It was a frenzy of artistic expression and exploration at the Tannery Arts Center. While a skeleton did acrobatics on silks hanging from the ceiling, a man wearing a top hat and ghoulish face paint danced past a zombie pirate. A young woman dressed as a queen carefully dusted her velvet crown.
Night of the Living Dance is a fundraiser presented by the Tannery’s World Dance and Cultural Center, the Urban Dance Project and the Heart Tribe.
The fundraiser showcased six hours of expressions celebrating death and rebirth. It featured local art, live music, keynote speakers and spoken word performances in every corner of the event space. With performances by local band Boostive, poetry readings and dance performances, the event brought together an array of personal histories and ages in an intimate space.
“As an artist, I feel very stimulated,” said UC Santa Cruz student and attendee Hayden Bean. “There’s so much going on in a little space. It’s like Mardi-Gras-acid meets the Mystery Machine hoedown.”
Once home to a leather factory, the nationally acclaimed, nonprofit Tannery Arts Center looks like a historic red barn that belongs in a rural photo album. Its refurbished look gives it an urban style now booming with creative activity. It houses a variety of spaces, including dance studios, a writing center and lofts for artists.
Night of the Living Dance also encouraged the remembrance of ancestors. Cultural dance performances honored the past through varied styles, such as dances blending Capoeira — a 500-year-old Brazilian martial art — with hip-hop.
“I’m happy the space is here,” said UCSC student Jaimie Rainbow. “The organizers succeeded in bringing people together where they could share these different messages.”
The Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center utilized different spaces of the center for its fourth year hosting Night of the Living Dance. The Tannery’s Art Bar and Cafe also opened its doors for the event, giving poets a space to perform while providing refreshments. Besides dance performances, Urban Dance Project contributed volunteer hours before the show.
Featuring two stages of dance styles incorporating elements of different cultures, dancers showcased belly dancing, traditional balinese and a runway workshop with an emphasis on voguing, or striking a pose.
Urban Dance Project founder Eric Heagan said all of the dancers in the project volunteered their time to build frames for artwork beforehand. He emphasized the key to cultural awareness is through keynote speakers who inform the public about unknown cultures.
“If you educate people about what these different cultures are and who the people are within them, it breaks down the unknown,” Heagan said. “Once you get to know the other side of [what] seems different and scary, that fear goes away.”
Urban Dance Project’s goal is to fuse together tribal and urban methods of movement. Freeing dance movements work to create an awareness for the culture being represented. As a tightknit family who survives on each other, the project depends on its participants the same way Night of the Living Dance depends on its collaborators.
“It is our mission to donate 30 percent of our profits,” said Art Bar founder Kevin Devaney, who called the Art Bar an “education-philanthropub.” “That’s a current number we’re hoping to have grow to fund arts education in public middle schools and high schools in Santa Cruz County.”
He said the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center’s momentum is supported by students involved in the arts.
“The Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center is doing its own incredible revolution by focusing on the culture, history and context of dance across diaspora and beyond,” Devaney said.
Expressing cultural awareness draws Santa Cruz resident Emma Garcia to the space. As a community activist, Garcia takes part in conversations questioning culture every day and expressed her joy in being a part of a community like the Tannery.
“The real outcome of addressing race issues in Santa Cruz is the creation of safe spaces for people of color, for people who are queer and for people who are oppressed in any kind of way,” Garcia said.
Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center founder Cat Willis grew up studying dance under Garth Fagan Dance, a professional dance company known for its groundbreaking choreography of “The Lion King.” Although she studied in a professional space, she said dance is an activity everyone can participate in.
“You don’t have to grow up in a dance studio to be a dancer,” Willis said.
Willis founded the center with the hope that it would become a space for everyone. She began her work by collaborating with local artists, friends and art teachers. The staff now includes 15 teaching artists who give lessons on different dance styles from salsa to Haitian to modern.
“When I came to Santa Cruz, one of the things I wanted to see was a space that was culturally diverse,” Willis said. “I wanted a space with high dance art and a space with a platform for artists of color.”