Dancers’ Workshop seeks to bring the art of movement to the Jackson Hole community.
// By Rachel Walker
When Babs Case arrived in Jackson Hole in 1998 to be artistic director of Dancers’ Workshop, she found a beloved nonprofit arts organization with about 60 students. Now Dancers’ Workshop is one of the valley’s most important cultural institutions. With an annual operating budget of $2.2 million, Dancers’ Workshop today attracts performers from all over the world even as it strives—and succeeds—to reach Jackson Hole residents of all socioeconomic levels. Since its founding in 1972—the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022—Dancers’ Workshop has brought the joy and art of movement, and, for those not interested in dancing themselves, of watching movement, to all ages.
The organization has a dance school for kids ages 18 months to 18 years, adult wellness and movement classes, and is the home of Contemporary Dance Wyoming, an ensemble of professional dancers (and the only professional dance company in the state of Wyoming). DW also brings visiting artists to the valley and stages performances that range from formal to experimental. In 2019, the last year before Covid affected in-person classes and performances, Dancers’ Workshop taught more than 50 youth classes per week and 17 weekly classes for adults. There were also more than 50 specialty workshops. In total that year, 898 students attended at least one DW class. In 2019, DW also produced performances including Batsheva, Savion Glover, Malpaso Dance Company, David Dorfman Dance & Inez Bass, and Contemporary Dance Wyoming; and commissioned new work by Hubbard Street Dance and other visiting guest artists. These performances, master classes, and open rehearsals reached 5,129 audience members. Case’s leadership can be thanked for this breadth and depth of offerings and the outreach to get as many community members as possible to enjoy them.
“Babs has a knack for connecting with people,” says David Dorfman, artistic director of his eponymous New York-based dance company and a longtime colleague of Case’s. “She can bring together the most conservative and the most liberal people from all stripes of life.”
Case says fostering such connections is her life’s work. “Dance changes lives. So, we do everything we can to invite everyone in our community to participate,” she says. “Jackson has extreme wealth and also people who don’t have as much, or much at all. That doesn’t matter. It’s essential that everyone can experience what we do, can participate.”
“I see part of my role as teaching students how to respond to work by using all of their senses. It is not relevant if you like a thing or not. What’s important is understanding your reaction to it and being able to communicate that reaction in a kind and helpful way.”
— Babs Case, Artistic Director of DW
Dancers’ Workshop accomplishes this in several ways. The organization has a comprehensive financial aid program to provide classes on a sliding scale. Community members are also invited to attend the dress rehearsals of live performances at little or no cost. DW works with the valley’s public schools to expose children to dance and music, and often DW performances are staged outside, where they are free and can bring residents and visitors together.
It’s difficult to find anyone in Jackson who has not been impacted by Dancers’ Workshop. Local resident Mairi Schilling, age 13, began taking dance classes when she was five. “Back then I skipped and hopped around the room and got my toes sprinkled with sparkle dust,” Schilling says. Over the years, dancing became more of a priority, and the
organization acted as equal parts educator and mentor. “I knew it would get harder, but watching the older girls and teachers taught me that if I stuck with this, I could be really good.”
At DW, “good” doesn’t simply mean being talented on a stage. Rather, Case and her roster of teachers encourage students to be curious and open to possibility. “I’ve learned to always keep thinking and exploring,” says Schilling, whose primary extracurricular activity is now dance. “To always try again and to do a little better.”
Case applies that advice to herself and her other initiatives as she tirelessly creates new opportunities to broaden the arts in Jackson through residency programs that bring visiting dance troupes to the valley. The residencies bring up to 30 dancers as well as individual artists to Jackson Hole for stints that last from one week to several. Recent resident artists include the Malpaso Dance Company, based in Havana, Cuba; Savion Glover, whom The New York Times calls a “master tap dancer;” and David Dorfman. During the residencies, artists stage a performance and also may offer clinics or otherwise engage with the community.
This exchange of ideas and creative vision is mutually beneficial, says Fernando Saez, founder and artistic director of Malpaso Dance Company, which completed its third Dancers’ Workshop residency last May. “The more we go to Jackson, the deeper we know the people,” he says. “For us, it’s not about the beauty of the place, but about the special and particular people we work with.” Case also does choreography for Contemporary Dance Wyoming, which she founded in 1999.
Case understands firsthand the richness that comes from collaboration and travel. Over the course of her career, she has performed, choreographed, and taught modern dance and visual art throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, Canada, and South America. She was the founding director of The Center for the Arts in Stuart, Florida, for 12 years and has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts along with other accolades. Twice she has received both the Florida and Wyoming Fellowship Awards for Choreography. In 1992, she was awarded an Indo-American Research Fulbright to study dance, theater, and visual arts in India. For her, education is a lifelong pursuit.
“I see part of my role as teaching students how to respond to work by using all of their senses,” Case says. “It is not relevant if you like a thing or not. What’s important is understanding your reaction to it and being able to communicate that reaction in a kind and helpful way.” Students here are taught to use the guidelines of “think, see, feel, and hear” to express themselves. The objective, Case says, is to steer prospective critics away from simplistic assessments (“I liked it;” “I didn’t like it…”) and toward a more nuanced interpretation.
Dorfman says he would expect nothing less from his longtime peer. “Babs is an incredible teacher who gives the same kind of class and education to young children as she would a master class at a fine arts university. She is offering sophisticated lessons that lift everyone up.”
Dorfman recalls an outdoor performance his company collaborated on in Jackson with Dancers’ Workshop that involved a parade and life-size puppets. “I needed to trust Babs’s vision,” he says. “She took us on a tour of where the puppets were being made, and it was breathtaking, but it was hard to conceive of what exactly was going to happen.” The performance exceeded his expectations. “We had to be light on our feet but grounded so that we could improvise in the moment. And as we were performing, I realized exactly how much work had gone into it. Babs has a way of opening up new possibilities,” he says.
And the future is nothing if not ripe with possibility, says Case. “Looking ahead to the next 50 years is like looking into a gorgeous night sky filled with endless possibilities and infinite impact,” she says. “I am so grateful to all who have helped to secure the future for the arts in our community.” JH