As a girl growing up in St. Paul, Toni Pierce-Sands and her sister regularly rode the bus to their classes at Minnesota Dance Theater’s school in downtown Minneapolis. “I felt like I was spending my life on the 21 and the 16 buses back then,” Pierce-Sands recalls. So when she and her husband, dancer and choreographer Uri Sands, were founding their St. Paul-based dance company TU Dance in the 2004, Pierce-Sands says she “envisioned young kids waiting on the corner for a bus that would take them to our dance school.”
Fast-forward about 10 years. In September, TU Dance will celebrate its first decade. The critically acclaimed, widely beloved, multi-cultural company regularly sells out its performances in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The company’s trajectory has been astounding — and nationally recognized.
The duo has been interviewed on “PBS NewsHour” and TPT’s “Almanac” and “Minnesota Original.” They were named Artists of the Year by the Star Tribune in 2006 for “daring to create a new dance company in uncertain times, and for creative daring as choreographers and performers.” Sands has also earned numerous accolades — local, national and international — for his choreography.
‘We’re going to put dance on University Avenue’
This year, TU Dance will also celebrate the two-year anniversary of the TU Dance Center. Sandwiched between a Subway and an auto-repair shop adjacent to the Central Corridor light-rail transit — also known as the Green Line — on University Avenue in St. Paul, the TU Dance Center is fast becoming a dance hub. It’s not only home to the professional company. Dance students throughout the metropolitan area are seeking out the unique programming TU Dance Center offers to pre-professional students and the general public.
As time goes on, the eclectic mix of businesses in this section of the line — the Raymond Creative Enterprise Zone, which includes several mid-century modern furnishing stores, art galleries, restaurants, design and print shops, even a hookah pitstop — will be infused with the kinetic energy, artistic creativity and everyday movements of dancers.
“One night last fall,” Pierce-Sands recalls, “I walked out and saw one of our young dancers standing in the bus shelter, with her leg up on the glass wall, stretching, while she waited for the bus. I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s a dream come true for us.’ People are driving by and there’s a dancer. We’re going to put dance out onto University Avenue. It’ll be just like in New York.”
From New York and Europe to the Green Line
The couple met while dancers with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. Toni Pierce-Sands (the T in TU) received her early dance training in Minneapolis, and performed professionally in Europe (where she also married and had a son) before joining Ailey’s company. Uri Sands (the U in TU) was born and raised in Miami, and has danced with North Carolina Dance Theatre and Complexions as well as with the Ailey company. They returned to the Twin Cities to be close to Pierce-Sands’ family, and because of the thriving dance community.
“Our being here, in St. Paul, on the Green Line, is very strategic, very deliberate,” says Uri Sands. When the line becomes active in 2014, dance students from throughout the Twin Cities will be able to ride the rails from classes at TU Dance Center to the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis, which is home to Minnesota Dance Theatre’s school, now called the Dance Institute, and ZenonDance School.
“Accessibility is part of the mission of TU Dance,” Sands say, “and we wanted to make sure accessibility was also manifested in the physical location of our dance center.”
The mission of TU Dance is “to educate the general public to better understand and appreciate dance by performing and teaching work which integrates diverse cultural traditions; and to expand audiences for dance in Minnesota through performance and education.” The company performs a singular amalgam of dance styles — ballet, modern and African — in works choreographed by Sands (in collaboration with Pierce-Sands), and renowned African-American dance artists Dwight Rhoden and Ronald K. Brown.
Dancing with diversity
TU Dance Center’s offerings include those three dance styles. The Junior and Teen Program has classes in creative movement/drum, and beginning ballet modern dance. The center’s Pre-Professional Program, for students whose sights are set on acquiring an apprenticeship with a dance company or entering a college or university dance program, requires every student to study West African and modern dance, as well as classical ballet.
“This approach comes from our own professional perspectives,” Sands explains. “Today’s choreographers are requiring dancers to have a complete, well-developed understanding of diverse dance styles. We didn’t really receive that breadth of training until we started performing in professional companies and working with different choreographers. So we incorporated that into our curriculum for students.”
The “three-pillars curriculum,” as Pierce-Sands calls their approach, also fulfilled a need they immediately detected on returning to the Twin Cities. While the metro area has numerous dance schools and studios, the couple didn’t see a racial and cultural diversity of students they felt reflected the increasing multiculturalism of the Twin Cities — particularly St. Paul. “We felt a need for another choice and another way of training kids in dance,” says Pierce-Sands.
On a recent winter evening, a group of teenagers (of Asian, African-American and Caucasian origin), raced across the floor in the TU Dance Center, arms waving and torsos twisting in rhythmic communication with live drum accompaniment. They were participating in a West African dance class taught by Kenna Cottman. A little boy visiting the class sat on the floor, fist bumping or foot clapping each student as they passed by.
Immediately after the class, the students stripped off their lappas and chayas, revealing the black leotards and tights required for the next session: ballet. MerSadies McCoy, a senior at St. Paul Conservatory who has been training at TU Dance Center since it opened, says she loves “the openness, the diversity, the technique and the vibe” of the school.
The center charges tuition, with full and partial scholarships also available through corporate, individual and foundation support. Such support also made the TU Dance Center possible. A former woodworking and cabinetry shop, the center is a simple open space designed by Shea Design and built by Flannery Construction. One side has wood cabinets with cubbies for books, backpacks, shoes, and cast-off clothing. The other side is a large, well-lit dance studio.
From time to time, Sands says, “We can hear the cars revving in the auto shop next door, which is so cool. You feel like you’re not isolated here, but part of the world, embedded in the community.”
Adds Pierce-Sands: “I remember a student during our summer intensive saying one day, ‘Everybody around here is working. They’re working on cars, they’re working on the light rail, there are trucks going by, and we’re working on our dancing.’ He was inspired.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.