Why I Dance: James Whiteside

My mother passed away during this past ABT Met Season. It spurred changes in me and my art that I could not have foreseen. I used to tell people that I dance simply because the music obliges me to. As though I'm compelled by some unseen force, like a man possessed. Perhaps that's the reason I started dancing, but the reason I continue is an entirely different matter.

I had never lost anyone truly close to me before. My mother died of a panoply of cancer. The degeneration of a wildly vital woman was something I will not soon forget. My director and coach, Kevin McKenzie, had often asked me to recall feelings of loss, and apply it to my portrayals. But before this year, death wasn't a part of my personal reality, and I couldn't draw from such an experience.

Every Sunday during ABT's spring season, I would take the train to Connecticut, and my father would pick me up and drive me to visit my mother. I remember being in the middle of Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy, dancing his sensitive and brutal “Chamber Symphony," when I witnessed a real turn in my mother's health. She became emaciated and incoherent, but instead of complaining, went to a peaceful and loving state of mind, like that of a docile child. “Chamber Symphony" is based on Shostakovich's life, which was riddled with oppression and loss. This obviously has nothing to do with a dying mother, but I imagine the pain of losing someone you love so much being somewhat universal, so I used it. I walked through the corps and shrank in posture in a descending crescendo of shuffling steps. I imagined I was a doomed man scuttling down the neon hallways of some forgotten hospital ward, dragging his IV along like a macabre pet on a walk.

The tears came. But I'm not one to sit and cry; it wasn't until I could use my life in my art that I began to feel better. Not only through the movement, but the music as well.

I thought this essay would be bubbly, would have my bite and humor. But sometimes real life creeps in, making even a clown into a somber man. I may have started dancing because the music made something in me feel right, accepted and beautiful when nothing else could, but I continue dancing because life keeps happening all around me: love, loss, laughter, tears, parties, racism, homophobia, war. And since I haven't yet figured out how to feel things in a traditional way, this art will have to be the window through which my vital madness escapes.

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CalArts dance students. Photo by Josh S. Rose, Courtesy CalArts

4 Reasons Interdisciplinary Education Can Make You a Stronger Dancer, According to CalArts

After years spent training in their childhood studio, it can be hard for dancers to realize exactly how many pathways there are toward career success. The School of Dance at CalArts aims to show its students all of them.

Built with the intention to break barriers and bend the rules, CalArts' interdisciplinary curriculum ensures that students take classes that cover an entire spectrum of artistic approaches. The result? A dance program that gives you much more than just dance.

Last week, Dance Magazine caught up with Kevin Whitmire, assistant director of admission for CalArts School of Dance, and recent alum Kevin Zambrano for the inside scoop on how an interdisciplinary curriculum can make you a stronger artist. Watch the full event below, and read on for the highlights.

July 2021