Gateway Dance Theatre: Dancers say performing with Gateway is the "highlight" of their lives

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



Social media: Facebook Instagram YouTube



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

Dancer Veola Perry

Veola Perry, who has danced with Gateway for 30 years, credits the dance company for giving her the confidence to get involved in martial arts, yoga, volunteerism and activism.

Growing up, Perry dreamed of becoming a model, but she found out dance was the next best thing after a friend told her about Gateway in the 1970s. Her initial feelings of intimidation at joining the company quickly fell away.

“I realized that I wanted to do this; I wanted to be on stage,” she said. “And it was the closest thing to being a model.”

She has since performed with Gateway “all over the place.”

“I have to give Lee, rest in peace, and Penny the credit for having that dream of doing a dance company and not worrying about the fact that (dancers) had not had any formal training.”

See Veola Perry in the YouTube video above.

She remembers dancing to Bill Withers’ song “Grandma’s Hands.”

“I was like wow, I’m a model in the form of a dancer so to speak,” she said.

She enjoyed working with the professional dance companies that led workshops at Gateway and the road trips the dance company took.

“Penny had always told us technique is important but without any emotion, without any feeling, without any heart you can have the best technique, your legs can go as high as whatever — you can have a split from here to there, but if there’s no feeling . . . then it’s nothing,” she said.

Perry remembers dancing so hard one time during a residency with professional dancers that the floor was covered with sweat.

“It was exhilarating,” she said. “One of the highlights of my life is being a part of Gateway Dance Theatre.”

See Veola Perry in the YouTube video below.

Sydney Furgerson: The ‘granddaughter of Gateway’

Sydney Furgerson, granddaughter of Gateway Dance Theatre founders Lee and Penny Furgerson. Photo courtesy of Sydney Furgerson.

When Lee and Penny Furgerson founded Gateway Dance Theatre in 1972, they took the name Gateway from the Gateway Opportunity Center in Des Moines, the location where they first held dance classes for Des Moines’ communities of color.

The Furgerson’s granddaughter, Sydney Furgerson's other grandparents ran the Gateway Opportunity Center.

“I really am truly the granddaughter of Gateway from both sides," said Furgerson, 23, who started dancing with Gateway at age six or seven-years old.

Now she works with her grandmother, Penny, as program director. Throughout the years, she has served in a variety of roles: camp counselor for the dance theatre’s smart camps and science and intensive camps. By age 18, she had served as stage manager.

“So I really grew up in the dance company, taking whatever hats I could and learning everything I could,” she said.

Growing up at Gateway and working with her grandmother is special, she said.

“It means a lot to me because I feel truly blessed that I've been able to have the opportunities I've had with the dance company,” she said.

Furgerson said it’s a dream situation.

“I don't know how else to describe it,” she said. “There's no other job in the world that would let me be as creative and as open and throw out ideas left and right as I do right now. It’s awesome.”

Sydney Furgerson has watched as her grandmother choreographed dances that melded different dance forms together with some performances even held virtually.

It’s part of innovations to come.

Sydney Furgerson said: “My plans going forward at Gateway: The more I've been a part of Gateway and the more I’ve grown up in it, I've seen more of my grandparents’ vision that they had with it, and I’d like to expand Gateway to get to that vision more towards education, more towards trying to get the community to work together and be able to reach out to those kids that we want to get them in the arts and get them to experience everything that they can at a younger age.”

“So they know there's more to their world than just what they see in their five blocks that they live in,” Sydney Ferguson said.

Dancer Toni Jones

Toni Jones, 75, attended Gateway’s very first class in 1972. Fifty years later, she is still dancing with Gateway.

“I decided that life was short, and this was going to be an opportunity to be a dancer — something I always wanted to do,” she said. “Because of Penny, I am a Gateway dancer.”

Penny Furgerson easily recalled a performance Jones gave in 1977.

“You should see her dance,” Penny Furgerson said.

From Left: Dancer Toni Jones, cofounder Penny Furgerson and dancer Debina Nath at the Gateway Dance Theatre studio. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Dancer Shelly Curtis

Dancer Shelly Curtis has been involved with Gateway Dance Theatre for decades. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Shelly Curtis has danced with Gateway since the 1980s.

She enjoyed sharing memories with Penny Furgerson during a recent class — like how the late Lee Furgerson and Penny used to take the dancers to Village Inn to eat after performances. And he gave the dancers a spending limit.

Curtis said she moved away but came back to Des Moines — and Gateway.

“It just brought back lot of a warm feelings,” she said, of being in the studio with Furgerson.

Penny Furgerson joked with Curtis.

“I didn’t know you guys used to call us Mr. and Mrs. Village Inn,” she said, laughing. “They were my kids,” Furgerson said.

Dancer Debina Nath

Gateway Dance Theatre cofounder Penny Furgerson watches dancers Debina Nath and Shelly Curtis practice. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Nath, who is from India and has a background in classical Indian dance, met Furgerson at the Des Moines Arts Festival, and Furgerson invited her to Gateway. Now Nath dances at Gateway and manages its social media platforms.

“I called her and said I’m interested in dancing and I’m looking for an arts group where I can share mine and learn,” Nath said.

Furgerson treats everyone who crosses the threshold of Gateway like family, she said. #blackhistorymonth


“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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