PERSONAL NARRATIVE - WHY I DANCE
I was recently given the opportunity to explore my path as choreographer.
I measure time through dance.
One of the best memories I have of my mom is standing on the tops of her feet as she danced in the living room. I remember the feeling of shifting from one foot to the other, the continuity of her movements and my role as her abiding partner, neither controlling nor directing the dance but a part of it nonetheless. After she passed away, I would stand in the middle of the living room, close my eyes and try to recreate our waltz.
When I was nearly ten, my mom passed away from Lupus complications.
Everything I knew about dance came from her.
So how could I not then begin to associate all that dance is, and has become for me, to the passage of time? I see time radiate in the bodies of dancers whose limbs and hearts hold decades of somatic study. I see time peeking out from behind the blinds of bodies who were told too often that they should not or could not dance. And I see time sped up in those same bodies as they engage even stronger with dance in order to make up for time lost. I see time in my body - failed relationships and successful diets, busy schedule and tight bank account ironically doing about the same thing to keep my artistic piety on the right side of time.
I used to think dance should be kept in a studio or on stage. Places where people are prepared for dance. As if dance required setting. My thirteen year-old self would have agreed with that when my dad and I were to scatter his father’s ashes in the lake behind our house. I didn’t really know him since he and my dad weren’t close.
I also didn’t realize the box of ashes had been what we’d used to keep the kitchen shelf level that whole summer.
After minutes of silence, standing there, my dad turned to me and says, “Give us a little soft shoe, son.” There I stood holding my grandpa Lou’s ashes in a cardboard box; and appalled but obedient, I tapped out Tea for Two in a pair of clogs. I felt highly inappropriate doing this, believing the ceremony required more solemnity. I noticed for the first time since dancing atop my mom’s feet, though, just how cathartic dancing is for me. The tapping out of the rhythms brought me back to my best memories of her, and suddenly this was not so much about duty or estrangement as it was about celebration of life.
And it brought me back to her.
As in dance, our language regarding time is spatial and cumulative. On any day, I question whether I am on the right path in accordance with my place in time. I can count time, accumulate it, lose it. But there is no fixed point for time, just as there is no fixed point in creative process. The reciprocity of so many lived experiences that give way to the act of making may not be crystalized or managed as spatial metaphor.
For me, time is her. And to run out of time would be to lose my sense of dance.
Dance-making is the one way I have to be brave. I champion unexpected bodies, telling unexpected stories and personal histories, in unexpected and hidden places. I am a believer in the beauty of vulnerability and humanness. I have found through choreography that willingly sharing our vulnerability is what empowers us and moves us out of the crosshairs of someone else’s judgement. Here, we take control of ourselves in such a way that dares to be told there isn’t enough room for that in the chorus of all other bodies. Because no bodies echo as profoundly as honest ones. So in my artistic career I seek that out and hold it up to time like a scalpel - each rehearsal, interview, collaborator, or performance is part of the process, peeled back layer by layer. I direct a dance company of allied bodies that explore with me and perform the work I devise as choreographer. Our relationship as collaborators is democratized through the understanding that we are tied to the sole objective of sharing our human experience, as completely as possible, with all audiences.
I create opportunities for challenging discourse through dance. The duet Gimp Gait (2016), commissioned by Karen Peterson and Dancers, I choreographed for Marjorie Burnett and myself in order to purge societal burden that weighed on her because of her severe cerebral palsy. I describe it as a ‘solo for two’ where I am a movement surrogate for Marjorie’s own power, agency, and strength. Many are surprised when she talks about her professional dancing career, which began in her early twenties, because she is almost always seated in her 400-pound power wheelchair. Marjorie would be quick to correct this misconception of 'who' and 'how' someone may express themselves artistically, but her speech impediment makes it difficult for her to always be understood. So you must watch Marjorie in order to see how her eyes and hands stretch open, and her legs reach with urgency to fully understand what performing does for Marjorie - and how it affects the audience.
Going back to vulnerability, it is mirrored in meeting people who are different than you. In breaking out of our shells and opening up to others, there will be a lot of things we won’t understand. You learn to expose yourself and grow comfortable with asking even stupid questions, rather than imposing answers. Having a genuine interest in other people’s lives, rather than assuming their struggles and learning to embrace the awkwardness bridged Gimp Gait into larger group work like Forced Entry and Other Love Stories (2017), where we reckoned gender, aging, and HIV in front of audiences of strangers. Or holding a 300 lb display case up for thirteen hours by myself in Greensboro while hours of breakup stories I’d collected as part of a residency at Elsewhere played while museum goers visited the exhibition space (A Love to Last 13 Hours, 2016). I was simultaneously alone and in the company of so many who knew love and loss. A different time, I presented a solo called Rhino Boy (2014) about a rhino who shaves off his horn so he may pass for human - an allegory, complete with video footage of my own 2012 rhinoplasty and issues with body dysmorphia.
I never lose sight of how, why, and for whom these works exist. I want to be held responsible for reaching into something that truly accounts for not only the social and cultural realities in which we create, but also the flexibility required for live performance to exist in a meaningful, sustainable way. My collective employs, collaborates, and produces with artists, who may not fit the mold of what has been typical in the dance field. I want for risk and experimentation - two things that flourish in a project-based company like mine - to be supported through the mainstream, not filed under ‘outreach’ or ‘community’ or ‘integrated’. All dance can be that.
All dance should be that.
While my choreographic process follows practice-based research and deep community engagement onto the proscenium, it is also found outside the theater. I want to continue shifting the value of this work so it stands upon its artistic rigor - not as an alternative to tradition - but redefining dance possibilities. In Reprise (2018) I took a closer look at intersectionality and marginalization with a series of vignettes, including one featuring a flamenco dancer and a dancer who uses a wheelchair. I used my background in tap dance to compose a percussive section that was part-step and part-flamenco, where the footwork was inverted for upper body. This resolved into a group section where one cast member held power over the agency of the other performers, but changes when that cast member begins to didactically explore the physicality and behavior of compliance when under an authoritarian gaze - like that of a police officer.
Reprise comes from the French word repris, meaning ‘take back’. By repeating, doing over and over again, we get closer to something better than we had before. We would not repeat were it not for the possibility of a different, changed future. So ultimately, Reprise has to do with hope.
Hope is an outcome of time. If there’s time, there’s still hope. I [like to] make dances that hope.
Through grants awarded by Miami Dade County (2010; 2013; 2015-2019), State of Florida (2016-2017; 2019-2020), National LGBTQ Task Force (2013-2018), Miami Foundation (2013-2018) John and James L. Knight Foundation (2015-2016; 2018-2019), I have presented our work at Norton Museum of Art, New World School of the Arts, New World Symphony, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Pérez Art Museum of Miami (formerly Miami Art Museum), The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse and Miami Light Project, Miami-Dade County Auditorium, Duncan Theatre, Bass Museum of Art, Art Wynwood, Deering Estate at Cutler, Frost Museum of Art, Florida Dance Festival, and Triskelion Arts, NYC, among others. The film works have been screened internationally (since 2013 but most prominently since 2016) at Cucalorus Film Festival, ScreenDance Miami, FilmGate Interactive, LA Dance Film Festival (Jury Award), Corvallis Queer Film Festival, Chicago Feminist Film Festival, Miami Film Festival, Tiny Dance Film Festival, Jacksonville Dance Film Festival (Jury Award), American Dance Festival's Movies by Movers, Sans Souci Festival of Dance Cinema, San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, In/Motion Chicago International Dance Film Festival, Seattle Transmedia and Independent Film Festival (United States); Festival Internacional de Cortometrajes y Arte sobre Enfermedades (Spain), Back_Up Festival (Germany), Toronto Queer Film Festival (Canada), Leeds International Film Festival (UK), and 305 & Havana International Improv Fest (Cuba).
With Pioneer Winter Collective, I produce several programs, including Leaders of Equality through Arts and Performance (LEAP), for LGBTQ teens and their allies that focuses on using the arts for social change; and the Grass Stains fellowship, a site-specific performance initiative that both mentors and commissions artists interested in creating site-based and public art work in Miami through a close collaboration with acclaimed site choreographer Stephan Koplowitz. Not belonging completely to any single category of dance, advocacy, theater, or service, Pioneer Winter Collective has - since its inception - needed to innovate in both collaborative and presentational efforts. In 2010, before even settling on a mission or organizational structure, I presented a work called Reaching the Surface in partnership with a small non-profit clinic in North Miami. The project employed dancers infected and affected by HIV in order to confront and dismantle the associated stigma. Since then, each project has gone beyond the aesthetic of performing arts in order to share a greater sense of relevance with the community. My programs and projects are direct responses to need-based assessments. In 2012, aforementioned LEAP was planned in order to approach the increased needs of safe spaces for LGBTQ-identifying youth. Each year, LEAP has evolved in order to meet the needs of those it serves - from dance and spoken word classes, to new media, to its current phase of teaching leadership and creative intervention techniques through performance, the project never stagnates. LEAP has served over 150 youth in varying capacities - typical total count for one-off workshops is 35 and for the Leadership Summit the total number committed to full-length retention was 26 youth. These youth then perform at various community events, where the transformation success extends beyond the increases in self-efficacy and leadership of the youth and into the general public, who may have never considered the stories, struggles, and dreams of teen voices.
In 2015, a Knight Arts Challenge grant allowed for me to launch Grass Stains. In 2016 and 2018, my Collective has regranted $40,000 in direct funding to local artists that sought mentoring, production, and financial assistance in the development of public performance projects. Often, it is one or the other - mentoring or funding - but I believe in both. Now in its third iteration, we will make improvements to the model and have it again with a new cohort. It comes full circle with fifteen free performances that occur in the most populated areas of Miami, which are also the most unexpected places to see performance - meeting audiences where they already are - and not expecting them to come to us.
I completed a Master of Fine Arts in Choreography (2016) from Jacksonville University/White Oak as the first artist to be named a Dennis R. Washington Achievement Scholar (2015-2016). Prior to this, I was a Horatio Alger Scholar (2006) and an alumnus of the Florida International University Honors College, where I earned a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology (2007) and Bachelors of Arts in Psychology. Recently, I was featured in the Miami New Times’ Best of Miami 2018 edition as 'Best Dancer'. With much gratitude, I have been awarded organizational grants (mentioned in a previous section of this narrative) and independent awards, including the Dance Miami Choreographic Program (2014-2015, 2017-2018, 2018-2019), and the State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs Diversity and Inclusion Award (2017), SAVE Luminary of Equality (2017), and Miami Goes Elsewhere Fellowship (2016). Choreographic commissions include Norton Museum of Art (2019), MDC Live Arts (2019) Tigertail Productions (2017), Karen Peterson and Dancers (2016), Miami Dade College (2012; 2016), Broward College (2014; 2016), Nova Southeastern University (2013), and Miami Theater Center (2013).
I have been a faculty fellow in the Honors College of Florida International University since 2014 and recently took on additional teaching responsibilities as the Dance Minor Coordinator in the Theatre Department, as well as festival director of ScreenDance Miami, a program of Miami Light Project, since 2016. Despite my role in both departments, I am still considered an adjunct at the university level. As an artist, the sustainability of a university professorship is an attractive one, so I hang on for a more secure designation. My current teaching load is six to seven courses per semester. Four courses in epistemology, performance theory, and social justice topics through the Honors College, and two to three courses in ballet, modern, jazz, and composition as the sole dance professor in Theatre Department.
The heart of my teaching falls into the realization that I am first and foremost an artist - and as an artist I happen to teach and share. Through this realization, and something I am quite open about with my students, I facilitate an environment of unfettered inquiry - an opportunity for me to learn just as much from a student’s journey in my class, as they have in learning from the journey that got me to them. I like to unsettle their idea of what is expected by authority figures, through exchanging fact and historical regurgitation practices for a system where students generate new questions regarding the poetics of their own motivations. These questions can be vague or specific, their values equal. I am interested in the embracing of our human error – the irony of my teaching is that by exposing my weaknesses as well as my strengths, I am a better teacher. It is in this affirmation we fear nothing - nothing was ever hidden.
I am in the midst of planning the February 2019 premiere of Dov, a solo project commissioned by MDC Live Arts for the inaugural season of the MDC Live Arts Lab Alliance. Dov means bear in Hebrew and is the middle name of the soloist, a thirteen year-old boy with prodigious basketball skills. I will be thirty-one at the time of the premiere, so the irony of our 13 | 31 palindrome resonates with the work’s themes of time, rite of passage, and sense of becoming. In 2011, I choreographed a work called Mother-Son(days) using a diary I found written by my mom from 1977. She would have been seventeen years-old at the time of writing it. I selected several passages from the diary and merged them with a journal my dad made me keep in 1997-1998 shortly after she passed away. The merger became a sort of scripted dialogue between my mom and me. The duet was accompanied by the live narration of my mom’s diary from when she was a teenager, ruminating on her future about love, family, and death - and from my own diary as a ten year-old facing the death of my mom. The diary entries are almost twenty years apart and illustrated the similarities in our emotional and sometimes prophetic tenor: separated by time the entries reflected similar personalities, fears, and even [the] same humor. We created a movement landscape that, although was as abstract as the dialogue was literal, existed alongside the narration within the same tone poem. The dancing rested like a subconscious layer over the words without any literal translation. Mother-Son(days) has been performed in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2016 - each time, different.
Most recently, my own dad read the entries belonging to my mom while another narrator read mine. For me, that was the most profoundly connected I’ve felt to the piece, as my dad - a non-performer - tripped over the words in such a deeply honest way. He needed no rehearsal to read the words of his late wife. He needed no coaching on cadence or rhythm. His closeness to her and vulnerability made me closer to her memory on stage than any previous iteration of the performance. As long as Mother-Son(days) is performed, time stops. In much the same way, I see Dov as the opportunity for me to stop. I replace tapping on that dock for my dad and his father’s ashes at thirteen with the dribbling of the thirteen year-old in Dov. Mother-Son(days) was a conversation we never had. Dov is one that can be.
And so, I measure time through dance.