Photography by Allison Kazmierski
Mondays are for Movement
Sharing a passion for all things dance
It’s not really their secret. It’s more like their “sacred time.” They are members of a small-but-committed group of Billings women who doggedly guard a two-hour time slot every Monday evening.
“We do whatever we can not to have to do something else,” says Leigh Schanfein, smiling. “If you have kids, you make sure someone’s lined up for them. And then you leap out the door.”
Carly Mann considers this her vital “me time,” two hours when she can turn off life’s other distractions.
“We kind of have this mutual sacredness to our Mondays,” she says.
Leigh and Carly are two members of Arc: A Montana Dance Collective. Formed in Billings in 2019, the collective is made up of teachers, business owners, doctors, dance instructors, real estate agents, mothers, physician assistants and attorneys. What brings them together is their passion for all things dance.
“We’re so different from each other but we can come together with this passion and unity,” says Carly. “There’s something so connective about dance.”
Carly has spent most of her life dancing, much of it in cities across her native California. In 2010, after graduating with a bachelor’s in dance, she moved to Billings to live with her husband and she began teaching and mentoring young dancers at local dance studios. Today, as an associate financial adviser by day and dance instructor/mentor by night, she finds special joy watching her 4-year-old daughter follow in her dance steps.
“It’s so much fun,” Carly says. “She seems to love it.”
Leigh’s path took many turns from her native New Mexico. She graduated from high school in Austria, earned degrees in animal physiology and neuroscience in California and a master’s in kinesiology in Indiana — all the while studying and performing in multiple dance styles. Before moving to Billings in 2020, she spent more than a decade as a freelance dancer based in New York City.
Both women have been impressed by the quality of dancers they’ve met locally.
“I’ve found there are really capable, creative people here,” Leigh says. “People with ideas and drive to see things come to fruition.”
In addition to discovering talent here, Leigh is tapping into talent from around the country — choreographers Bethany Mitchell and Alexis Robbins, both friends from New York, and Alexis Gideon, a composer friend from Pittsburgh — for Arc’s upcoming performances.
“I feel including them in this creation for Arc is very fitting as I am bringing friends together with other friends to create this work,” Leigh says.
Arc: a Montana Dance Collective consists of a core group of nine women ranging in age from their mid-30s to mid-40s, though there is no set age limit. Through word of mouth, random emails or perhaps through a child enrolled in a dance class, these women have found one another. Some are Billings natives, while others herald from Salt Lake City, Seattle and even Mexico. Their dance backgrounds vary from ballet and jazz to contemporary and modern dance.
Though their experiences differ, they share the group’s mission: to ignite inquiry, inspire change and connect people through dance. The term “Arc” was chosen for what it implies: a prism or spectrum of light and expression, which encompasses the breadth of everything they do. And that “arc” includes bonds that go beyond dance.
“It’s kind of a sisterhood,” Carly says. “We get together for dinner or drinks. It’s like an extended family — we all really care.”
For Leigh, Arc offered a perfect way to connect and continue performing when she first moved to Billings. “It becomes a built-in friend group,” she says.
That camaraderie fuels the chemistry they present when they perform. “Everything you think you’re seeing, you’re seeing – the way we interact with each other,” Leigh says.
But how do busy young moms and professionals find the time? As Leigh points out, dance becomes an integral part of a dancer’s identity. “When you’re not dancing anymore, you’re taking away a huge part of yourself,” she says. Carly agrees. “When it’s something that you’re passionate about, you don’t have the capability of saying ‘no’,” she says.
And yet, dance is more than serious business – it’s fun, they insist.
“Hard work is fun,” Leigh says. “Moving is fun. Figuring out how to do something is fun.”
The group jokes around during practice, riffing off one another and laughing at their own mistakes.
“We have a lot of humility. We can laugh at ourselves,” Leigh says. “Through the process of creating and attempting, we mess up but we take it in stride. We just keep practicing.”
The dancers not only find reward from Monday night practices, but they thrive on sharing their art.
“I love to perform,” Carly says, “the whole process of working hard toward something and sharing it with other people.”
Likewise, they take heart in dispelling the misguided preconceptions that dance is too serious or that the audience “should” feel one way or another.
When they perform they crave feedback – both complimentary and critical.
“We aim to spark their (audience) curiosity,” Carly says. “There’ve been comments like ‘I’ve never connected so much with a visual piece’ or ‘It brought tears to my eyes’. Or the opposite.”
Arc is currently gearing up for its annual spring recital at the Babcock Theater. Their spring performance marks the culmination of months of practice, after which they shift their focus to smaller events and fundraisers. They’ve partnered with the Billings Public Library – their last library performance demonstrated how a dance piece is created – and last year even danced in the local brew pub Thirsty Street.
As their name suggests, their pieces come together through group inspiration and collective efforts. Certain members of Arc — Leigh and Carly among them — flesh out their ideas through choreography. Costumes, too, are often born from a group decision.
Above all, members of the collective hope to entice “non-dancers” to come watch them perform.
“We really want people to appreciate what we’re doing,” Carly says. “You want to be able to give people something. That is fulfilling.”
“We’re worth coming to see,” Leigh adds, smiling. “People shouldn’t be afraid to experience dance.”
ARC: A MONTANA DANCE COLLECTIVE will offer shows for its spring recital at the Babcock Theater on April 21 and 22 with shows at 7:30 p.m. on both days.