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Broward Venue Adds A Bit Of Flavor To Its Schedule


August 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Latinas in high heels and flowing skirts sip on cocktails, speaking Spanish to each other. Others in the fashionable crowd sing along as the Latin jazz band Fifth Avenue plays at the Saturday night happy hour. A few folks nibble on empanadas. Couples twist their hips to the music.

This festive scene is not at a nightclub in South Beach. It's at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.

While still staging classical ballets and operas, administrators are adding new punch with salsa singers, hip-hop concerts and ethnic banquets -- a dash of flavor for the sprawling, $52 million complex.

It mirrors a growing trend in the arts community toward diversity in programming.

''We don't subscribe to the thinking that a performing arts center should just be for the classical arts or Off-Broadway musicals,'' says Teri Freitas Gorman, director of education and community affairs at the Broward center. ``They are wonderful art forms, but there are other cultures and art forms that are just as legitimate.''

The effort has culminated in Tropical Nights, a series of monthly musical evenings featuring various cultures such as Brazilian, Latin or Jamaican, which can bring in a crowd from previously unserved segments of the community.

This night, it's a packed house of a mainly Hispanics, clamoring to see Latin jazz great Willie Colón.

Eager fans danced in the aisles while Colón played -- a no-no. Security at the concert shooed them back to their seats, but at times, the guards were outnumbered. The audience salsa-ed on.

''This is like a Puerto Rican tent here tonight,'' said Ramson Ramos, 44, of Fort Lauderdale, who came to see Colón.

The crowd is far different from the predominately white, and more specifically Jewish audience the center has attracted.

The ''old school'' performance center audience wears gowns to events, not skirts with fringes that swing while doing the mambo.

The push for diversity is very much a numbers game.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the number of blacks has increased 72 percent in Broward over 10 years and they now comprise 20.5 percent of the population. During the same period, the number of Hispanics increased 150.5 percent and is now about 16 percent of the population. The number of Asians has increased 118.3 percent.

The effort at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts began about three years ago when Gorman joined the staff. She made diversity part of her mission, but also at the same time worried about the programming coming across as pandering.

''Some [performing art centers] hold Ballet Hispanica in October and feel that they've done their job to reach a different segment,'' Gorman said. ``If Ballet Hispanica is good for October, it's good for any other time of the year.''

Gorman targeted the Brazilian community initially because of its cohesion. She opted not to start with the Hispanic community because it's more diverse -- with people from starkly different places, such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and Spain. The Brazilian community would be easier to cultivate, she said.

Gorman invited the Brazilian consul general in Miami and other community leaders to a mixer. They brainstormed. The result was a Brazil night with a Brazilian singer.

''Before, I would only go to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts once or twice a year,'' said Gene de Souza, host of WNDA 88.9 FM's Cafe Brasil, a musical show on public radio. ``Now I go five or six times a year. It's very international now.''

Since then, the Broward Center has booked acts such as Daniela Mercury, a Brazilian singer, Latina singer India, and hip-hop acts such as Nelly, who canceled.

In addition to cultural diversity, the center has tried to attract younger families from Broward's suburbs by hosting programs like a Sesame Street show.

When encouraging diversity, the centers have to be careful not to alienate or cut off other groups, said Kim Chan, a vice president at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, an arts center trade group in Washington, D.C., with 1,400 members.

''It's about having a larger audience,'' Chan said. ``The world isn't flat anymore. It's round.''

Tell that to Suzanne Gonzalez, 46, of Miramar, who celebrated her birthday by shimmying at the Colón concert. It was her first time at the performing arts center.

''This was better than I expected,'' Gonzalez said. ``I'll be back.''

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