From Decatur's city planner to professional dancer

From Decatur's city planner to professional dancer

The Decatur Zoning Board of Appeals was wending through a dense thicket of agenda items when members got hung up on a request. Before deciding if a homeowner could enclose his porch, the board members concluded, they'd need to see a lengthy laundry list of supporting documents.

"Tell him he needs to provide it all at the next meeting," chairman Mark Burnette instructed a bewildered-looking friend standing in for the vacationing homeowner.

"And if he needs more information," board member Neil Norton chimed in as empathetic chuckles rolled across the meeting room, "tell him he should talk to Miss Thompson."

Scribbling notes nearby, Amanda Thompson smiled and looked remarkably unfazed. Being flexible, after all, is a major part of her job description.

Both of them.

Thompson, 30, is planning director for the city of Decatur, overseeing painstakingly precise or potentially contentious areas such as zoning, land use and longer-range quality of life projects for the DeKalb County seat. She is also a professional dancer and choreographer for Zoetic Dance Ensemble, a refreshingly accessible modern dance company that mixed in humor and film clips with the more dramatic curls and lunges during its recent four-night show at 7 Stages theater in Little Five Points.

It's a little like finding out that the IRS commissioner is also a cubist painter whose work hangs in museums. But Thompson — who maintains three separate calendars to ensure her work, artistic and personal wires don't get crossed — insists a city planner who dances (or vice-versa) is not such an oddball combination.

"Both things call heavily upon creativity," Thompson said one morning in her office, where plat maps and an intimidating-looking "Comprehensive Land Use Plan" hung on the walls and a framed dance photo was propped on a bookshelf. "And both call on being able to work within limits."

This first workday after the 7 Stages gig promised to stretch well into the evening. The zoning appeals meeting was one week away, and Thompson needed to get thick informational packets ready for all the board members.

"I'm really a liaison, connecting homeowners, business owners and city officials," said Thompson, who'd find herself right back in City Hall for the monthly planning commission meeting the night after the zoning board spent nearly three hours hearing pro and con arguments on six matters.

"Just like dance, you're trying to get people moving effectively together."

Artists who labor in the workaday world are a tradition as old as prehistoric cave painters. Among Zoetic's eight-member, all-female troupe, several are employed as yoga or dance instructors, and director Melanie Lynch-Blanchard is administrative director for the Georgia Assembly of Community Arts Agencies. Still, what Thompson does is "pretty unique," Lynch-Blanchard said.

"There aren't many dancers who feed themselves through dance," said Lynch-Blanchard, who co-founded Zoetic a decade ago, after studying with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey's programs in New York. "[But] most have careers that are the sort of thing you think of when you think of dance."

Meanwhile, Thompson's not the only artist around the Decatur city office, according to her boss. The senior engineer is a wood turner who makes "beautiful bowls" and a management analyst went to college on an opera scholarship, she said.

"People who are successful in this organization, the common denominator that they have in their backgrounds is participation in the arts. Because you've had to work with other people," said city manager Peggy Merriss, who played flute in her high school band. "Maybe you weren't the star. But if you didn't perform, the whole thing went to hell."

Still, Thompson stands apart in that dance is her vocation, not merely an avocation.

"Other people get passions for other things, but it's difficult to continue that once you get into the day-to-day demands of life," Merriss said. "She just has a real passion for both things she does. Which means she will have to make some other sacrifices."

That's nothing new to Thompson, who has been pointing her toes and attempting to straddle both worlds since she was a teenager.

Raised in Marietta, she started dancing at age 3 and attended Pebblebrook High, Cobb County's performing arts magnet school. While honing her ballet and tap skills, she also headed up the Model United Nations program and served on student council.

After majoring in international relations at Agnes Scott College — "They have a dance minor there that brought in some major choreographers and let me have this very intense, one-on-one experience," she said — she went to work in Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox's office in 2001. Convinced she'd have to move to New York if she wanted to dance professionally, she voluntarily sidelined herself for 18 months.

"But I was totally miserable without dance in my life," Thompson sighed.

She successfully auditioned for Zoetic and spent the next two years fully immersed in dance — performing with the troupe, teaching classes and supporting herself as a belly dancer at several local restaurants and as a "have theme, will hoof it" dancer at corporate social events.

Her decision to study for a master's degree in public administration at Georgia State was partly prompted by the feeling that "I wasn't using part of my brain enough."

Anything else?

"I was tired of working parties where people asked, 'Are you really a Can Can Girl?'" she quipped.

By 2005, as she was finishing up her degree and interviewing for an internship with the city of Decatur, Thompson was asking questions of herself: Lighter-hearted ones, like could she possibly work in an office and not wear dance clothing all day? More fundamental ones, like would her new bosses be cool with her "other" life?

"I told them I was in a dance company, and they were like, 'OK, as long as you get your work done,' " recalled Thompson, who takes class and rehearses every Thursday night and Saturday with Zoetic. But the dance obligations don't stop there. Sometimes they're tacked on to the end of a long workday. On the night of the zoning meeting, for instance, she was at City Hall until 10:15 p.m. before heading over to Lynch-Blanchard's house. There they worked until 1 a.m. plotting out a new piece Zoetic will perform at the Dance 101 concert at the Alliance Theatre July 31-Aug. 2.

Not everything always goes according to carefully choreographed plan. In May, Synchronicity theater group presented a children's show during the day at 7 Stages and suggested Zoetic put on a show there at night. The program's numbers had already been choreographed when the troupe showed up at 7 Stages for some final rehearsals. There, instead of the flat surface upon which they were accustomed to performing, they found parts of the stage contained staircases, wooden risers and other aspects of the Synchronicity show that had to stay put. Quickly now, some old dance pieces had to be newly envisioned.

"A lot of it was just spending time together in the space and getting to know where things are," Thompson said before going on one night. "Taking some turns and steps out, pointing people in certain directions. It ended up showing us some interesting, new ways to look at things."

Being creative. Working within limits. Sometimes it's hard knowing where the required skill set for one job ends and the other one begins. In her office a few days after the 7 Stages show, Thompson proudly displayed the recently adopted Community Transportation Plan she helped develop. Thick as a phone book, it lays out ways for Decatur to become an "active living community" where the sidewalks and streets encourage walking and biking -- but where it's still possible to park a car or take public transit.

"What I love is figuring out ways to make the city's vision a reality, in much the way I like making dance visions a reality," said Thompson, explaining her passion for something seemingly as tedious as transportation.

Then she cut to the chase. "Obviously, I love movement!"

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