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Charles Santos has spent 20 years bringing dance to Dallas, so what does he think of the Macarena?

Charles Santos
Visit Dallas
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Charles Santos will receive the Tom Adams Award of Appreciation for Dedication to TITAS and the Arts Saturday night at the group's Command Performance and Gala.

A chat with the head of TITAS/DANCE UNBOUND as he prepares for the group's annual Command Performance.

During his 20 years as executive and artistic director of TITAS, Charles Santos has been instrumental in strengthening Dallas' international cultural profile by bringing dance groups of national and international importance to the city.

Saturday evening at TITAS' annual Command Performance and Gala, the organization’s board of directors will honor Santos with an award of appreciation for his dedication to TITAS and the Arts.

Ahead of his big night, we spoke with Santos about some of his work with TITAS, being optimistic and...The Macarena.

A lot of people think being a dancer is a combination of talent, hard work and maybe luck. What do you think dancers possess that the rest of us don't? 

Oh, I think it's everything that you said, but it's also recognizing that a dancer, when they're performing, they are an athlete and they're focused. Back in the day when I was doing this, you went to rehearsal, you went to the gym, you went to class every day. That's just the way it was. You don't think about it, you just do it. So, they're a little manic in that respect.

There are some dancers that are very particular and only eat organic. And then there are people like me, when back in the '80s when I was dancing, we would go for a performance burger before we went to get ready for a show. We were a little bit more irreverent about that back then.

When I taught aerobic dance back in the '80s, all the instructors would go to Pizza Inn at lunchtime for the all-you-can-eat buffet. 

Yeah, we would have been friends during that time.

As the leader of an arts organization and someone who has dedicated their life to the arts, what's one thing that the citizens of North Texas need to know about the arts in our community? 

I think there are two important things.

One is that the arts are a vital economic engine for any community. When we present our shows, we're employing a bunch of people, we're employing stagehands and we're paying theater rental and all this. There are taxes that are being paid for tickets. People are going to restaurants. They're eating, they're paying for parking. All of it is a creative economy ecosystem that supports any city. So that's one really vital part of this. It's not just about entertainment, it's a business.

Secondly, I think the arts are the soul of any community. I think William Carlos said it best – “When all is gone, all that's left behind in this culture is art.” We look at archeology and what we are. What we learn about these past civilizations is from their art that was left behind. So it is the essence of any community.

And I think that any city that doesn't take the arts seriously isn't going to attract the big businesses and the tourism that they want. It's the soul of a community and people want to know that they're living in a city that's got, you know, quality of life values.

You were in New York City working for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council at the World Trade Center in September of 2001. Though you were supposed to be at a morning meeting at the Windows of the World restaurant in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, you missed it. How did this near-death experience change you for better or worse? 

Well, I'll tell you one thing, I definitely had guardian angels. I've always felt like that I very easily would have been up there and had I been up there at Windows of the World, listen, I would have perished.

It certainly made me appreciate every day a little bit better. I make a choice to try to be happy. I make a choice to try to see the better and choose to be happy. And I don't want to minimize anyone battling depression or those kinds of issues. I'm speaking for myself. I make a choice to try to live a happy life. And a lot of that came from that experience.

And I'll tell you the single most renewing thing that happened during the week after the event was Broadway CARES, calling me and offering me tickets to see Kiss Me, Kate, because my mother had flown up to New York to see my shows, which obviously didn't happen. And we all went. And for about two and a half hours, you know, I didn't have to answer a phone call. I didn't have to make the call--"Yes, I'm alive. I'm okay," you know? When you are comforting yourself while you're trying to comfort the people trying to comfort you, it can hit you and you can only do so much of that, you know?

But it was for two and a half hours that I went to this show. I didn't have to think about it. You know, my spirit was lifted, and it was the single most healing activity I did during that time was to just go and enjoy the arts. And so, I became very aware of the healing power of the arts on so many levels, you know, and whether we're doing an AIDS benefit or breast cancer benefit or just going to just detach from life for a little bit, it's healing. I have done benefits throughout my entire career, but you don't really realize the benefit until you're on the receiving end.

If there were no limitations, as far as money, time or talent, what would be your dream show?

You know, my dream show is really the project that we created called The Gathering in 2011 and then again in 2013. I was at a dinner that Chris Heinbaugh and Carol Reed and Craig Holcomb put together. They always wanted to write a show from top to bottom that was a big benefit. In the next day or so, Chris came by my office and said, “It's the 30th anniversary of the AIDS pandemic. You have to do it. And we will support you at the AT&T Center." And I said, “Okay, I'll do it.”

And I remember the pivotal day was when I invited all the companies. There are 15, I think, arts groups and all the artistic directors of all the companies. Everybody was there. We were going into the conference room and I told my assistant John, "This is either going to be a clusterf**k or it's going to be magic." And I went in and I thanked everybody for being there, and I said, "Listen, we don't have much time. So in the interest of time, I just need to dole these things out. Ben [Stevenson], I need you to do a ballet to this piece of music. And I'm going to take this piece of music," and Bridget Moore said, "I'll take the Vivaldi," and Bruce Wood said, "I'll take this picture and this music," and so-and-so is going to do this and then working with the theater people to get the theme put together and having the [Turtle Creek] Chorale making it what it was. It was easily the best work I've ever done and the hardest I've ever worked.

So, I guess you've already done your dream show?  

Oh, I did. It was my dream show.

You're a very positive person that thinks of the positive aspects of life, but what keeps you awake at night? 

Right now, we're in production week and what's keeping me awake is the airlines and the weather. We have a very tight window for this big production this weekend with six artists flying in from different cities. All of them have to arrive in the tiny window because we have tech rehearsals and the performance. So if they miss their six a.m. flight on Saturday, they have maybe two hours to get on a plane to make it, or the show doesn't happen with them. The artists that are in five pieces don't fly out until Saturday morning to get here for a Saturday night gala. So we're praying to God for weather and flights and there's nothing we can do. It's just nail-biting and problem-solving.

Have you ever had a crazy backstage mishap and how did you get through it?

I remember one year dancing in Austin and I'm allergic to cedar and had terrible cedar fever. I took two of these allergy pills and I didn't read the instructions that said it was one every twenty-four hours -- and I took two. We were in the show and I am completely out of it backstage. And my entrance was with this dancer, Andrea, who would leap up and I would catch her in the air and then we would go from upstage left, down right, crossing the stage. And I'm standing in the wings and here comes Andrea, and she leaps and lands on her feet and she just runs herself backwards because I did not move. I was zoned out on allergy medicine and I missed the entire thing. I had to run to the other side of the stage and sort of fake an entrance. You know, if I can say this, I was high as a kite and I didn't realize it.

What's your guilty pleasure?

Guilty pleasure? Well, probably RuPaul's Drag Show and because of my friend Katie Carter, I had been watching The Making of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders reality show. I got to be a judge in that part of this series, not in the TV show, but in this training thing. I got into this whole experience with the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and so I would watch that reality TV. Rick, my husband, would give me a hard time. I said, “I don't care. I'm watching it.” Unfortunately, I have to admit, I'm a TV-aholic. We watch a lot of stuff on Netflix and all the streaming services.

And I think another guilty pleasure would be Whataburger and Oreos.

If you live in Texas, Whataburger is not a guilty pleasure, it's a requirement.

That's right!

The Macarena at weddings, yes or no? 

No. With a big N and a big O. I can't stand the song. I can't stand the movement, but it’s the song more than anything that’s an offense to my ears. Do the Electric Slide.

With my family, it's the chicken dance. And I'm like--whose idea was that?

Someone who couldn't do the Electric Slide.

Charles Santos will be honored at the TITAS/DANCE UNBOUND annual Command Performance and Gala Saturday evening at the Winspear Opera House. The event features 13 works performed by national and international dancers and TITAS-commissioned works created specifically for the gala performance.

In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at tpowell@kera.org.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.