Though Renay Aumiller had lived in Hillsborough for six years, the award-winning choreographer had never produced work there. At the time, it made sense: the town had no venues for dance and no prior tradition of public performance in the genre. Instead, for decades before the pandemic, regional modern dance had largely been centered in Durham, longtime home of the American Dance Festival, one of the largest and oldest modern dance festivals on earth. Given the festival’s gravitational pull, Aumiller helped found Durham Independent Dance Artists, or DIDA, a coalition of choreographers that changed the face of local dance, raising visibility and production standards when they banded together to co-produce each other’s work in seasons from 2014 to 2020.

Then COVID hit, and independent dance mostly went dark. Stirrings to initiate new works were repeatedly thwarted by the pandemic’s unpredictable waves.

But during a lull last summer, Aumiller had an unexpected experience while taking in a Last Friday art exhibition along Hillsborough’s Riverwalk. Turning a bend, she came upon a large group who’d gathered for one of the town’s first Dancewaves—a free monthly get-together of drummers, musicians, and community members to dance outdoors before dusk. Seeing some 200 people dancing in a Hillsborough park “just took me off-guard,” Aumiller recalls. “It was absolutely huge. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there is an audience here for dance!’”

After a coffee date around the same time with Stephanie Woodbeck, another Hillsborough resident and cofounder of the dance mentorship project Tobacco Road Dance Productions, both began noticing how many dancemakers had always lived in or recently moved to the town. Choreographer Jasmine Powell, who’s danced with Philadanco, had grown up here, as had Tobacco Road director Jess Shell and Aubrey Griffith-Zill, whose Living Arts Collective initiated the Dancewave series last spring. Within the last year, choreographer and dance filmmaker Anna Barker, artistic director of, had also moved to the town.

“I don’t think the arts community here is quite aware yet of the dance artists that have established themselves,” Woodbeck observes. “But we can do something about that.”

As the pair looked around at all the local talent, Woodbeck and Aumiller wondered why they all needed to keep taking their art elsewhere. “It’s almost similar to when I lived in Brooklyn,” Woodbeck says. “I didn’t want to go to Manhattan on weekends anymore.” Though she’s happy to work in Durham and Chapel Hill sometimes, “I’m in Hillsborough for a reason. My investment and my family’s here. The art-making I do and the people I know are here in Hillsborough by design. Why can’t we be planting those seeds here?”

After Aumiller arranged a meetup for the sextet in May, they formed a group, Hillsborough Independent Dance Artists (HIDA), and gave a brief sneak showing during that month’s Dancewave. The troupe then decided to self-produce its first showing, a collection of individual works, for this month’s Last Friday event at River Park.

Beyond that, this canny supergroup of veteran dancemakers is keeping their options open, carefully making unconventional choices for the rest of their first year in existence.

They aren’t presenting a formal season of performances in their first year; after Friday’s showing, local audiences will have to wait for word on future shows. They’re not buying into the strictures of traditional company structures. And despite paying homage to DIDA in their name, they are being very careful not to copy their predecessor.

“What we are right now is a living organism,” Aumiller says, “and we’re trying to carefully define where the next step is.”

The reasons have as much to do with the dynamics of collaboration and community as they do with sustainability.

When Barker became the first artist DIDA presented, in November 2014, she calls the experience “an amazing lifeline” for an artist who’d never presented work at that level of professionalism before. “We were given all these resources … the nuts and bolts of how to self-present, and self-produce,” Barker recalls.

But it wasn’t particularly collaborative. With HIDA, she doesn’t feel like she’s being given tools and then dismissed to do her own thing. “It’s much more how we can come together, lean on one another for support and create something that is fluid,” Barker says. The group’s work seems “much more like a collage” than a concert.

By this point in their careers, everyone in HIDA is aware of the stressors that inevitably play out when artists attempt to produce themselves.

Woodbeck vividly recalls having to use “all of my energy and all of my money” to produce her work. She acknowledges the stakes with HIDA are still high; from an art-making standpoint she feels accountable to bring her best ideas to the group. “But because we’ve created this ‘I lean on you, you lean on me’ dynamic, it still feels very low-risk,” she says.

By now, these artists are also savvy to the drain the forced march of a formal season can impose. For Aumiller, the company’s efficiency with its resources and energy is important, “so whatever we do produce, we aren’t going to burn ourselves out.” In the group’s conversations, she finds the emphasis is “less about consumption and more about invitations into experiences.”

Deconstructing the traditional consumer model of performance is also important to Shell. “We’re not producing a proscenium show that you have to pay money to come to,” Shell says. “That makes it more accessible, to re-engage with the community as a whole. To me that seems really important now.”

Tantalizing future projects might involve collaborations and installations in the town’s visual arts community. “There are more galleries in Hillsborough than grocery stores,” Aumiller says. “That says a lot about where the values are here.”

Company staff will also hand out questionnaires at Friday’s performance, asking the Hillsborough audience what they want to see in the future.

Shell notes that the flexibility and openness in the new company’s first steps stems in part from a truism she, Griffith-Zill, and Powell encountered as students at Carolina Friends School. Under the Quaker concept that the truth is continually revealed, the group can freely evolve, change, and fluctuate, responding to the needs and desires of the group and the surrounding community.

For Powell, whose Friday dancework will focus on the history of the Black community in Hillsborough, HIDA is about presence. “It’s about sharing our faces, our bodies, and our stories. I didn’t know that dance could happen in Hillsborough, because it wasn’t an integral part of the art scene. But we have the people, we want to plant the seeds, and we’re not going anywhere.” 

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