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The Beat Picks Up At Cambridge Studios

Grass-roots efforts to preserve the city's many rehearsal spaces have created a thriving `capital of dance' in New England

FOR more than eight hours a day, seven days a week, music pulsates from six studios, and the sounds of feet shuffling, tapping, and jumping reverberate through-out this somewhat shabby but architecturally interesting century-old building, now home to the Dance Complex.

The feet belong to adult dancers of ballet, tap, folk, and modern and ethnic dance forms, as well as to children moving to hip-hop rhythms. Collectively, they are helping to revitalize dance in Cambridge, Mass., a culturally rich city that some say has become the modern-dance capital of New England.

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Three years ago the picture wasn't so rosy. When several studios closed, the dance community was shut out of a large portion of rehearsal, teaching, and performing space.

Their comeback story is an example of the kind of grass-roots effort many dance communities will have to undertake to survive at a time when funding for the arts is minimal, space is scarce, and rents are high, says Laura Shapiro, senior writer and dance critic for Newsweek magazine.

In the tall, windowless box of a room painted half forest green and half lime green that serves as her office here, Rozann Kraus, the main force behind part of the Cambridge revival, ignores several chairs and sits cross-legged on the carpet for an interview.

Two and a half years ago, Ms. Kraus's main occupation was as one of New England's leading dancers and choreographers. But her vocation changed overnight when she showed up for a rehearsal with her company and found the doors to this building locked.

The five-story former Odd Fellows building had been home to the Joy of Movement Center, a fitness and dance club.

Since the mid 1970s many local dancers used the space to practice, teach, and perform. In March 1991 the owner filed for bankruptcy and shut the doors.

Alarmed at the sudden loss of another dance space, Kraus got on the phone and called everyone she could think of in an effort to mobilize the dance community.

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She and other dancers persuaded the bank that held the mortgage on the building to allow them to occupy the space rent-free for four months during the bankruptcy proceedings, and they reopened the building in September 1991. Countless phone calls were made and meetings held with the lending institution, the mayor, the attorney general, businesses, and others. The agreement involved navigating through a murky maze of legal and political issues that might inhibit even someone well-versed in such matters.

``My lack of experience in many fields is an asset,'' Kraus says with a laugh. ``Not knowing the incredible levels of hoops to go through ... I wasn't bogged down in'' what had to be done, she says.

But the hard work had just begun. Dancers pitched in with the details: disposing of mountains of trash and making sure light fixtures had bulbs, for example. In order to pay operating expenses of about $10,000 a month, they held fund drives and rented teaching and rehearsal space. The bank leased the building to the dancers for another two years.

Last September they started a new chapter when the city of Cambridge provided a $75,000 down payment to buy the building.

The proud owners still face significant hurdles, such as raising approximately $500,000 for repairs and making the building accessible for the disabled.

Kraus, who prefers to call herself ``pooh-bah,'' rather than director, of the Dance Complex, is an eloquent, energetic individual who typically starts her day at 4:45 a.m.

She touts Cambridge as the modern-dance capital of New England for several reasons: It is home to two rehearsal spaces, Dance Complex and Green Street Studios; the Boston Dance Alliance, a network representing the dance community; and Dance Umbrella, New England's leading presenter of contemporary choreography. Each May the renowned Mark Morris Dance Group sets up its annual residency here.

At the Dance Complex, where more than 40 dancers teach and 10 companies rehearse, Kraus is adamant about one thing: ``We don't want to become an organization whose major focus is sustaining itself,'' she says. ``We're not a business. We're a group of people trying to help a community survive.''

The recession dealt several blows to the dance community here even before the Joy of Movement went bankrupt. Just before that event, three studios closed, forcing many dancers to leave the area. ``There was no sense that there was a future,'' Kraus says. ``That's changing. We're creating venues for aspiring dancers and choreographers to get experience.''

``It's vital that both of our organizations survive,'' says Cheri Opperman, a dance teacher and performer who along with four other Boston teachers, helped launch Green Street Studios, a performing and teaching space, during the same time Dance Complex was sorting through legal matters. Ms. Opperman, who has been a part of the Boston dance community for more than a decade, isn't so sure the climate for dance here or elsewhere is changing.

``People are always getting excited, and people are always getting burned out.... It seems like a lot of people are tired'' right now, she says. Ten years ago that wasn't the case. ``In the late '70s, early '80s, I did a million children's shows and worked with kids in the schools. So many of those things have been cut ... and dance departments in colleges have shrunk. I'm wondering if there are people out there who care, who want to be dancing for any reason.''

Bonnie Brooks, executive director of Dance USA, a national service organization for nonprofit professional dance, says: ``It's a time when a lot of people are leaving, a time when a lot of new people are coming in, and it's just not going to settle quickly.

``What they're doing in Cambridge is smart and appropriate because they're focusing on the community - both the resident artists and the resident audience. I think in building those ongoing relationships lies the future for the art form, for the artists of the future, for the people who are going to come and benefit from watching the work.''

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