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Footloose and Column Free: The Dancers’ Building

Everyone who lives or works on the Broadway corridor knows where the Nike SoHo store is located. How could you miss it? But what about the Dancers’ Building? Where is that? Tucked away inside of 537-541 Broadway, the Dancers’ Building has been the home (and many continues today) to be the home of a number of established and well regarded modern dance studios

The Dancers’ Building, which is actually two buildings that share a common facade, was purchased and cooped in 1974 by George Maciunas, who is often called the “father of SoHo” for the many artists cooperatives he started. 537 and 541 Broadway are unusual in their broad width and the absence of any interior columns within the buildings which gave dancers open, unobstructed dance studio space, as well as the ability to live and work in the same space.

Cassations rehearsal at Douglas Dunn Studio, 541 Broadway, 3rd Floor. Decor by Mimi Gross. 2012

The number of dancers associated with the Dancers’ Building is long, a veritable who’s who from the modern dance community. One of 537-541 Broadway’s early members was critically acclaimed choreographer Trisha Brown, known for her works such as Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), where her then husband, Joseph Schilchter, walked down the side of a building on Wooster Street. Another early resident was Lucinda Childs, who, among many other things, was lead performer and choreographer for Philip Glass’ groundbreaking opera 1976 Einstein on the Beach. Several of the building residents were part of Grand Union, a collaborative improvisational dance group, including current building resident and choreographer Douglas Dunn, whose upcoming April Festival – Early & Late, will be performed in the building. A relative newcomer to the building is Cathy Weis, who moved into the building in 2005, and holds a series of free dance performances in her studio called Sundays on Broadway.

The Shoe Outlet at 537 Broadway ca. 1970s

In past lives, 537-541  Broadway was  the location of the Chinese Museum and  P.T Barnum’s second American Museum (read our recent post on the museum here), which burned down in 1868. In the early 20th century, the building housed many factories including M.M. Bernstein & Co., manufacturers of corset covers, Sol Edman & Sons who made shirts, and rubber stamp producer S. Buck Manufacturing Company. In the early 1980’s, when most of the factories had moved out and the dancers had moved in, there was a bargain shoe store on the ground floor.

Photo: Cathy Weis’ “The Building Show” focuses on “her star performer”—the 537 Broadway building itself. © 2016 Richard Termine

The Dancers’ Building continues to be a major force in the New York City modern dance scene today. In addition to the studios of Douglas Dunn and Cathy Weis, Eden’s Expressway, a dance studio founded by visual artist Frances Alenikoff, is still going strong, and David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, also associated with Grand Union, still call it their home.

Yukie Ohta is founder of The SoHo Memory Project 

Read more from the Look Back at SoHo Broadway Series by Yukie Ohta 

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