Why I Dance: James Cunningham

January 31, 2013

Born in Colorado Springs, Cincinnati Ballet corps member James Cunningham spent his younger years with the Mid-Ohio Valley Ballet Company in West Virginia. He later attended the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music on full scholarship. In 2008, while still a junior at the conservatory, he joined Cincinnati Ballet. Dancing the role of Puck in artistic director Victoria Morgan’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Escamillo in Italian choreographer Amedeo Amodio’s Carmen have been highlights for him. As James enters his fifth season with the company, he reflects on why dance is the right career for him.


At left: In Amy Seiwert’s
I Think of You Often. Photo by Peter Mueller, Courtesy CB.


Dancing has completely seduced me. For me dance is a very personal journey. I guess I am selfish in this way. Every time I get ready for class in the morning and work through a day of rehearsals, I remind myself: It’s for me today. I remember deciding this in the dawn of my dancing days. I am almost never working to surpass others who share the marley floor, or sweat myself silly just to please the teacher. I try to work hard to achieve my dream without anything interfering. Sometimes it’s tempting to let extraneous events affect my work. The joy might sift right through my fingers if I neglect the fact that I am my own competition. Dancing onstage allows me to give an exhilarating performance, yet also reap a sweet reward. Great dancers have built up the fortitude to enjoy every moment as it comes. Dancers always work toward goals and reach for a polished ending with a sense of finesse. How this process winds its course captivates me.

It has a lot to do with the detailed attention that technique requires. That’s right up my alley. In many parts of life, I am planned and particular, a “things-just-so” kind of guy. Technique is precise, exact. It is one way or the highway in some cases.

I also believe dance is an ultimate exercise to engage both mind and body. The challenge that it demands of the whole self is a fascination that commands me to keep honing in on all those meticulous details. Someone, maybe Martha Graham, once said, “Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” Through their passion, dancers have the power to be versatile.

I feel a wild freedom when I can lose myself in different types of movement. Because the demand for versatility is growing, I view dancers as elite artists. I perceive and dance as a pinnacle of expression. As people we grow up to discover ourselves. As dancers we are constantly growing in the art of movement in order to create character, mood, or represent emotions. This discovery is a sweet escape for me. Even through non-narrative work, a dancer still embodies some form of expression to be released. Without words, we rely on our bodies to say something. I feel that movement often makes any message clearer and more beautiful.

How a dancer chooses to move affects how the eyes see the message. Different styles of dance serve as the many languages a dancer can speak or the many tones a voice can utter. It is not what you say but how you say it. Every decision a dancer makes, no matter how small, influences the artistry. Add the music, and suddenly a physical art is viewed with rhythm, existing as something transcendent.

Dance is a way to beautifully represent the everyday. This art has the power to embellish and exaggerate reality as well as dilute it, something I know I require from time to time. I dance because it fills the hunger I have in life. I feel most alive when I am dancing. The energy that it induces breeds itself and always leaves me tirelessly begging for more.