Art needs space. Never was this clearer than in 1971, when aspiring Oberlin Dance majors petitioned the administration for the use of Warner Main, at the time, an underused gymnasium. The Dance department was coming into the academic world, and the developing department needed faculty, dance studios and administrative support. It grew as part of the College’s new Inter-Arts program, a platform for artists from different mediums to meet and collaborate. At this time, Oberlin Dance Collective emerged, founded by Brenda Way and a group of enthusiastic students. Throughout the troupe’s development, Oberlin Dance Collective has grown from its roots in Inter-Arts and the early 1970s Dance department and maintained the spirit of creating accessible and community-oriented physical spaces. Today, the company resides in the mission district of San Francisco and continues to engage with their environment symbiotically to foster community and create work.
With crucial support from President Robert Fuller, the Dance department secured the use of Warner Gymnasium in 1971. This reflected a radical shift in the culture of dance at Oberlin, coming from a time when men could only take dance classes for eight weeks for fear of interrupting their athletic training, and the only classes offered were technique classes in the Physical Education department. The same year, Oberlin Dance Collective — later to be renamed Oberlin Dance Company — was born under the direction of Brenda Way. A 1972 article in The Oberlin Review noted that the birth of the collective was a key component of this cultural shift and demonstrated the move from a “static, ‘professional’ performance” aesthetic and toward a more experimental “creation in a freer vein.” No longer a mere means to complete a physical education requirement, dance at Oberlin entered a new avant-garde realm.
Stemming from this new experimental realm of possibility, Oberlin Dance Collective grew with the newly established Inter-Arts program. The dancers worked with artists of many mediums, reflecting the program’s lofty aspirations. Kimi Okada, Oberlin’s first dance major, noted that feeling free to explore new ways of imagining dance was an important aspect of the collective. “We had 16 bodies who had no experience whatsoever in dancing,” she said. “When we came together, we would experiment, practice and create pieces and perform each other’s pieces. That’s what defined it as a collective.” Jean Weigl, another original ODC member, also emphasized their newness to the form and willingness to experiment. “We were not trained at all on what moves we were suppose to do; we just improvised it as it goes.” In the summer of 1972, the dance collective cemented itself as a group in Martha’s Vineyard. That summer, and the one that followed, the members of the collective blazed their own path, living in tents and cooking for one another in a communal kitchen. The dancers all donned hardhats and built their own dance floor in the sand dunes, creating a space for themselves to perform and engage with the Vineyard community.
The group moved on from Oberlin campus in 1976 and took the spirit of innovation and experimentation with them. Packed into a big yellow bus, the group of dancers, artists and musicians made their way to San Francisco, where they again picked up tools and collaboratively built their own theater. After being evicted from one site they moved on to another, again putting in their own plumbing, building both their space and their choreography as a group. Way cites this teamwork as a vital foundation for the dancers. “It was very important in terms of people really engaging with the ownership of their career,” she said. While still a collective of young artists, ODC became the first Modern dance company to build their own home facility. Housed in the New Performance Gallery, which was renamed the ODC Theater in 1996, ODC grew and developed, touring and creating site-specific pieces in the spirit of accessible community art and dance.
In 2005, the demand for more workspace exceeded the capacity of their homemade establishment. The Oberlin Dance Company then relocated to its current location in San Francisco at the ODC Dance Commons. ODC transitioned to a company rather than a collective at this time, due to its expansion and the need for more administration. Yet the space continued to exemplify the ideals of the collective by immersing itself in the local community and providing access to dance and art through classes, performances, studio space and social space.
Today Oberlin Dance Commons is a place for artists and community to come together and create. Believing strongly in the growth not only of artists, but of audiences, economy and cultural exchange, their mission includes the desire to “inspire audiences, cultivate artists, engage community and foster diversity and inclusion through dance.” The Commons inspires this kind of engagement through its numerous studios and lounges, its performance space and its town hall and dancer health clinic. Oberlin Dance Company demonstrates its support for community development by giving greatly decreased rates to non-profits and individuals for studio space, offering by-donation consultations for dancers at their health clinic and providing a space for the community members to gather, study, make work and have access to the arts.
ODC has certainly evolved over the past 40 plus years; it now has a thriving dance company as well as 15,000 students, but its roots in Inter-Arts and the early Dance department are still evident. Way said that her time at Oberlin has greatly influenced the collective. “The values we were embodying and embracing were either started or enhanced by the Oberlin years,” she said. Today the company and its Commons exemplify the spirit of the budding Oberlin Dance department of the ’70s — a group of artists engaged in finding and making space for a collaborative dance community.