Celebrating Black History: Gateway Dance Theatre marks its 50-year legacy with workshop and showcase on Feb. 26

Gateway Dance Theatre, founded in 1972 by Lee and Penny Furgerson, kicks off its 50th anniversary with workshops and a showcase: "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



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

Penny Furgerson felt angry when she couldn’t participate in a dance class in the 1970s in Des Moines.

“I was seething about it,” said Furgerson, a choreographer and dancer who was born in India and performs classical Indian dance.

Her late husband Lee Furgerson said: “What are we going to do about it?’”

The couple responded to the problem by founding the Gateway Dance Theatre in 1972, which works to make the arts accessible to people of color in Iowa.

When they began, they weren’t sure the dance company would last, but one thing was clear.

“We knew that we didn't want to charge because we wanted to reach the people who didn't have access,” she said.

According to its mission, 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.

Gateway has defied the expectations of those who predicted that “ethnic companies” like Gateway wouldn’t last, Furgerson said. Dancers under Furgerson’s direction are faithful supporters — some of whom have performed with Gateway for 30-50 years. Now, as Gateway celebrates its 50th anniversary, which includes a workshop and showcase on Saturday, Feb. 26 for Black History Month and community events sprinkled throughout the year, the Furgerson family is as committed as ever to enriching the lives of Des Moines youth and adults through the arts — and captivating audiences.

Former State Rep. Wayne Ford is the former director of the Model City Community Center where Gateway held its first classes decades ago.

“It’s a great organization that has helped many young people,” Ford said. “I’ve watched — and one thing it has done, it has interpreted Black movement and Black dance in a multicultural way.”

Penny Furgerson at Gateway's dance studio with dancers, Debina Nath and Shelly Curtis. Photo by Black Iowa News

These days, Gateway rents a studio in the East Village, but the location isn’t ideal, Furgerson said. Transportation is a barrier for the youth they serve and want to serve, she said.

Overcoming hurdles: 'Ethnic companies don’t last’

Furgerson remembers seeking a state grant in the 70s, but she said the arts agency told them: “Ethnic companies don’t last over a year.’”

“So, I think that was a challenge of saying that we wouldn’t be around that gave us determination,” she said.

Gateway has survived, but funding is still a struggle, she said.

Companies say they want diversity, she said.

“They bring you in and they want to see diversity, but they don't want to bring the dollars with it,” she said.

Companies don’t consider the in-kind donations that have helped Gateway thrive, she said. Supporters can donate to Gateway during any of its anniversary events, she said.

Gateway’s 50th anniversary celebrations will culminate in an international dinner later in the year with writer and keynote speaker, Rekha Basu.

Next up: Hear from Gateway dancers who say their experience with Gateway is the 'highlight' of their lives.


“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.

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