Leading Me Here

Ten years ago I was living in NYC. I loved it. Good and bad, I loved every bit of it. Every blade of grass in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Every bookstore. Every pretzel cart. Every step stepped where history was made and interesting people walked before.

Ten years ago I was pursuing the life of a dancer. I loved this a little less. I had a hard time finding where I belonged. But I loved the volume of dance, the accessibility to dance, the appreciation of dance. I loved figuring this out.

One day, ten years ago everything turned upside down. My journey back to my apartment on 175th from midtown was the loneliest of my life. I walked with strangers. I could call no one. Thankfully, I had spoken to my family in Michigan before I left the store in which I worked. Black fighter jets flew low overhead. I remember wishing that if I walked long enough, I could walk into my dad’s lovely backyard in Michigan. I visualized it. I thought about stopping in Central Park. I continued on. I eventually made it to my apartment. I entered and closed the door. I put my back to the door, and slid down it in tears. Years later, without the tears, this slide was the first significant image in my graduate thesis solo. The next image represented my world turned upside down. I am in the fetal position. It is the picture in the header of this blog.

Days later, ten years ago, things re-oriented themselves but nothing was the same. Perspective. Now I had it.

Ten years ago, I realized I needed to give back. I needed to teach. But I wasn’t exactly ready yet.

Nine years ago, I moved to LA to be with my love and to dance with one of my best friends.

Eight years ago, my husband and I returned to Michigan so I could attend grad school. I thought earning my MFA and teaching at the college level would be a way to give back. Teaching in higher education seemed the way to reconcile my goals: teaching and giving back.

Six years ago, I completed my degree and interviewed for college jobs. I learned a lot. The position I ended up taking was one in a visual and performing arts magnet high school. Had I seen the posting, I probably wouldn’t have applied for it. It wasn’t what I thought I wanted. As it turned out, it was what I needed.

Four years ago, as I was completing my K-12 certification a glitch surfaced, forcing me to explore “back up” plans in case I was not able to return to my high school gig due to a paperwork error. I accepted a job in higher education, at a liberal arts college.

For three years, I really enjoyed the job. I appreciated the time it allowed me to experiment in teaching and the freedom it provided me to approach my content area from unique angles. The school was small enough change could happen quickly and since I was the entire dance faculty, program meetings were a breeze. My students were nice, polite, responsible. Several were deeply invested in what we were doing. Many, I think, sincerely enjoyed our time together even though they were in my class to fulfill a gen ed requirement. Again, I learned a lot. And then it ended. The College had to make some decisions and they ended up cutting programs. Dance, unfortunately, was one of them.

One year ago, I returned to the high school job I left years ago. Much has changed. I still love the staff. I still enjoy the students. We embraced change and beautiful things emerged. The kids of this district need an outlet and an opportunity. If dance can be a gateway to any of those things, I feel it is my responsibility to help.

One week ago today, I accepted a position teaching at the K-8 visual and performing arts magnet in the same school district. This time, I need the change. I think this position is slightly more stable. This position is more challenging to me since I’ve not taught this age group in public ed before. And boy, is this staff supportive of arts integration! I feel a little guilt over leaving my high school students. We had big plans for this year. But I also know that I made the right choice.

I spent three days last week working with new colleagues on dance integrated lesson plans and performance plans. I need this.

Now, when I think about teaching in higher ed, I enter an internal debate. Is that really what I want? Or is it my ego talking? I think right now it might be my back up plan. Just as I did when I was dancing, I am always looking for my next gig. It doesn’t mean I am not committed to the one I have, I just never know when it might end.

Now, as I think about dance, dance training, and related topics, I see things far differently than I did when I was pursuing the life of a dancer. I see the need to support the whole person. I see the necessity in looking at attributes of dance rather than focusing on attributes of the dancing body.

There are times I wonder what all of this has done to my identity as a dancer. Or my reputation. I have spent time wondering how much dancing one needs to do in order to still be considered a dancer. Or is about performing? Is it about daily class? Is it about the dancer’s spirit? How much dancing does a dance writer do?

What I have realized is that I am no longer pursuing a dancer’s life. I am living it. Life changes. It adapts. Even for dancers. Our relationship to dance shifts. The purpose of dance in one’s life morphs. And it is okay.

Ten years ago, if I’d been asked where I would be in ten years I may have said still in NYC and “making it”.

Instead, my house is filled with the noise of superheros flying and falling “like bad guys”, of bad recordings of fake monkeys and elephants from a contraption called “a jump-a-roo”. My dog is asleep on the floor next to me. There are five roses in a vase on the table in front of me that my husband grew and cut for me. Later today, I will spend more time on lesson plans for the kids I meet tomorrow. I have notes to give my very patient dancers for a piece that goes up in two weeks. I’ll make dinner and spend quality time with my family. My life as a dancer has allowed for all of this.

It’s okay.

“I’ve got legs!”- My take on collaboration

Mmmm.....Danskos.

The good thing about marriage is the assembling of worlds, the meshing of experiences, tastes, and perspectives. The best thing of marriage is finding the infallible support system created upon that foundation. To the former, my other half introduced me to the comedy of Eddie Izzard. Life has not been the same since. There is not a day goes by that I don’t think of an Eddie Izzard quote from one of his stand up routines, and I’ve been a fan for 10 years now. In one of his skits, (Dressed to Kill, I believe) Eddie tells of a playground romance in which he was so dumbstruck that he failed to utter anything more impressive than, “I’ve got legs!” To the latter, in many respects, I could credit my other half as “my legs.” He’s my base, he’s my navigation system, he’s my foundation from which I can do much of what I like and certainly what I need.

Looking at this term from another view, a post-pregnant one, hey- “I’ve got legs!” And I can see them. Wow. It has been a while. I even put them to use the other day as we trekked through a nearby zoo that is more like a nature walk than a concrete pathway for animals on parade. Hello, hamstrings, I’ve missed you. I am glad I’ve found my legs again and C A N N O T wait to put them to use once cleared for rigorous exercise. I think the recovery period is worse than pregnancy in this sense. Sigh….I miss dancing.

Finally, the dance perspective: And no, I am not going to talk about extension or rotation. For years I have recognized that I’ve needed an anchor of support in the varying spheres of dance in which I participate. I’ve tended to collect mentors along my journey and I’ve reveled in the fact that my “teachers” often become even better resources of information/inspiration/perspective once my formal training with them has been “completed”. The older I get, I see that these “mentors” come in all kinds of shapes and sizes- which can be translated as ages and specialties. Considering myself as one with something to learn by these relationships, I continue to think of these artists as “mentors” when perhaps “colleagues” would be more fitting. As I’ve eased into dance education full time, I have found that having a sounding board in the form of a colleague (actually, a community of colleagues) has been essential, particularly since I keep finding myself in one-person program positions!

What is a lonely educator to do?

1. Find someone with a shared aesthetic, different strengths, and a perspective that compliments but does not copy your own.
2. Avoid a “yes man”: someone who will tell you all of your ideas are great (they aren’t always). You need an honest response or even better- someone that can ask the right questions in order to get you to dig deeper in your own view/work/intent.
3. Keep it fresh. Be social. Engage in a community together and compare notes. The more regions- geographical, intellectual, organizationally- you experience, all the better.
4. Stop, Collaborate, and Listen. (heeeheehee….) Share the listening responsibility and create collaborative projects that relate to your daily teaching life without being part of your daily life- projects if you will.
5. Filter. Know what is worth the expending of energy and what is not (this is a lot like choosing battles). Recognize when you need help or when your partner does. Do not assume your collaborator understands what you mean simply because you’ve been working together a long time. Communicate often and effectively.
6. Keep the humor. C’mon, we work in dance. Don’t get me wrong, I take Dance
V E R Y seriously. But, c’mon, we work in dance. No one will die if we don’t complete the weight shift or spiral. Find a way to remember why you enjoyed dance in the beginning and do whatever it takes to keep it. All work and no play makes Martha a very dry experience.

From that list, you can see good partnerships take work as well as a daily decision to engage. Just as in marriage, the “I do” has to occur every day, not just the wedding day.  Maybe I should send a link to William and Kate?

The secret to a good marriage was whispered to me by a very sweet little Spanish woman named Olga, living in L.A.’s Koreatown, while her husband, Jorge, watered the begonias. She was delightful and he always kissed me on the lips (less delightful). And no, the secret does not appear on this list. And no, it does not revolve around activities in the bedroom. And yes, she was right.

Thanks to my current colleagues: EFP, AW, and especially SB. Thanks to my other half: SDS. And thanks to my past mentors and colleagues, of which there are too many to mention by name.

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