A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
Paloma Garcia-Lee has appeared on Broadway and in TV's "Fosse/Verdon" and will be in the new West Side Story film. Photo by Susan Stripling, Courtesy Garcia-Lee
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
Rogers dancing with Atlanta Ballet in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet
If there was life before dance, I don't remember it. My earliest memory is of watching my sister's dance recital and seeing the children in the piece before hers dressed in bumblebee costumes. I knew then I had to start dance lessons so that I, too, could parade around in glorious black and yellow, and wings, oh, the wings! My mom signed me up the next week (there are no easier ways to procure a bumblebee costume, I guess), and here I am almost three decades later.
Peter Boal in William Forsythe's installation, Choreographic Objects. Photo by Jennifer C. Boal.
My January is always busy. Weekdays are filled with rehearsals in Seattle and weekends are spent traversing the country auditioning students for our summer intensive. I direct Pacific Northwest Ballet School and I see these auditions as essential investments in future talent for both our school and company. I do them myself to let students know their presence means a great deal to me.
January travels also offer the opportunity to visit the country's museums. Museums have been my go-to places since I was a boy. I love the opportunity for quiet reflection.
This year, in ballet studios and art-filled galleries across America, race was on my mind. I'll venture to say ballet would benefit from paying attention to what's happening in the art world today.
Let me start with a confession: Growing up, I was the type of dancer who believed that there was only one kind of real dance: Ballet! Everything else was for the unchosen ones; other dances were fabricated by humans for the large masses who were not selected by Terpsichore. Dance was human. Ballet was divine.
Fast forward 30 years. I'm the artistic director of Tulsa Ballet, and I now understand that ballet was just a step in the evolution of dance, a journey that started with the Homo sapiens and has taken us to Broadway and hip hop. Now, at age 57, I appreciate ballet but love contemporary dance. But my passion? It resides in Broadway!
Cirio in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet
When I was born, the delivery doctor exclaimed to my parents, "You have a dancer on your hands!" I had been a footling breech baby and entertained myself by jumping in utero, until I jumped so hard that I broke my mom's water and was delivered as a C-section. Cut to present day: I wake up each morning, head to the building where I've worked for almost 16 years, strap on my pointe shoes and dance almost seven hours a day as a professional. Yes, every day I choose to dance, but in some ways, it is as if dance actually chose me.
Hala Shah in a workshop performance of Calling: a dance with faith. Photo by Idris Ademola, Courtesy Shah.
Growing up, I never saw a problem with my dancing and neither did my Muslim-Egyptian dad or my non-Muslim, American mom. They raised me to understand that the core principles of Islam, of any religion, are meant to help us be better people. When I married my Pakistani husband, who comes from a more conservative approach to Islam, I suddenly encountered perceptions of dance that made me question everything: Is it okay to expose a lot of skin? Is it wrong to dance with other men? Is dance inherently sexual? What guidelines come from our holy book, the Quran, and what are cultural views that have become entwined in Islam?
It was one of the most exciting times of my career. I was in the midst of creating the last installment of my trilogy on identity—ink—which would be my company's Kennedy Center debut, and just booked my first Broadway musical, Once On This Island. ink would premiere on December 2, and OOTI would open on December 3.
Personally, I was going through a bit of mourning. I had just turned 37 and was really doubting my abilities as a dancer. The work wasn't getting easier, and I felt like I would have to make a decision soon about whether to retire.
It was a lot to navigate—the highs of success, and the lows of inevitable change. Little did I know, nothing would compare to the life-threatening health issues I was about to battle in the midst of it all.
I come from a lineage of survivors: African Americans who endured the brutality of slavery, Native Americans who survived forced genocidal migration, and my Jewish grandmother who escaped the Holocaust. My ancestors' enduring spirits live inside of me, giving me an indelible foundation of strength and compassion.
On the bookshelves my mom filled in our one-bedroom apartment in inner-city Washington, DC, sat a book called To Be Young, Gifted and Black, written by Lorraine Hansberry. Those words were aspirational, and empowered me to imagine a place beyond our limited conditions.
Irina Dvorovenko with Tony Yazbeck in The Beast in the Jungle. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Courtesy Sam Rudy Media Relations.
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
By now, you've probably gotten to know our latest "25 to Watch" picks. We're expecting great things from them in the year to come, but what do they have in mind for 2019? For a little New Year's inspiration, we asked a few of them to share the resolutions they'll be carrying into next year.
Passing dance history on to the next generation is a bit like handing down the family jewels, says Wendy Whelan, seen here teaching. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Whelan.
When I was a young dancer in Louisville, Kentucky, my ballet teacher used to speak a lot about Merrill Ashley. She brought neoclassical technique to exquisite new heights under Balanchine, and as a technician, she famously paved the way for today's balletic whiz kids. (Later, when I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher.) Today, as I travel around the country giving master classes, I often find myself bringing up the names of quintessential American ballerinas, dancers like Merrill. But now, if I mention her name, I can't help but notice my students' eyes widening as they look to each other wondering who exactly this famous ballerina named Merrill is.
Negotiating a higher salary doesn't diminish your love for dance; it only reinforces your value. Getty Images
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
The author participating in ON DISPLAY. Photo by Nicholas Saretzky, Courtesy Dombroski
There is someone less than a foot away from me, just off of my right shoulder, observing the way I'm holding my hand strangely, but perhaps gracefully? I hope my nails are clean. My arm is starting to tremble. I'm not even sure how much time has gone by. I let my arm gently, almost imperceptibly, fall, allowing my shoulder to melt with it, and stop myself mid-breath. "I am...right here," I say to myself with my director's voice in my head. I am
ON DISPLAY is a human sculpture court, a living gallery of individuals that experience themselves just as they are from moment to moment, without any premeditated movements. Created by Heidi Latsky, it serves as commentary on the body as spectacle and society's obsessions with body image. This piece reverts the objectifying gaze members of the fashion, disability and performance worlds are subjected to.