Career Advice

From Baryshnikov to Judith Jamison, These 6 Dance Artists' Commencement Speeches Will Inspire You

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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."

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Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

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Jayme Thornton

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Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

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