Dance: Leap Day

Seattle’s hub of contemporary dance gets a new home.

When Michelle Miller and KT Niehoff founded Velocity in 1996, they set out to make it the hub of contemporary dance in Seattle, and over the past 14 years that’s essentially what it’s become. Very little happens dance-wise in this town that doesn’t have some connection to Velocity’s classes, workshops, performances, and touring programs.

So when current Velocity director Kara O’Toole got the news a couple of years ago that rents were going to triple at Oddfellows Hall, their Pine Street headquarters, after the building was sold to a developer, they were faced with a choice—raise fees or move to cheaper digs. Higher rates for classes and studio rental would have priced out artists, but finding lower-priced space seemed to require leaving gentrifying Capitol Hill. Not to mention that dancers have some pretty specific needs: a large room with high ceilings, no columns obstructing the space, and a fairly bouncy floor just for starters. It’s nice if there’s some natural light and a place to store the risers that turn the studio into a theater most weekends during the season.

After looking at what O’Toole says was “every empty building in Seattle,” from Georgetown to Interbay, Velocity lucked out and found a new place right around the corner from its old home: The former Capitol Hill Arts Center was vacant. The one problem—it needed about $750,000 in renovation work.

But Velocity has raised over half that money—enough to complete the work and open the space. That Velocity was able to pull this off at a time when Pacific Northwest Ballet just announced they are cutting 10 percent of their performances next season feels like a little miracle. To make this happen, Velocity won support from a variety of parties, starting with a substantial grant from 4Culture. They also nearly tripled their donations from individuals, and snagged some new donors as well, including the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which specializes in capital projects.

“The economic downturn actually worked to our benefit,” O’Toole says. “We had a burning necessity to do a capital campaign—we had no other choice. A lot of other organizations were delaying or stretching out their campaigns. So there were fewer ‘asks’ out there.” The soft economy also helped them negotiate a month-to-month lease with their soon-to-be-former Oddfellows landlord, which let them maintain a skeletal program while they were negotiating the move—no one else was jumping up to take over Velocity’s old studio space at the new rents.

After all the disruption, Velocity will have approximately the same setup as before, with a large studio that converts to a theater, two other, smaller class and rehearsal spaces, an office, and some miscellaneous cubbyholes. The floor in the studio theater is the original wood, all buffed and shining; the two smaller spaces have large, west-facing windows; and their office is in the storefront window facing 12th Avenue. They’ve already had inquiries from choreographers about renting the theater, and will be gradually bringing back some of their programs that have been on hiatus, such as their extremely popular summer workshop Strictly Seattle, which draws students from around the country.

Velocity is celebrating with a parade this Saturday from their old Oddfellows home to their new digs, followed by a free party and then a week of free classes, plus general merriment. After all, it’s only taken two years to move that two blocks.