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DANCERS AS DANCE WRITERS

Traditionally, dancers–especially classical dancers, who commit to their profession in childhood or adolescence–had the reputation of being essentially physical creatures and thus nonverbal. Even when it was admitted that they might be intelligent, they were still often labeled “dumb” in the sense of “mute.” This myth has constantly been challenged. Today, the argument for the articulate dancer is strengthened further by the fact that dancers in ever-increasing numbers are finding their voice through writing about dancing–and editing dance publications as well.

A look at veteran writers on the New York scene alone reveals precedents. Deborah Jowitt, longtime chief dance critic at the Village Voice, with several books to her credit, began as a dancer and choreographer. The well known dance historian Nancy Reynolds was a member of the New York City Ballet. Gus Solomons jr, who danced with Merce Cunningham and still performs with a chamber group of senior artists, reviews dance regularly for Metro Daily and Gay City News. A generation before them, Edwin Denby, arguably the most gifted English-language dance critic, also started his career on stage. Distinguished dance writers like David Vaughan, Nancy Goldner, and Mindy Aloff never had a full-fledged stage career but were dedicated dance students.

Casting the net farther back in time and wider in space reveals a slew of worthy books written by dancers. The most natural form for the dancer who sits down and takes pen in hand is, of course, the memoir. Dancers recording their own lives and careers fall into two groups–the “as told to”s (in which a collaborator’s hand grasps the pen) and those who go the course independently.

In the first category, Suzanne Farrell composed her Holding on to the Air with the help of Toni Bentley, a former New York City Ballet dancer who has published several of her own books. But Tamara Karsavina’s Theatre Street, arguably the most evocative and touching of all dance memoirs, is said to have been written by the Maryinsky ballerina herself–and in her adopted language, English.

Allegra Kent, the most poetic of Balanchine’s ballerinas, found her own voice in prose for Once a Dancer . . . . Twyla Tharp’s voice (blunt, tough, and intermittently ecstatic) is authentic in her autobiographical Push Comes to Shove, as is Margot Fonteyn’s (exquisitely tactful) in Autobiography. In both cases, the personality in prose closely resembles the woman’s dance temperament. Paul Taylor (Private Domain) and Agnes de Mille (Dance to the Piper) produced books that resonated beyond the confines of the dance world–his for its literary distinction, hers for its vitality and human interest.

Why, then, have dancers have been considered functionally illiterate, inarticulate, or both? One reason is that, with few exceptions, classical dancers must begin their training as children. The ideal age is eight, when ordinary kids are in third grade. If the training is serious–that is, career-oriented–their academic education naturally takes second place. Until the mid-twentieth century, in the state-run ballet academies that feed into Europe’s grandest troupes, the education provided alongside the rigorous dancing lessons was at times perfunctory. In the States, youngsters often studied via correspondence courses, which could be sketchy. Even at best, these studies cut off at the high school level, since that’s when a successful ballet student begins his or her stage career. By contrast, the last decade has witnessed a significant surge in the number of dancers in earning college degrees, during as well as after their performing years.

Again, until fairly recently, the traditional modus operandi in ballet companies was a dictatorship imposed by a powerful director or choreographer upon dancers whose voiced opinions were implicitly if not overtly discouraged. The performing artists, cultivated for their bodies, not their brains–as if the two were separate entities–understood that they were to “shut up and dance.”

Modern dance, a field in which a performer can begin as a young adult, is not so exigent. Still, like their classically trained cousins, these contemporary dancers pass most of their working hours in silence. In daily class, rehearsal, and performance they are rarely required, let alone encouraged, to speak.

Times have changed, however, and today’s trend toward self-empowerment has permeated the ivory towers and prison walls that once sheltered dance (or, depending on how you look at it, cut it off) from many worldly realities. More and more, dancers, are speaking out and, having found their voice, writing–commenting on, judging, and influencing the activities in their profession.

This social evolution has combined with the resources of the Internet to make today’s dancers more articulate than their predecessors. Anyone with a computer and access to cyberspace can set up shop on the Net, cost-free, in something like twenty minutes and publish what he has to say, bypassing (at his peril, of course) the roadblocks of editors. Rachel Feinerman’s blog (www.downtowndancer.com) and the choreographer Leigh Witchel’s (www.leighwitchel.com/blog) are highly developed examples of such letters to the world.

The most thoroughgoing dance publication on the Internet, however, is currently being done at the DanceView Times www.danceviewtimes.com), originated and run by Alexandra Tomalonis, and The Dance Insider (www.danceinsider.com), originated and run by Paul Ben-Itzak and his colleagues. Both sites feature reviews of a wide spectrum of dance by a regular stable of writers, professional dancers among them. The Dance Insider, as its name suggests, makes a point of engaging dancers as writers. The Danceview Times is more eclectic. “I’m interested in finding and using vivid writers,” Tomalonis says. “Their background may be in dancing–or in history, theater, literature, or music. Each one brings something interesting and meaningful to the mix.”

The more traditional realm of print publication includes two major dance journals whose editors in chief are well known former dancers. Dance magazine, the most lavish and widely read periodical of its kind, is run by Wendy Perron, a postmodern dancer and choreographer, who still performs and choreographs occasionally. Virginia Johnson, former ballerina of Dance Theatre of Harlem, edits Pointe magazine.

Perron, who also teaches seminars in dance writing–a phenomenon that has recently seen great increase in interest–uses this tactic to enable dancer-writers in the making: “I encourage them to bring the equipment they have as dancers to their writing. First, their highly developed sense of rhythm and phrasing. Then, their ability to communicate, as they do on stage.”

Among the relative newcomers whom Perron publishes are Lisa Kraus, an independent postmodern dancer and choreographer, whose style is lush and visceral; Lise Rinehart, a former American Ballet Theatre soloist, a paragon of clarity who also writes for the DanceView Times; and Rosalynde LeBlanc, a veteran of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, whose writing style recalls Agnes de Mille’s in its freshness and vigor.

Johnson is actively trying to encourage dancer-writers. Among her recruits is Tai Jimenez, a veteran of Dance Theatre of Harlem, now a principal with Boston Ballet, whose articles reveal her spiritual orientation and her sensitivity to racial issues.

“A dancer who writes,” Johnson believes, “is especially good at helping an audience understand how a performer makes choreography expressive–how she takes the steps, stuff so cut and dried you could notate it, and infuses them with feeling.”

Not surprisingly, the newly minted dancer-writers are nimble at expressing their reasons for taking up a second trade. Kraus says, “I need to be more involved with dance than simply watching it. If I’m not in it–performing in it or another aspect of creating it–I very much like to take it home with me and dwell with it.”

LeBlanc, who has produced some eloquent personal essays, explains, “For me, writing is instinctive–the thing I do behind closed doors at the end of the day to fall into synch with my own drummer. Dancing has always been the cerebral struggle for me, and it is only by writing about that struggle that I have chosen again and again to keep dancing.”

It’s evident, of course, that a writer needn’t have danced to write well about dancing. The achievement of the non-dancing Arlene Croce, called “the Jane Austen of dance,” settles that question for good. But it can certainly be argued that a dance writer’s understanding is enlarged by firsthand experience of what is involved in getting the body to speak worlds.

© 2006 Tobi Tobias

an ArtsJournal blog