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How Dallas Black Dance Theatre attracted audiences from 35 countries

 Dallas Black Dance Theatre presented "Espresso Nutcracker" virtually in 2020. "Espresso Nutcracker" was just one of 19 virtual performances in 2020 that were made available to Dallas Black Dance Theatre audiences.
Amitava Sarkar
Dallas Black Dance Theatre
Dallas Black Dance Theatre presented "Espresso Nutcracker" virtually in 2020. "Espresso Nutcracker" was just one of 19 virtual performances in 2020 that were made available to Dallas Black Dance Theatre audiences.

Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series for Arts Access examining the health and well-being of our North Texas arts economy.

Flying through the air in white tutus against a snowy blue backdrop, dancers from Dallas Black Dance Theatre twirled in unison during the "Espresso Nutcracker."

It was Christmas 2020, during the thick of the pandemic. And instead of performing to a live audience in a theater, the performance was livestreamed.

"Espresso Nutcracker" was just one of 19 virtual performances that year that were made available to Dallas Black Dance Theatre audiences. Shortly after the global pandemic was announced, DBDT shifted gears to paid virtual content in June 2020 and an all-virtual season in August 2020.

While many arts organizations – particularly those that serve communities of color – shut down or lost revenue during the pandemic, Dallas Black Dance Theatre Executive Director Zenetta Drew said the organization made $100,000 in net ticket sales in 2020 from online programming.

COVID for Dallas Black Dance Theatre was an opportunity to build a new business model, to think 20 years down the future, to be able to think outside of the box,” she said. “To say, how can we build an audience at a lower cost investment than any other?”

Amitava Sarkar
Dallas Black Dance Theatre
Dallas Black Dance Theatre's "Espresso Nutcracker."

Drew said the theatre’s programming has continued to net six figures each year and has also brought in new audiences from across the world. Since 2020, DBDT has reached 38 states and 35 countries outside the U.S. with paid virtual content.

DBDT expanded its virtual programming to social service agencies and children’s hospitals. They also started offering corporate group packages and began virtual touring through performing arts centers. The company’s on-demand library is also accessible on Bloomberg Connects, a free mobile app that connects users with arts and culture experiences.

“What we know is that we are growing alongside our in-person audiences, the new capacities, the new individuals at a rate that is much higher than any rate before,” Drew said.

While virtual and in-person arts programming have been viewed as alternatives, Drew said it doesn’t have to be either-or. Instead, she said virtual programming “gives you a chance to really whet the appetite of folks to want to have that in-person experience.”

The proof? Demand for the company’s touring engagements has quadrupled since 2019. Drew said the increased exposure to art markets across the country led to paid gigs in spaces they’d never been before, such as Yale University and Seattle.

“What you're looking at is how do you employ your dancers? How do you generate revenue? How do you sustain the organization? How do you get new audiences? All of that has come through the virtual exposure that we got, that it's built other components of the business,” she said.

But for DBDT, Drew said it’s not just about increasing revenue – it’s also about investing in arts education.

“So because of the lack of education in the school arena now and the shifting of how education in the arts is now delivered, we see digital as an essential to build in audiences of the future,” she said.

Back in 2021, 4,000 Dallas ISD dance students viewed DBDT’s virtual content through the launch of a new arts education program. The district has now expanded virtual programming access to all 150,000 students in the district.

Drew said virtual programming is a way to reach younger audiences on their digital devices and older audiences who may not be able to easily access physical spaces.

She points to the way sports has proliferated through online viewership or how pop-culture icons like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have filled stadiums after delivering virtual content from single drops to visual albums.

“Virtual for us is the opportunity not to solve the COVID crisis gap in audience immediately, but over time to build new audiences, educate new audiences, grow and sustain and help the entire industry grow toward having more engagement and more demand,” she said.

Simply put, Drew said virtual programming is the future.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.