This week on the podcast is part one of our interview with Dominic Moore-Dunson. He’s an award-winning professional dancer, producer, teaching artist and speaker. Dominic is the co-founder of Moore-Dunson Co., a holding company committed to producing companies and brands helping its clients unlock their stories. As an artist, he’s in the 2023 Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” list; a Top 40 finalist for the National Dance Project Grant; a 2019 Jacob’s Pillow Choreography Fellow; and a 2019 Cleveland Arts Prize Winner.
From the soccer field to the dance floor, Dominic Moore-Dunson has an inspiring journey to share. With tap shoes he wore as a two-year-old, to being an award-winning professional dancer, Dominic's experiences speak of courage, commitment, and the will to follow one's passion. He takes us on an intimate journey through his life, detailing the arduous decision of choosing dance over soccer and the subsequent adaptation to the demanding lifestyle of a professional dancer.
One pivotal story from Dominic's life involves a taxing experience that tested his limits and led to the realization of his potential. His life lessons extend beyond the dance floor, as he talks about the influence of his soccer coach, who helped shape his detailed-oriented and accountable work ethic. Dominic stresses the role of expectations and a thorough understanding of a project's nuances in his artistic success, offering a fresh perspective that applies to not just artists, but also entrepreneurs and professionals from various fields.
The episode also delves into Dominic's creative process, as he shares the backstage experience of creating a podcast and a dance piece inspired by conversations around children's safety and police. He highlights how unexpected incidents can alter a project's focus and meaning, citing a specific incident in his community that shifted his work's focus. Dominic further unravels his strategies for meaningful collaborations, emphasizing the importance of understanding people to create larger, collective projects. This episode serves as a treasure trove of wisdom and practical advice for anyone looking to navigate their creative journey.
Welcome to the Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast. Making Art Work. We highlight how entrepreneurs align their artistry, passion and vision to create and pursue opportunities to capture value in the arts. The views expressed by guests on the Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the podcast or its hosts. The appearance of a guest on the podcast, the venture they represent or reference to any product or service does not imply an endorsement or recommendation by the podcast or its hosts. The content provided is for entertainment and informational purposes only and does not constitute business advice. Here are your hosts Andy Heise and Nick Petrella.Andy Heise:
Hi Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast listeners. My name is Andy Heise and I'm Nick Petrella.Nick Petrella:
We're excited to have Dominic Moore-Dunson with us today. He's an award-winning professional dancer, producer, teaching artist and speaker. Dominic is the co-founder of Moore-Dunson Company, a holding company committed to producing companies and brands, helping its clients unlock their stories. As an artist, he's in the 2023 Dance Magazine's 25 to Watch List, a top 40 finalists for the National Dance Project Grant, a 2019 Jacobs Pillow choreography fellow and a 2019 Cleveland Arts Prize winner. Please see his website link in the show notes to learn more about Dominic and the variety of activities he offers to the dance community and beyond. Thanks for coming on the podcast, dominic.Dominic Moore-Dunson:
Thanks, man.Nick Petrella:
Let's start by having you give us an idea of your background and when you decided to become a professional dancer.Dominic Moore-Dunson:
Okay, so I have the really unusual story of a boy dancing. I started at two years old and most boys don't start until like high school or college. So I started dancing because I have an older sister who's two years older than me and my mom was basically like I need you out the house, you're going to go to dance class. So I ended up, you know, started tap dancing when I was a kid and I just really never stopped. I played sports, I played soccer. I went to university of Akron and played soccer. I ran track in high school and was a state level hardler as well, but dance was kind of always the constant thing, no matter what. I was one of those kids who spent probably 20 hours a week in the studio from eight years old until 18. So it was just like a big part of my life. And so when I went to college, went to university of Akron, and I played soccer at the time, you know I think the team was top three in the nation, so like we were a really good team and I had to balance soccer and my dance major and I was waking up, going to ballet class at 8.50 in the morning, getting done at 10.30, literally sprinting across campus because practice already started, getting to practice at 10.45 and having, like you know, we were really good teams, so it was basically like professional level practices, right, and then after that I would have to lift and then I have to go back to another dance class and at one point I was just like dog, I can't do all of this, right, like I can't do all of this. So when it really came down to it, I was like you know, these guys really, really love soccer a lot. I realized that I loved being with people. We just happened to be good at soccer, which was cool, but I realized the way they love soccer is the way I love dance. It's the thing I just couldn't ever get away from. It's the thing I would think about when I just had time on my hands. So I decided I was going to quit soccer which wasn't the most popular opinion by many people around Akron at the time and so I just went fooling the dance, went to a dance major at University of Akron. I lasted, honestly, about like a semester and a half and realized school isn't for me. They're really, really quickly. And at that point I was like you know, I got to get into the professional dance marketplace for real, for real. I technically started being a professional when I was 16. I started getting paid to dance in a couple of places around Northeast Ohio, but when I was 19, 20 is when I was like I'm going full into being a professional dancer. I ended up in a company in Cleveland named Dance Theater and that lasted there for 10 years before I started my own thing.Nick Petrella:
So it's really not unlike what people who study ballet do They'll practice and then they'll just go straight into a company.Dominic Moore-Dunson:
Yeah, they just ran into a company and I think the thing about choosing a career in dance is like it's not for the week. You have to be very honest, right, it's not. It's one of those things where, like, you spend your whole life rehearsing and practicing this one thing. Right, being a good dancer you get to. Not, unlike professional sports, you upgrade to professional dance and you realize how much of your life has to become a part of that thing. Right, it's not a thing you can do in your off time. It's you're making a lifestyle choice, not a career choice. Yeah, because you're, you still got to go to the gym. You have to eat a certain way. Now you can't do like a random fun things, like you can't go skiing or you can't go play pick up basketball because you can't get hurt, right. So your life literally changes because Everything is about your ability to produce in the studio and produce on stage, which, as a kid who grew up doing everything and being good at most things, that transition was really difficult for me because I had to learn that to say yes to this means to say I know that everything else, at least for a period of time, sure.Andy Heise:
Did your experience you said you started professionally dancing around the age of 16? Did that experience kind of help you, help shape that pathway for when you decided to become a professional dancer? Like, did you already have some connections or kind of know how to navigate that?Dominic Moore-Dunson:
well, I think it was between that and in Akron we have Miller South Visual Performing Arts Middle School, so it's an arts middle school. And then the high schools firestone high school they have performance there, and I went, I danced in both those schools. So I've actually danced every day from fourth grade to 12th grade, right as part of my life. And at firestone we have this really great relationship with an organization called Dance Cleveland. Dance Cleveland is the oldest modern and contemporary dance presenting organization in the country. Oh wow, so a lot of people don't know that around here, and so they would bring, I mean, the greatest professional Dance, modern dance, contemporary dance artists into Cleveland and then, you know, on their off day They've drive them 40 minutes down to Akron and come to our little bitty studio in our high school and I've just like just got in a math class or something and then like the Martha Graham companies in the studio, right, like it was this incredible thing, yeah, and so I think that helped. But one specific story is that that same path happened. They brought in Garth's Fagan dance. So if you don't know Garth's Fagan, he is the person choreographed the Lion King on Broadway. Okay, so they brought his company in Cleveland. His dancers came down to our little studio to Akron and they just taught his class and the dancers really impressed by me and they're like, hey, how about you and your parent come to the show tomorrow night free of charge? So that's my mom. She worked in Cleveland, so it's easy. She worked right next to play out square, so it's super easy. So we go to the show. I'm watching these dancers on this stage and they're At this point I'm like these are the greatest athletes I've ever seen. What they can do with their bodies is amazing and they look like me. And so it was the first time I went. I think I could do that. It's the first time I told my mom I was like I think I could do that, like right now I could do that. And I was 16 and after the show these days was came and found me and had me meet Garth's Fagan himself, which was awesome and he invited me to a summer camp free of charge. So I got to go to Rochester, new York. It was the first time I'd ever been left anywhere by myself at that point in life, and so I was there for 14 days and the summer camp was, you know, you had. It was like 10 to 18 year olds and one part of the camp, and then 18 to like 35 and another part of the camp, and then there was just like the professionals having their regular rehearsals. I spent a day and a half with the kids, a day and a half of the adults, and then they just had me with the professionals the rest of the time and it was honestly the hardest thing I still think I've done this day in my life. It was the hardest stuff I've ever done. But you know, the way Garth's Fagan company works is when class starts every day Everyone's in these like perfect lines. There's like four lines that are perfect Across diagonal and you can't move out of your spot. They have a set warm-up which means that warm-up is the exact same every day. So they put me right in the middle behind the two principal dancers and said figure it out. So for two hours I was just literally like watching and trying to figure out how to do like literally the hardest woman I've ever done. And but that experience made me realize, oh, I can do this. Like I got put into the fire, I got put into the lion's den and I figured it out Like I was holding my own right To be 16 years old and Garth Svagan ended up taking me out to dinner one night, which was awesome. We went to this like four star restaurant in Rochester. We walked to the table, we're sitting down and the logo of the company is engraved into the table and the logo is his face right. So it's just like a really funny thing to watch. We had this conversation. He was just telling me about like the world of dance and the industry and telling me like I could really do this. And he said, like if you wanted to stay here and dance for me, like we could figure it out. And at the time I was like, yeah, this is the first time I left home. I'm not staying here with like you're cool, but not that cool, so you gotta end up going back home. But that experience really taught me like, oh, I could do this. Like Garth Svagan said, I could do this, so obviously I could do this right. So I think about a time I made my decision to be a professional. Like what's in a decision Is that where you kind of felt like when A professional who happened to choose to go through school.Andy Heise:
Yeah, that's an amazing story. Yeah, and it kind of leads into my next question, which is having to do with role models. Did you have any role models growing up that shaped your approach to the work that you do now, as both an artist and a business person?Dominic Moore-Dunson:
Yeah, I would say I have a particular attention to detail because of the soccer coach I had growing up. His name is Denzel Antonio and in Northeast Ohio there's an indoor professional league and he played for the Canton team and he's just like, really well known in the state of Ohio as the soccer coach for young people. You know, black, reddish man, so again, someone who looked like me, someone who I could relate to, and he was hard on me man, he was hard on me and those kids and what was so. What was hard was he made sure we paid attention to detail on the field and he didn't let us make excuses, like when things went wrong, you were held accountable. It didn't matter who. There was no special person right, doesn't matter who's the best or the worst on the team. Like everyone was getting yelled at, everyone runs right. Like I always tell the story to some dancers I work with. Or like when kids, like when I was playing soccer, like so when a ball is coming towards you and you have to stop it, it's called trapping the ball right and the other word you're here is people say your first touch and it's a big thing, like do you have a good first touch, and when we were learning about that and trying to get better at it again, we were like 13 years old. Right, we're like impuberty, our bodies don't really work well yet, right, and if you didn't trap the ball, right, he would stop, though everybody, everyone had to do 35 pushups every single time. We did a lot of pushups because a lot of us didn't have a good first touch, right, but like, that was at 13. So you can imagine how we were by 18, right, the level of detail that we could do and the expectation of the detail. So there was something about that that just carried through my life. So, when it comes to my artistry, like, if you watch my work, the level of detail and the layers I put in my work is extraordinary, and I have an expectation of myself and the dancers that you know that detail, like exactly where your hand should be and exactly like the quality of your hand in that moment it's an optional right. It has to be that specifically, because that specifically communicates a specific thing to somebody, right, and that's no different when it comes to creating a new product. Right, the process of creating new product, there's detail involved, right, it's not an option to kind of sort of figure out who this product's for. It's like no, who is that ideal avatar, right? How old are they? You know what's their family life like, what don't they like, what scares them, what makes them nervous, where they try to get to Like there's so many things you have to go through to get there. That's detail oriented and you know, I'm sure it. I know this and I know there's a lot of people that I work with that I'm so detail oriented when it comes to that stuff. This is really important to me, right, it just makes me feel like I'm actually putting the real work. So then, if it's not working, it's way easier to hold myself and our team accountable, because now you can look at, well, where's the gaps, right? Where, where do we miss the details, right, and then let's go back and find those. But if everything's so wide open, if it's not working, you're just going to be swimming in the ocean Like I don't know why, because you haven't really, like taken the time to sink down and really get into the nitty gritty of how does this work, how do we communicate, how do we know it's working in all those things.Andy Heise:
You're so right. I mean, expectations are really key, one of the things that I mentioned to students in various courses, especially the ones where they're going out and teaching others. I'll just keep coming back to students rise or fall to meet your expectations. It doesn't matter if it's a coach, it doesn't matter if it's a product.Dominic Moore-Dunson:
It doesn't matter. And frankly I'll say, even with artwork, artwork rise and falls right. In the same way, like if you're not asking your audience to meet the expectation of that you made for yourself, like they're just gonna sit back in their seat and kind of worriedly watch this thing and start checking their phone. Right, their brain will start thinking about other things. But if, like, you hold yourself to a certain standard when it comes to communicating something, they're gonna come with you. Like they paid money because they want to come with you, that's right. Right, like if they paid money and they're not coming with you, they had to work to not come with you because they're literally coming because they want to be a part of this experience. So you just have to, like you know, dot your eyes, cross your T's right, like make sure your stuff is right and just let people have the experience, and then it's way more fun in the end, yeah.Nick Petrella:
So, dominic, when we last spoke, you had just finished a tour with a project you had created. Tell us a little bit about that project and how you funded it.Dominic Moore-Dunson:
So in 2020, we were all locked up in the house and it was the springtime ish, and we had this cultural shift that happened in our country when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, minnesota. At that point, me and my wife were in this tiny ranch home in Kenmore, which is on the southern part of Akron, ohio, and we started having these conversations about race relations in our country and police. We weren't going to march because we were pregnant with our first child. So we were like it's still COVID, we still don't know what's up, right. And so we're stuck in this house having conversations and, for the first time ever, I was like man, I'm going to have to talk to my black child about police and I just didn't know what. I would even say Right. Like I was raised a certain way. I know how I feel, I know what I'm afraid of and what I'm not afraid of, but I didn't want to cheat somebody through the sense of fear. I wanted to go on a journey like let me actually figure things out so I can be intentional as a parent. So I just started talking to people, started having conversations like what do you do with your kids? Like how do you teach them? And, like, these conversations were coming towards me and a lot of people said, well, you know, you just teach them how to get home, which I understand, but to me that's one of those like wide open things. There's not enough detail in that, right. So I was like, okay, I need to get more serious about this. So I started asking police officers, retired current black white council people, students, parents, teachers, literally anyone who would talk to me. I was having a conversation with them about police and, more specifically, this idea of how do you define safety. And, you know, amongst that journey, I also took a podcasting class because, you know, I basically didn't have a job because the world shut down. I needed something to do and my wife was like, please find something to do. So I took this podcasting class and, you know, learned how to storytelling a different way and amongst, like, just recording these conversations on Zoom because in my head I was just using them as research and development for a potential piece After this class, I was like yo, I could I bet you I could take these and turn them into a podcast. If, like, I curated it and figured out how to, like you know, do it the right way, this could be kind of interesting and still just research and development. I'm just letting other people access it early. So I did that and I made season one of a podcast called In Cop Negro, black and Blue, which is still up on Spotify and Apple Podcast now, and I did that. I got a lot of really good feedback from podcasts, right. Like you know, it was really fun. The way we do the music is very much like someone's composing for a dance piece, but inside of a podcast, right. So like the composer was making music to underscore the voices, to feel like it was really a good thing the voices, to feel like it was really a story being told, like the voices were dancing, was the idea. And so after I did that, I started having this. Like you know, I wonder if there is a piece inside of this project and I wonder if I just make the piece in response to the conversations we had in the podcast. So I started the process of, you know, making this piece and we did kind of a works in progress showing in Akron in December of 2021. And I was like OK, like I kind of like that was cool and I kind of like let it go. I didn't know what I was going to do with it. And then George, sorry. And then in Akron we had a young man who was killed in June of 2022. And it was like 10 minutes from my house and when that happened I was like yo, this really big national conversation suddenly got really narrow and really hyper focused locally. So I started the process of working on the piece again and suddenly the piece was less about this big conversation about, like, police brutality and all those things, and became more about what does the community do when violence happens in it and how does the community heal from that. So at the same time, I was like I got to do a season two of this podcast. So I did a season two and I kept making the podcast, kept having these conversations, and what happened is the podcast and the piece started to have this like parallel life together, where we had people listening to this podcast from all over the country and it was unbeknownst to me, setting them up to want to buy tickets to come to the piece, right, and for me I was just being in ours. I was like I need to have conversations. I want people to know what's going on. I'm trying to answer this very personal question how do I talk to my son about police? And now I want to make this piece for my city about, like, how are we going to heal from this? And then I got on that podcast. It was like, hey, we got this show. That's kind of an extension of this podcast with Love you Guys came out and these people came out on droves. Man To sell dance in Northeast Ohio and sell out 93% of your tickets is wild. Like that don't happen. You know what I mean. And no, we didn't have like a massive audience. Right, it was specifically an intimate space of like 125, but like it just doesn't happen. Still, it's really, really. It showed that people cared about the work, but it also, to me, showed like, oh, what I realized is I created a lead magnet into the piece and didn't necessarily like think like, oh, I'm gonna create this podcast, so it does this and this and this, right. But I realized like I brought people on this journey and because of that, people were willing to come to this piece and be all in on this work. So we premiered the piece in July of 2023. And then what I didn't know is that there were presenters coming from other country to see the piece from other places, and so what ended up happening is we ended up going on a national tour with the work. Like our first national tour was awesome, and it all started, you know, in 2020, like asking this really like simple question about, like how do I talk to myself about police, and we got to this point. So, when it came to the tour, the funding part was interesting, because this is the first time my work's been like out there, out there, right. And what was great is like when you have people presenting you, they give you a check, right, like you don't have to like fund the tour yourself, which is awesome, but what they don't tell you is that check's not coming until you get done performing. So you got to figure out how to get people out there right. And the first place, like you got to pay for the plane tickets right, they'll usually cover the hotel, but, like, as you guys don't play, tickets aren't cheap nowadays. So what was nice is that we made enough money from premiering the piece in July that that's the money we could use to fund us getting out there, and then the check started rolling in, and then it's easy to take us from place to place to place. What was great is I didn't have to self-produce a tour, which can be very, very difficult, especially with dance. Performing art centers have a hard time presenting dance and getting people to come out. If you're also traveling and trying to self-produce a thing, there's a different level of work you have to do before y'all out on the road to make sure people show up and spend that money on those tickets. But we're in a situation where we kind of have the safety and that of like we're getting paid no matter who shows up, right, so that's how we funded it. We got people out there because of the ticket sales of the piece and then, once the check started rolling, the tour funds itself.Nick Petrella:
Really, yeah so have you ever worked with grants?Dominic Moore-Dunson:
So this is what's interesting. So I don't have a nonprofit, I have an LLC, and in the dance world that's really unusual, right. The thing is like you want to be a choreographer, go get a nonprofit, and so I'm like those two things don't really seem like they go together. But that's fine, that's what we end up doing. So what I realized when I was in the dance company and this is my big fat opinion but that what happens when you end up running a nonprofit as a choreographer, you spend more time running that nonprofit and managing your board and your staff and your dancers. Then you do actually doing your craft. So then you just end up, over like you know, a 10 year, 15 year period, getting really bitter and angry because you wanted to be a choreographer and that didn't happen, really right. So I was like I'm not going to do that, but what I can do is start building relationships in the nonprofit sector. So I had a lot of time in the nonprofit sector before I actually started making my own work here in Akron. So I was on boards, I was on committees, I was getting to know people, right, like so by the time I started my own work, like all the major CEOs and executive directors of these nonprofits. I could call on my phone, I could text them right. So then when I would have ideas I'd be like you know what? I can't get a lot of grant money because I don't have a nonprofit. But what I can do is pitch an idea to an organization and then they write the grant for me and I can work with them and all those things, and then they get the grant money and then they just write me to check and I can still do the work right. So some of that happened with Incop Negro. There's an organization here in town where they were really helping me fundraise in a lot of ways because they were getting the grants from Ohio Arts Council and these other places and just funneling it to me in a check that I could do anything I wanted with. So I realized early that as an LLC my clients are nonprofit organizations and I make projects that align with their missions and what they're interested in and what I'm interested in making. And because I'm a community engagement-based artist, it also aligns with what they're trying to do in terms of like getting connected to a community and I can be kind of that middleman that connects them to their community a little bit better and then I'll get a check to make my work right. And then they get to say, like we had this you know community engagement project that ended with this dance piece and they'll help you know fund getting me into the theater and paying all the money. So I realized like, oh, early on, this is my client. And then after a while, we had an organization in town that started becoming a fiscal sponsor. So I do have a fiscal sponsor now and I can get grants now and I'm just now starting that process. But even when it comes to that process, what I find is I spend more of my time trying to get major individual donors through the fiscal sponsor. So they're just giving money I can do anything I want with, versus a specific grant where I have to do a specific thing. Yeah Right, so right now, also as like just a dance maker, the grants I'm going for are more so national grants and I think it's really important to understand and dance Like. I think the thing to do is to really do the LLC thing figure out who your client is like, make the money yourself. Don't rely heavy on grants, because funders can change their priorities at any time and you can be SOL Right, and all of a sudden there's nothing to go. But a thing to consider as an artist and a trajectory of your career is that, let's say I had a million bucks, I can completely have my own career, like fund my own stuff, which would be awesome. But there is something about, like if you get, you know, a major national grant, that grant affords you the visibility that you being able to self fund everything doesn't. So I'm not saying don't go for grants at all. I'm just saying be strategic about why you're going for a grant. What you're hoping to get at that grant Right, like the national dance project, is a grant where they give you money to make the show but they also give you extra $35,000 to subsidize national touring. So all of a sudden, all these presenters are calling you because you got money. You got money that helps them present you and now they all know you and now you're building relationships. And now, two years down the line, you have a new idea. You can call that presenter and be like hey, I know you're interested in this, I know you're all about this. I have this project idea, I think, really aligned with you. Would you be open to working together. And now you're doing the same thing you were doing here at home, but now you're doing with somebody in California, right? So it's just about like you can use all the stuff, but you just have to be really intentional as to why and not just doing it because they said, oh, this is what we're supposed to do.Nick Petrella:
And it's that theme of attention to detail again.Andy Heise:
Yeah, got you. Yeah, how do you manage some of the? So you're making all these new relationships. Do you keep a spreadsheet or like, how do you keep track of that stuff? Yeah, I got spreadsheet.Dominic Moore-Dunson:
Yeah, I'm like this is their name, this is the organization, this is, you know, especially your CRM. Right, like it's you know what conversation were you having? And what I usually like to do is I put the projects down first and I go okay, who are all the project partners? Where are we in conversation? Where are they interested? What could we get out of it? And I, very early on, make people aware that, like it's not just you, I'm trying to create a whole, you know, table of people, and that usually makes people more excited, right, Like people get scared when you're like, hey, let's work together, I want to do this project with you, and they're the only person, cause they're like I'm not going to fundraise all this by myself. But when you say like, hey, I've got a project right now that I'm going to do, that's you know, about black people and environment and talking to Dan's Cleveland about it, I'm talking to the national park about it, right, talking to some organizations in Cleveland about it. And, like, everybody gets excited when it feels like a bunch of people are coming together to just do something, because then it's bigger than all of us. Right, but again, that's the thing you have to think strategically about and understand how people work and how people function and what's going to get them to say yes. Thanks for listening.Announcer:
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