Simple Gifts: The Spirit of Sharing

Shared Letters from a Mentor and Mentee in Dance/USA’s Institute for Leadership Training

Editor’s note: Dance/USA’s Institute for Leadership Training matches experienced leaders in the field with rising professionals, and it includes a modest honorarium and travel stipend to attend the Dance/USA’s 2015 annual conference in Miami. Here Julie Nakagawa and Karen Long Charles share their correspondence  on their fruitful mentor/mentee relationship during 2014. The next DILT application process and deadline will be announced in 2015. 

Julie and Karen earlier this year at Arts MidwestDear Karen,

Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and you know what that means. No, not Nutcracker season (at least not for either one of us). It means that we are in the homestretch of the Dance/USA Institute for Leadership Training (DILT) mentorship program. In the spirit of the season, I wanted to share with you the gifts for which I am most thankful:

  • Gift of time: I am grateful for our time together, whether in-person during Dance/USA’s Annual Conference or during Arts Midwest, fortuitously for us, both were held in your home base of beautiful Minneapolis this year, or via our phone conversations (woo…fellow Early Bird!). It has been a pleasure to get to know you and your company through many different points of contact through the past few months.
  • Gift of camaraderie: Thank you for sharing and listening and sharing some more. It has been invigorating to connect with someone with similar passions. While I think that from the outside, the emphasis on mentorship is on sharing, I believe that the listening component is a crucial one. Whether we are on the same or different sides of the fence, or, occasionally, on the fence, I am grateful for the spirit of togetherness and mutual inspiration across miles, ideas, challenges.
  • Gift of candor: I LOVE our unedited conversation (thanks for patiently indulging what we now know is my “introvert pause”!). I was excited about the connection we felt during our first lunch together, before the program officially started, and am grateful that this connection has blossomed into a friendship. I appreciate our direct, frank conversation, which maximizes our time together each month.

I am grateful for the invitation from Dance/USA to “serve” as a mentor. Karen, as you know, I believe that mentorship is a state of being, a state of mind, rather than an activity. I have certainly benefited from the influence of one-of-a-kind mentors in my career: Warren Conover, Lou Conte, Ernie Horvath, Gail Kalver, Dennis Nahat, Twyla Tharp, and Barbara Weisberger, whether they (or I) knew it or not. I have also learned tons from the countless dance artists and audience members with whom I have shared experiences. If there is anything from my past journeys, current situations, or future dreams that might spark something in someone else, sharing those things is part of my honor and responsibility as a good dance citizen. One of the many lessons I have learned during my time on stage and behind-the-scenes is that life is not linear. The ability to adapt to and to feel ready for (whether you are or not will be determined later) any adventure, is important. You never know when that door will open (or close). To develop a strong sense of yourself in an ever-changing environment (the world, the studio, even your own body!), is an important investment. I hope our relationship has been and will continue to be an ingredient in your continued success, Karen, and I am richer for our connection, which I know will continue past the conclusion of this program. I feel fortunate to be part of a vibrant dance community and look forward to continue the gift of giving.

May your plate be overflowing (and not in the non-profit way) this holiday, Karen! Happy Thanksgiving!

Julie Nakagawa
Artistic Director
DanceWorks Chicago

November 4, 2014
Karen Long Charles, courtesy Threads Dance ProjectDear Julie,

It is hard to believe that our time in the Dance/USA Institute for Leadership Training is nearly over. It seems like only yesterday when we met, and talked for hours, over lunch before the start of the Dance/USA National Conference in Minneapolis. I immediately knew our mentor/mentee relationship would be meaningful and fun.

I knew after our lunch (even before our Myers-Briggs profile unveiling) that you were the perfect yin to my yang. Your introspective more introverted nature allows me to gregariously ramble on during our regular phone conversations. There is no idea or thought that is off limits with you. I have been inspired by your experience in the dance community, and your commitment to the dance community. Additionally, you have always been open to my insights and contributions.

I have especially appreciated your ability to distill all of my questions and concerns down to their essence. You push me, whether discussing staff pay models or fundraising ideas, to reflect not only on the emotional impact of thoughts, ideas and decisions (which I tend to do as a feeler) but to truly analyze the organizational impact and goals for my thoughts, ideas and decisions.

Our relationship has also been a fun one. It was so much fun for our dancers to take class together when you were in town for the Arts Midwest Conference. I especially enjoyed seeing you in your element as a teacher. It was also nice to learn that we are both committed to the development and growth of dancers as artists. The joint class you taught was a gift to me and my dancers that will always be appreciated. I do hope that someday soon we can travel to Chicago and reciprocate the gesture.

I have been fortunate to have local mentors in the Twin Cities who have supported me on my four-year journey to build a professional company. However, it is truly wonderful to have you as a mentor with a fresh perspective outside of the Twin Cities dance community. It is also encouraging to know that my questions and ideas are not unique to me alone and that planning and perseverance make anything possible. You are a living model for me and this always keeps me encouraged.

In a world where people often only focus on what someone can do for them it is nice to be part of a program where more experienced dance community members like yourself are willing to ask how they can share their experiences to do something for someone else. I do hope, however, that you feel you have received things from me as well — if nothing more than an ear to listen when you need one, and a touchstone to the Minneapolis dance community.

Though our official time is quickly coming to an end, I know that this is only the beginning of what I know will be a great collegial relationship. I look forward to what the future has in store. I can’t wait to see you there!!!


Karen L. Charles – Artistic Director
Threads Dance Project

Julie Nakagawa, photo by Cheryl MannFrom Evanston, Ill., Julie Nakagawa was a featured dancer with Christopher D’Amboise’s Off Center Ballet, Cleveland Ballet, and Twyla Tharp Dance. Returning to Chicago upon her retirement from dancing, she has been especially interested in the development of dance artists and their related artistic collaborators. At the invitation of Lou Conte, Julie joined the staff of Lou Conte Dance Studio in January 1994 and rose to the position of associate director. In addition, she led Hubbard Street 2 from its inception in 1997 through February 2007 as the artistic director of the second company of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. A sought-after teacher, Julie has taught classes for dance studios, university programs, and companies, nationally and internationally. Julie is a co-founder and artistic director of DanceWorks Chicago and is a proud member of the Board of Trustees of Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Karen Long Charles has performed and worked in the dance community for more than 20 years Charles received her B.F.A. in ballet and B.S. in computer science from Texas Christian University. She also received her M.Ed. in education administration from Georgia State University. Charles was a fellowship recipient at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater where she studied with Katherine Dunham, Ana Marie Forsythe, and others. Karen has performed with dance companies around the country including Room to Move Dance (Atlanta, Ga.), Susan Warden Dance (Kansas City, Mo.), and Pittsburgh Choreography Continuum. Karen moved to Minneapolis in 2000 and worked as principal at Perpich Arts High School and founding principal at Main Street School of Performing Arts. Karen is the founding artistic director of the Karen L. Charles Threads Dance Project – a professional contemporary dance company.


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