High Velocity

A Capitol Hill studio revs up Seattle's contemporary-dance scene.

Every arts scene has its own life cycle. For a while, Seattle was a music town. Then it wasn't anymore; now it is again. Visual artists flee the city one season, only to move back the next. The film scene at one time looks to be taking off, but then it doesn't.

Contemporary dance had its heyday in Seattle in the late '70s and early '80s, when the Bill Evans Company inhabited Dance Theatre Seattle on 19th Avenue and Roy Street and turned East Capitol Hill into an endless parade of leg warmers. The scene splintered after that. But today, if you stop by Velocity Dance Center at Oddfellows Hall on 10th Avenue and Pine Street, where the Strictly Seattle summer workshop is in full swing, you can't help but notice the same kind of energy reverberating in the studio. Of course, leg warmers are long out of fashion—replaced by yoga pants and skintight tank tops—but drums still beat, keeping time; a teacher's voice calls out counts over the din; and the dancers whoop and clap between routines, egging each other on.

Velocity was co-founded by KT Niehoff and Michele Miller in 1996. "We galvanized the energy that always existed around modern dance in Seattle and gave it a new home," recalls Niehoff, 36. Their humble but spacious studio now plays a vital role in the city's active dance community—acting as a bridge between colleges and careers, and between Seattle and other dance centers nationwide.

Wade Madsen, a onetime protégé of Evans and a Seattle dance institution in his own right, teaches at both Cornish College and Velocity. He says his Cornish colleagues regularly point graduates to Velocity, where they can continue their training and hook up with working choreographers (like Madsen, Niehoff, or Amii LeGendre), or with like-minded dancers interested in self-producing. Velocity students also meet national and international dance artists whom the studio imports for workshops and performances.

Relations are forged one-on-one, and through the grapevine. Madsen says he often overhears students in his Velocity classes saying, "I just graduated from college, and I heard about Seattle; I'm thinking of moving here."

Outsiders would never come and stay, though, if the quality of the dance instruction at Velocity wasn't top notch. Niehoff notes, "We have relied on a core group of teachers—Michele, Amii LeGendre, Aiko Kinoshita, myself, and Wade—who draw students year after year." Unlike some dancers, who fall into teaching as a way to make a living, Niehoff and Miller studied dance pedagogy under master teachers Lynn Simonson and Joy Kellman. Miller, 40, who also teaches at Cornish, is a particularly popular draw. "She's incredibly approachable, very clear, funny, and amusing," says Madsen. "She demands attention in a light-handed manner."

Velocity's three-week Strictly Seattle workshop, which ends with two public performances (see box), attracts students from far and wide. One comes from Berlin, another from Serbia—one even followed Miller from Hong Kong, where Miller recently spent almost a year teaching.

Twenty-eight-year-old Vanessa Villalobos is not atypical. She moved to New York for the dance scene, but regularly returns to Velocity. "This is my home in Seattle," she says as she stretches after class. "It's rare to find the same combination of physicality, expression, understanding of anatomy, and community in a dance studio."


Strictly Seattle culminates in student performances at 8 p.m. Fri., July 29– Sat., July 30, at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway Ave. $10–$15. 206-325-8773, ext. 2, www.velocitydancecenter.org.

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