From Baryshnikov to Judith Jamison, These 6 Dance Artists' Commencement Speeches Will Inspire You
Whether you're a 2018 grad, a current student or you've been in the field for years, commencement speeches offer advice and encouragement for all of us. And when they're given by dance luminaries, even better. Last Friday, Liz Lerman addressed the class of 2018 at Bennington College, and her inspirational message—that's candid and even comical at turns—left us searching for other choreographers and performers who've spoken to students through the years. Here are a few of our favorite speeches.
Liz Lerman (Bennington College, 2018)
The lesson: No matter your profession, we can all learn something by thinking like a choreographer. (Lerman's speech begins about 47 minutes into this video.)
Words of wisdom: "I'm proposing that we have something called choreographic thinking. And the reason I think that is because the world is in motion. Every single thing is moving. Our institutions are changing, our ethics are changing, the way we treat each other is changing. It is all in motion...I'm advocating that the knowledge that choreographers have is of use to everybody."
Bonus: Lerman even gave a shoutout to her longtime friend from college, our own Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine's editor at large. Both were Bennington students!
Helen Pickett (University of North Carolina School of the Arts' High School, 2016)
The lesson: Being an artist takes courage, but artists have a lot of it.
Words of wisdom: "You're facing every artists' journey...You might come up against a plethora of no's, but my gorgeous graduates, there are yes's. And because they are fewer than the no's, they feel so good. Yes, you have courage, more than you know...You have the desire to look into the unknown. Your fortitude, drive, devotion and focus will lay down the path for your steps."
Mikhail Baryshnikov (Northwestern University, 2013)
The lesson: Forget being the "best."
Words of wisdom: "Do not make your goal to be the best. 'Best' is a label. It's something someone else decides for you. 'Better' is more personal. It's a process, and in my opinion, 'better' is something more interesting than 'best.' "
Judith Jamison (Towson University, 2012)
The lesson: Find your passion. (Jamison starts speaking about 9 minutes in.)
Words of wisdom: "Passion is important...especially when you are just embarking on this journey after your graduation. For a long period of time in my life, the way I communicated was through dance, but in order for what I was doing onstage to translate to the audience, I had to be passionate about what I was doing, about life and living it in the most profound way I knew how. Embracing a spiritual enrichment that included experiences both good and bad catapulted and helped me evolve into my leadership role in the consciousness of service."
Rennie Harris (Bates College, 2010)
The lesson: Being persistent pays off.
Harris even shares the quirky but effective way he tracked his progress.
Words of wisdom: "Persistency and consistency wins out. As long as I'm persistent and consistent, I will be successful. When I was about 26 or 27...I started to think about my life a little bit. I started to ask myself, What do I want to do when I grow up? Everybody was asking me that since I was 8 or 9, and finally I asked myself. I knew I wanted to provide for my family. I wanted to be successful at whatever I did.
So I created this list: three columns. One was B.S. The other was P.M. And the other one was C.M.
At the end of the day I would log down all of the things I did that day: I talked to my brother about the Eagles and why they can't win the Super Bowl. That was B.S.; I put it in the B.S. column. I talked to a friend about a potential project for a play; that was in the P.M. column for "Potential Money." We got the grant for this play, and it moved over to the C.M. column: "Confirmed Money."
And so, as you can imagine, my B.S. column was about two pages long and I had maybe one or two things in the P.M. and C.M. columns. Eventually after logging this for about two months, I started to see that my B.S. column started to shrink and the other two columns were full. This kept me on track with what I was doing and where I wanted to go. I made that decision to do it. I made a conscious decision to say, 'This is what I want to do.' Finally."
Alonzo King (CalArts, 2007)
The lesson: In this short, casual speech captured by one of the attendees, Alonzo King gives dancers frank and unexpected advice: "Don't go begging for jobs."
Words of wisdom: "The art is within you. Keep churning it, and jobs will come. Remember to be true to you, and then you're bringing them something...Never leave the idea that the germ is within you. Don't cheat on it. Don't leave it. Stay with it."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.