I continue to ask my dancers to reflect on how dance has impacted their lives. Ashley has been engaging with dance on many levels in the past few years; she and I have worked closely on several movement-based research projects and performances, both at the university and professional level. I led her college dance classes; she has stage-managed & lit the InHale Performance Series, which I direct and curate in Philadelphia, for the past few years. Additionally, Ashley interned and aided me in teaching Dance for PD (Parkinson's Disease), through Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers outreach programming. At the time of this post, Ashley is transitioning from student and young professional to a working and practicing artist. Here are some of her thoughts:
"When I began dancing as part of a Drug-free/ Violence Free performance group in high school, dance was about entertainment: entertaining the crowds/ audiences and having fun doing so. But, when I started taking Ballet, Tap, and Jazz my sophomore year of college, I was challenged to think about dance on an intellectual level. So I took the challenge and pirouetted, leaped, and chugged my way into the deeper, ground layers of this thing called dance. This is when I realized that dance, for me, was about clarity, communication, & acceptance and not about the entertainment (yes, I'd like it to be pleasing to everybody involved - and those not- but that doesn't need to be the main focus to make it happen.)
As we delved further into what dance is, it became evident that dance, for me, meant Clarity. In a world full of chaos and complexity, dance gave me a way to manage. For example, about a week before our very first dance concert at my college, my duet partner got injured and couldn't dance. Normally, I'd have panicked and thrown the towel in, but Jess wasn't giving me that option. So, with a week before the concert, a new partner stepped in and after many late night and chaotic rehearsals, learned the routine. When the time came for curtains to open, there were many nerves and a ton of chaos, but throughout all of that chaos, the entire cast was clear that we were all here for on reason- to dance. And so we did. We trusted our rehearsals and danced and before we knew it, we achieved clarity.
In the following semester, a class titled "Dance Appreciation" was offered. In class we talked about this thing we call "Dance" and how it was relevant to art, school, society, life, etc. We had a lot of discussion about kinesthetic energy and the awareness of not only your own energy, but also accepting and being aware of others. And through this class, dance became not only about clarity amid chaos, but clarity of how I was using my energy, where I was placing it in my body and in the kineshpere around me, and how I was using other people's energy -- was I accepting their energetic presence or rejecting it? This became a large focus of not just my life in dance, but my life in general. I began thinking about where I was placing my energy and thinking critically during class about how I can make movements easier. What am I doing wrong and how do I fix it? Usually, the answer dealt with relocating my placement of energy to use it more efficiently. Occasionally, I just simple had to let go, and release my energy.
Another focus that occasionally surfaced during Dance Appreciation was communication. I struggle to express myself using words. I always have, unless it was research-able, then I knew exactly what I needed to do. This made it very difficult to choreograph at first. I often had ideas/ concepts/ stories to share through dance, but because I was afraid to open up and be vulnerable through communication, I didn't know how to make these dances work not only with other dancers and myself, but also for an audience.
I remember sitting in class one day and being asked to think about how we identify ourselves and to turn these identities into movement. At first, this assignment was easy. "My identity - I'm a sister, a daughter, a students, performer, etc. I'm a..." When I got past the etc of the obvious identities and was asked to look beyond them, I struggled. While my classmates were moving, I was stuck, walking straight into a brick wall. I couldn't create movement because I was afraid of what was in my brain. I was afraid of the raw emotion in my body and the vulnerability it created. Towards the end of class, as we reflected on the project, I broke down and a whole stream of emotions began flowing, but I was opening up and taking a step toward communication. I was completely vulnerable and I was still alive and breathing and well. After taking a few moments to calm down, I walked out of class feeling as though a weight had been lifted. Throughout the day, I continued to process what I had just experienced and eventually I came to learn that the world of dance was a safe place to open myself and communicate and be vulnerable: to share stories, lessons, struggles, etc., and to be honest with my audience, my colleagues, mentors, strangers, but most importantly myself.
After learning to communicate my experiences through dance, I began to step up and share my experiences in other ways, through advocacy, through clubs/ organizations and by putting myself out there. But first, I had to learn yet another concept through dance -- acceptance.
Confession: When I took the first semester of dance classes, I was terrified of my body. Prior to taking dance, I constantly struggled with my body image and size (yes, I am plus sized), and as I waited for class to start all I could think about was being told as a kid, by many people that I couldn't do things because I was too tall, too heavy, too broad, etc. This made it incredibly easy to look at the people around me and assume they were judging me. It also made it too easy to judge myself, a terrible habit I had developed over the years. Throughout the semesters, whenever I got frustrated with my body, Jess would tell me to step back and breathe and re-gather. There was no judgment. No giving up. Just learning and accepting that this is where my body was today. I also found it comforting to understand that my classmates occasionally went through the same frustrations, which helped us all be understanding and patient with one another. With this understanding, I found a place where I was accepted for who I was and encouraged by my friends, colleagues, instructors, etc., rather than the place I had created in my head. The only person left to accept myself was me, and so after a lot of resistance and self doubt, I finally accepted myself and my body for who/what I was.
Shortly after, I noticed a change in how the world of dance worked. I began to branch out more, I made connections at CHI MAC through the InHale Performance Series and gained courage to participate in the classes/ workshops. I was cast as a featured dancer in a community theatre's production of "AIDA," I served as dance captain for "Oklahoma!" and my performances in Theatre began taking a step forward, resulting in a Nomination for the Irene Ryan Scholarship Competition.
After a performance during a creativity conference, I was approached by an older gentleman who without hesitation or hello stated "I respect you!" Um, okay, thank you, sir, but I don't understand. "Not a lot of women of your size have the courage to do what you just did." Following this statement the gentleman and I talked for a few more minutes about breaking barriers through dance and learning acceptance and courage on and off stage. In performances to follow, I occasionally received similar reactions, but they always commented on my confidence first. I had to accept myself first before anybody else could.
In general, Dance if life -- I don't want to dance, I HAVE to dance. I understand myself and the world around me through dance and because of dance. And, when all else fails, I find myself reverting to dance: for processing life, for comfort, for fun, for advocacy, for clarity, for communication and for acceptance. "
Thank you, Ashley!