Diane Tomasi

Bridging Artistic Passion and Nonprofit Management

The day of Diane Tomasi’s 30th birthday party she stood staring at the sky in the backyard of a friend’s New York home, wondering if it would rain. After weeks of putting together a small cabaret theater and dance performance—to celebrate her own birthday but also to showcase the skills and mutual love of her close community—she worried the rain would halt the outdoor festivities.

Tomasi had worked hard to make this event happen in a city that at the time—2010—had become so expensive that the artists who filled it with life often struggled to find places for shows and performances. In fact, this performance was only happening because a dancer Tomasi ran into by chance at an audition offered her own space, a new backyard performance venue.  This friend had just finished building the stage and needed a big event to inaugurate it. Tomasi jumped at the chance, and the threat of rain was just another unknown that she faced as an artist every day.

As it turned out, the rain never came, and the cabaret was a grand success. The venue grew indoors into a real studio, and for three years hosted a monthly event that gave artists at different stages in their career—from those just starting out to long-established professionals—a low-pressure space to experiment and perform.

The creation of the cabaret is emblematic of Tomasi’s commitment to maintaining supportive spaces for her community. And over the years she’s seen all the obstacles that get in the way of making art—from a little rain to a lack of funding. Although sometimes it feels like getting a grant is as out of one’s control as the weather, Tomasi’s desire to make dance accessible ultimately set her on the course that led to Antioch. Studying for a Master of Arts in Nonprofit Management she is learning not only the possibilities for a community-driven arts nonprofit—but how to make them happen.  And her community is always at the center of Tomasi’s goals.

A Cabaret Built of Community

With the informal cabaret, Tomasi and the owner of the studio space Angela Butch, created a chance rarely found in the city to practice and play. “We had people from Cirque du Soleil that were like, ‘I’m in town and I’m doing this thing. I don’t know if it’s working. So do you mind if I just perform it for your show?’” she says. “And we were like, ‘Yes, absolutely!’”  Tomasi brought people together to support and encourage each other—the kind of encouragement that shaped her own art practice and sense of self.

She herself is a dancer, aerialist, and teaching artist, and has long lived in New York.  And she has received support from her community in all these areas—from classes to navigating the city—but community matters far beyond a professional capacity. Tomasi came out as queer after moving to New York as an adult, and, after feeling like she was never able to be herself as a kid, she found an abundance of love and acceptance there for what she describes as “the essence of me.” She credits this as the driving force of the community aspect of her work, saying she was, “wandering around, thinking that the world was this small white town, and there was no other option, I was always gonna be this hidden person.”

This desire to continue supporting that community has led her to start the non-profit dance company This Body with a group of other like-minded people. This Body is intended to uplift Queer dancers, Disabled Dancers, and Dancers of Color—people who drive the canon but are systematically disenfranchised from accessing funding and recognition. And it’s out of a desire to nurture This Body, as well as other projects in her community, that Tomasi chose to pursue her MA in Nonprofit Management at Antioch.

Movement and Community

Tomasi’s passion for movement started at a young age. “My mom put me in gymnastics when I was very little. And I was obsessed, I used to do it in my living room,” she says. She practiced constantly and dreamed of becoming an Olympian. But when it came time to join the gymnastics team, her family couldn’t afford the high fees. Tomasi played soccer instead—it was more financially accessible.

But in high school she happened to see the movie Swing Kids, a film about German youth under Hitler who resist their culture’s homogenization by attending underground clubs where they swing dance. As she watched the film, Tomasi recognized the dancers’ bold gestures, flips, and acrobatics from her gymnastic days. By the end of watching the movie, she was already falling back in love with dance.

Using her own money, she signed up for Jazz dance classes. Eventually, she realized that this wasn’t quite what she was looking for. But they were close. She was hooked, and went on to major in dance, graduating with her bachelor’s from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts.

It was during this time that she came across a flier for an inclusive, able-/disabled-body workshop with a performance company called Blue Eyed Soul. She signed up, and the week-long workshop was her introduction to aerial arts, a practice where artists suspended in the air by silks, ropes, or lines perform choreographed movements.

This experience shaped her future. She describes meeting “professional dancers from all walks of life and all abilities.” It was transformative, she says. “I was just like, this is the perfect world. Like, this is amazing.” The collaboration became a foundation for the possibilities of community and support movement arts can provide.

A woman hanging by a chain on a dramatically-lit stage, arches her back in a pose as part of a performance.

Tomasi performing on stage.

Teaching Movement Arts to All Bodies 

Eventually, Tomasi began offering her own community classes. She loved the ways partners would work together. “Maybe you can’t do a back walkover on your own,” she says, “but you could do a back walkover if I did a tabletop underneath your back, and helped you down.”

These classes helped participants gain confidence in their physical abilities. They also facilitated deep communication around consent. “It opened these doors for really strong community agreements,” Tomasi explains. She found this kind of learning especially important for young people she works with. In the classes, she says “We can then talk about what it means to be responsible for somebody else. And how to caretake, and how to know boundaries and limits.”

Working to Fulfill Dreams of Funding

Tomasi sees a hole in the dance world right now. Around the time that she graduated college, shifts in funding rules dramatically limited who could access grants as a professional dancer. Because companies had to have a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt nonprofit status, support for mid-career artists suddenly became inaccessible to most of them.

One way to resolve this is to become good at navigating the world of nonprofits—skills that Tomasi is developing in Antioch’s MA in Nonprofit Management. The flexible nature of this program has allowed Tomasi to tailor her studies to the niche world of New York dance. For example, last semester she conducted research on dancers in New York City. This study showed that only 9% of all dancers in New York work in the dance company model.

Furthermore, she found that the dance companies are not only competitive to get into but also, because they answer to a board of directors, can be limited in the art they make. Audiences who patronize these often long-established companies may come expecting to see certain types of dance—the styles for which the companies are known. Tomasi says this stifles creativity. “How is dance growing? Where are we going?” She asks, “Where’s the social justice in it? Where’s the cutting edge? Where is the moving of that needle? Because I don’t see it.”

Starting A More Inclusive Dance Community

These frustrations led Tomasi to help found This Body, a nonprofit dance community that hopes to shift this scarcity model. This Body started as a way for Tomasi and one other dancer to share resources. But since then it has grown to include more members.

Some new members were drawn from a class Tomasi taught. Tomasi approached them with the idea of sharing some of the tasks involved in being a working artist: writing applications, brainstorming projects, hiring dancers, and finding spaces. “It’s just a lot of work, she says, “and then you have to—on top of that—pay your dancers.” She explains that through a more collective model they could all support each other. As she says, “If we were going to work with each other, then we would sort of pass the proverbial $50 back and forth.” 

Since its founding, This Body has been working to solidify their visions. And Tomasi has been working towards the more “nitty-gritty” skills that are necessary for such a project.

Using a Degree Program to Improve a Nonprofit

Ultimately Tomasi has found the MA in Nonprofit Management has given her the perfect place to develop skills that support her project, This Body.

Before finding Antioch, Tomasi had assumed any business degree would be focused solely on profits. Antioch, though, has a scope of learning that could hardly be better tailored to her needs: from understanding how to write grants, learning best practices in fundraising, studying how to organize, and analyzing what goes into decision-making processes; it offers exactly the kind of education she was looking for. It encompasses the organizational tools that This Body and Tomasi need in order to thrive. “That is where we were sort of struggling,” she explains, “because we’re artists, dancers, and free thinkers.”

Tomasi is using the degree to hone the skills she needs to execute her larger mission of moving large and much-needed funds into the New York dance community to support mid-career artists. She wants “to get a ton of funding and offer paid rehearsals, paid everything,” she says. And she even dreams bigger than that. Maybe she will help found a residency where dancers can “have a ton of tiny houses on a plot of land. And we’re just like creating work and being goofballs for a summer.” She says, “I don’t think that I can change, necessarily, the whole structure. But I would like to try.”

Mair Allen is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Antioch University, Los Angeles. They live in a little house, with a big cat, in Minneapolis, MN.

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