Critics and audiences in the Twin Cities for years have lauded the performances of TU Dance, a nonprofit performance company with an emphasis on graceful choreography, exceptional production standards, and a dedication to diversity in its dancers and choreographers that both leads in the region and serves as an inspiration—in particular for young dancers of color. Beginning in 2011, the company opened TU Dance Center in St. Paul, which is now home for its daily classes, rehearsals and administrative offices, and is open for rentals.
TU Dance had enjoyed a period of substantial growth, seeing its support grow more than triple-fold this decade. Propel Nonprofits’ history with the company goes back to 2006, with a working capital loan. Bridge loans and lines of credit were made in subsequent years. During this time, TU Dance’s brand has expanded and audiences have increased, along with budgets. Previous to this well-earned period of expansion, the company tended to operate with a break-even budget culture without accumulating cash reserves. It wasn’t until the end of 2012 that TU Dance saw a surplus and overall net positive assets.
“This company started as projects: Let’s just get together,” says TU Dance managing director Abdo Sayegh-Rodriguez. “These people here aren’t going to get paid, your piece will be to cover your expenses and not to make any money.”
While the company’s performances were universally well regarded and led by dancers Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands, who both also serve as artistic directors, they were scattered throughout the year. At times the rhythm of sales from shows throughout the year impacted TU Dance’s ability to consistently budget.
“When I took the position, there was a debt of $48K due to revenue that was never realized because a project fell through,” says Sayegh-Rodriguez, who began as an interim managing director in late 2012. “At that time we had to get two loans for payroll and to continue functioning.”
A Path to Eliminating Debt
At this stage, Propel Nonprofits became involved with a loan for TU Dance to begin eliminating its debt. While on the edge of significant growth, the company’s financial culture hadn’t evolved to place it on more solid footing.
“During our first meeting with Propel Nonprofits, our question was, how are we going to pay this loan?” says Sayegh-Rodriguez. “The issue was that we had to make a payment that first month, and we didn’t have it. We scheduled this meeting and we were told, ‘This should not create a problem. I’m here to help you.’ I left with a lot of homework— cash-flow projections and numbers.
“Most companies started very small, with a lot of favors,” Sayegh-Rodriguez says. “We need copies, and the husband of one of the dancers can get them made for free. But the issue is when the projects become overwhelming—there can be someone who has this beautiful idea, but then that idea becomes an issue with the budget. We have $5K budgeted for the set, for example, but then you get an estimate that it’s going to cost $10K.”
Sayegh-Rodriguez, himself a professional dancer for 25 years, emphasizes that what he’s talking about isn’t giving less priority to the art—while he talks approvingly about bringing coffee from home for a VIP donor event rather than spending money on a caterer and going to Costco for a bargain price on floors for TU Dance’s offices, he also says that TU Dance needs to increase payment for dancers in order to bring in more talent from outside the Twin Cities.
Changing the Landscape in Minnesota
TU Dance’s budget in recent years has almost doubled. A capital campaign last year raised funds for expanded offices and a second studio. Walking into TU Dance Center on a weekday afternoon, the place is bustling with a multicultural crowd of young people—many who are on scholarships. TU Dance’s mission of bringing dance to diverse audiences and young people is dovetailing with its educational effort in concrete ways.
“What is very central to us is putting on stage highly qualified dancers that represent our community,” Sayegh-Rodriguez says. “We are changing the landscape of dance in Minnesota. Our students are getting into universities with national reputations: N.Y.U., Fordham, Arizona State.”
Over the course of the last few years, TU Dance has run surpluses and been able to successfully budget a cash reserve. The company is currently considering expanding the space it rents, and weighing cost-revenue tradeoffs. Sayegh-Rodriguez describes a financial culture that has become razor-focused on smart spending—in particular, getting away from the culture of a smaller nonprofit in which all cash available is budgeted out and spent.
“A lot of companies get in trouble because of debts escalating, layoffs, furloughs,” Sayegh-Rodriguez says. “Here we are very clear. We all understand every part of an artistic dance organization. Today, the minute somebody gets a little off track, we have a meeting. We say: Come back to central reality.”
For more information about TU Dance, click here.
PHOTO CREDIT: MICHAEL SLOBODIAN