Underdogs Unite!

One of the things I like best about what I do is that it connects me with people of all ages, experiences, and relationships to dance. I especially like becoming a fixture in certain circles so that my observation and understanding of certain groups increases and I am better able to relate to these people with each subsequent meeting.

Not long ago, I met with a young woman I first worked with when I was a guest choreographer at Michigan State University. MSU offers a phenomonal dance minor completely developed and executed by one Sherrie Barr. This young woman with whom I met, wanted to pick my brain and my impressions of the dance world and procure any advice I could muster. After doing my best to satisfy her request, I left thinking about the advice I had been granted when I was in her shoes and I realized that I failed to mention perhaps the most important and most impossible piece I have ever received:

Find your own niche.

As a twenty-something, I not only found this daunting but nearly debilitating. How does one actively find their niche?! Sure, I could come up with things I did well and things I thought set me apart in one setting only to find in another, they were not at all individual or distinguishing. I also kept rehashing the possibilities for this elusive niche in the same cliché pathway, performance; as if it were all that existed in Dance.

As a thirty-something, I think it is has finally hit me. My niche is not in any of the areas I expected, or rather hoped it would be. It is in teaching. On top of this, it is not even with the type of student nor the kind of environment I projected myself to be most adept at working. It is with students of all ages and backgrounds that are looking at dance to serve a role OTHER than that which would lead to a typical performance or choreography job. Probably, this is because it is what I need dance to do, too.

My students tend to need dance to lead to something greater. Movement may be their first language and thus their best method to develop critical thinking and other skills. Dance may serve as a therapy in ways more profound than the mere release of endorphins or adrenaline. Their understanding of the business side of dance may lead to a profession in which both sides of their brain are engaged. And all of this could have a trickle effect, impacting more people in innovative and interesting ways. Great. But then what?

When I was directing a dance minor program at a small liberal arts college here in Michigan, I told a colleague from another institution about my program and my philosophy. I included that several of my dance minors were not dancers in the typical sense, performing terrified them, but more, they were interested in the field of dance; the theories existing in and relating to dance, and linking those ideas to their “other” areas of academic interest. They were interested in thinking outside the box –well multiple boxes, if you consider that they were viewing dance as well as their majors in ways completely new to them. When my colleague laughed and likened this to being an astronaut but not wanting to go into space, I realized this person was not interested in thinking outside the box. It surprised me and yet, I think this mentality is the norm rather than the exception.

So, where do these underdogs go? Where does one send a dance minor that is a lovely mover but with less contact hours in technique than a dance major to find their niche, particularly when dance industries prize physicality (and by extension, professional clout) first and intellectualism second? Is there room for entry-level, non-performing dance artists? Where do they go in the time between the lightbulb moment that dance is more than dancing and heavy-hitting dance scholar status? How do we advise the dance minds that our field depends on…the John Martins, the Margaret H’Doublers, the Lincoln Kirsteins? Surely, if we leave all of Dance up to the dancers, we will crumble in 5,6,7,8.

Maybe I am wondering this for my own journey, as well. I trust that an entire career must contain multiple niches and I always like to think ahead. Maybe some, even much, of my pondering stems from the doors that have been closed to me which ultimately guided me to those that have been open, thus prompting me in unexpected directions.

At the close of our meeting, this young woman said she was envious of my professional and personal timeline; that it seemed things had worked out perfectly. They have. Certainly different from how I had planned them, however. She also remarked that it appeared things had fallen into place for me, almost by chance. I replied with, “No, by hard work.” I suppose from a distance it might appear opportunities have just come to me. But, upon closer examination, they have all stemmed from trying my best at whatever I was doing at the time. The people that witnessed that kept me in mind when they heard of opportunities, and the professional game of “telephone” has led to successes. Maybe instead of chalking it up to “who you know” it really should be “who you impress.”

Ultimately, I have decided “niches” are not destinations you can set out to find but must stumble upon through reflection.

So, twenty-somethings, ready to take on the world:
work hard, be flexible, and look back to project forward.
The rest of us underdogs are here for you when you need us.

Little Boxes

The beginning of the academic year always brings back a flurry of my own memories as a student. As an undergraduate dance major, I entered my program as a jazz dancer who watched modern dance, always thinking, “that is what I want to do. That is dance.” I suppose at that point of my training and pre-professional career, I considered jazz to be dancing, and modern to be dance. Maybe in some ways, I still do.

As I progressed through my BFA, I was encouraged to dabble in all, specialize in few, and to try to understand who I was as an artist. This was hard for me. I enjoyed the dabbling in all although admittedly performance always took priority. I tried really hard to figure out where I fit and where I wanted to go next. But, the specialization was a particular challenge. Easily, I was a jazz dancer who could also “do” modern. That was the box I inhabited, somewhat agreeably as jazz was my first language and had provided the most opportunity for me. But it was also where I felt most other people—–faculty and peers–kept me boxed in. In my class, there were three BFA majors in three sturdy boxes: “the ballet dancer”, “the modern dancer”, and “the jazz dancer.” Three unique movers, three distinct personalities, and three pre-conceived identities more rooted in how we entered the program versus how we finished it.

As I moved around the country in pursuit of a dancer’s life, the box that contained my undergraduate experience was essential baggage that helped and hindered as I transitioned to the professional dance world, and with it, the “other” real world. Once out on my own, I realized how much of the rest of me I’d boxed up during college in order to concentrate and condition myself for the world of dance. Professionally, I struggled with strategy. Should I focus on jazz, making jazz contacts, securing jazz gigs, and then attempt to transition to modern? Or, now free of the jazz stigma, should I start with modern. Already, I was aware I needed balance and frustrated at how that might roadblock my way to success (as I then perceived it) in either discipline. It took a while for me to see that my new sturdy box was one of a multi-dimensional person and artist that could forge in many different directions and still claim success. My perception was what needed to change, not my identity. My box simply needed to upgrade from the size of an egg-crate to one of, oh I don’t know….a dishwasher? No room for a refrigerator box yet, I was still living the gypsy life and rent in NYC is expensive.

Standing on 52nd Street in the days following 9/11, waiting to start my shift as a visual merchandiser for a large retail chain, it hit me. This isn’t for me. Working 40-plus hours and hoping to have enough money and energy to take class, audition, and do all that comes with my “dance habit” (as later one of my graduate professors lovingly referred to it) was not cutting it for me. Even though I had had opportunity to perform, had networked and made valuable and impressive contacts, and was starting to make it happen, I was not fulfilled. Suddenly, my life felt frivolous. Dressing windows by day, auditioning and taking class by afternoon and night no longer seemed the responsible thing to do. How was this helping anybody but myself and what exactly was it helping me do?
I soon met my husband, who happened to be living in Los Angeles, where coincidentally one of my best friends, the aforementioned “the modern dancer,” was living. I packed my boxes and drove across country to a slightly redesigned dance existence and with my perception of success still under construction. There, “the modern dancer” and I started a short-lived pick up company. My pursuit of a dancer’s life was now veering from performer to creator and even more quickly back to academia with graduate school calling. More boxes, more notions, and dimensions were developing.

So, to grad school I went, where I was now the modern dancer who could also“do” jazz. The bottom of my original box and opened and now become the top. I was struck to find much of the same stigma, but viewed from a different angle. An angle in which jazz was not as readily respected yet in a pinch, was a highly valuable skill to have. It still afforded me unique opportunities within a predominantly modern dance program. Yet, due to the quality of my jazz training and the depth of my classic jazz experiences, I was now somewhat of an authority of what seems to be a dying art form in spite of its popular existance.

Since graduate school, I have tried on other cardboard dwellings: teaching dance in the public schools, higher education, community college, private studio, masterclasses, and more. I have performed for repertory companies, pick-up companies, and free-lanced. I still choreograph mostly modern works and take pride in my ability to bridge concepts in multiple genres and ideologies. I am supremely thankful for my background in Dance and having worked with and been influenced by people with deep understandings of the difference between dancing and dance, regardless of genre.

I am no longer simply inhabiting a single box, but able to stand proudly on several for a better view of the dance world, the other real world, and most importantly, to use as leverage in order to help someone else. It is from this perception of success that I write to you of my experiences, viewpoints, and other ponderings.

Originally published by Dance in the Annex.  http://www.danceintheannex.com