How San Francisco Became A City of Dance
San Francisco has always been a city that dances to its own beat. From the oldest professional ballet company in the U.S. to some of the most celebrated contemporary choreographers and dance festivals in the world, our dance card is full—and the citizens of San Francisco wouldn’t have it any other way.
What’s more, San Francisco’s spirit of artistic exploration and cultural inclusivity has made the city a beacon for a diverse range of performers and movement-based art forms that hail from every corner of the globe.
Whether you want to take in a professional performance, learn some new moves at a festival, or dance the night away at the hottest clubs in town, here's our guide to dance in San Francisco.
Where Movement Meets Movements
More than an art form, dance is deeply entwined with San Francisco’s political and social history. From the hippies who danced their way through the Summer of Love to our legendary gay club scene, self-expression through dance has been a constant in changing times.
San Francisco is also a place of rebels and pioneers. One of the most important dancers of the 20th century, Isadora Duncan, was born in San Francisco and honed her craft here. You can even visit Isadora Duncan Lane, located behind the dancer’s childhood home in Central Market. Beginning in the early 1930s, the San Francisco Ballet set the standard for classical ballet in America. By the 1970s, experimental dance companies began forming on the fringes of the mainstream dance scene, with visionaries like Margaret Jenkins and Brenda Way pushing the form to daring new heights. Contemporary dance companies continue to use dance to investigate the most important issues of our day, and a wave of open-minded repertories are giving a voice to performers of every age, race, gender, body type and ability.
Dance Forms and Festivals in San Francisco
From classical ballet to cutting-edge hip hop to ancient Indian kathak, there is truly no limit to the styles of dance you can discover on a visit to San Francisco. Here are some of the diverse dance companies and festivals you can experience in the City by the Bay.
Classical and Contemporary Ballet
Think ballet is all tights and tutus? Think again. San Francisco’s many classical and contemporary companies push the boundaries of what ballet – and bodies – can do.
Founded by virtuoso dancer and choreographer Alonzo King in 1982, the Alonzo King LINES Ballet blends classical techniques with new forms of movement and storytelling, often collaborating with poets, artists and musicians to create adventurous soundscapes and striking visual poetry. Performances, classes and workshops take place throughout the year, and the company frequently tours nationally and internationally.
Founded in 1933, the San Francisco Ballet is the oldest and one of the most prestigious classical ballet companies in the U.S. From the start, the ballet’s home has been the War Memorial Opera House, an opulent Beaux-Arts building in the Civic Center/Hayes Valley neighborhood. Many legendary ballet masters have led the company through the years, including current artistic director Helgi Tómasson, a former protégé of George Balanchine. In addition to familiar favorites like "Swan Lake" and "Don Quixote," the company’s repertory season (which runs winter through spring) also includes contemporary and experimental ballets, all accompanied by its own orchestra.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet
You can see everything from sultry works set to the music of soul queen Etta James to "The Christmas Ballet," an off-kilter take on "The Nutcracker," at Smuin Ballet. Formed in 1994 by the late Michael Smuin, a former artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, this acclaimed company performs its boundary-pushing contemporary works to sold-out audiences around the Bay Area at venues such as the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Palace of Fine Arts.
Postmodern & Avant Garde
The same tendency to blaze new trails that sparked the San Francisco Sound is alive and well in the city’s vibrant contemporary dance scene.
AXIS Dance Company
Featuring an amazing and inspiring mix of dancers with and without disabilities (including some in wheelchairs), AXIS Dance Company aims to prove that anyone is capable of doing just about anything in pursuit of self-expression. Founded in 1987 by artistic director Thais Mazur to make dance more accessible and inclusive for all, AXIS also hosts workshops and dance classes that are open to the community.
Margaret Jenkins Dance Company
A former member of Twyla Tharp’s original dance company in New York City, Margaret Jenkins is one of the grande dames of the San Francisco postmodern dance movement. Her intimate company, founded in 1973, shatters norms of movement and staging, incorporating everything from conceptual lighting design to immersive seating. So influential is Jenkins that April 24 was declared Margaret Jenkins Day in San Francisco back in 2003.
In true San Francisco fashion, choreographer Brenda Way brought her fledgling dance company from Oberlin College in Ohio to San Francisco on a yellow school bus in 1976. Since then, ODC/Dance has been at the leading edge of postmodern dance in the city and beyond, collaborating with artists from different mediums to create interdisciplinary works that are thought-provoking, stirring, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Robert Moses’ Kin
One of the most exciting contemporary dance companies to emerge from San Francisco in decades, Robert Moses’ Kin uses eclectic movements and a unique blend of dance styles to explore issues of race, class and gender. Notable works from the prolific group include "Bootstrap Tales" and "Biography," an interpretation of the life of author James Baldwin.
There are so many more boundary-breaking dance companies to check out in San Francisco, including Joe Goode Performance Group, PUSH Dance Company and Deborah Slater Dance Theater, a multimedia dance company which celebrates the “art of human motion” through inventive, acrobatic dance.
San Francisco has long been known as America’s capital of LGBTQ culture, and our dance scene is no exception.
Man Dance Company
Regarded as one of the premier LGBTQ dance companies in the U.S., Man Dance Company celebrates male movement with two professional productions each year. The all-male company also features female and youth guest stars from the local community. MDC’s "The NutcrackOr", a male perspective on "The Nutcracker," has become a holiday tradition in its own right.
Sean Dorsey Dance
Recognized as one of the first out transgender choreographers in the U.S., Sean Dorsey brings a wholly original perspective to the city’s dance scene. Powerful yet vulnerable, Dorsey’s works focus on issues of masculinity and gender identity. Dorsey is also a founder of Fresh Meat Productions, an incubator for multidisciplinary transgender arts programs.
Dance Festivals & Events
Throughout the year, numerous festivals and events showcase San Francisco’s brightest dance stars, and invite the public to get on their feet.
Bay Area Dance Week
Each spring, the local dance community invites the entire Bay Area to get up and dance at locations across the region. You can learn everything from Greek dance to hip-hop to Argentine tango to belly dancing, all free of charge.
You’ll literally be dancing in the street alongside thousands of energetic performers at Carnaval, the largest multicultural celebration of its kind on the West Coast. Dance is a centerpiece of the festival. You’ll see local contingents from Cuba, Brazil and many other Latin countries shaking a tail feather—thousands of them, actually—in their gloriously plumed costumes.
San Francisco’s rich Chinese heritage is celebrated each February at the annual Chinese New Year Festival & Parade, where you can see lion dancers, colorful dragon performers, and local companies performing traditional Chinese folk dances.
Salsa Festival on the Fillmore
Learn how to salsa, bachata and merengue at this two-day dance party that has been spicing up the Fillmore since 2008. There’s live music, dance contests, and lessons from expert dancers. Even better: it’s free!
San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival
The incredible cultural diversity of the Bay Area is on display at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, one of the largest events of its kind. You can see a mind-boggling array of dance forms over two weekends, like the graceful, sensual Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company, the fiery Theatre Flamenco, and the Chitresh Das Institute, which preserves Indian classical arts such as kathak dance.
San Francisco International Hip-Hop DanceFest
Founded in 1999, SFIHHDF gathers the most mind-blowing solo performers and crews from around the Bay Area and as far away as New York and Paris for one explosive weekend of dance at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Get Out and Dance
Now it’s your turn. If you’ve got the music in you, here are some of the great places to shake your groove thing around San Francisco.
The SoMa Scene
Audio (316 11th St.)
This club boasts a 54,000-watt Funktion One 3D surround system – the only one in the world – plus a spring-loaded dance floor to create the ultimate experience in sound and dance.
DNA Lounge (375 11th St.)
Just a few steps away, DNA Lounge is consistently voted the Best Dance Club in San Francisco. With four dance floors bumping everything from ’90s hip-hop to trance, it’s easy to see why.
Monarch (101 6th St.)
Start with a craft cocktail in the posh Victorian steampunk lounge then really get down in the basement dance club, home to one of the loudest, sweatiest dance parties in the city.
Oasis (298 11th St.)
Located in a former bathhouse, Oasis is a popular gay club that hosts a diverse lineup of musicians, DJs and cabaret acts. It may be best known for Mother, a club-within-a-club that showcases some of the most acclaimed drag performers in the world.
Retro & Historic Dance Clubs
More comfortable twisting than twerking? Lucky for you, there are plenty of places to trip the light fantastic, retro-style, in San Francisco.
Bimbo’s 365 Club (1025 Columbus Ave.)
With its red velvet drapes, glittering chandeliers and checkerboard floors, Bimbo's feels like waltzing into the past. This classic North Beach supper club has hosted the likes of Louis Prima and Marvin Gaye over the years. If you’re looking to dance, don’t miss Tainted Love, a super popular 1980s throwback band that plays here on the regular.
Bruno’s (2389 Mission St.)
A mid-century modern landmark in the Mission District, Bruno's draws a diverse crowd for its upbeat party jams, killer sound system and kitschy interiors worthy of the Playboy Mansion.
The Starlight Room (450 Powell St.)
You’ll want to dress to impress at this glamorous Union Square nightclub with a fabled history. Located on the 21st floor of the historic Sir Francis Drake Hotel, this immaculately preserved Art Deco gem offers twinkling, 360-degree city views beneath a mirror-ceiling dance floor. There’s also a popular drag brunch on Sundays.
Best of the Rest
Of course, that’s just a taste of San Francisco’s large and varied club scene. You can find scores of iconic gay clubs throughout the city, like The Café in the Castro and OMG in SoMA. See top touring DJs at clubs like swanky Mezzanine, or grind to your favorite hip-hop and R&B grooves at spots like Double Dutch in the Mission. Get more recommendations for where to bust a move here.