Dance Palace's Bonnie Guttman: Up to and up for the challenges

David Briggs
Bonnie Guttman led West Marin School students from campus to a theater practice this month.  

When executive director Bonnie Guttman speaks about the Dance Palace—its long history, the myriad activities currently offered and those she envisions for the future—this normally reserved woman catches fire. Two and a half years into the position, she revels in challenges and hard work. “When I took the job, I thought it would be a three-ring circus,” she says. “It turned out to be a six-ring circus. I feel like I am working with a 40-year-old startup.”

It makes sense. Bonnie is the fifth person to head the community center in the past 10 years. During that decade, two directors and two interim directors preceded her, along with a good deal of accompanying institutional turmoil. She saw the opportunity to start fresh and seized it with gusto.

Bonnie has a background in city and regional planning, which on the surface may not seem a likely preparation for a position that includes organizing and planning cultural activities, events and programs, and managing complicated finances. But her graduate degree and 20 years of work in the field of planning turns out to be just the ticket. 

“Planners have a variety of projects in any given day that are all very different and they must think in a linear way,” she says, adding with a smile, “Having a tough skin is helpful.” She sometimes has to make unpopular decisions, “but not too many,” she says.

She also formerly managed the Point Reyes Farmers Market for three years. The opportunity allowed her to meet people in the community and make important and useful connections. In preparation for the job at the Dance Palace, she mentored with the community center’s founder and former longtime director Carol Friedman. Carol familiarized Bonnie with the nuts and bolts of running such a complex organization.

A top priority, and one she takes very seriously, is ensuring that the Dance Palace endures for future generations. She has worked diligently with the board and staff to rectify past financial issues, and last year the Dance Palace secured $200,000 in grant money. Grants from the county and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation enabled the center to increase its fundraising outreach capacity, move to a new database, establish a new website and develop a communications plan. Because of grants and donations from the community, the Dance Palace has been able to break even on performance events since she started.

As the new director, one of Bonnie’s first concerns was programming. She initiated the “pop-up” model: When people come in with an idea, whether it be theater, music, film or something else, she tries to make it work—both for the person proposing it and for the Dance Palace. After the organization covers its expenses, the balance of monies collected goes to the person who proposed the idea. Bonnie is very clear that the Dance Palace is not interested in making a profit, only in breaking even.

The center has a long history of offering programs for children. Summer camp has been around for 39 years and afterschool programs include musical theater, aikido, art and a children’s choir. The reality of our times is that many families need financial assistance to afford these programs. Currently, 50 percent of campers and 37 percent of afterschool students are on scholarship; no one is turned away for lack of funds. “Families need scholarships,” Bonnie says. Funding for scholarships is supplied by a variety of grantors and donors, most notably West Marin Community Services and the Marin County Fish and Wildlife Commission. 

Another recent innovation is the Dance Palace’s partnership with the San Geronimo Valley Community Center for two joint film festivals and a musical event. “Anytime we can partner with other organizations, everybody wins,” Bonnie says. 

Many people now involved with the Dance Palace have been around from the beginning. Barry Linder was using his painting skills back in the day and has been refreshing the look of the place ever since; Carlos Porrata, who heads the art committee, laid the floor where the exhibits currently hang. There are many others who go way back. Bonnie venerates this legacy and continuity. “This connects the Dance Palace to the heart,” she says. 

She also subscribes to an open-door policy when it comes to customer satisfaction. “Call or come by,” she says. “I want to know if someone is not happy, or if they have misunderstood a policy.”

Speaking of ideas, Bonnie’s mind is in constant motion and her enthusiasm bubbles up when contemplating new plans. Currently, one of her favorite schemes is a travel program—both armchair travel as well as sponsoring organized trips using locals as guides, and that idea springs from her own passion for travel. “I love new places, cities and new people. Throw on a backpack and travel around the world—that’s my thing,” she says. Bonnie has travelled to 26 countries—“so far,” she clarifies—but these days, with a 24/7 job, she has put the activity on hold.

Bonnie was married for 12 years to her college sweetheart. Her former husband worked for the federal government and was constantly being transferred or promoted, so they moved a lot. “We led a crazy life for a while,” she says, but she enjoyed the constant change.

In her allegedly free time, Bonnie enjoys swimming. Twice a week, she travels over the hill to exercise in a private pool and enjoy some solitude. Because she is so active and interacts with many people at work, she craves time alone and enjoys going to movies by herself. 

“I’m an introvert who operates as an extrovert,” she says.


Ellen Shehadeh has written for the Light, the West Marin Citizen, The Pacific Sun and the North Bay Bohemian, and interviewed artists and authors on KWMR, for 14 years. She lives in Inverness.