Cambridge Dance in ‘Crisis Mode’

Photo by Karen Orrego.

This fall, Green Street Studios—a flourishing dance space that served as a hub of creativity in Central Square—closed due to a change in building ownership that caused a massive spike in rent. 

The closure reflects a growing trend of prohibitive costs affecting the city’s arts spaces. Cambridge rents have doubled since the early 2000s; Green Street Studios opened in the early 1990s.

Formerly located at 185 Green St. in Central Square, the studio was a home base for some of Cambridge’s most prolific dance teachers and students for 28 years. Now that the ownership of 185 Green St. has changed hands, the studio space sits vacant and will not be redeveloped as a dance studio. 

A paradox of the studio’s closure, highlighted in the studio’s online press release, is that the studio was “thriving both financially and artistically.” 

Leah Thiffault, managing director of Green Street Studios, says the studio was founded by a collective of artists who were looking for a quiet, accessible place to practice. Wide open studios with natural light made the building ideal, until the rent became too high to keep up with.

Green Street isn’t the only studio that’s struggling to keep up with the tough climate, either. 

“Central Square is the hub of dance in Boston,” says Callie Chapman, artistic director of Studio at 550, another Cambridge-based dance space.

Organizations like the Massachusetts Cultural Council choose to provide long-term financial support to a space when they have a concept of its longevity, Chapman explains. Her studio is on a month-to-month lease.

“Organizations that have space need to be permanent in order for them to [receive] support. If you are semi-permanent … they can’t support you because they can’t justify it long-term. It’s red tape, but it’s wrapped around a lot of us in the arts community. … City and state agencies may end up with not enough visible ‘need’ (which is required for continuation of their budgeting) because of this. The organizations most in need are not qualified for funding due to their impermanence. But they’re the ones who need it the most,” she says.

Photo by Victoria Awkward.

In a statement online about the Green Street Studios close, Debra Cash, executive director of Boston Dance Alliance, emphasizes that dancers need space to do their work. She says that Greater Boston’s dance community needs to remain flexible in the face of current threats to existing spaces.

“Dance artists have to have space. You have to have flooring,  mirrors, space for making work and rehearsing, and space for performance. Green Street was both. But it may be that space for rehearsing and space for performance need to be different in the next iteration. It’s great when they’re both, but not every place can do that,” Cash says. 

In a comment on the Boston Dancers and Choreographers Facebook page, Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern explained that the city’s lack of commercial rent control keeps municipal government from setting upper limits.

“This is the first I’ve heard that the studio was in this situation,” McGovern wrote. “I wish I knew sooner. I’m not sure that I could have helped, but I would have tried.” 

Still, Green Street’s statement says the city is “neither actively preserving nor offering support” for dance. Cash says that city planners need to take holistic steps to address this need by committing actively to creating, brokering, and helping to protect work and performance spaces. 

When Green Street closed, the nearby Dance Complex had an influx of new tenants. 

“Immediately, within 15 minutes, we had 20 phone calls, literally, and I don’t know how many emails, from artists seeking space,” Peter DiMuro, executive director of the Dance Complex, says. 

Historically, Cambridge is a “maker community,” DiMuro explains.

“This has been traditionally true since at least the 1960s and ‘70s in Central Square, that people have been coming to dance here,” he says. “Cambridge [should] realize that [dance is] … a thriving business, but has never been supported in the way that we should … in the same way that visual arts are supported in Cambridge.” 

Thiffault says the closure has “left a void, and in some instances, a creativity drain.” Cambridge-based dancers now travel throughout the Boston area to practice. Even with the help of The Dance Complex and other studios that have stepped in, finding studio space remains a challenge.

Ruth Birnberg—a founding member of Green Street Studios, first executive director of Boston Dance Alliance (BDA), and current director of Next Steps for Boston Dance—responded to community outrage over the closure on the Boston Dancers and Choreographers Facebook page. The post explains that Green Street Studios itself was founded when all five founding members had lost access to the spaces where they worked—that the phenomenon is common in Cambridge and should encourage greater unity within the dance community.

Photo by Golden Lion Photography.

“Were we devastated? Of course. Did we get together and rail at the various powers that controlled our access … to space? Yes. But then after a short period of devastation we decided that the only response was to find new space where we had control and could create a place where our energy could go to making and teaching dance and offer a place for others to do the same,” Birnberg writes.

Thiffault says Green Street Studios’ steady growth—on an upward trend since 2016—was ultimately not strong enough to contend with the cost of operating a studio in Central Square.

“Thankfully, a group of people, including the building owner, are working hard to find a future for the organization in the short and long term, and are optimistic about the outcome,” she says.

Boston’s dance community has banded together to form short- and long-term solutions. Cash is a member of BDA, which creates opportunities for dance by seeking out and sharing information and resources across the dance community. Cash says BDA knows of at least two organizations that are considering making their office spaces available to artists during evenings and weekends, when they would otherwise be closed. 

“We are also interested in the idea that some underused spaces may be available for limited amounts of time as pop-ups,” Cash adds.

Embracing a broader approach to art space in Cambridge, Chapman supports maintaining spaces that various types of artists can utilize, while upholding standards of each discipline accordingly. This loss, she suggests, should bring together the maker community at large. When she happened upon her own studio, which was previously owned by Boston Dance Company, she jumped at the opportunity to make it a multidisciplinary art space. 

“I saw the lack of opportunity for crossing of discipline borders in a physical space,” she says. “A good chunk of disciplines can co-inhabit the same space without stepping on each other’s toes as long as appropriate accommodations are made for each one.”

Jim Grace is the executive director of Boston’s Arts and Business Council, which has purchased a building in Worcester that it plans to convert into multi-use arts space, with the intent to start a program—The Creative Campus—that he hopes can help with the dance space issues in Greater Boston. He is working to add dance and rehearsal space in Worcester as part of that response.

Grace remains wary of the challenges of specializing spaces for dance.

“The more [a space] can be designed to house a particular group, the better. I’m a big fan of single-use if it’s designed well, and I’m a fan of multi-use based on a community need.

Sometimes if it’s multi-use it doesn’t do anything super well, and that is the challenge,” he says.

He hopes the Worcester purchase will help provide a valuable opportunity for co-development of arts spaces within communities. 

“We’re in such crisis mode that any additional space that’s safe and affordable is valuable,” he says.

This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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