A conversation with the choreographer of a show I’m performing in

After rehearsal, Stefany Cotton talked to me about the evolution of the Rooted Space and the realities of running a small dance company in Chicago.

A conversation with the choreographer of a show I’m performing in
The Rooted Space dance company debuted with a performance of "Let the Record Show" in May 2023. Photo by Michelle Reid.

Whenever I move to a new city, one of the first things I do is search for adult dance classes in the area. It’s the main way I’ve repeatedly found community and a sense of place.

When I moved to Chicago last May, I found the Rooted Space, a dance studio in North Center, and decided to drop into a contemporary Release class on a Friday morning. (What is Release-based contemporary? I think of it as a floaty, flying feeling that’s about relaxing the muscles and allowing momentum to move you across the space.)

I was nervous about the pace of the class, if the dancers would be cliquey, if I’d struggle to pick up the choreography. However, those fears quickly faded away after I was warmly greeted by the studio manager, Stefany Cotton, and stepped into the sun-drenched studio filled with vibrant green plants. The studio, on the second story of a brick building, is just a few feet away from a train line.

The roar of passing trains adds to the vibe of the space, and in that class it really hit me that I was living in Chicago.

I continued attending Friday morning classes, and when I saw that the Rooted Space company was holding auditions early this year, I thought “why not?” I’d recently gotten the itch to perform again.

It was exciting to land a spot as a guest artist with the company and over the past two months we’ve been rehearsing for “Let the Record Show,” an evening-length performance choreographed by Stefany. The show on April 6, is also serving as a fundraiser for the Rooted Space company, which is now in its second season.

In my years as an arts journalist, I’ve interviewed many choreographers, but this is my first time interviewing the choreographer for a show I’m performing in.

After rehearsal last Friday, Stefany and I stayed back to talk about the evolution of the Rooted Space, the realities of running a small dance company in Chicago, and the needs of dance artists in the city.

Below is an excerpt from our interview. Read the full version on the site.

A Chicago dance company dedicated to community and collaboration
I talk to choreographer Stefany Cotton about the evolution of the Rooted Space and the needs of dance artists in the city.

Could you speak more about the evolution of the Rooted Space?

Chelsea and I first started with what we called “Art Conversations,” and we just tried to reach as many artists as we could and get together once a month to discuss what the Chicago dance community is missing or lacking. Part of the discussion was we need space, we need affordable space. We need affordable classes. Through the wildness of the pandemic where a lot of studios closed and things shifted, this studio became available. We were like, well this is right now what we can give to the community and bring to the dance community.

When we opened the studio at first, I felt really fulfilled with taking our classes and managing the studio and didn't really feel the need or the itch to want to create anything at the time. As we got more into our groove of the day-to-day at the studio, I got that itch again and wanted to find a way that my choreography could be a part of the studio.

We created the Rooted Space company and we've come to learn that our priority from the beginning and now our mission is to support the individual artists that are a part of the company and a part of this community. And how can we support this community of people coming to take class and renting space? How can we support them even further is to give them jobs. How can we give them jobs is through this dance company. Now we're at the stage of trying to get more money to give more jobs and to pay a more reasonable rate.

In a portrait, Stefany has long curly brown hair, a white t-shirt, and smiles
Stefany Cotton is the co-artistic director and co-founder of the Rooted Space.

How is the Rooted Space and the company funded?

The space is now sustaining itself. Originally, Chelsea and I invested in the supplies and the startup and all of those things, but we're happy to announce that we're at a point where that studio is sustaining itself. We're thinking of the company as a completely separate entity from the studio. The company is fiscally sponsored by not-for-profit, the Space Movement Project. We are raising money for the company, for not only this season, but to continue the longevity of the company, because while the studio can support itself, it cannot support the company.

We are focusing this season on fundraising, on cultivating relationships with people who want to continue to donate to us, trying to get into the grant seeking world and finding funds outside of the studio, so that this company can also sustain itself. And we can hopefully pay our dancers more from year to year to year, until we get to a livable wage for the company dancers. And maybe one day for the artistic directors.

Note: as a dancer with the Rooted Space, we are paid $10 per rehearsal, between $30-$75 for performances, and are offered free classes. Read more about Chicago dancer pay in Darvin Dances' Pay Transparency Project.

What kind of support would you like to see from the city of Chicago or maybe even nationally to support artists, and this company, and the space itself?

I would love to see more grants and opportunities given to smaller companies. The larger companies in this city are wonderful and absolutely deserving of the money, and the grants, and the recognition. I also think that's true for the smaller companies who are probably not getting the recognition, the money, and the grants. I wish that there was more accessible opportunities.

Grants are really difficult to submit and it feels like the language is always trying to trick you, or really difficult, or asking for a lot of things, or something that you know is revolutionary that you're doing. Sometimes the act of making art is revolutionary in and of itself. There are a lot of us that are doing it. And I think we're all deserving. How then do you decide who gets it? I don't know that answer. But if I could wave a magic wand, it would be that grants were more accessible, easier to submit to, and that there was just room for everybody. I think in this world, in this country, there is money for all of us. But how do we get it to everybody? I don't know that answer.

Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in starting their own company or producing their own show?

Just do it. When I started, I had this mindset of, I really love choreographing. I had a realization of, people aren't paying me to choreograph right now so I'm going to make my own opportunities, and I just did it. Especially at a time now where we're all trying our best to pay our dancers for their time. And that is also the biggest hurdle, because where do you get that money? If that's something that's stopping you, find some dance friends that would be interested in working with you and collaborating with you, or just showing up for you for free for the time being and just start working and start creating — even if it's a studio showing, even if it's an outdoor in the park, under a tree performance, or “I've got a really big backyard,” like whatever it is, just do it.

"Let the Record Show" performance. Photo by Michelle Reid.

What's your vision for the Rooted Space, if money were no issue and you had unlimited funds?

If we had unlimited funds, let me tell you, we would have multiple studios. We would have a performance space. We would have an event space so that you could rehearse with us. You could perform with us. You could host a fundraiser with us. It would all be affordable.

If we didn't even need to make money like yes, everybody come for free.

The company would perform more often. I would love to tour with the company. I would love to keep creating new works with the company and maybe I get paid for creating work for the company. The dream is a bigger space, more space, performance space. It's so tough to find available, affordable, dance friendly performance space in this city. Especially for somebody like me, who doesn't always love a traditional proscenium type stage. And then just make it available to everybody and everyone all the time so we can just do what we love and not worry about paying our bills.

If you're in Chicago, come to the show next Saturday at 7:30 pm! You can also support the Rooted Space by donating here.

Art watch

Earlier this month, I spent a week in LA. It was my first time back since we left in 2022. The trip was... interesting — it seemed like everything that could go wrong, went wrong. But I did get time to check out Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy, an immersive theme park exhibit in a warehouse space downtown.

Here’s a video recap of the experience:


Let’s check out Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy, an immersive-ish carnival exhibition in LA. #artistsoftiktok #art #thingstodo

♬ Carousel - Daniel Wohl

I also saw “Notes from the Field” in Chicago, a work from Anna Deavere Smith focused on the American school to prison pipeline.

In the TimeLine Theatre production, three actors performed monologues taken from interviews with 19 individuals working to transform and overcome their experiences in the education and criminal justice systems. I’m hoping to turn the Artist Pay Project reporting into an installation, and I’ve been thinking deeply about what it looks like to combine art and journalism.

Deavere Smith is known for a unique style of theater which blends journalistic interviewing with the interpretations from those interviews through performance. "Notes from the Field" comes from over 250 interviews with students, activists, politicians, educators, and formerly incarcerated people.

Seeing the production definitely gave me some inspiration. If you have recommendations for works of art that are based in journalism, hit reply and let me know.

Bonus watch

As part of the show I’m in, we had to come up with 50s-themed character names and descriptions. Here’s a short clip of me dancing as Gwendolyn!

As always, thank you for taking time to read this newsletter.

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See y’all next time. 💃🏾

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