Preserving Capitol Hill's arts scene: Velocity Dance Center's sleek new home

The group struggled to stay on Capitol Hill after rent increases at Oddfellows Hall forced it to move. But it opens this weekend in the former Capitol Hill Arts Center on 12th Avenue, not far from the home of the Northwest Film Forum.
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Dancers Kristin Hapke, Emma Klein and Fumi Murakami in the Kawasaki Studio at Velocity Dance Center's new Capitol Hill home.

The group struggled to stay on Capitol Hill after rent increases at Oddfellows Hall forced it to move. But it opens this weekend in the former Capitol Hill Arts Center on 12th Avenue, not far from the home of the Northwest Film Forum.

On a tour through Velocity Dance Center'ꀙs elegant new home on the main floor of the former Capitol Hill Arts Center (CHAC), Velocity executive director Kara O'ꀙToole feels a certain amount of redemption. Walking through the trio of sleek, new dance studios that are scheduled to open with fanfare Saturday evening (there'll be a parade and ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor McGinn, and a huge, circus-themed party), O'Toole is extremely pleased that Velocity secured a handsome, affordable space within spitting distance of its founding site at the historic Oddfellows Hall.

Yet she's also still smarting from the last two years spent trying to hang on at Oddfellows Hall after a 300% rent increase that followed the building'ꀙs 2007 sale to a developer. In order to afford to write an 'ꀜungodly'ꀝ monthly rent check, O'ꀙToole relinquished two of Velocity'ꀙs studio spaces and presented a skeleton program of classes and other events. 'ꀜWe limped along as long as we could,'ꀝ she says. 'ꀜWe were the last nonprofit organization left in the building.'ꀝ

Crisis for Capitol Hill artists

Velocity had hoped to move by January 2009, but it wasn'ꀙt easy to find space on Capitol Hill, where they wanted it. During Velocity's hunt, the City Council responded to the loss of Oddfellows Hall and CHAC by convening a Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee (CODAC) in July 2008 to help protect affordable arts venues on Capitol Hill. Still, time was ticking, and O'ꀙToole and her board knew that it might ultimately be necessary for them to forge into a new part of Seattle to set up a home.

Crazy as it was, they kept holding out for Capitol Hill. 'ꀜWe are a tiny organization,'ꀝ O'ꀙToole says. 'ꀜBut we have a lot of people who we serve and a lot of people who give back in different ways. We'ꀙve never done anything to this scale; we'ꀙve never had our backs against the wall that way. And we really rallied people'ꀦ. It was an incredibly active time."

By 2009, the tiny organization had raised $420,000 and negotiated a 15-year lease at 1621 12th Ave., from landlord Elizabeth Linke (who also owns the nearby Northwest Film Forum building).

'ꀜAnd that'ꀙs why to me, this feels like such a victory,'ꀝ O'ꀙToole says. 'ꀜBecause we weren'ꀙt displaced, we didn'ꀙt get sent to Georgetown — which we couldn'ꀙt even afford — or Dexter Avenue or some other place where we would have had to reinvent a whole new destination that we would then get pushed out of."

Indeed, Velocity's new home is so close to Oddfellows that the venerable old Hall is clearly visible through oversized windows in two studios at the new space.

Velocity's new studios

Originally an auto showroom from the 1930s, Velocity'ꀙs new 6,000-square-foot home already had open-span rooms with skylights and handsome brick walls. 'ꀜPerfect to turn cars around in,'ꀝ O'ꀙToole says, 'ꀜand perfect to dance in.'ꀝ

The first room and the largest space, the Founders Studio (40 by 60 feet) features recycled red maple flooring and uses curtains on pulleys to create three different performance looks (black box, white box, or brick wall). O'ꀙToole plans to use it for performances and other special events, as well as regular ballet classes.

Tucked behind the Founders Studio, along the west side of the building, is the newly constructed Steward Studio, a 40- x 20-foot room with oversized windows looking out over Cal Anderson Park and the neighborhood. This space will be a true godsend in town: an affordable, dedicated rehearsal space, open from approximately 9 am to 9 pm daily.

Set off to the south, along the same windowed western wall, is the cozy Kawasaki Studio (30 x 30 feet). Just a warren of tiny rooms during CHAC'ꀙs days, this brand new space is a bright, cozy room that achieves the perfect balance of shelter and prospect.

'ꀜFor folks that were in the building when it was CHAC, this is the most confusing part,'ꀝ O'ꀙToole says. 'ꀜThey can'ꀙt figure out where the Kawasaki studio came from.'ꀝ

It is here, in this room, that people tend to gather during tours. During my visit, Velocity board president Ahsan Kabir, choreographer/PR maestro Dayna Hanson, and O'ꀙToole gather here on the eve of the studio'ꀙs unveiling.

Remarkably, there are no last minute jobs and not a worker on site. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs done,'ꀝ O'ꀙToole says. "The last things are getting signed off on'ꀦ.it'ꀙs kind of amazing.'ꀝ She'ꀙs just waiting for the very last class at Oddfellows Hall on Friday before she peels up the Marley dance floor and brings it to the new home.

After standing for a while, Board president Kabir hoists himself to sit on one of the pony walls that creates an entryway for the studio. 'ꀜI think I'ꀙm the first person to sit on this,'ꀝ he says happily, swinging his feet. "And the last,'ꀝ Kara O'ꀙToole whispers reflexively. She'ꀙs sort of joking, but not really.

Kara O'Toole's rocky ride

Anyone in the dance community knows that UW-trained Kara O'ꀙToole has formidable brains and mettle. A dancer, teacher and administrator, O'ꀙToole was the instigator behind the D-9 Dance Collective, DanceNet newspaper, and most recently the dance social service organization called Kick.

When she replaced Velocity founders Michele Miller and KT Neihoff in June 2006, O'ꀙToole thought her hardest challenge would be helping the group make the transition from founding leaders to an established institution. 'ꀜI had about a year of what I now see as bliss, where the most important thing was transitioning leadership and solidifying our programs and solidifying our staff,'ꀝ she says.

But Kabir says the transition itself was no small feat. 'ꀜNot all organizations survive the loss of their founders'ꀦ.It wasn'ꀙt easy. And it'ꀙs still not entirely over.'ꀝ

It is not hard to imagine that Miller and Neihoff might still be releasing their grasp after all the incredible passion and sweat equity they expended on Velocity from 1996 to 2006. The first days, featuring hours of linoleum peeling — shifts and shifts of volunteers came to help — is legendary. Miller built the first set of barres by hand. During their 10-year run they grew their offerings threefold, expanding from one studio to three. They also developed the Strictly Seattle Summer Program series, which brings national choreographers to teach, and were honored in 2003 with a Stranger Genius award, given by the alternative newspaper.

'ꀜVelocity was a very grassroots organization, but sometimes organizations mature... I think moving to this space will actually help with the transition,'ꀝ Kabir says.

"We went through some growing pains in a way," O'ꀙToole says. 'ꀜWe had to go talk to bankers. But the goal is that we continue to just serve more people as we evolve, not to lose connection with that founding body."

For the first week, beginning Sunday (March 28), all studio classes are free. 'ꀜWe wanted to welcome people,'ꀝ O'ꀙToole says, 'ꀜto thank people for being patient, for hanging in there with us, and also invite new people into the space. We want to just enliven the space as quickly as possible.'ꀝ

"We all feel that this is a very, very hopeful sign in a period that isn't that hopeful, generally, and then specifically in this neighborhood," says choreographer Hanson. "I have a personal hope that the Velocity success story will help CODAC move that agenda forward. It's significant that this landowner is now helping to support two major arts organizations on Capitol Hill — not out of a totally charitable point of view, but with an understanding of economic as well as other kinds of values and benefits that artists bring to a neighborhood."

Velocity's opening events

Saturday March 27, 5-7 pm: Gathering at Oddfellows Hall; parade up Pine Street with Mayor Mike McGinn, dancers, neighbors and others; ribbon-cutting ceremony at new center; performance by KT Niehoff and remarks by Michael Killoren, Pat Graney and Michael Seiwerath; Three Ring Circus Party with Airpocalypse, Merce Cunningham Duo, MadRad DJs and dance acts. All events are free and all-ages. See detailed schedule here.

Sunday, March 28 through Saturday, April 3: Free classes, open to students 16 and older, and free studio space for artists, on a first-come, first-served basis (10 hours maximum per artist).

Saturday, April 3 and Sunday, April 4: Benefit master class, $20 per class, open to students 16 and older.


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