Dancers Give Back
Dance can be a moral transporter as well as an artistic one. It’s a form that joins the heart and mind and has the power to bridge different worlds. Dance Magazine interviewed several artists who are using dance to engage in, or raise awareness for, a variety of causes.
Boulder, Colorado’s Eco Arts was founded by Marda Kirn. Her mission is to bring together science, environmental arts, and indigenous organizations to increase awareness about climate change and sustainable living. Eco Arts’ projects combine the cognitive power of science with the emotional power of art to get people to think about these issues. “We try to be to scientifically accurate, and to have as many full-on collaborations as possible,” says Kirn, who also edits the International Tap Association Newsletter. This is where local dancer/choreographer Michelle Ellsworth comes in. She is collaborating with climate change scientist Jason Neff on a piece called The Wheels of Blame, which will be performed in a program called “Balancing Acts: Visions for a Sustainable Future.”
Dancer Ellsworth and scientist Neff believe that each of their native “languages” is inadequate for communicating ideas. Says Ellsworth, “We thought it would be pleasing to use each other’s forms to make a hybrid that deals with the problem of global warming.” Ellsworth is inspired by the rigor of science; and Neff, for his part, feels that dancers can help make scientific fact more easily digestible.
“The issue of global warming is not going to go away,” says Ellsworth, “and its implications are enormous.” Ellsworth hopes that if scientific evidence is presented through the lens of performance, people will connect to the information in unexpected ways and begin to take action.
Tap, ballet and jazz dancer Amy Danielson got the idea for Genesis Sarajevo after volunteering to teach dance at a children’s camp in war-torn Bosnia. In June of 2006 she offered her first dance intensive at the camp, which is sponsored by Foundation Land of Friendship and Peace in Kakringe, a town outside Sarajevo.
Danielson now travels to Bosnia twice a year for the two-week sessions. The students study technique, perform group exercises, and work together to put on together a show. Her new goal is to bring tap and hip hop companies to mentor the students and have Genesis Sarajevo perform what they’ve developed. “I’ve been their only teacher for the past two years,” she says. “Now I need to involve more people.”
Danielson feels that young people in areas of conflict need this kind of outlet, and that dancing together provides a meeting ground for differing cultures and religions. “The ultimate goal is to have a fully functioning dance company in Sarajevo,” says Danielson. “If some of the girls want to pursue dance professionally, they can go that route. And if they’re just doing it for fun, they’re getting an experience that they may never have had.”
Eventually Danielson would like to broaden the project to include other conflict-ridden areas like Uganda and Manila. “I get a lot out of teaching these girls because they respond so quickly,” she says. “They are joyful and excited, and that’s so rewarding.”
New Jersey dance studio owner Kathleen Cirioli is a tap dancer and cancer survivor. She’s also the founder of Dance for the Cure, an organization that promotes cancer awareness at corporate events. Her lyrical “dance of hope,” performed by four young dancers, ends with the audience singing “Go and Get Your Mammogram” and tap dancing to the tune of “Button Up Your Overcoat.” “If I can educate people to know that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and inspire them to get mammograms and not be afraid,” she says, “I will have fulfilled my dream.”
Many of the moms at her studio, Cirioli says, are surprised to hear she’s overcome so many obstacles. She believes her passion for dance has fueled her mission of hope. “Having dance to look forward to made me recover,” says Cirioli, who had both breast and ovarian cancer. “In order to get through my surgeries and treatments, I thought about how I missed teaching, choreographing, and moving.” And she sees a benefit for the students who got involved. “The young girls who participated in Dance for a Cure learned so much. If they have to address these issues in the future, they’ll be more prepared to help themselves and others.”
Since last February Ashley Hilton has taught ballet to kindergarteners, first and second graders in the outreach program at The Patel Performing Arts Conservatory, the education arm of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Orlando Ballet School in Florida. The conservatory recently developed a dance program in conjunction with Metropolitan Ministries School, a charter institution for homeless and disadvantaged children in levels K through 5.
Hilton has already noticed an improvement in her students’ focus and interest. “The kids can be creative and physical here, and they are learning an artistic discipline,” she says. “Dance shows them that they can do something they’re proud of, and they learn to concentrate—which is also good for schoolwork and sports.” Inspired by the children’s progress, Metropolitan Ministries has added more classes and is bringing in guest artists like Bill T. Jones and Ballet Hispanico.
Since the children don’t have dance gear, they take class in jeans and skirts—but they give it their all. Patel Conservatory organized a drive to give the children ballet slippers. “Many of the kids have told me they love their ballet shoes and want to sleep in them,” says Hilton. “And they’re so excited to have a real dance studio, with ballet barres.”
“As the children’s home lives improve,” Hilton adds, “they leave the school, but they get to take their shoes with them, in the hopes that they’ll pursue dance elsewhere.”
Our daily lives bombard us with reminders of hardship, from the front page of the morning paper to the roundup on the nightly news. Buckling under an information overload, we find it hard to take action, easier to turn away. But dance can speak to people in ways that other language can’t. Whether making a statement about the state of the world, creating common ground between clashing cultures, or teaching just one child the rewards of hard work, as dancers we can move toward making a difference.
Nancy Alfaro is a former dancer who lives and writes in NYC.
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.