Known for its spirited celebrations and second lines, dancing is naturally a part of New Orleans culture. Amongst the city’s traditions lives a blossoming dance organization and community known as Dancing Grounds. I’ve been a super fan and supporter of Dancing Grounds since stepping foot into its first home – executive director/choreographer/community builder/angel Laura Stein’s living room. Yes, that’s right Dancing Grounds sprouted in her living room! Also, big shout-out to Monica Kelly for the introduction.
A Philadelphia native, Laura started making up dances to Paula Abdul with her twin sister in their living room. As a teenager, she choreographed dances at summer camp. While in college, she became interested in history, philosophy, government policy and economics. In New York City, post-college she worked with educational policy and dance nonprofits. After a beautiful Tuesday morning yoga class in their St. Claude studio, I sat down with Laura to talk about Dancing Grounds origins, community building and the future of dance in New Orleans.
“In my free time I would dance. It’s the love of my life,” she says. “It got to a certain point where I wanted to combine my love of education, public policy, social change and dance. So I moved to New Orleans, and I couldn’t find a place to dance, so I started teaching dance in my living room. That’s how Dancing Grounds all began.”
How and why has dance been a life-long passion?
Dance for me, wasn’t to conform. I love it and it feels great for my body and soul and I want to do it. That’s the philosophy Dancing Grounds is founded under. I also wanted to make this passion of mine accessible to everyone.
What is the evolution of Dancing Grounds and how has this organization grown?
I was living in a house in the Bywater and I turned my living room into a dance studio space after going to a few studios finding they were too expensive, or a handful of other issues. I started teaching Work It Out; I started with friends and then it just grew through word of mouth.
I felt like I was tapping into a huge need, everything we’ve done has been this process of trying something and then realizing there is a need. We built DG through a grassroots approach to serve the community better.
The pop-up parties began after Monica Kelly who is not only an artist, but a breakdancer brought to my attention there was no art on my walls. We began collaborative events with The New Orleans Fly Ladies that turned into these amazing dance and visual and performance arts celebrations.
The name came from co-founder, Jessie Donley, who was interested in building the local dance community and educated me on what the dance needs were. We organized community forums to bring people together to have discussions. The idea was to build a dance community to provide a space for dancers, as well as build community through dance for a wide and diverse audience. We welcome all different ages and levels and all styles of dance. Our vision is putting positivity and openness out into the world, which breeds more positivity and goodness.
Dancing Grounds has been an amazing community builder. Can you explain how you go about getting the neighborhood involved?
I was running an after-school program and camp in the neighborhood and met a lot of the kids that now always come through the doors. The adult classes help provide lessons and programs for children as well as create a warm, accepting place. The only criteria to join our family is you need a passion for dance.
For kids, it’s a safe place in the neighborhood to come and hang; it’s their third space that’s not school or home. You can notice the difference in a lot of them while they’re here; they are focused and happy. We are growing organically in the community and want to have families living in the neighborhoods involved and enjoy the space as well. I could honestly cry talking about it. We can all coexist together. I’ve also created DG being mindful of how we build community by representing everyone in it.
Who are your role models?
Both of my parents, Jerry and Lynn Stein. My dad is the hardest-working, most ethical person you’ll ever meet. He influences everything I do, and my mom has persevered through a lot with a resilient, inspiring strength.
My first boss when I graduated college, Sheri Ranis. She taught me to be a strong female leader and support the people that support me. I learned how to be generous and how to create a space to train people. I also learned how to build DG to run effectively and efficiently as well as with compassion.
And my dance teacher, Tootsie Olan. She was good at making a class accessible and an amazing workout for everyone. That’s what inspired me to start teaching. I wanted people to be able to access the beauty of dance and expression and learn how to do so in their own way. Dancing is the most human form of expression. That’s what attracted me to New Orleans, people dance wherever they are.
Can you tell me the future of Dancing Grounds? What can we get excited about next?
We are starting Saturday programming to service parents and kids at the same time. There will be more free community classes on Saturday as well. We are developing our performance programming. We are also working on an artist-in-residence program. We want to support local choreographers and help them develop their careers. We will continue our Second Saturdays St. Claude Art Walk. Our vision is to have more people seeing, experiencing, and learning about dance in all of its forms.
To learn more about Dancing Grounds, visit www.dancinggrounds.org