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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."

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Brandt in Giselle. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Skylar Brandt's Taste in Music Is as Delightful as Her Dancing

American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt's dancing is clean, precise and streamlined. It's surprising, then, to learn that her taste in music is "all over the place," she says. (Even more surprising is that Brandt, who has an Instagram following of over 80k, is "in the dark ages" when it comes to her music, and was buying individual songs on iTunes up until a year ago, when her family intervened with an Apple Music plan.)

Though what she's listening to at any given time can vary dramatically, the through-line for Brandt is nostalgia: songs that take her back, whether to childhood, a favorite movie or a piece she's recently performed. Brandt told us about her eclectic taste, and made us a playlist that will keep you guessing:

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

NYCDA Is Redefining the Convention Scene Through Life-Changing Opportunities

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:

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Courtesy The Joyce

Dance Magazine Chairman's Award Honoree: Linda Shelton

In an industry that has been clamoring for more female leadership, Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993, has been setting an example for decades. As a former general manager of The Joffrey Ballet, U.S. tour manager for the Bolshoi Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts panelist, Dance/NYC board member and Benois de la Danse judge, as well as a current Dance/USA board member, Shelton has served as a global leader in dance. In her tenure at The Joyce, she has not only increased the venue's commissioned programming, but also started presenting beyond The Joyce's walls in locations such as Lincoln Center.

What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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