Tracey Varga was 5 years old when she stepped into her first tap class. Her parents signed her up with high hopes that dance would help her with incoordination. What they didn’t realize was how a tap class would set Varga on a path to open her own dance company.
“When I was in third grade, I wrote a journal titled ‘My Stupendous Life,’” Varga says. “Throughout, a common thread was ‘I love dancing,’ ‘I am dancing,’ and ‘I want to be a dancer.’”
Varga continued to pursue dance—ballet, jazz and contemporary styles—in high school and college. As a young adult living and performing in Seattle, though, she realized how unfamiliar the public was with contemporary and modern dance.
“I used to ask some of my friends to come see my performances,” Varga says, “and they were totally turned off by it because it was performance art and modern. They didn’t quite understand the performance part of it, so I couldn’t convince them to come back.”
Such a realization influenced Varga to found Forward Motion Dance Company after moving to Wilmington in 1996. She wanted others to see the beauty in different types of dance. “Dance is so important to our society,” Varga explains. “It helps us share our history, spiritual beliefs and even our emotions.”
She also wanted to provide opportunities for local artists to involve themselves in events to showcase their skills and get their names out to the public. Elizabeth White, a kindergarten teacher at St. Mary Catholic School in Wilmington, began dancing when she was a child because her father played piano at the local dance studio. She continued through childhood and even taught a few dance classes. White danced with Varga and her company up until she had children. Varga was not deterred.
“She kept calling me when the kids were little and I wouldn’t come to class,” White recounts. “She asked me to keep coming back. She said, ‘I’m not going to let you quit, Liz.’ So once my kids were a little older, I came back.”
Varga’s encouragement for others to continue to dance has helped her expand the company since its creation 17 years ago. Now, Forward Motion’s board of directors has 10 members and 16 contributing dancers.
“Tracey’s good about bringing people together,” mentions Scotty Bethune, a member of Forward Motion’s board of directors. “It’s a warm environment. Everybody’s welcome and everybody gets encouraged.”
Becky Spivey, a fellow board member and real estate broker, agrees with Bethune. Last September she was able to dance alongside her daughters in the company’s Arts in Motion show, “Retro Fusion and Illusion,” to music from older artists like Elvis and Nat King Cole.
“It was the first time it was all three of us,” emphasizes Spivey, who has danced with Varga since the 1990s. Like White, she also took time off when she had her children, but came back at Varga’s insistence. Now, Spivey and her children dance with Varga and her company.
Varga’s welcoming spirit has helped Forward Motion grow in more than just member size, too. Initially, the company performed in Thalian Hall’s studio theatre to crowds of around 70 people. Now, they perform on Thalian Hall’s main stage to hundreds of people. They also frequently perform at Cameron Art Museum and North Front Theatre (formerly City Stage).
It isn’t just local dancers Varga invites into her company, though. She also provides opportunities for musicians, set designers and choreographers to contribute to annual shows and benefits.
The company’s annual Arts in Motion performance—held every September—has featured locals like keyboardist Julia Walker Jewell, soprano singer Nancy King and violinist Danijela Žeželj-Gualdi. Performing as a nonprofit organization, though, can be difficult to underwrite. Forward Motion solely relies on donations and volunteers to fund and contribute to their performances. To encourage the public to donate, the company holds fundraisers at Ted’s Fun on the River (co-owned by frequent contributor, Jewell), such as this Sunday’s wine tasting and benefit.
2018 is the fifth year for the company’s annual benefit, to take place this weekend. Included will be a wine tasting, light hors d’oeuvre and door prizes, to repay the community for their support. It also marks the first year they’ll feature two musical acts. Jarrett Raymond is Wilmington’s latest singer-songwriter to hit the scene, and Staghorn Starlings are a husband-and-wife duo rooted in country and folk music.
Donations will help Forward Motion in their efforts to educate the public about modern and contemporary dance. In fact, funds from previous years have ensured programs and demonstrations in local schools, like the Snipes Academy of Art and Design and New Horizons Elementary School. Proceeds also go beyond Forward Motion initiatives. Each year the company chooses to support other nonprofit organizations at their benefit. Cape Fear River Watch is the recipient for 2018, and donations made at the event go toward furthering their efforts to educate the public about the health of our river.
Many of Forward Motion’s core dancers get to take a break from dancing at the event to meet with guests and discuss their efforts to provide quality modern contemporary dance performances and education to the community.
“It’s kind of a grassroots effort to keep dance alive in Wilmington,” Bethune suggests. “It takes the involvement of everybody to do so.”