A Moving Partnership: The NEA’s 40 Years of Support of Dance

The NEA's 40 Years of Support of Dance


The Dance Theatre of Harlem perform Dialogues

The Dance Theatre of Harlem perform Dialogues. Photo: Martha Swope.

In the last 40 years, the NEA has awarded more than $300 million directly to dance companies, producers, choreographers, filmmakers, presenters, festivals, historians and critics, workshops, and service organizations that have transformed American dance. So it's hard to believe that despite a history of embracing literature, theater, opera, and symphonic music, the United States was slow to consider dance as a serious and legitimate art that spoke to the soul and explored the American experience.

Throughout 18th- and 19th-century America, dance performances, such as they were, were concentrated in a few large cities. Audiences were largely ignorant of dance literature, and training opportunities for aspiring performers were limited.

By 1965, American concert dance was still a relatively young art form. The Martha Graham Dance Company was 39 years old. The San Francisco Ballet and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival both were 32. The New York City Ballet had existed for only 17 years. Not insignificant ages for performing arts institutions but a long way from an established legacy. American dance was young but vital - and waiting to be propelled from a boutique discipline based almost entirely in New York City into a national phenomenon. All it needed was a catalytic spark.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, establishing the National Endowment for the Arts, that spark ignited.With its very first grant of $100,000, awarded to American Ballet Theatre, the Arts Endowment began its effort to create an environment in which professional dance could not just survive, but thrive.

From the beginning, the Arts Endowment had an unusually intimate relationship with the American dance field. Its national perspective allowed it to address the needs of an entire field and to respond to the evershifting landscape of a quickly growing art.

Jimmy Slyde Godbolt onstage tap-dancing

1999 NEA National Heritage Fellow James "Jimmy Slyde" Godbolt received the award for his tap-dancing prowess. Photo: Joseph T.Wilson.


The NEA's grantmaking process made Washington the central source for information on and communication within the dance field. By convening panels to review applications as well as to discuss challenges and priorities within the discipline, the NEA's dance panels became the think tanks for ideas to respond to changing needs. They also became legendary for knitting together a field that, prior to the establishment of the Arts Endowment, had existed with almost no sense of itself as a national cultural force.

The NEA's Folk and Traditional Arts program has supported the artistry of traditional dance makers whose vernacular, social, and ritual dance traditions give such enormous depth and richness to the nation's history. The NEA National Heritage Fellowships awarded by the Folk Arts program have recognized the talents of such notable artists as Lindy hopper Frankie Manning, and tap dancer Jimmy Slyde.

The Expansion Arts program that began in 1971 supported artists and organizations that presented culturally specific traditions and reached underserved communities and populations. Those grants nurtured what are now among the dance field's most prominent companies and artists, including Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City and Philadanco in Philadelphia.

Dance-related grants in the area of Arts Education gave a new generation of students access to dance and helped to develop a professional educational base that allowed artists and students to interact and learn from each other.

American dance has matured and changed substantially in the 40 years of the National Endowment for the Arts' existence. The growth of dance outside the traditional cultural centers and its spread across the nation is one of the Arts Endowment's greatest legacies.What were experience the wonder of American contemporary dance.

The role of the NEA in fostering that growth and artistry cannot be underestimated. Its resources and leadership have helped make dance a vibrant cultural resource that serves all Americans, enriches the national patrimony, and provides a firm foundation for the next 40 years of artistic excellence.