A dancer comes full circle

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An Alvin Ailey alum lends her talents to SummerStage


  • Danni Gee, curator of dance for SummerStage. Photo: Sylvain Guenot

  • Since Danni Gee joined SummerStage as curator of dance in 2006, the series' dance program has grown. Pictured: Alvin Ailey at SummerStage in Central Park. Photo: Jack Vartoogian

When she performed at SummerStage over two decades ago, Danni Gee never imagined that she would one day be at its helm. A former dancer with Alvin Ailey, she has been the curator of dance for the series, the biggest free outdoor performing arts festival in New York, since 2006.

The southwest Philadelphia native came to New York in 1991 to dance with Ailey, but an injury curtailed her own dancing career. Also a talented vocalist, she went on to sing with Sister Sledge, Gloria Gaynor and Cher, and later led her own band. She returned to the dance world when a longtime friend and SummerStage's former director of theater asked her to interview for the curator role.

Since her involvement, SummerStage's dance program has grown, which she credits to her experience at Ailey and relationships with former dancers. “All of the dance shows always look like a big family reunion,” Gee explained. “The park is filled with dancers coming out to see their colleagues. It's been a really rewarding experience to be on this side of it ... and gives me great pleasure to now give dance back to the people and artists.”

What was it like when you first got to the city?

It was definitely a different pace. Just even walking down the street and the speed at which people walk and bump into you. I spent a lot of time saying, “Excuse me” to people, which didn't seem to matter. But it was very exciting; it was very busy and fast-paced. The subways were a little intimidating, but once I got the hang of that, it was fine. It just seemed like there was always something going on. It was a very late-night city, which I appreciate because I am a night owl.

What can you tell us about dancing at Alvin Ailey?

It was a dream come true. It was very top notch ... just being in a company filled with such amazing performers and people who I had admired for so long luckily were still in the company when I joined. People like Desmond Richardson, Sarita Allen, Renee Robinson, Marilyn Banks.... I really felt like I made it to the big time and there were different rules. Alvin Ailey is a union company so all the rules are in place to protect us in terms of 10-minute breaks every hour during rehearsals. It was a different ballgame, a step up. And of course, the travel. At the time, when I was dancing with Philadanco, previously, at that point, we weren't doing any international travel. And so, my first experience traveling overseas was with Ailey. My first actual show was in Athens. So after I was told that I got the job, the company manager called me and his first question was, “Do you have a passport?” And at that time I didn't, so that was the first thing I needed to get done besides sign my contract.

You sustained an injury that led you to stop your dance career, but then you pursued singing.

Yeah, it was crazy. I mean, I had always done some singing as a child in church and throughout high school and even during the time I was in Ailey. There were several of us in the company who loved to sing and when we were on tour, we'd find these open mics to go to. After I left dancing, I wasn't sure quite what I was going to do. I sort of dibbled and dabbled a little bit in music, moved back to Philadelphia, and ended up meeting this producer through a mutual friend there. He was looking for a vocalist to record vocals on a demo he was creating and I agreed to do it. And he said to me, “You have a really great voice; you should pursue this.”

Tell us about collaborating with Kathy Sledge.

I reconnected with a member of Sister Sledge, Kathy Sledge, who was the youngest sister of the famous group. And prior to me joining Ailey, I had worked with her just as a background dancer. So I moved back to Philly. She found out that I was back in town and I started working with her again just as a dancer, doing some simple dance moves. And one day she heard me singing backstage, working out some songs for myself. She didn't realize I could sing as well. And so she then took me on the road with her and her sisters to fill in when all the sisters couldn't be there together. So I started singing as quote unquote Baby Sledge for about six or seven years. I got my confidence up; I started my own band, Suga Bush, in New York.

What was it like to sing with Gloria Gaynor and Cher?

These are disco music icons and top notch professionals, really. From working with Kathy Sledge, we were on this throwback tour that included Gloria Gaynor. So I met her, she liked my energy and later on, asked if I could work with her and it was wonderful. I toured with her for four years. And Cher came out of, honestly, meeting someone on Facebook, another backing vocalist, and sharing conversations and experiences. She was already working with Cher and gave my information to Cher's management. When Cher was out in Las Vegas doing her residency, this woman I met through Facebook had to go on another tour, so they called me. So I got to go to Las Vegas and work with Cher for six weeks. And she was amazing; she was super humble and professional. The show was amazing, sold out every night, crazy fans. To go from Ailey, which was top of the food chain for me, then to work with somebody as incredible, famous and iconic as Cher, I can't even understand it. It's just the way the universe works.

Your job came about at SummerStage through a recommendation from a friend.

Yeah, from our former director of theater, Freedome Bradley. We knew each other through the music and poetry scene when I moved back to New York. I had just gotten off of a tour with Kathy and he called me and said, “What are you up to these days?” And I said, “I'm looking for work.” And he mentioned that SummerStage was looking for a dance curator and that I should come and interview. I took a chance and luckily, our then-director took a chance on me. And she offered me the position. And I came in and was very honest with her that dance was my life for a very long time and I was passionate about it. And she called me the next day and I've been here ever since and love it.

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