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In recent years, I’ve noticed a marked uptick in arts programming that places public engagement at its center. It’s more than audience outreach (although that’s part of it). The kind of community programs I’m talking about go far beyond the goal of awareness to full interactivity, where the public not only participates in but is actually integral to the programming.

The only thing surprising about this trend, really, is that everyone isn’t doing it.

The Ordway's Summer Dance Series for 2011 concludes Thursday, August 4, with a night of soul and R & B, step dancing to the live grooves of Power.

Getting the public directly involved with the arts — emphasizing doing something, rather than simply seeing it — is a savvy way for institutions to cement relationships with their current arts patrons and build a foundational familiarity with the arts in subsequent generations of enthusiasts. In addition to increasing access to the cultural landscape, hands-on arts programming also serves to tweak the public conversation: Rather than thinking of the arts primarily in terms of consumption (tickets bought and sold, pieces collected), this kind of active engagement cultivates a sense of ownership among members of the public, giving them a meaningful stake in the future of their neighborhood’s artists and cultural institutions. And that sort of deep community-rootedness is the stuff of which true, enduring civic arts support is made.

This sensibility is central, for example, to the Walker Art Center’s ambitious Open Field program: a groundbreaking summertime experiment, now in its second year, which enlists the community in establishing a sort of “creative commons.” People are encouraged not only to participate in institutionally driven events, but to create some of their own — like real-life wiki for arts programming.

Of course, there is always an abundance of arts programs that encourage creativity in kids. But you’ll also find more organizations emphasizing adult participation — discipline-specific classes and workshops, certainly — as well as an increasing number of one-off events that combine the festive atmosphere of a block party with an arts educational component.

In that latter category, you can do no better than the Ordway’s Summer Dance Series, a program the venue launched last year. On Thursday nights, since mid-June and ending this week, the performing arts center offers visitors basic lessons by professional artists with expertise in a given style of dance. After some instruction, the crowd can then put their new moves to good use with live music in that genre for the rest of the evening. You see families with small children, couples, singles, old folks and youth — all kinds of people trying their hand at, say, salsa or swing, polka or even ballroom dance.  It’s such a hoot.

Ordway's Summer Dance Series (all photos by Melissa Gaul).

Thursday, August 4 is the last installment in the Ordway’s Summer Dance Series. The evening will focus on classic R & B and soul with step dance instruction by Kevin Johnson. Afterward, you can shake your moneymaker and practice our new moves to the smooth grooves of Power. Lessons begin at 6 p.m.; the social dance with live music will start at 7:15 p.m.; Landmark Plaza, Fifth and Market Street in downtown St. Paul.

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