Beach Sessions 2016. Photo by Elena Mudd. Courtesy of Beach Sessions Dance Series organized by Sasha Okshteyn.
Beach Sessions 2016. Photo by Elena Mudd. Courtesy of Beach Sessions Dance Series organized by Sasha Okshteyn.

For Sasha Okshteyn, art can and should be used for good.

The 30-year-old former dancer is the founder of Beach Sessions Dance Series, which offers two days of free performances held at New York City’s Rockaway Beach. With the events, Okshteyn combines her passion for dance with her desire to help the environment by using the Beach Sessions dance showcase to promote the activist message: Keep our beaches clean.

The third year of Beach Sessions Dance Series opens its metaphorical curtains on August 19 and 26. The performances feature well-known choreographers and dancers from the New York area who use their surrounding environment — in this case the beach — to inspire their movement. And they attract hundreds of beachgoers — people who hear about the events from citywide press, catch on via Rockaway social media buzz, or simply stumble across it on the day.

Okshteyn may have been fated to combine the ocean and the arts. “Art has informed everything I do,” she says. Her mother owns the Black & White gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and her father is an artist. Okshteyn, who spent most of her life dancing, has a B.A. in dance and art history from George Washington University and received a Master’s degree from New York University Steinhardt in visual arts administration. Growing up in culturally rich New York, Okshteyn developed an interest in dance festivals and, specifically, outdoor ones like River to River, an annual dance festival held in Lower Manhattan and on Governor’s Island.

In 2013, Okshteyn, who is also a surfer, moved to Rockaway Beach, Queens, and got a front row view of the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the coast line. Concerned about the damage caused to the beach by the hurricane, and the continuing damage inflicted through pollution, Okshteyn was inspired to combine her love of dance with an effort to clean up and preserve Rockaway Beach. And the idea for Beach Sessions, a free outdoor dance festival to inspire others to take care of their beach, was born.

[Related: The Women Entrepreneurs Who Beat Hurricane Sandy]

Beach Sessions Dance Series, which takes place on a temporary stage Okshteyn erects on the sand, is designed to engage both audience and artists with the performance space in an unexpected way. It endeavors to showcase dance, something beautiful, in a way that encourages people to preserve that beauty by keeping the beach clean.

Matty Davis of BOOMERANG for Beach Sessions 2016. Photo by Bryan Derballa. Courtesy of Beach Sessions Dance Series organized by Sasha Okshteyn.
Matty Davis of BOOMERANG for Beach Sessions 2016. Photo by Bryan Derballa. Courtesy of Beach Sessions Dance Series organized by Sasha Okshteyn.

To deliver her message, Okshteyn selects performing artists who are inspired by the beach as a space. For instance, she has invited established New York choreographers who deal with the environment in their work to either choreograph new pieces or re-work previous pieces to highlight Rockaway Beach. The artist collaborators Okshteyn works with “understand that the beach is uncontrollable and adapt to the elements,” she says. In fact, the unruly setting is part of the fun of Beach Sessions, as “it makes it exciting and makes the series what it is.”

Turning A Dream Into Reality

To transform her idea into reality, Okshteyn launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that raised over $7,500 in 6 months for her first season of Beach Sessions. She also had to obtain permission from the New York City Parks Department, which operates the beach and boardwalk in the Beach 90s section of Rockaway where the performances take place. “They’ve been really supportive,” she says.

Though there are many outdoor events at Rockaway Beach, Okshteyn’s proposition was different: an art event that happens on the sand as opposed to the boardwalk, where a majority of other beach-front events occur. Okshteyn believes the Parks Department was eager to work with her as an opportunity to introduce a new cultural event to the area.

Nevertheless, Okshteyn had to navigate the department’s permit system to be able to use the space, set up her stage and amplify sound. She also established partnerships with organizations like the Surfrider Foundation, a national organization of surf enthusiasts who work to protect beaches from pollution, to help realize her environmental goals. Beach Sessions and Surfrider work together to organize post-performance beach clean-up sessions. Audience members who participate in the clean-ups receive tickets for free beer at the local Rockaway Brewing Co. — Okshteyn’s method of incentivizing more audience members to stick around and join the effort.

[Related: Listen to our podcast episode featuring Rockaway Beach, Saving Our Coastal Communities]

With logistics and partnerships taken care of, Okshteyn turned to promoting her event, primarily through social media and press coverage. “Social media is the best way to promote business in the Rockaways,” she says. “Hashtag Rockaway Beach, and people find you because they’re coming for the day.” Thanks to her presence on social media and fun summer concept, she has received consistent city wide press coverage. “It helps that [Beach Sessions] is in the summer, because in the fall there is a lot of dance programming,” she adds.

To woo an audience, Okshteyn has also leaned heavily on her Rockaway community, which she says has been incredibly supportive. Shop owners have allowed her to hang posters in their stores, and they and many others have promoted the event. Now, the performances are well attended, and Okshteyn estimates the “audience is 60 percent from the Rockaway community and 40 percent dance world people that have sought out the series.” Her favorite type of audience member, though, “is the one that’s been sitting on the beach all day and didn’t know it was happening,” the people who are intrigued and drag their beach towels over to see what’s going on.

Beach Sessions 2016. Photo by Elena Mudd. Courtesy of Beach Sessions Dance Series organized by Sasha Okshteyn.
Beach Sessions 2016. Photo by Elena Mudd. Courtesy of Beach Sessions Dance Series organized by Sasha Okshteyn.

Though Kickstarter was helpful the first year, Okshteyn decided to apply for grants in the second year because running a successful crowdfunding campaign proved to be a lot of work and relied heavily on asking family and friends to donate. But thanks to the first season’s success, she was able to apply for and receive grants from both the City Parks Foundation and the Queens Council on the Arts. The funds helped Okshteyn secure higher quality production materials for Beach Sessions, such as a stage better designed for the sandy, windy and wet environment, as well as better marketing materials for promotion.

On the Horizon

In the future, Okshteyn aims to explore new ways of using the beach for art as well as new ways to use art for environmental change. One plan is to introduce a panel discussion featuring choreographers, dancers and artists talking about ways they believe art can be used to help the environment at our beaches and beyond. She is now looking for funding to produce this event. Okshteyn would also like to hire help to carry out Beach Sessions, which is currently a “one woman show.”

For Okshteyn, the Rockaway community was instrumental in her being able to start Beach Sessions, both by providing the inspiration for the project and a creative space to get it up and running. Living in Rockaway, Okshteyn was able to “quietly grow [her] business and project ideas without pressure,” while also connecting “with other women and people who are doing similar things for moral support.”

Finding the financial backers, materials, choreographers, partners and obtaining permits to perform on the beach were hurdles Okshteyn got over, thanks to her hard work and passion for Beach Sessions and its message. But as always, there was a little luck involved, and for Okshteyn that was finding the warm and open Rockaway community.