More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:
"Is your daughter the dancer?"
"Actually," I say, "I am."
"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.
Apparently, it all started at a pizza shop in New Hampshire. I was monkeying around, brimming with nervous energy. A stranger approached my mom and said, "You know, you really ought to put her in some dance classes."
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.
Despite what may be happening in the world or the cacophony of thoughts whirring through my head, I can step into the studio or onto the stage and escape. I'm not escaping from reality, but into a distinct layer of it. Dance is a moving meditation. I hear the music, I take in my environment, I feel the sensations in my body, I connect with my partners and colleagues, and we move through space. We tap into a collective consciousness and flow together. We make mistakes and we stay with it. We make choices and we learn. Sometimes we do things we never believed were possible. We push ourselves and our bodies to the edge. We ache. We keep working—creating, building, growing—and then we let go. Like a sand mandala, all this work culminates in release. I surrender everything I have to a role and then the curtain goes down, and that's it. The end. Of course, I get to bring this experience with me. It makes me stronger and informs my approach to the next opportunity. But as for the dancing, that only exists in the moment; it's like a metaphor for life.
I often think I came to dance because it was the accumulated desire of generations. I heard stories that my grandmother, whom I never met, loved dance but held that secret close to her heart. A generation later, my mother found dancing magical, but growing up in a large, joint family at a time when India was rocked by the anti-colonial independence movement denied her opportunities to train. When I was born, my parents struggled to afford for me to dance. But despite economic barriers, I was determined to journey in it.
Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, in residence at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, is sorry to hear that Irene Rodríguez may have forgotten our company's mission to preserve, promote and present the flamenco, folkloric, classical, escuela bolera and contemporary dance and music traditions of Spain.
Back in 2015, we were in communication with Ms. Rodríguez and her company regarding a potential choreographic partnership for our 40th Anniversary American Spanish Dance & Music Festival Gala performances. We shared many examples with her about our distinct offerings in the four styles of Spanish dance and she was impressed with our dedication to preserve all of the styles.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, when LGBTQ people fought back against police raids and harassment. The riots, which stretched over six nights, are largely considered the birth of LGBTQ rights movement.
As the queer community celebrates Pride and the legacy of Stonewall, it's also raising awareness of continued struggles for full equality.
We caught up with LGBTQ dancers to hear how dance has been a haven for them, and on the challenges the profession still faces for equality.
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My parents felt it was important to give each of their six kids a place in the world. For me, my mom sensed that place might be hip-hop class. In the very safe space that was the dance studio, I was able to express more emotion than in any other part of my day. It was a training ground for how to exist in a small town with a passion that colored outside the lines of a Midwestern male archetype.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
It's that time again: Everyone's looking at the year to come and thinking about what they might want to get out of it.
So we asked our cover stars from Dance Magazine's 2018 issues what they're hoping for. Their answers spanned everything from more growth and more touring, to more family time and more rest.
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.
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.