The Florida Dance Theatre, founded in 1993 by Carol Krajacic Erkes, is a “home and a community rather than a program,” according to Artistic Director Stefan Dolbashian and Board Chair Tiffany Van Wieren. Florida Dance Theatre (FDT) is Lakeland’s only nonprofit professional dance company and a hub for dance education, excellence, and outreach.
The studio’s inclusion and community outreach are what drew Stefan Dolbashian to the dance company. Dolbashian was born and raised in New York City. He grew up surrounded by artists – his mother, a classical singer and vocal coach; his father, a percussionist who played for Earth, Wind & Fire; and his brother, a dancer and choreographer. Dolbashian, his father, and his grandfather are all alumni of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, known ubiquitously as the “Fame School.”
At 19, he auditioned with the Florida Dance Theatre at the Alvin Ailey School in New York, where he trained. Offered an apprenticeship with the company, Dolbashian moved to Lakeland. He left for several years on contract with Peridance Contemporary Dance Company and spent that time touring the U.S. and Europe. “After the touring was over, I found that I really missed Lakeland and FDT,” Dolbashian said. As soon as his contract was up, he called Erkes, who gave him an opportunity to return to the company he loved as a resident choreographer until she retired in 2019 and Dolbashian took over as artistic director.
Board Chair for Florida Dance Theatre, Tiffany Van Wieren, is the Arts and Medicine coordinator for Watson Clinic Foundation. After meeting Erkes, Van Wieren was impressed with the company she’d created. “I thought this was a beautiful blend of having professional dancers and education and outreach,” Van Wieren said. As a former art teacher, the emphasis on arts and education was important to her. She later met Executive Director Jermaine Thornton, appreciated his vision, and decided to sign onto the Board last year. “I am very committed to Florida Dance Theatre being the first thing that pops to mind when you think of arts impact in our community,” she said.
A DANCE COMPANY FOR EVERYONE
Florida Dance Theatre started as Lakeland Ballet, a training school in a modest warehouse in Lakeland. “[Erkes] never originally designed it to have a professional company. She just wanted to be able to teach dance and have that available to the youth here in Lakeland,” Dolbashian said. “Over time, belief in the organization continued to grow, as well as the student body.”
As her first students graduated, they didn’t want to leave her school. That, Dolbashian said, was the birth of the professional dance company. “That has only empowered the school further because these wonderful current professional dancers are the children’s educators,” he said. “I think that’s powerful.”
According to FDT, “Ms. Erkes was impressed by the talent available in the Polk County region; and while recognizing a lack of dance programming in the area, she formed Polk County’s first, and to this date, only professional dance company.”
The dance company has seen dancers from around the country and the world, including Russia, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. These professional dancers make up the faculty of the auxiliary training academy, which offers instruction in classical ballet, jazz, modern, and more. “Several Academy students have gone on to pursue their professional careers with other companies, including the Joffrey Ballet, Ballet Met, Memphis Ballet, Ballet Magnificat, the Smuin Company, and Hartford Ballet,” according to FDT. “Many students have also received scholarships to college dance programs, including Florida State, Southern Methodist University, and Goucher College.”
The company serves as a nonprofit professional dance company, training academy, and hub for community outreach. Florida Dance Theatre has had educational partnerships with organizations such as Family Fundamentals, Salvation Army, and the Lakeland Housing Authority, summer camps, scholarship programs, and in-school Arts in Education performance series.
A vested interest in creating awareness and exposure to arts education has led the organization to do many large-scale productions, including original full-length ballets. “We’ve been able to combine the professional academy as well as the students to do full-length professional productions,” Dolbashian said.
“This group of individuals that dance and teach here, I always refer to them as the most beautiful band of misfits I’ve ever seen,” said the artistic director. Where many dance companies require one standard body type, “That’s not a vision that we see here. We believe dance is for everyone. There’s no such thing as too tall, too short, too thick – that doesn’t exist here. We do want you to be technically strong. [...] But as long as you have that hard work and drive, this is a dance company for everyone.”
Florida Dance Theatre will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. With this milestone comes a restructuring and revitalization for the company. Board Chair Tiffany Van Wieren noted that they look to other arts organizations, like Polk Museum of Art and Lakeland Symphony Orchestra, who have undergone similar growth and rebirth in recent years. “That’s what we’re looking to do,” she said.
A part of that process will be moving to a new location and revamping the company’s infrastructure. “The three directors here have done amazing things with very limited resources,” Van Wieren said. As Board Chair, she is tasked with giving them better resources and helping them to flesh out the behind-the-scenes systems to keep things running smoothly and “do the most good in our community.”
The move means bringing their facilities to an even higher standard. The dance theatre looks to have a prominent building with more space. Van Wieren called the move “part of a bigger picture” to inspire awareness and support to build or purchase their own building. “If you look at similar cities where they are now, they typically have three strong arts organizations. They have a very strong nonprofit dance organization, arts, and symphony,” Van Wieren said. “Here in Lakeland, we have two out of the three. This organization has amazing, wonderful quality, […] but there’s still not a lot of awareness of what FDT does, and I think that’s the missing piece, truly.”
“Lakeland deserves this,” Van Wieren added. “We are fully nonprofit; we belong to Polk County. […] We belong to our citizens.”
Community outreach isn’t an afterthought for FDT; it’s at the dance company’s core. “The way they do it is very personal,” Dolbashian said. “Our executive director, Jermaine, is a fantastic grant writer and is fantastic at implementing these programs.”
Van Wieren said, “Dance is integral to who we are as human beings, and it’s so important that we move our bodies.” The company’s outreach is inclusive of all ages and tends to fall into three categories – Arts and Education, Arts and Health, and Passport to the Arts.
Under Arts and Education, FDT has partnered with other arts organizations like the Lakeland Symphony Orchestra to tie in performances for Polk County Schools. They also host annual summer camps and have created year-round after-school programs in local public schools. “We were able to have the kids from Crystal Lake in our “Nutcracker” this year,” Dolbashian said of the after-school program.
Another workshop involved a partnership with the Robotics and Engineering department at Florida Poly Tech. “We were able to marry dance and engineering together in a summer program where the students learned aspects of robotics and created costumes that would light up,” Dolbashian said.
“Dance is so expensive to participate in. There are so many children who want to do it whose families don’t have the accessibility to do so,” said the artistic director. FDT provides education, studio space, and dance clothes through its outreach programs. “My parents went through a lot and sacrificed a lot to make sure I was able to do what I wanted to. I would love to make it easier on our Polk County families if we can.”
For Arts and Health, FDT partners with the Watson Clinic Foundation to integrate arts and aging programs. Florida Dance Theatre has also established relationships with local assisted care facilities for their Passport to the Arts. The program utilizes sponsors to provide tickets for those in partnering assisted care homes to see FDT productions like “The Nutcracker” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Passport to the Arts is modeled after a nationwide ‘social prescription’ program that pairs seniors with a social prescription for something they’re interested in, like dance, music, and art.
BE PART OF THE POSSIBLE
Those interested in supporting Florida Dance Theatre can patronize the 30th anniversary season and ‘Be pART of the Possible’ by donating to their 30th Anniversary Giving Campaign. Donors can choose where their funds go, like towards moving expenses and build-out for the new space or to sponsor a dancer. In-kind donations are welcome, as well as time, as they look to expand and diversify their Board.
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