Over the weekend, a new dance festival made its debut in New Haven, Connecticut. Gabrielle Niederhoffer created DanceHaven was created to deep-dive into New Haven’s complex dance history and the forgotten history of Paul Hall with the surrounding community. From pop-up exhibitions on New Haven’s dance history to master classes, DanceHaven is an event that Gabrielle has been inspired to create for years. A culmination of her love of tap, her work with “the queen of tap” Dormeshia, and a desire to celebrate Black vernacular dance, DanceHaven is a project that Gabrielle called “a wonderful learning experience.”
We caught up with Gabrielle for an inside look at her project and Dormeshia for insight on how they made it all happen and the dancers that helped bring it to life.
Showstopper Magazine Online: Hello! Tell me a bit about yourselves. What is your relationship to dance and performing arts?
Gabrielle Niederhoffer: I’m Gabrielle Niederhoffer, and I have grown up dancing in New York City my entire life. Coming from a family of musicians, I was drawn to tap as a musical form of dance. I have been surrounded by the arts at Yale, and I am excited to bring this festival to campus.
SMO: DanceHaven got started as part of your senior thesis. Can you tell us about that project and how DanceHaven came out of it?
Gabrielle: Actually, my senior thesis came out of the idea for the festival! I proposed the idea for the festival way back during my first year at Yale. I wanted to find a way to celebrate Black vernacular dance forms on campus. After working with Dormeshia at the Jacob’s Pillow Tap Professional Advancement Program, I asked if she would like to help create and curate a festival focused on vernacular dance. Conversations leading up to the festival sparked the New Haven Dance History Project, a research initiative of the Yale Dance Lab that celebrates the legacy and influence of dance in the city. My thesis focuses on the history of dance in New Haven, and the legacy of Paul Hall, a Black queer artist erased from the archives.
What was it like putting together the lineup of masterclasses?
Dormeshia: It was exciting to engage with artists that I know and love to be a part of this event. To know that I had people who love what they do and people who were engaged in learning made this event a labor of love.
SMO: Can you speak on the styles of dance you’ve chosen to include in the event?
Dormeshia: In developing this vernacular dance festival, I definitely wanted to show the lineage of dance and of vernacular dance with Black dance in general. I knew I definitely had to have West African represented and Katherine Dunham should be a part of this event. After learning that Yale and New Haven had a high interest in Chicago footwork, I was pleased to add that to the schedule. Also, Lindy Hop and tap dance are major parts of vernacular dance. It was really an effort to try and show where we started and how vernacular dance has evolved all the way up to Chicago footwork probably being the most contemporary.
SMO: What’s your relationship with the artists that were selected?
Dormeshia: I realized that I had known most of them for a long time. So, it was a little bit of a reunion. When we got to Yale there was Kara Mack, whom I met probably over 20 years ago in California, and to see her make the progress that she’s made in her genre is amazing, and to have her here is a blessing. Same for Donetta “LilBit” Jackson with Chicago footwork is someone I’ve known for a very long time, but I knew as a tap dancer first. And now that she has found Chicago footwork and has really jumped into that, and she’s amazing at it, and I’m glad to have her here as well. I knew Samuel Coleman for the Lindy because we did a swing show together several years ago, but Candace Franklin (aka “Sammy & Candy”), I just met last fall as Sammy’s partner. Once I got to meet Candace, I then found out that she has an amazing background and connection to Katherine Dunham’s technique for jazz dance and is teaching this on a regular basis so that was really amazing to find that out.
SMO: As well as classes, the event featured performances, a dance party, and even an exhibition. What were you most excited for? What was the most fun to put together? The most difficult?
Gabrielle: The festival [featured] classes and performances in Chicago footwork, tap, swing dance, commercial dance, Dunham jazz, Lindy Hop, and African diasporic movement. The Main Stage performance put these Black vernacular dance forms in dialogue with each other, which [was] an especially exciting part of the event.
Dormeshia: I just want to say, hats off to Gabrielle and Yale and everyone here that has helped make this festival happen. In vernacular dance, we don’t always get to tell our own stories. So, this is amazing for me to be here to bring these people in to share in this dance experience and that makes it much more special to me. And it seems that some of the folks that are coming to the classes are very excited to have the people that live and breathe and sleep dance and the culture to be here to share that with them. So, yeah, everything has been wonderful.
SMO: What were your biggest goals with this event?
Gabrielle: I hope festival attendees learn[ed] about the history and roots of these dance styles. Vernacular dance forms are inherently communal, and DanceHaven [brought] dancers from Yale, New Haven, and beyond to share the same dance floor. In featuring underrepresented dance styles, the festival expos[ed] community members to history and culture in a way they might not have been able to experience before.
SMO: Is there anything else you want people to know about either of you, DanceHaven, or your work?
Gabrielle: The festival also featur[ed] an exhibit on the history of dance in New Haven, which has remained largely untold. Dance shapes the rhythm of the city with its exceptional public school arts programs, local dance companies, public dance performances, studios, festivals, and theaters. Artists have transformed the city into spaces for dance—teaching classes in East Rock Park, rehearsing in church basements, and performing on the New Haven Green. Yet, the legacy and importance of New Haven dance remain in the shadows. The New Haven Dance History Project, an initiative of the Yale Dance Lab created in the summer of 2021, tells this untold story. Researchers conducted a series of oral history interviews with key contributors to the history and development of dance in the city. These invaluable stories will be archived and shared with the New Haven community and beyond. The ongoing New Haven Dance History Project strives to honor and celebrate dance in the city.