(Story by Lynn Cline / Photos by Gabriella Marks)
Stroll through the downtown Santa Fe Railyard and you’ll hear a joyful noise. It might be the sounds of dancers and drummers performing West African and Haitian music and dance. Or you might rather sense the silence drifting from a yoga or Qigong class. In any case, follow the sounds and you’ll be led right to the Railyard Performance Center, a longtime local gem and the heart of a vibrant performing arts community.
“The drums call people,” Elise Gent says, with a knowing smile. Her husband Eric Gent nods in agreement. And they both should know. For more than 20 years, as co-owners of the Railyard Performance Center, the Gents have not only curated the programming, they’ve actively participated themselves. Elise’s West African and Haitian dance class, drums and all, is arguably the city’s most popular dance class. And Eric’s played the drums in her class for years.
With classes devoted to international yoga styles, seminars such as “Heartmind Warrior” and “Mayan Wisdom,” and events like the Roots Rock Bellydance Showcase, this performing arts center is anything but ordinary. And that is only fitting for a city that embraces its moniker, The City Different.
The Railyard Performance Center also partners with Santa Fe groups and individuals, offering tickets and rental fees at a lower cost than other venues might charge. “It’s making the performing arts affordable, which I think is so huge,” Elise says. Local schools, for example, use the center for recitals, and the New Mexico Dance Coalition holds its choreographer’s showcase there. International Storydancer, performer and educator Zuleikha uses the center for her classes and as a practice space.
“I love dancing in the Railyard Performance Center,” Zuleikha says. “Elise and Eric have made such a beautiful space for movement. It is my Santa Fe ‘dance home’ and I have been dancing here for a long time. I love working on this floor. Floors are important for dancers, and Elise and Eric take such care with the space. I have done many performances and taught workshops, all in a safe and spacious feeling.”
But the Railyard Performance Center offers something beyond a rich blend of dance, drama and music. “I think the performing arts is part of our focus, but I think a really large part of our focus is supporting the local community in their daily practice,” Elise says. “As adults, if we haven’t done something as a child, we feel like we can’t do it. What we offer at the Railyard is the opportunity to try something new. There is no end goal. It’s the opportunity to be with other people and continue your practice, whether it’s yoga or dance. All the classes are open to anyone to try. It’s really the opportunity to find out what you want.”
Eric views the venue as a place where people can connect and let down their guards, too. “It’s more like participatory arts,” he says. “It’s not so much performing, but it’s more about practice and integration of movement and music. It’s a way for people to participate. I have always liked having a good time. I love having parties, and I like when people are having a good time in our space. I feel like people can be safe and express themselves. People can come there and cry and laugh. They create, they deconstruct. Whatever they need to do, I want them to be comfortable enough to do it.”
The center is “a very egalitarian thing,” he says. “I’ve always believed that the music and dance that we’ve done is just a metaphor for this larger structure for everyone. I think it’s a lot about giving people the opportunity to express themselves but in the context of a whole bunch of other people. A musician can practice their skills, but when they play with others, they have to be integrated with everyone else. And when that really happens, it’s amazing. I’ve experienced it many times when I’m playing, when enough of the people in the room are together in their intention and movement. It’s amazing. It’s a powerful thing.”
It’s not surprising to learn that it was music and dance that brought Eric and Elise together. The couple met in Santa Fe in 1983, after each had made their way here separately. Elise, who grew up in New York City and graduated from Bennington College in Vermont with a Bachelor of Arts in dance, drove her red Karmann Ghia halfway across the country, arriving in January on the heels of her best friend. “I had a degree in dance, so I knew there was no way I could afford to live in New York City, where I grew up,” she says.
Eric arrived that fall, inspired to make the move after seeing Mimbres pottery from southwest New Mexico while working as a studio assistant for a ceramic artist in upstate New York. “A friend of mine pointed out that the work that I was doing then was reminiscent of the work that these ancient Indian people were doing, with polychrome surfaces and geometric lines,” he says.
On New Year’s Day, Eric and Elise danced into each other’s lives, meeting at a party where guests played music and danced. Once the samba dance broke out, fate showed up, almost as if to ensure that Santa Fe’s music and dance scene would be vibrant.
In 1992, they rented space for their African dance and drumming class in a performing arts venue in the Gross, Kelly Warehouse. When the director stepped down and the venue became available, they took over as owners, hosting their inaugural event on Jan. 1, 1996, with a concert by popular local dance band, Mobius Trip. The Railyard Performance Center became known for all kinds of classes, but Elise’s class was a main draw. Dancers dressed themselves in colorful saris, pants and other traditional West African clothing, often sold by Africans who visited the class and even relocated to Santa Fe. Talk about performance art in action.
In 1999, the warehouse was sold, forcing the Gents to find a new home for their center. They didn’t have far to look. Just down the track, a building was available that they bought and renovated from top to bottom. A few years later, when the city contested their ownership of the building, the community came out in force to support their efforts to stay. “It was four years of painful mediation and there were days when we thought we were going to have to walk away because the city was going to take the building back because they owned it,” Elise says. But I began to understand that we could do it somewhere else. The energy of the people who teach and participate in the classes, that was what the Railyard was. It wasn’t the four walls.” Eric adds that ultimately, “We stayed and ended up with a 90-year-lease.”
The relocation only reinforced the center’s popularity with the community. Classes are often filled to the brim and some of the attendees include their grandchildren, whose parents grew up dancing and drumming in class with their parents. “Right now, one of my greatest joys is taking my granddaughters to see the dance performances at the Railyard,” Elise says. “They are mesmerized, whether it’s modern dance, belly dance or [a] children’s dance class. On Saturdays, my son Hountor is the lead drummer now. Four of our grandchildren are there and lots of other little kids are there and it’s contained chaos…I am the happiest person because I get to do what I love to do, and I’m supported to do it by the whole community.”