TU Dance makes modern dance accessible to a diverse community in St. Paul

TU Dance, a professional dance company and dance education center located in St. Paul, was founded by Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands in 2004. Initially called Space TU Embrace, the organization started as summertime project that allowed Uri and Toni to continue working and interacting with their professional colleagues through the summer.

“Summer is pretty bleak [in the dance world],” Uri says. “People are still trying to work and perform and stay in shape, but there are not many opportunities to do that in the summer.”

At the time, Uri had just started to develop his own choreographic voice and he wanted time to create, so Space TU Embrace ran as a six-week workshop over its first two summers, each wrapping up with a four-day public performance in a small black box theatre.

Uri says that TU Dance was really the end result of an “incubation of thoughts” that grew out of his and Toni’s experiences as professional dancers touring the country and world and how they wanted to translate those experiences to St. Paul.

Toni was born and raised in St. Paul and received all of her professional training in the Twin Cities. “She went on to have a prolific career here and in New York and abroad,” Uri says. “[When we] came back [she] saw a lot of change in the Twin Cities in terms of arts and diversity, but the dance world had stayed the same – it didn’t have the same depth of cultural richness, the diversity, that the rest of the Twin Cities had at the time.”

Uri grew up in Miami, where he received all of his training, first getting interested in breakdancing in the early ’80s and then going on to study ballet through Miami’s prestigious arts magnet schools, including the New World School of Arts.

The couple met through the Alvin Ailey dance company in New York. When Toni decided to move back to her hometown, Uri followed two years later. Together they decided that they wanted to do something to foster and promote the dance community in St. Paul, while at the same time also making their art form more accessible to the community.

“We needed to make sure there is that same accessibility of this art form that has transformed our lives, [which means] including people from all backgrounds,” explains Uri. “So we decided to created TU Dance. We are committed to sharing and celebrating a unique art form.”

They knew they wanted TU Dance (the “TU” representing “Toni” and “Uri,” pronounced “to”) to be both a professional company and a professional training school, but they had to decide which to focus on first.

“Our vision was to have a fully functional training program for aspiring young dancers,” Uri says.  “We realized that as young dancers, when we trained we had the [professional] examples in front of us. The people that were there we could look up to, aspire to, and be inspired by.”

To build that base of professionals, they started with the professional company, which consists of 12 members performing original contemporary dance repertory choreographed by Uri as well as by world-renowned choreographers brought in to create original works for the company. TU Dance celebrated its tenth anniversary this past May.

Four years ago Toni and Uri launched the TU Dance Center, fulfilling the other half of their vision. TU Dance Center is organized into three divisions, offering programs for children and teens that focus on the joy of creative movement and beginning dance technique, a pre-professional program that trains aspiring professional dancers up to age 23, and an open program with individual classes that are open to everyone. They specialize in training for ballet, modern, and West African dance. They are also committed to making these opportunities available for diverse populations.

“We have a fair amount of subsidy that helps prevent barriers so students can train and develop,” Uri says. “Part of the core values of this organization is to ensure accessibility on many levels.”

They have officially completed three years of dance education programming and began the fourth year in September. TU Dance Center currently has 110 pre-professional students in training, after starting with just 18, in addition to the variety of individual classes and community workshops offered at the center.

“We feel it’s very important for the community to recognize TU Dance Center as their own,” says Uri. “We connect artists who come into town to this community, and offer some workshops for non-professionals for a vast age range. It is important to have an ongoing dialogue with our community as a whole.”

TU Dance works to engage community members and dance professionals on a number of levels, with open rehearsals, student performances, and community workshops with guest choreographers from New York. Pre-professional dancers can also audition for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and other national companies and conservatories. “These are the sorts of things we like to make sure are available and accessible to our community here.”

In terms of the total number of students of all ages impacted by TU Dance annually – combining their variety of classes and outreach programs that include lecture demonstrations, master classes, educational performances, and outreach efforts in every city the company tours so the students in those communities are able to interact with the company – their total reach becomes something like 3,000-4,000 per year.

Recently the company toured at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, in Uri’s hometown.

“To bring this work to Miami and share that with community, and also celebrating our tenth anniversary at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in downtown St. Paul, an arts institution that brings in world-class arts from all across the globe…for us to be able to share our work with them and provide accessibility to a wide array of people and a diverse population…[that is a] full circle experience.”

The tenth anniversary is a significant milestone for the company, an organization that began from just a seed. “It’s a very grassroots organization,” Uri says. “We have been able to gain the confidence of significant funders who believe in and support the vision Toni and I have – how we believe our work as artists and how dance [as an art form] is able to transform lives for young people as well as those coming to interact with our work.”

At the beginning of this year, TU Dance was selected by the Knight Foundation as an “anchor arts institution” in the city of St. Paul, along with four other organizations considered cornerstone local arts institutions. They were collectively awarded $3.5 million to be awarded over five years. (Another recipient anchor organization was Springboard for the Arts, which powers Creative Exchange.)

“The Knight Foundation is a longtime supporter of TU Dance,” says Uri. “To be recognized by Knight in that way is a true testament to their initiative and their confidence in our work and in what we can do for the community at large.”