A few months ago, I attended a showcase show at 7 Stages Theater in Little Five Points, a neighborhood in Atlanta. Dance had been something that I had grown up around, but let’s just say that this 6’4″, 200 lbs guy found his home on the football field and not the stage. Many of my friends in high school and college were involved in their dance programs, and I surprisingly enjoyed watching my friends perform their passions.
During the showcase, I saw a handful of different companies performing previews of their upcoming shows for this spring and summer. One of them caught my eye more than any other. It was the Sideways Contemporary Dance Company. The dances were striking to say the least. I can remember times where I have seen photographs, paintings, and even statues that made me stop, think, and question more , but never have I been to a visual arts performance that left me speechless. Topics covering sexual promiscuity, domestic abuse, life cycles, and love were covered in a way that I had never seen before.
I contacted Charlotte Foster, the director of Sideways Dance company and owner of Atlanta Dance Central, to ask her a few questions before the opening of their next show this weekend. Foster’s story is just as influential as the stories she tells through dance. Here are a few of the things that we grilled her about:
TTL: You’ve grown up in the South your whole life, right? How much has your Southern upbringing influenced your work ethic and reaching goals?
CF: Yes, I was born and raised in the south. I spent the first three years of my college years at University of Florida (which though it is in the southern part of the US is far different than a southern town.) In the south, as soon as you meet someone, you care about them or at least appear to. Networking is done in a similar way as old friends getting together talking over coffee. I don’t find this the case in all places – many places are more cut-throat and focused on what each person can provide for you – people seem to be commodities instead of people. The south has certainly influenced me in terms of how I want my business to be – a place just like home for my students, where they can relax, learn, and feel cared about. Not a dancer-making factory that churns out great dancers. I have been blessed with a family that has supported my dance goals and dreams 100%. They are a driving force behind my success and continue to both push me and reassure me on this journey.
The dancers are the most hardworking crew I have worked with. They are phenomenal and will be presenting a beautiful show. It’s important to support local dance; not just traveling companies such as Alvin Ailey. It makes the city culturally stronger and gives it a unique voice.
TTL: For such a young person, you seem to have accomplished quite a lot so far. What was the inspiration for opening your own dance studio and become the founder of your own professional dance company? Why did you choose Atlanta?
CF: A Giant question – I chose Atlanta so I could be near my family. I found that when I lived in Gainesville, I was very home sick and realized that it was very important for me to stay close to my family. When I left for college, I wanted to be a Rockette and dance professionally on Broadway. I found that my college dance program didn’t have everything that I felt I needed to be successful in that career field so I decided to join the UF dance team and when that wasn’t enough training, I formed my own jazz dance company (student group) in order to create more training opportunities for myself. The company had four levels of dancers in it so I was having to choreograph and teach as well and I found that I enjoyed this more than kicking my own butt in class. I didn’t feel supported by the dance faculty there though they did teach me to have tough skin. In fact, they told me that I was best suited as recital director and should never pursue a choreography job what so ever because I wasn’t creative enough. I transferred to UGA and was required to create my own piece for my senior year. I decided to create a piece for myself that I loved and that I didn’t need approval for anyone to justify my love for it. I did just that and the faculty loved it, sent it to American College Dance Festival, and big dance professionals such as Ann Reinking loved it too. It was that moment that I decided to forgoe my professional plans and move back to Atlanta to start a professional dance company. The studio is somewhat of a different story but essentially spun out of my love for teaching and my love of some very special students at the time. I believe in infusing students with quality dance training, tools to express themselves through dance, and artistry of performance. In the current dance studio climate, there wasn’t any opportunities for overall quality dance training without being a competition dance studio. I wanted to offer that to Atlanta and to my students at the time. Now my love for my students has grown to include over 130 students (all the students at the studio.)
In the south, as soon as you meet someone, you care about them or at least appear to
TTL: I’ve had the opportunity to check out the Sideways Showcase a few weeks ago. Your dance company doesn’t skirt around the difficult social topics at all. Where do you find your inspiration for those topics?
CF: Dance is my best way to communicate and the other thing that I am truly sure of. I may not be able to be elected president but I can dance. I want to present these topics as my little way of trying to make the world a better place, it’s my way to change to world. The inspiration comes honestly from my experiences with people and with social injustices. Often I like to tell the other side of the story, a story that some people don’t think about or don’t want to imagine exists. After I choose a topic, I research it thoroughly before choreographing. For POP!, my last new collections of works – I had seventeen books and twenty magazine articles, watched about 7 documentaries, and was constantly seeking out information. It takes a lot of time and work to immerse myself in the work this way, but it makes for authentic work that people can connect to.
TTL: Where did you come up with the name, “Sideways?” Is there any significance?
CF: Honestly, not a whole lot. I was in my apartment once I decided to start a company. I needed a name and was looking around at all text in site for inspiration. I saw my Sideways DVD (the wine movie several years ago) and thought perfect. It sounds cool and it’s a little quirky which we sort of are as well.
TTL: Not only do you have your own dance school and professional company, but you have also founded special program specifically for children with Down Syndrome called Foster-Schmidt Dance Academy for Down Syndrome. How did you come up with this idea and what made you want to do it?
CF: In 2003, my boyfriend at the time had a cousin born with Down syndrome. His father, Vince Schmidt (my boyfriend’s uncle) created a tennis camp to provide more opportunity for his son. I went up to volunteer with the camp and fell in love with Jo-Jo (his son). Vince spoke with me later about creating something with dance and I thought it was a great idea. We started with weekend workshops for dance and physical therapy style exercises. When I opened the studio, I wanted to provide weekly classes. The program has really taken off this past year (we went from 6 dancers 2 years ago to 20 this year) land all of my dancers really looked great in the recital. This part of the studio is often the most rewarding work I do. The dancers are so enthusiastic, happy to be there, and eager to learn. The families are so appreciative. It’s hard to imagine that some places would turn away people who want to dance because they have Down syndrome but it happens all the time. I am happy to provide a welcoming place that I can allow them to grow and focus on the areas they need to to develop as stronger dancers and people.
TTL: Your professional company has a show coming up. Why do you think people should come out and support you and the rest of your dancers?
CF: The dancers are the most hardworking crew I have worked with. They are phenomenal and will be presenting a beautiful show. It’s important to support local dance not just traveling companies such as Alvin Ailey. It makes the city culturally stronger and gives it a unique voice.
TTL: Finally, what is your favorite Southern food?
CF: Cornbread is my favorite!
Interested in checking out the next Sideways Dance show, Breaking Bounds? You can buy tickets online or at the door of 7 Stages for the shows this weekend (June 24 through June 26.)
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Photo by Tiziano Caviglia