Why I Dance

February 21, 2008

The first thing you notice about Lauren Grant is her spunky, almost tomboyish, energy. The second thing you notice is her height. At 4’11” she calls herself “wildly short.” Nevertheless she has created many roles in the Mark Morris Dance Group. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Grant, 33, now teaches master classes in ballet and modern as the company tours the world. She also teaches at MMDG’s school in Brooklyn, and for the company as well. Here she talks about her dance life with Mark Morris.


In a scene from the film The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer’s character is asked, “Why do you want to dance?” She famously replies, “Why do you want to live?” As any dancer will attest, dancing is not a choice—it is a necessity.

For me the addiction began at age 3. My parents, searching for an outlet for my boundless energy, enrolled me in a local Highland Park, Illinois, dance school. I excelled in the disciplined environment and developed confidence and self-esteem. Music added delight. As a pink bunny (with ears so tall my height increased by 50 percent), I braved my first performance and found the thrill of entertaining an audience.

Today, 30 years later, the addiction is still strong. I’ve graduated from playing a bunny to tackling more than 40 roles in the Mark Morris canon (but I can’t seem to let go of the bunnies, which appear on the pointe shoes I wear as Marie in The Hard Nut). The original lures endure, but the physical, creative, and social elements currently fuel my passion.

In the Mark Morris Dance Group, where I have danced for 11 years, we take ballet class before rehearsals and performances. As a child I always despised barrework because it seemed drier and less gratifying than the center portion of class. In recent years, I have come to appreciate the value of barre the way adults acquire a taste for vegetables. Studying Pilates for the last five years has enabled me to achieve a new efficiency of movement and a greater range of mobility and stability. Armed with that understanding, I approach each daily plié and tendu as a complex puzzle to solve.

Moments of revelation, like executing a développé écarté without strain in the hip flexor, or noticing a newfound length in my limbs, bring a sense of accomplishment.

When I joined the company, Mark urged me (as he does with all new hires) to practice moving in a manner opposite my natural tendency. For me, this meant finding a legato style. I am a natural, springy jumper (after attending one of my childhood recitals my brother told me I looked like a pogo stick). The profound challenge of changing my style makes any success that much more gratifying. Toward the beginning of my career I was a “whirling dervish of a shrimp” according to one critic; now, according to another, I move “with a command and silky fluency.”

Dancing for a live audience remains an adrenaline-filled experience, but performances now bring richer pleasures. With MMDG, I’ve been fortunate to entertain as part of an ensemble. During the finale of Mark’s masterpiece L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, the entire cast, surviving two hours of a physically and emotionally trying venture, joins hands in a state of exaltation. When we take our curtain call, a wave of clapping, stomping and cheering engulfs us. In these performances I am one component of a human event that is greater than the self, a member of one group affecting another, which in turn brings me a deep sense of worth.

I am amazed that a life spent dancing has allowed me to uncover the most personal of revelations: the discovery of my self. Over the years dance has shaped my psyche and developed my character. Discipline, self-assurance, and perseverance constituted a big part of me, even at age 3. But now I cherish a maturity that finds the we in everything I do—realizing that ultimate satisfaction comes from the communal experience that gives life meaning.

And I have found the we in more ways than one: When I joined MMDG, fellow company member David Leventhal became my best friend, and in 2005 he became my beloved husband.


Photo by Stephanie Berger.