During her accomplished tenure, DCDC received a number of distinguished awards, including the 2016 Bessie Award, the contemporary dance world’s highest honor, the 2016 Workplace Diversity Award from the Dayton branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice, and the 2018 Irma Lazarus Award, the prestigious Ohio Arts Council top artistic award. DCDC also toured internationally (Chile, China, France, Poland) and, in 2018, the company toured Kazakhstan and Russia upon invitation from the U.S. State Department.
She also initiated new strategic educational partnerships with area universities including University of Dayton, Central State University and Wright State University. These partnerships resulted in initiatives that have benefited area high school and college students and the program growth of the dance company, currently in its 54th season.
“I have loved the work I’ve been able to do with this marvelous, wonderful group of talented artists,” said Hawes-Saunders. “I’ve known about DCDC and its founder Jeraldyne Blunden since I was a child. When the DCDC Board of Directors told me they would really like for me to take this particular position, I spoke to my parents about it. My mother said it was the perfect marriage of all of my loves coming together yet again. One of the real strong pillars my parents taught me was to be able to not only love the work you’re doing but make sure the work you’re doing is significant. Because of the needs of the company at that particular time, I really felt it was perfect.”
She initially told the Board she only planned to stay two years but realized she needed more time to bring her administrative aims to fruition.
“Eighteen years later I’m still here because it has taken much longer to do the work,” she said. “There have also been serious challenges with recessions and the pandemic. You can have a product but if your product is not on the standard of excellence so you can sustain it across the board then it is a challenge for that product to continue.”
DCDC is still navigating in an uncertain economic climate. The company recently canceled its holiday presentation of “In the Spirit of... Grace” due to sluggish ticket sales. But in spite of financial challenges, especially those stemming directly from the pandemic, government assistance helped keep the business afloat. . Earlier this year the company received an American Rescue Plan grant (money aimed at helping small businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic) from the National Endowment for the Arts in the amount of $150,000. DCDC has also received major grants from such organizations as the Miriam Rosenthal Foundation for the Arts, Culture Works and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“(The pandemic) has served as a great example of Ro Nita’s creativity, sharp business sense and her ability to pivot,” said Paul Benson, vice chair of DCDC’s Board of Directors and University of Dayton Provost. “She was also able to identify the resources that the federal and state governments were making available and then utilize that opportunity to secure this company’s operations during one of the most difficult challenges DCDC – and any performing arts organization in this country – has ever faced.”
Benson said previously the Board of Directors will establish a search committee and launch a search for Hawes-Saunders’ successor.
“Ro Nita offered us stability that we had lost in our administrative leadership,” added Debbie Blunden-Diggs, DCDC Chief Artistic and Producing Director. “Over 25 years ago a group described DCDC as a beautiful bouquet of flowers that sits on a very shaky table. What Ro Nita offered us was the ability to start to stabilize that table, which was important. Her plan to establish partnerships with local universities particularly helped us plant some very important stakes in the ground. Ro Nita enters the spaces she’s in with a lot of optimism and that has been wonderful for Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.”
DCDC Board Chair Jacqueline Gamblin, CEO of JYG Innovation, echoed Blunden-Diggs sentiments.
“Ro Nita is the classic example of calm, composed, positive energy,” Gamblin said. “And during the pandemic we needed that type of leader at the forefront to steady the ship. Ro Nita is also a thought leader and someone who embraces change. She has always been open to new ideas, which has allowed the company to remain relevant along with the artistic staff. It really takes a leader that has the vision to see what’s coming, where we should be, and not be stuck with where we are.”
Before joining DCDC, Hawes-Saunders, who received her bachelor’s degree in theatre and film from Dennison University and her master’s degree in communications from The Ohio State University, was the owner and CEO of Hawes-Saunders Broadcast Properties, Inc. She founded the award-winning WROU radio station and purchased a second station, WRNB. In 2005 she was inducted into the Dayton Area Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Looking back on her 2005 transition from the media industry to the arts realm, she is pleased that her love of community, entertainment and arts and culture followed her into her new role as DCDC executive director. She wasn’t entirely stepping into the unknown because she had already established a connection with Blunden, particularly showcasing the company during WROU’s “Old Fashioned Family Christmas” concerts at the University of Dayton Arena. She always believed in the company’s purpose as well.
“I had a connection to Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Jeraldyne Blunden, the mission and the cause of who we are and what we are,” Hawes-Saunders said. “It has always been my goal to be able to leave the organization better than when I started but also have the vision of ongoing stability so that Jeraldyne’s dream continues to live forever. I am also so grateful for the city of Dayton to be able to move the recent initiative forward of naming a street for Jeraldyne. My sister, my colleague, deserved that for what it is that she dreamed and desired to do. When I think back on the conversations that I had with Jeraldyne, it’s been great to think about what DCDC has been able to do but there is still work to be done.”
In another effort to memorialize DCDC’s founder, a letter-writing campaign is underway to have a Blunden U.S. postage stamp. DCDC is attempting to have 1,000 signed letters by the end of 2022. More information can be found by visiting dcdc.org.
The journey ahead
In addition to being honored with the inaugural Dayton Business Journal Jane Haley Award, Hawes-Saunders was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the University of Dayton in May 2019 for her many contributions to the vitality and quality of the community, her continuing commitment to education, and her advocacy for female and minority business ownership.
Assessing her tenure, she wishes she would have been able to spearhead an endowment for the company due to fundraising concerns and the national conversation centered on equity, diversity and justice.
“When you have an African American organization that has been around for 54 years – with the kind of quality that can hold its own anyplace in the world on stage and have the kind of impact we have in our educational systems off the stage – and you still have challenges raising the kind of funds you need to raise on an ongoing basis, it is a disappointment,” she said. “But it is also a statement about the nature of our country and our lack of support for arts and culture, specifically Brown and Black organizations that support and engage the work in the arts.”
Nonetheless, Hawes-Saunders anticipates a productive future for DCDC and herself. She plans to stay active in the community doing consulting work and conducting leadership workshops.
“I want Dayton Contemporary Dance Company to continue to be an organization that sets an example for young people, especially for African American children, to know their dreams can come true,” she said. “DCDC is truly a cultural institution and I want us to continue to be a star that shines brightly because of who we are, what we do and how we go about doing it.”