A New Year’s Resolution for the Dance Field

By Ellen Chenoweth

It’s a time of transition from one calendar year to the next. We’ve all tinkered with the subject lines of our year-end appeal emails. We’re reading lists of memorable performances of the year, and thinking back on our own performances. We’re dreaming about what’s next for ourselves, for our institutions, and our field.

As we flip the calendar over, I’d like to offer up a collective wish for ourselves as dancers and artists in the new year. My hope for all of us in 2014 is that we can practice and celebrate self-determination. By self-determination I mean using our voices, making our own frames of reference, and creating for ourselves. I want us to be loud, and large, and powerful, both as individuals and as a field. I want us to be a force to reckoned with. I am dance, hear me roar!

A key part of self-determination for our field involves using our voices. How many times are we told to just shut up and dance? We sometimes get the message that our bodies are important but our brains, our opinions and our voices are not.  A key part of self-determination as I’m envisioning it for our field involves using our voices. How many times are we told to just shut up and dance? (Sometimes with more subtlety and in different words, but maybe not.) We sometimes get the message that our bodies are important but our brains, our opinions and our voices are not.

Choreographer Liz Lerman has frequently and eloquently described this problem. In an essay for the incredible resource Poor Dancer’s Almanac (go get yourself a copy if you haven’t read it yet), Liz writes that “to survive we need to talk … I think our silence is part of the reason for our marginalization. Not just the marginalization of the arts within the rest of American society, but the marginalization of the artist within the art world.” To this list I would add the marginalization of the dancer within the art world, so we are multiply marginalized. As a result of this multiple marginalization, we have to fight with extra ferocity, and be extra loud.

She goes on to describe a surprising finding: “how much I have still internalized the notion that somehow I will be taken more seriously if I remain remote.” As I read these words, I was taken back to a course I took my senior year of college. The class was called Personal Essay Writing, but somehow all of my essays came out completely opaque and impersonal. One day my wise professor took me to the side to try to diagnose the problem and we figured out that I had internalized the idea that I would be more mysterious, and hence more appealing and attractive, the less I revealed. She recommended that I read some Adrienne Rich as a corrective therapy to banish the ingrained idea and encouraged my baby steps in revealing and using my voice in my writing.

The self-determination I hope for us, both individually and collectively, flies in the face of some popular advice given on the Internet. While I agree with many of the points made in the widely circulated “15 Truths About Being A Professional Dancer,” written by Melanie Doskocil, I couldn’t disagree more with some of the advice, such as “we don’t always get the role we wanted, go on pointe when we want, get the job we want, hear the compliments we want, make the money we want, see companies run the way we want, etc, etc. This teaches us humility and respect for the process, the art form and the masters we have chosen to teach us. The faster we accept this, the faster we can get on with being brilliant.”

If you don’t get the role you want, make sure it’s clear what you do want. Be clear about your intentions and goals, both internally and with others. If you don’t get the role you want, make sure it’s clear what you do
want. Be clear about your intentions and goals, both internally and with
others. You can ask for honest feedback, and then process and make adjustments. Choreographer Faye Driscoll echoes this advice in an interview with Dance Magazine: “When I was working as a dancer I felt intimidated, or I felt that people would just know that I wanted to work for them by the fact that I took their class or I came to their show. I think that actually being explicit is helpful because choreographers are just as insecure as everyone else.”

If the company you work for isn’t being run the way you want, how about pressing for some changes? Your brilliance doesn’t have to find its only outlet on the stage. There is a brilliance in learning new skills, a brilliance in advocating for yourself, there is brilliance in negotiating for a raise. There is a brilliance in figuring out ways to make our institutions more inclusive, more powerful, creating more impact. Our field needs all of its members thinking about these issues and bringing their visions to the table.

The same article recommends not “wast[ing] your talent and energy worrying about things you can’t control.” But there are so many things you can control! And even if there are things you can’t control, there are still ways that you can respond or be involved. New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder could have easily responded to the typhoon in The Philippines by thinking she couldn’t do anything; natural disasters are not something any of us can control. Instead she organized and produced a large-scale benefit performance on December 30 to support the UN’s response to the disaster, raising more than $14,000 to donate to typhoon relief.

As Sydney Skybetter so vividly pointed out in From the Green Room this past May, the old world order in the dance field is dead. Now we are in the enviable position of creating the new. Composer and recent MacArthur awardee Claire Chase gave the commencement speech at Northwestern’s school of music recently and pointed out that “our calling is not to occupy positions created for us,” but rather “to create positions for ourselves and others.” With persuasive enthusiasm, she points out that “the new things don’t have names yet, and we get to name them!” (If you want to get really excited about this wild and wonderful future we get to be a part of, watch the whole speech here.)

With the disappearance or rearrangement of many of the traditional paths or institutions, it becomes even more important to exercise self-determination, forging your own unique way in the world.

Here are a few trailblazing visionaries that inspired me in the last year. These are artists tackling problems and issues that could easily be seen as too big or too overwhelming, or that are creating new pathways, new connections, and new solutions.

  • Damian Woetzel: Former ballet star boldly creating unusual partnerships and bringing dance into important national conversations through his roles at the Vail Intentional Dance Festival and the Aspen Institute.
  • Elizabeth Doud, Miami-based choreographer: Makes art that examines the issue of massive islands of discarded plastic in our oceans, with mermaids as central characters.
  • Kyle Abraham, choreographer and MacArthur genius: Made the bold move of focusing on making his own work rather than working with the well-established choreographers he was dancing with, and ended the year chatting with Katie Couric in front of an audience of millions.
  • Paloma McGregor, choreographer and scholar: Created the initiative Dancing While Black, bringing together scholars, dancers, and choreographers, to tell stories and create mutual support and motivation.
  • Devin Alberda, New York City Ballet dancer and social media maven: His irreverent but loving tweets are developing new fans for a well-established institution. And with some luck, there will be a book deal for his backstage Nutcracker shots.
  • Ashley Thorndike-Youssef, scholar and educator: Created Now and Next mentoring initiative to train and nurture young women in the dance field, focusing on action, connection, resilience, curiosity and challenge.

My hope for us in 2014 is that we can leap outside of the box, creating new opportunities for ourselves and others. I hope that all of us can use our voices in effective and powerful ways in all kinds of settings, growing the strength of our incredible field. Silence leads to staleness and further marginalization, with the inertia of the status quo; hardly a viable option in these times of change!

And when we’re tempted to relax into passivity, or leave it to others to fix things or improve our working conditions or position in our culture, writer and scholar Gloria Anzaldua gives us a helpful reminder:

Nobody’s going to save you. No one’s going to cut you down, cut the thorns thick around you. No one’s going to storm the castle walls nor kiss awake your birth, climb down your hair, nor mount you onto the white steed. There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.

In 2014, let’s support each other in the feeding of these yearnings, in the process of creating the new world together, and in exercising our voices and power.

Ellen ChenowethEllen Chenoweth worked for four years at the Dance Exchange. She was instrumental in the organization’s transition when its founder, Liz Lerman, left the company, having served as managing director for two years following the transition. Ellen has a master’s degree in dance from Texas Woman’s University. She began her career in arts administration at the Kennedy Center, where she worked with iconic artists such as Suzanne Farrell and Katherine Dunham through the Education Department’s Performance Plus program. Ellen recently participated in Zurich’s Festival Spektakel as a member of the watch&talk program.

She is currently working as a freelance consultant for independent artists and arts organizations. Her clients include the American Dance Institute, Nichole Canuso Dance Company, and Christopher K. Morgan & Artists. Her company, Solid Seam Consulting, is based in Philadelphia.


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