponsored by businesses in Brewerytown! And then, as for what the future really holds, I get clues. 

A few months ago, I somehow won the good-karma lottery and struck up a collaboration with SpArc Philadelphia. Someone from their Westmoreland Street center called me out of nowhere and asked if I could host some of their adult clients at my studio, lead them in rhythmic exercises and guide them towards a movement practice that include tap dancing and body percussion. Now, once a month, (my favorite day of the month), a group of adult dancers pull up to my front door, bound up the stairs to my studio and fill the space with their generous, brilliant, colorful, fantastic spirits. Despite their visual impairments, their language deficiencies and their physical limitations, we stomp, play, hug and sing. We jam to Stevie Wonder. We play the cajon. We make music with whatever tools we have. Their presence gives me so much life that I can't even put the words to it. I see myself finding new avenues to bring the joy of tap dance to even more people, and that's super exciting. It doesn't get any better sometimes, watching my beautiful kids grow up.

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Watching this project grow has also been one of the greatest thrills of my life.