This article is the first in a three-part series on the transformative experiences of Bay Area dancers, choreographers and dance teachers.
WHILE A FRESHMAN IN COLLEGE, I found myself at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to stay in school or drop out to dance. I sought advice from one of my beloved teachers, asking if she thought I could make it as a dancer. She blustered, uncomfortable with being put on the spot, and failed to tell me anything inspiring or reassuring as I had hoped. I was crushed.
I’m often reminded of that conversation as I interact with my own students and young dancers who frequently ask for career advice. Somehow I found my own path and I’m very glad for how it all turned out, but if I could go back, knowing what I know now, and whisper into my own naïve ear, I would say, “You’re asking the wrong question.” I should have asked her where to train, what to work on and who I should audition for. I would have told myself not to ask anyone if I was good enough, but to work on believing in myself. (I might have even suggested a better choice of a mentor.) Nevertheless, I ended up graduating, then dancing, teaching and choreographing for the past 22 years.
Such self-realization can come in the moment or later in life, as in my case. I recently decided to speak to several dancers I’ve always admired to find out about their histories, and ask them if they recall times or events that were particularly challenging or transformative and how they handled them. Each has had his or her own unique professional path, and each is at a different stage on that journey.
Several commented on having learned not to chose gigs just for the money, not being afraid to talk to artists they admire, taking advantage of every opportunity to explore their own craft more deeply, and cultivating the capacity to be at once firmly themselves and always ready to adapt. Delving deeper, each recalled a particular time that stood out with the full force of change.
Joseph Copley, 29, has been with Margaret Jenkins Dance Company since 2004. He has danced with many others, including long tenures with Dance Through Time and Amy Seiwert/im’ij-re. It was in 2004, while also a member of the then troubled Oakland Ballet, that his career got an unexpected jolt.
“I remember I was in a car with two other Oakland Ballet dancers headed to a lec-dem or school performance somewhere, when I got a call from a reporter asking me how I felt about the company closing down.” He recalls being stunned by the news, but eventually becoming philosophical about it. “You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s become a constant mantra for me.“
After the initial shock, he found some excitement picking up various performing opportunities to make ends meet. “I took a side gig doing a baroque dance in Louisiana with Dance Through Time, then came home and did Danger Orange (an installation at Justin Herman Plaza with Margaret Jenkins Dance Company), and later that year did Nutcracker. I was happy.” Still, he was realizing that things weren’t exactly what he’d expected. “It was a big ‘a ha’ moment regarding the instability of the arts.”
Amy Foley, 35, recalls a particularly tough conversation that changed things for her. She was a six-year veteran with Robert Moses’ Kin and working at jobs outside of dance in order to make ends meet. “I remember I had a meeting with Robert during which he questioned my commitment to the company. I was so hurt because I felt that everything I was doing was to make it possible for me to be in rehearsals.” She hadn’t noticed her dancing was suffering and quickly realized she had to make some changes. “His words were particularly weighted because I had worked for him for so long and he knew I wasn’t at my best. That conversation forced me to take greater care of my dancing. It pushed me to keep my eye on the prize and to remember that even when I wasn’t dancing, I was still a dancer.”
Amy went on to dance with Robert Moses’ Kin for another 4 years, recently leaving to pursue new challenges. In addition to teaching kids and adults at ODC and choreographing, last year she filled in for an injured Heidi Schweiker in Jenkins’ latest work, Other Suns. The experience included a national tour and the realization that she had more range than she knew.
A good contract with a stable dance company, regular touring, creative input and the encouragement and support of the entire organization when you announce you’re going to have a baby sounds too good to be true. But Yayoi Kambara, 32, talks warmly about this being her experience with ODC Dance three years ago when she had her daughter. She joined the company in 2002.
“I was really lucky,” she says. “I dance for artists who are parents and they were all incredibly supportive of me.”
Her maternity leave lasted only 5 ½ months, but accommodations were made to make things a little easier for the breast-feeding mom traveling with her baby. “Before we left, Brenda Way sat me down and told me how to ship everything to where we were going so that I wouldn’t have to travel with so much stuff.” Everyone pitched in, even her OB-GYN put her in touch with Mark Morris Dance Group alum June Omura who explained how she managed to keep touring and performing after having twins. “I also spoke with Tina LeBlanc who told me how she pumped at work during 5-minute breaks.”
The change in Yayoi’s family life has also forever altered her view of herself as an artist. “I think as a parent I take fewer things personally, because I know now that certain things are just not as important. I feel a lot less pressure.”
“I stopped caring if I was a beautiful dancer,” she adds.
“I realized that the definition of beauty went out the door. The experience of being with my family was beautiful, and so performing and being on stage became easy. I think more now about intention and self-awareness.”
Self-awareness came up a lot in these discussions and was a particular struggle for Nol Simonse, 35. Nol has built a celebrated 13-year career dancing with several companies, including Janice Garrett & Dancers, Kunst-Stoff, project agora, and Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, and recently in the highly acclaimed Tosca Project, staged by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli. He also teaches at Alonzo King Lines Dance Center, ODC Commons and Dance Mission.
But upon his arrival to San Francisco in 1997 Nol had already retired from dancing. “I just didn’t see a place for myself in the dance world,” he says. “I couldn’t see myself in the dances I was seeing so I quit altogether.”
Soon, however, he began meeting dancers and choreographers like Yannis Adoniou, Tomi Paasonen, Kara Davis and Leslie Schickel who, he says, were people he could relate to, making work he could relate to. “I started to see a place for me. I think it’s important for any young dancer to know that there is a place for any dancer.” This is when his self-awareness kicked in. “I came to the realization that I’m an awkward gay man and I’ve found that there is a function for an awkward gay man in performing.”
Nol speaks warmly of his varied performing experiences over the years. “It’s not to say there haven’t been gigs that I didn’t enjoy. I remember one in which I had to recite poetry while wearing a loincloth and feathers in my Mohawk. That was a hard one.”
In 2007, Muriel Maffre retired from San Francisco Ballet after 17 highly accomplished years with the company. Now 44, Muriel teaches dance, creates exhibition art, completed a master’s in Museum Science, and is a Curatorial Fellow at the Richmond Art Center. She says she has always been confident in her abilities as a dancer. Not long after joining SFB, however, she experienced a frustration that became pivotal.
“I was enamored with how American dancers were dancing – heroic, powerful, all out. My experience was to be measured, restrained.” She began to push herself in a new direction and the results were not what she expected. “When I saw myself on video I was horrified. It didn’t fit. Perhaps as a consequence I was getting less parts and my performing was minimal. I was losing motivation and desire to move forward.” She decided to focus more on her differences. It was at this point that she became associated with Alonzo King and his dancers, whom she says introduced to her a new way of thinking about her dancing. “It was a soul searching. My goal was to become a beautiful dancer, not to get all the amazing parts. I took the approach of developing myself as a dancer and artist.”
With so much experience, younger dancers often turn to her for advice. She encourages them to focus on themselves as artists and find out what they have to contribute. “Because no matter what happens you will be fulfilled. It’s hard when you’re a young dancer, but you have to make choices. Be deliberate and know why you make the choices you do. It can’t be fulfilling without the research.”