Having spent most of her life in the world of dance, Penn is very much in her element. Born and raised in Washington Heights, she spent her early years training to be a professional dancer at The School of American Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet School.
When an injury sidelined her plans for a career on the stage, Penn instinctively made the decision to transfer her passion into arts management.
“This is in my DNA,” she explains. “When I realized I didn’t want to be on the performing side, but behind the scenes made sense for me, it was a natural move.”
For more than two decades, Penn has played a consistent role in the development of several arts nonprofits, focusing on issues of accessibility, affordability and equity.
Starting off as an intern at Lión Dance Company, Penn helped to create L.I.N.K.S, the company’s first arts-in-education program. She then went on to work with the Foundation Center’s First Steps/Next Steps program for under-resourced organizations.
Penn also held an eight-year tenure at Harlem’s Studio Museum, where she spearheaded a partnership with Target that launched a program that helped build bridges in several communities in Upper Manhattan.
Her most recent position was as director of development for the Joyce Theater. There, Penn designed the “JoycePass” and “PayWhatYouDecide” initiatives.
At RIOULT, Penn is expanding upon her previous experience as both a performer and an administrator in order to steer the dance center into the future.
“Artists are very three-dimensional people,” Penn says. “Out of the very intense training comes this discipline that gives you a breath and scope to what you can achieve.
“I have always pulled from my early years of training, whether I am doing a presentation or looking at a budget,” she added. “It feeds everything that I do.”
In October 2018, RIOULT Dance Center, the company’s first-ever brick-and-mortar home, opened its doors. Specifically designed for dance, the 11,000-square-foot facility includes four studios - one of which doubles as a black-box theater.
“Most dance companies are nomadic,” says Penn. “And all the dimensions of the space that dance uses does limit availability in a place like New York City. So to have the luxury of building something like this from the ground up is a big deal.”
Nestled within Astoria’s Kaufman Arts District, RIOULT Dance Center hopes to be a creative hub for the city’s larger dance community, as well.
The facility brings in performers and choreographers at all stages of their careers, offering them rehearsal space for an affordable hourly rate, which is made possible through funding from the State Council on the Arts and the arts advocacy group Dance/NYC.
The dance center further serves as an educational resource for the local area, thanks to a growing semester program where children as young as 18 months old can enroll in modern, ballet, tap and hip-hop classes.
RIOULT also offers a diverse schedule of open classes seven days a week for adults, which Penn sometimes indulges in herself.
Many of the teachers are also artists who utilize the space for rehearsal, a thread that Penn says is working to connect the dots that are RIOULT’s various programs as the company continues a dialogue of symbiosis with the community.
“This is a space where people can come together,” muses Penn.
It is also a place where Penn can replenish her inspiration and drive while getting to observe the fruits of her labor unfold before her.
“The best part of my day is standing up from my computer, taking a few steps to the studio and seeing the company dance,” she says. “Rather than taking a coffee break or standing by the water cooler, I can watch them trying to work through a difficult phrase or doing a run through one of the pieces, and then go back to the rest of my day.”
Visit rioult.org for more information.