Locals dance with 'stars' at fundraiser

Fine arts programs have lost money under recent state budget cuts.
Connie Pugh strikes a pose as professional dancer Jason Shearin plays dead on the dance floor during Dancing with the Missouri Stars on Wednesday at the Hearnes Center. The event paired prominent members of the community with professional dancers to raise money for the Missouri Contemporary Ballet.

A local ballet company hosted a fundraiser Wednesday at the Hearnes Center, emphasizing the importance of financial aid to arts companies after state budget tax cuts affected the Missouri Arts Council.

The Missouri Contemporary Ballet event, "Dancing with the Missouri Stars," featured professional ballroom dancers paired with lawyers, beauticians, teachers, among others, who volunteered as amateur dancers. MCB received proceeds from donations and purchases of tables by guests and local businesses, such as Commerce Bank, at the event.

MCB Artistic Executive Director Karen Grundy said the company has not experienced budget cuts yet, but she has noticed some uncertainty about donating money from businesses.

"We see some hesitation," she said in an e-mail. "Thankfully businesses and individuals that have been with us from the beginning are still strongly supporting us."

MCB dancer Noelle Lelakus, who has been with the company for two years, said businesses' donations determine the company's budget and partially contribute to the dancers' livelihoods.

"In the economy, the better people are doing to come to this event, it really helps us out and improves our quality of living too," Lelakus said.

Lelakus, who works part-time as a teacher at the Dance Studio of Columbia, said dancers work multiple jobs, despite the low cost of living in Columbia and their full-time positions in the company, to compensate for their low salaries.

"I know that other people have employment at restaurants or bars or in retail," she said. "We all kind of keep ourselves busy in different levels of support based on what we make."

Grundy said MCB has not made any cuts in salaries, but she is anticipating cuts in other aspects of the company. "Maybe we will make cuts in other areas, such as, costumes, sets and possibly performance space," she said in the e-mail.

Lelakus said MCB has started to collaborate on live performances with musicians and visual artists, but the company's budget determines the overall quality of the show.

"You can evolve more as a dance company with better funding," she said. "You can see more of your vision come to fruition because you have the means to do so."

Bill Rotts, one of the amateur dancers and an attorney for Rotts and Gibbs law firm, said the arts programs are the first to be affected by cuts because they can be thought of as a luxury when compared to other issues, such as health insurance and employment.

"When money gets lean, the first things to go are the luxuries," he said. "The arts are perceived to be luxuries, not necessities."

Professional ballroom dancer Cynthia Anderson said the arts offers emotional benefits to people during the troubled state of the economy.

"When we struggle within our economy, it's the arts that can bring people out of their struggles and depression, if not for a short time, and take them away and really inspire them to be humanists," she said.

When Gov. Jay Nixon announced more than $200 million in state budget cuts in November, the MAC, which is responsible for distributing state funds to local art companies and public television and radio stations in Missouri, lost $4.4 million in grant funds.

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