this photo shows Dani Biggs performing a West African dance number

Dani Biggs: Tapping into the Arts to Tell People’s Stories at NYC’s Public Theater

By Meagan Harkins

Seated in a pew at her childhood Baptist church in Central, N.J., Danielle Biggs gazed in wonder at the procession of the dance ministry, admiring the performers dressed in the flowing white skirts iconic to liturgical dance. “I was just mesmerized and entranced in that moment,” recalled Biggs, who was two years old at the time. She went home and spent that afternoon twirling and dancing around the house. Her parents soon signed her up for studio dance classes and for the church’s dance ministry, and Biggs has danced ever since.

Biggs, a 2015 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Elon University  and currently the membership manager at New York City’s famed Public Theater, hails from a family steeped in music and the arts. Her father, Terence, plays the guitar and jammed in a band as a young adult. Her mother, Sharon, was a singer. Her brother performed in his high school and college marching band. Even her uncle is a dancer. “Creativity allows us to bond,” Biggs said. “All of us having that connecting point is really cool and magical. Our relationship is even further strengthened because of that lived and shared experience.”

At age three, Biggs enrolled in Jo-Ann’s Dance Studio in South Plainfield, N.J. From then on, she spent her evenings there or with her church’s dance ministry. In high school, she joined her school’s dance team and began competitive dance, spending weekends at competitions with All Star Dance Academy (now Artists in Motion). “It was a lot,” she said. “I had been balancing extracurriculars and school since kindergarten.”

Looking back on her dance studio days, Biggs now recognizes that, despite her love for dance, the environment had the potential to be toxic to a young person’s body image. She sometimes heard traumatizing comments about herself as far back as the age of eight. But she has learned to celebrate the fact that each and every dancer looks different—and stands out—even in identical costumes. “I always found it weird that the tights and jazz shoes didn’t match my skin color,” Biggs said. “But you should go that extra mile to stand out and be yourself. If that means you look different in a costume, you look exactly how you’re supposed to look.”

Dani Biggs decided to pursue her passion for dancing as a major at Elon University.

A New Stage
As a high school student, Biggs saw her “big sister” in dance ministry having the time of her life attending Elon University. Biggs travelled to North Carolina to tour the campus and fell in love with Elon’s botanical garden. “I could talk to a wall about how great Elon is,” noted Biggs, who now serves on Elon’s alumni board.

As a freshman at Elon, Biggs chose to major in marketing. After focusing on her studies—but desperately missing the life of a dancer—during the fall semester, she signed up for an improvisation dance class as an elective in the spring. Just weeks into class, the professor, who became a mentor, signed Biggs up to audition for Elon’s dance program.

“I went through the normal arc of trying to pick a career that made sense, becoming a dance performance and choreography and arts administration major,” she said. “Pick a major you’re passionate about, otherwise life is like hell. I think you really viscerally feel, when you are not in the right program, that something is wrong. When something is wrong, it feels like your guard is always up or like you’re not fully able to relax or settle into yourself or into a routine. That was a pro tip—to focus on something that brings me joy.”

From a lifetime of dance, Biggs has developed the confidence to make mistakes. Once, when she found herself in the middle of the floor without remembering the next step, an instructor yelled at her to keep going. “Even if you are messing up or there’s too much on your brain, you have to keep going,” she said.

“Based on [individual] personality and dancer, we each navigated towards whatever felt most freeing to us,” Biggs said. For her, this was West African dance. “It allows me to feel a direct line of connection to my ancestors, and it’s also just so fun. It’s reverent, but it’s also cardio. It’s all about community. Every single person in a West African dance production—from the drummers to the dancers to the audience—is seen as integral to the success of the show.”

Biggs fell in love with the joyful and loving culture of Ghana.

Discovering Ghana
In January of her junior year at Elon, Biggs traveled with fourteen students on an arts-focused study-abroad trip to Ghana. Her professor partnered the trip with his local dance company, Africa Alive, creating a group of about 40 performers who toured the country by bus. They also donated laptops, toys and school supplies to local villages along the way and orchestrated pep rallies at the schools.

To this day, she remains in contact with her classmates from the trip but often finds herself wondering about the young girls she met in Ghana. “I don’t know where those girls are now, but there is still such a strong sense of love for them and that moment we created together,” she said.

“During the trip, many people came up and expressed their love for us,” she added. “The outpouring of love from people we had literally just met was overwhelming. It interests me that love is something everyone longs for, but, at least here in the states, it’s something that makes people a bit uncomfortable, especially when it comes to loving out loud.”

This further inspired Biggs to live out loud, acknowledging the shared humanity of the people she meets daily. She explored this approach to life as an intern at Elon’s Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. “As a Christian, it expanded my view of the importance of multi- and interfaith, intersecting with different religions and people who do not observe any religion and the beauty in that,” she said.

Biggs was also president of Delta Chi Xi Honorary Dance Fraternity, Inc., which she brought to her campus and built from the ground up. The organization’s goal, she said, is “to recognize the academic caliber of being a dancer or artistic student. There’s still scholarship and research that’s a part of that.”

During her time at Elon, Biggs was chosen for the Isabella Cannon Leadership Fellows program, a four-year, cohorted program designed to help students build leadership competencies through a variety of programs and experiences. She also served the community through Elon Volunteers, regularly visiting the local Boys and Girls Club, sometimes teaching dance, and participating in an urban education trip during which she taught at a preschool in California.

Biggs enjoys a laugh with coworkers at the Public Theater in New York.

Learning to Pivot
Upon graduating from Elon, Biggs received the Sullivan Award for her leadership and service to others. “It was incredible to join the company of so many great leaders,” she said. “It was magical to be recognized in this way, for my commitment and passion for community service, helping others and inspiring community, making community into a verb.”

For her senior thesis concert, she was put in charge of fundraising and administrative leadership. “I thought that experience was so fun,” she said. “I enjoyed being on that side of an audition or decision-making table instead of on the floor rehearsing for hours and hours.”

With that experience in mind, Biggs moved home to New Jersey after graduating. She worked for the director of individual giving at the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre Center. After four years there, she secured a job as membership manager with the acclaimed Public Theater in New York City. Founded by the legendary producer Joseph Papp, the Public Theater is home to “A Chorus Line,” created “Hamilton” before it hit Broadway, and has offered free productions in Central Park for more than half a century. “Our mission is to make theater of, by and for all people, and, in these days, to really make theater accessible to all people,” Biggs said.

As the Public Theater’s membership manager, Biggs oversees thousands of households of entry-level donors, ensuring they are having fun and being taken care of. “I love learning people’s stories, so it’s a really neat job,” she said.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Public Theater pivoted to digital programming. Biggs said they collaborated with two playwrights on a production written for and filmed entirely on Zoom. Entitled “The Line,” the innovative play was about medical professionals dealing with the pandemic.

One of the Public Theater’s donors, a doctor, watched the play after a hard day’s work at the hospital and told Biggs that “he had never felt more seen.” “It was gripping,” Biggs added. “We were tapping into how the arts can help tell people’s stories.”

The Public Theater has now reopened for live shows but requires proof of vaccination and masks to attend shows, offering arts lovers a deeply missed experience after more than a year of pandemic isolation. “We exist because we help provide respite for ourselves and for all kinds of people and to revive the soul of the American people as a whole,” Biggs said.

Throughout these collegiate and professional transitions, Biggs has stayed on her feet, continuing to dance. She remembers the fall semester of her freshman year—a rare period in her life without dance—and how she felt constricted and unable to express herself. “It was terrible,” she said. “I had never felt like that, and I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

Biggs has now added dance fitness as a zumba instructor to her resume. “It’s a wonderful entry point to dance,” she said. “Zumba has taught me that every body can dance or every body is a dancer.”

Biggs was a session coach at the Sullivan Foundation’s recent Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat.

Joining Conversations
During the pandemic quarantine, Biggs also learned about the Supermajority Education Fund, a leadership development training program designed for female leaders interested in learning about civic engagement. She applied to become a majority leader, looking to gain new skills in community organizing, policy implementation and leading positive change.

Biggs had always been interested in public administration and community organizing but had never felt qualified to get involved. “It has helped me see that I am the right person to serve in those roles or to learn more about that,” she said. As a member of the inaugural cohort, Biggs shared Zoom rooms with social impact leaders like Alicia Garza of the Black Lives Matter movement; LaTosha Brown, who works with voting rights groups; and actress and social advocate Sophia Bush.

Weekly conversations about social justice and election preparations allowed Biggs to see the impact women have in the world, both as the majority of voters and as individual leaders. “We have more power than we think,” she said.

Biggs also led virtual sessions with middle- and high school students. “I felt so energized from that experience,” she said. “I was able to lead sessions about election readiness, voter preparation, and then trying to enthuse young people who are not of voting age to encourage those who are of age to participate in the system.” She finds it important to begin these conversations early on; just as it’s harder to learn a musical instrument later in life, she said, it’s more difficult to create an attitude of engaged citizenship in older Americans. “[The kids] are full of joy and excitement about life,” she said. “The world through their eyes is so good, and that’s important to hold onto.”

Continuing in the spirit of education and mentorship, Biggs has coached workshops at the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat and led post-session discussion groups in the foundation’s Spring 2021 Ignite Masterclass series. Following the Ignite Retreat in early October, she posted on Instagram that she felt “forever grateful to the Sullivan Foundation for always being a strong anchor of hope in my life. This weekend was the start of something wonderful, and I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it, along with some phenomenal fellow coaches and some brilliant student leaders.”

As she continues to navigate the country’s evolving political and social climate, she recalls a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Faith is taking the next step even when you don’t see the staircase.”

“My dad is a reverend, so I really did grow up in the church,” she said. “The idea of faith in a religious sense, but also out of a religious context—like the faith to move on and the audacity to keep going—stems from countless lived experiences. It’s all centered on the faith to keep going. I think that drives me every day.” 

 

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