Dancing down memory lane: Celebrating 60 years of Beacon Dance and Decatur City Dance

Photo Credit: Ben Smith
This 1993 photo from the Beacon Dance Archives shows a duet between two men wearing full length sheer pants. The dancer on the right propels his body forward, peering toward the ground. He is supported at the waist by the dancer behind him, who is extending his leg back.

November 19, 2021
Volume 3 Issue 1
By: Leo Brigg

If you have a hard time tracking the history of the organizations now known as Beacon Dance and Decatur City Dance, you’re not alone. These two companies, founded in 1962 as the Decatur Civic Ballet, have gone by many names over the decades and served many generations of dancers. Although the two companies are no longer affiliated with each other, they share a common mission: to nurture and present community-focused dance performance in Atlanta. Their longevity in the city is a testament to their adaptability, commitment to excellence and genuine passion for the art form.

The celebration of their monumental 60th anniversary began in October 2021, when Beacon Dance performed two site-specific works as part of the 2021 ELEVATE Atlanta Art Festival, produced by the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs. In February 2022, the two companies will reunite to present a shared performance at the B Complex. Beacon Dance will round out the season with a series of performances in the Capitol View neighborhood, including a commission from Art on the Atlanta Beltline. At the same time, Decatur City Dance is creating a collection of 60-second dances for film to celebrate 60 years of the company. 

“COVID-19 has taught us that dance for the camera is here to stay,” Leslie Palmer Gourley, current director of Decatur City Dance, says of the film initiative. “We need to adapt our dance education to include early integration of technology.” The student dancers will choreograph their own works, mentored by Atlanta-based artists like Meg Gourley, Walter Apps and Kyme Hersi-Sallid.

The company’s origin story stands in line with the current missions of Decatur City Dance and Beacon Dance. In the 1950s, founders Hilda Gumm and Marie Roberts, then members of the Atlanta Civic Ballet, recognized a need for more quality dance education in Decatur. Operating out of the Decatur School of Ballet, the two women pioneered a performing ensemble in 1953 and incorporated it nine years later. In 1963, the company became Decatur-Dekalb Civic Ballet, a name that stuck for 25 years.

Gourley and Patton White, artistic director of Beacon Dance, were members of the original company during this time. “In the late 1980s, then artistic director Kathleen Banks Everett, in collaboration with Kate Holland and Meli Kaye, developed this huge holiday show called The Bluebird,” says White. “It was supposed to be like our version of The Nutcracker, a cash cow that would carry us through the rest of the season. It was an enormous undertaking with both students and professional dancers.” 

White recalled The Bluebird marked the first time company members were paid. “That was a major shift,” says White. “All of a sudden, I felt respected as an artist in a way I hadn’t before. At that time in Atlanta, most organizations didn’t pay or paid very little.”

Both Gourley and White spoke fondly of the successful opening performance, but it also put financial and emotional strain on the company’s directors. The Bluebird was discontinued after only a couple of years.

Photo Credit: D. Patton White
Two dancers are intertwined in a shallow, marshy creek. One dancer leverages her hips on the other dancer’s shoulder, suspended in the air and wrapping around the other dancer with her torso. The standing dancer gazes intently at her hands, which gesture outward together toward the camera.

When Patton took over the company in the 1990s, he revived The Bluebird on a much smaller scale at Emory University’s Cannon Chapel. “It was a transformative moment for the organization,” White says. “It proved that creating a truly professional company of local dancers was possible without major funding.”

At that time, most of the board members were parents of the students or his personal friends. They did not have the financial backing of large arts organizations like the Alliance Theatre or the Atlanta Ballet. Yet, the show went on.

In 1987, the Beacon Hill Arts Center on West Trinity Place — since shuttered — became the home for the company, officially adopting the name Beacon Dance Company. Several years later, the educational branch of the organization split from the professional company and became its own non-profit. Decatur City Dance focused on dance education. The organization remains dedicated to developing pre-professional ensembles as the company-in-residence of Decatur School of Ballet.

“Initially, the Junior and Apprentice ensembles were primarily ballet companies for students ages 10-18 that also presented some jazz and modern works,” says Gourley. “But we kept expanding and developing more specialized ensembles from there.” Birda Ringstad of the Rhythm Keepers, a professional tap company, founded the Junior Rhythm Keepers, a tap ensemble under the umbrella of Decatur City Dance. Toya Willingham, a graduate of the program, started a professional jazz company called AboutFace. Daphanie Scandrick, a founding member of Staibdance, created a modern-based company through the organization as well. Soon, Decatur City Dance was home to flourishing ensembles in multiple dance genres.

Meanwhile, Beacon Dance sharpened its focus on using the arts as a tool for social change. Their work is accessible, often occurring in local parks, outdoor spaces and community venues. It’s the kind of show you could stumble upon during your everyday life. In 2013, Beacon Dance moved from its beloved home in Decatur to the B Complex in Atlanta’s Capitol View neighborhood, where their studio is available for rent at affordable rates by other artists and arts organizations.

Sixty years after their organizations’ shared founding, Gourley and White remain devoted to mentoring local emerging artists. “Atlanta has always been a place that people come to and then leave,” White reflects. Now, he says, “More people are arriving and choosing not to leave. And you don’t have to form your own company, either. Katie Messina proved this with the Fall for Fall Dance Festival. Now this whole generation of dancers is inspired to make work. There are plenty of ways that individual artists can get their work done without institutionalizing.”

Gourley echoes the sentiment that there is more dance happening now than ever. “In the future, I am looking forward to developing the professional wing of Decatur City Dance,” she says. “This is one of the most exciting times to be dancing in Atlanta. I’m so grateful that I get to experience that through my daughter’s eyes now. If we had as much dance back then as we do now, I would have been dancing just like her.”

Photo Credit: Kathleen Everett
Two young dancers perform a duet on stage, wearing flowing black garments. The dancer on the right propels her leg forward with a sharply pointed foot, leaning against her partner for support while off-balance. The other dancer supports her back with his forearm, leaning forward with his weight over a grounded standing leg. Both dancers are looking forward with concentration and intensity.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is leo-200x300.jpeg
Photo Credit: Walter Apps

Laura (Leo) Briggs is an Atlanta-based dance artist. They received a B.A. in Dance & Movement Studies from Emory University in 2019. As a performer, Laura has worked with Nathan Griswold of Fly on a Wall, Okwae A. Miller and Artists, and Benji Stevenson. Their latest independent work, Search History, premiered at Fall for Fall Dance Festival in August 2020. A collaborative duet with artist Ethan Brasseaux, Search History investigates the uniquely queer experience of discovering one’s history and culture on the Internet.

More from Leo:
Atlanta dance icon Corian Ellisor talks craft, mentorship, teaching, and legacy
The body as a political vessel: a conversation with Okwae A. Miller
Atlanta dance icon Corian Ellisor talks craft, mentorship, teaching, and legacy

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