Celebrating Black History: Gateway Dance Theatre marks 50-year legacy of making art accessible to people of color in Iowa

Gateway Dance Theatre, founded in 1972 by Lee and Penny Furgerson, will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an event: "Sanaa ya Sanaa: Celebrating Black History," on Saturday, Feb. 26.

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Gateway Dance Theatre

Founders: Lee and Penny Furgerson. (Lee Furgerson died in 1998).

Donate: Nonprofit 501c3. All donations are tax-deductible. Donations also accepted through Amazon Smiles.

Address: 315 East 5th St. Suite 12, Des Moines, IA 50309

Telephone: (515) 283-8383

Website: gatewaydance.org

Email: info@gatewaydance.org

Social media: Facebook Instagram YouTube



Lee and Penny Furgerson founded Gateway Dance Theatre in 1972 to provide their children with "a place to express their culture.” In the fifty years since they founded the dance company on Des Moines’ north side — with a fiercely loyal dance troupe — more than 20,000 community members have experienced spectacular productions designed to make the arts accessible to people of color.

“We’ve had whole families be a part of it — and now we’re seeing the grandkids,’ said Penny Furgerson, executive artistic director.

Cofounder Penny Furgerson, executive artistic director, Gateway Dance Theatre. Photo by Black Iowa News.

The dance company has a dozen events planned throughout the year to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The kickoff event, “Sanaa ya Sanaa: Celebrating Black History,” will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 26 at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

“This 50th year . . . We want to showcase all that we do and what is possible,” Furgerson said, with an eye toward the future. “I feel there is hope. There’s that determination for (Gateway) to continue.”

The nonprofit organization, which provides dance classes, workshops, performances and summer camps for children, fuses African American, Caribbean, Asian and Indian music into a multimedia experience designed to increase cultural sensitivity, champion social justice and broaden arts awareness, according to its mission.

Penny Furgerson, a dancer and choreographer who was trained in classical Indian dance from her native India, helms the dance company, accompanied by her son, Lee Jr., a percussionist, and granddaughter Sydney, 23, program director. Loved and revered by his family and dancers, Lee Furgerson served as the company’s general manager and technical director until his death in 1998.

Making art accessible. A bulletin board at the Gateway Dance Theatre's studio in Des Moines' East Village. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Longtime dancers said dancing at Gateway and working with the Furgersons inspired them, increased their confidence and helped them fulfill their dreams.

“50 years? I can’t believe it’s been that long,” said Veola Perry, who began dancing with Gateway in the 1970s. “Penny wanted dance to be exposed to everybody — it wasn’t just for the few elites — she felt it was for everybody.”

Sydney Furgerson, 23, grew up at Gateway, serving in a variety of roles within the company and alongside her grandmother, Penny.

“All of the skills that I’ve learned, it really is just a blessing,” she said.

Debina Nath met Penny Furgerson at the Des Moines Arts Festival earlier this year. With a background in classical dance from India, she and Penny Furgerson quickly bonded. Nath soon began volunteering and dancing with Gateway and now works on its social media platforms.

“She taught me a lot,” Nath said. “It has been great being with her.”

Drawing inspiration from dance legends, Gateway has held residencies and worked with scores of famed dancers and choreographers, including Rod Rodgers, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Katherine Dunham.


“Sanaa ya Sanaa: Celebrating Black History,” will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 26 at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. The event features Opera star Simon Estes. The event is free and open to the public.

Workshop – 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

Refreshments – 1:30 p.m.-2 p.m.

Showcase – 2 p.m.-4 p.m. Highlights include the Djembe African Drum, Afro fashion styles, the poetry of Langston Hughes and Amanda Gorman and music by Tina Haase Findlay.

Location: Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, 909 Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines, IA, DuPont Room.

Coming Friday: More on Gateway Dance Theatre . . .

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