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51% #1679: Women In Dance

Natalia O'Connor and Florin Vlad
Provided by Natalia O'Connor
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Natalia O'Connor and Florin Vlad

On this week’s 51%, we celebrate women in dance. We speak with a student at Julliard and take some lessons from a professional ballroom dancer, and we also speak with choreographer Helen Pickett about her creative process.

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Today is all about women in dance. A lot of us may have taken dance classes as kids – or simply just danced to the radio like I did – but today we’re speaking with women who kept at it, and are working to make a living out of it. So grab some dance shoes and a partner if you can, because we’re taking a lesson as well.

We’ll start down in New York City, with Nyoka Wotorson. Wotorson is an African American dancer who grew up in the city, and when we spoke to her she was settling into her first year at Julliard — but really, she’s been dancing since she was just three years old.

“I used to walk around on my tippy toes when I was younger, and my mom always tells me that she just saw me and was like, ‘She needs to be in dance classes immediately. She clearly wants to pursue that,’” says Wotorson. “And so she did, she put me in dance classes and I’ve been dancing ever since. I went to LaGuardia for dance, which is the high school right across the street from Julliard, so I’ve been dancing my whole life.”

Wotorson is trained in ballet, jazz, pop, and more – but she says the Graham technique is currently her favorite.

“Graham is a technique created by Martha Graham. It really revolves around the contraction, which is like the hollowing out of your stomach. It’s a very physical technique that includes floor work. It’s been around for a long time — there’s a Graham school based in New York, and a Graham company,” she explains. “Dance gives me the ability to be free and to say things with my physicality that I probably would not either be confident saying or be able to say with words. It just allows me to express myself in a way that I love. Someone said this the other day: ‘When you’re dancing, you’re doing it for yourself. Other people are just lucky enough to be able to see.’ And I think with that mentality, dance can be one of the most powerful things.”

Wotorson lists Alicia Graf Mack and Misty Copeland as some of her biggest role models. She loves watching and studying confident Black dancers, because the field is still predominantly white. She says a lot of it comes down to representation and accessibility: becoming a professional dancer requires years of full-time, expensive training, and oftentimes the families who can afford it are wealthy and white.

Growing up, Wotorson was often one of just a few Black dancers in her classes, and she never really registered the effect it had on her until she got to Julliard. In 2017, Juilliard tapped Graf Mack to lead its dance division, and Wotorson credits Graf Mack with increasing the diversity within the school’s student population. Wotorson believes her class is the program’s most diverse yet, with a third of its roughly 24 students being people of color. And in being among all those equally-talented dancers, who look more like her, Wotorson says she was forced to confront some of her past insecurities.

“I found that in previous years, I didn’t always feel confident in my ballet. I mean, a large part of it probably was because I would see all these white faces at the front of the room, having perfect turnout, and all the ballet technique that they had. And I didn’t feel like I was as strong in that field,” says Wotorson. “I remember in my interview for my Juilliard audition, Alicia told me, she said, ‘I love watching you at the barre, I love watching you in ballet. But you didn’t move your face, like you didn’t smile once.’ And I was so focused. And then she said, ‘But when we started the modern, your face lit up, you were excited and happy.’ And I think that’s partly because I was so focused on wanting to fit the perfect mold of what a ballerina usually looks like. I didn’t think I could just be me and still fit that image. But I think that’s changing in the dance world in general. More Black faces are coming to the forefront and talking about things they’ve been through, and how they overcame it, and [talking about] finding confidence in your technique and your art and yourself.”

Wotorson looks to her pointe shoes as one example of how the field is slowly changing. For people of color, finding pointe shoes to match your skin tone can be incredibly difficult. The whole purpose of pointes shoes is to create an illusion of long limbs, to extend the lines a dancer makes as they move across the floor – and if you’re a person of color, and all you have are pink shoes for white dancers, that illusion is shattered. As a result, many dancers – even some white dancers – paint or “pancake” their shoes with makeup. In 2019, major shoe companies like Capezio and Bloch pledged to start using brown satin in their dance shoes, but Wotorson hopes to see more thorough representation going forward.

For anyone wanting to get into dance, her advice is simple: go for it.

“Just do it — but do the work. If you’re gonna do it, know that it’s hard. Know that there are gonna be days you do not want to dance. But then when you get in the studio and you finish class, you’re going to be so happy that you did,” she adds. “Dance is one of the most difficult and grueling art forms, not only physically, but also mentally. And I think if you don’t have the confidence of believing in yourself and knowing that you have the ability to achieve any goals you have, then it’s going to be a lot harder to succeed in this field. But I think being a dancer can give you so much confidence if you let it.”

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As Wotorson said, making dance look effortless takes a lot of hard work. The physical strength, coordination, stamina, and focus involved is just like what you see in athletes – and for some people, dancing is a sport. While it’s not at the Olympics, dancesport, or competitive ballroom dancing, has been around for well over 100 years, and with the COVID-19 vaccine, competitions are ramping back up at both a national and international level.

If you’re wondering what some of these competitions look like, think of the TV show “Dancing With the Stars,” which helped bring ballroom dance back to a mainstream audience in 2005. But here, couples often take the floor at the same time, there’s a lot more judges, much stricter judging – and the dancers have been training for years, if not their entire lives.

At 27-years-old, Natalia O’Connor has represented multiple countries on the competitive dance floor, and along with her husband Florin, she’s operated Dance Fire Studio & Fitness in Niskayuna, New York since 2017. The pair are actually fresh off a win at a national championship in Orlando, Florida, but in-between competitions, they teach groups, engaged couples, and kids everything from the waltz to the tango — a total of 27 dance styles across the board. I recently sat down with O’Connor to learn how she got started.

How did you get into dance?

I had a very interesting life. My dad is American, and my mom is Russian. So I started dancing in Philadelphia – I was 8 years old, I was watching TV, and we ended up watching a competition on TV. And I told my mom that I wanted to go and try it out. And from then on, it’s all history, you know, I just fell in love. And at the age of 10, my parents divorced, so we made a decision to move to St. Petersburg, Russia. So it was definitely a cultural shock for me, it was very different. I knew a little bit of Russian, obviously, because my mom was Russian, but not as good for school and you know, to live comfortably. Dancing definitely helped me to overcome that and to you know, be part of a dance community, to have friends, and just overall create the person I am today.

What was it about ballroom dancing that you love so much?

Well, definitely, it’s the expression, so you can express yourself without actually saying any words. And confidence, yeah, it definitely helps you with the confidence, and overall your social skills. Because, you know, when you’re a little girl, you don’t feel really comfortable talking to boys, and it just makes you feel more comfortable with people and more open. It made a huge difference in my life. Yes.

How was it different, dancing in Russia versus doing dance here?

It was definitely more strict. It’s a little bit more strict, and the style of teaching is different. But it was a wonderful experience. I think I toughened up. And actually, from the age of 16, I was able to live on my own and to become more independent. And actually, after Russia, I moved to Romania, where I met my dance partner and now my husband. We were dancing for the Romanian national team for a few years. So I lived with him from the age of 16, I actually lived with his family. And then after a few disappointing results, we realize that the opportunity wasn’t there. And because I am an American citizen, we were allowed to transfer and represent the United States. So at the age, I believe, of 18/19, maybe 20, we moved to the United States – first we would travel back and forth, because we were competing a lot in Europe, Asia, and then the States. So we would come, let’s say, for about three months, and stay with my grandparents who live in Vermont. But then after, I think when we turned 21, we decided to move to the U.S. and to start our lives here, open our own dance studio, which was always a dream of mine. And we’re so happy to live in this area.

How do those competitions usually work? What are they judging you on?

It’s a combination of everything. Besides your technique, it’s your musicality, it’s your partnership, or your stamina, because dancing is actually a very physical activity. So that’s why, in the competitive world. it’s called “dancesport.” And actually, it is recognized by the Olympic Committee, and hopefully soon will be an Olympic sport.

What has been you experience running the studio?

It is a lot of work. But it’s so much fun. It’s so much fun, because we are in the entertainment business, in the social life business, and especially after such a long year, it’s so nice to see people smiling again. Something that we experienced in Europe, but it’s not so popular here – but I think it would be so nice to develop this here – when we have weddings, we create choreographies for the bride and groom, for the father-daughter dance, etc. But I remember back in Europe, we were hired quite often to entertain, and to perform at weddings and get the guests on the floor dancing, I think that would be a very nice thing to do [here], too. That’s something that I would love to develop. And of course, corporate team building. They are seen as therapy. It connects and makes friendships and relationships stronger. So we would love to work with other businesses.

How would you describe your teaching style?

It depends on the goals of the couple, of the student. If they are more interested in competing, of course, teaching is a little bit more detailed, maybe a little bit more athletic. So we make them dance a little bit more and sweat a little bit more. If it’s more to just go out and social dance and to be able to have a good time, then we have a slightly different approach. But the most important thing is to be persistent. So I’m very persistent. You know, if something doesn’t go well, I actually don’t let go, I make sure that they do it a million times, because of course you want to have it in the muscle memory. But it’s important to stay positive.

It’s very interesting to see what’s their favorite dance. Somebody who’s more on the quiet side, you know, they like something a little bit more mellow, like a rumba, something more romantic. And somebody who’s more active, of course, they always want to dance the tango or something more sharp.

Now, if someone was just starting out and trying to figure out what kind of dance they might be into, is there one that you would suggest as a good starting dance?

Absolutely. It’s always good to start with a slower dances because it gives us more time to think about the steps. But a very fun dance I recommend is always the salsa. It’s a very fun Latin dance, a very popular in our community. And of course, the swing, the music is great.

What kind of work goes into keeping up your ability?

The more you dance, the more fit you are. The biggest difference that we see, we have some students who come in and they have maybe some balance problems or posture problems. And after a few lessons, it just makes a huge difference. So it helps with balance with posture coordination, and just overall, you know, being able to dance on beat with the music – that’s a whole skill that you have to work on.

Now, ballroom dancing is a sport that has long been entrenched in traditional values and gender roles. Typically the male “leads” and controls the couple’s direction and timing, while his female partner “follows” and provides the fluid and expressive movement that makes it so beautiful. In turn, there can be a lot of pressure on women to match conventional beauty standards. Meanwhile, the National Dance Council of America and USA Dance only just started allowing same-sex and gender neutral pairings at its sanctioned competitions two years ago. The World DanceSport Federation rulebook, updated this past June, still defines a couple as “a male and female partner.”

O’Connor wasn’t immune from the pressures that come with being a woman in a sport that’s slowly modernizing, but she says dancing gives her a sense of strength and freedom unlike anything else. Rather than “leader and follower,” she sees two people working together and floating across the floor as one – not unlike what you see in Olympic skating competitions.

At Dance Fire Studio, O’Connor teaches couples of all genders, sizes, and ages. They do offer stricter training for those who want to dance at a competitive level, but their general classes and themed “dance parties” focus more on the social and fitness aspects of the dance floor. O’Connor says she wants to bring the joy of the sport to everyone.

“Dancing is like therapy,” she adds. “We all love to dance. We might say that we don’t, even if we have two left feet, but once we play the music, anybody can dance.”

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Our last stop is at Jacob’s Pillow, a dance center, school, and performance space in Becket, Massachusetts. Jacob’s Pillow recently wrapped its summer 2021 season, where it welcomed in-person audiences for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic.

Helen Pickett is co-director of the center’s Contemporary Dance Program. Over a 15-year career, she’s created more than 40 ballets in the U.S. and Europe, her latest being a full-length for the Scottish Ballet titled “The Crucible.” Over the summer, Pickett adapted one of her early projects for the stage at Jacob’s Pillow, called “Home Studies.”

How did you get into choreography?

I started with San Francisco Ballet, training there. That is actually where I met William Forsythe. San Francisco Ballet and William Forsythe was going to actually be my entire dance career. And then I retired relatively early, just turning 31, and I thought I wanted to be an actress. So I moved to New York, and I got a job with the Wooster group, which is a theater group downtown on Wooster Street in New York City, and I work with them for five years. I studied acting for two years. And then I realized that acting was not going to be my path – but I’m really happy I left dance to study acting, because film turned into one of my passions, as far as working with those elements in my choreography.

In 1999, I also started teaching at the Ailey School, and I taught there for a decade, I was teaching for size improvisation modality. And in 2005, I was teaching exactly that for MIT in Boston, I would go around the country and teach Forsythe’s improvisation modality workshops. A friend who I had known as a dancer, Mikko Nissinen, had just gotten his directorship in Boston, and he left me a phone message and asked me if I wanted to choreograph for the main company, and it would become my first professional ballet company commission. I had made other work for the Ailey school kids, you know, for the school, and I’ve done some film choreography way back in the 2000s, but this was my first concert dance professional proscenium commission, with Boston Ballet. And it’s been 16 years. I knew, without being dramatic or story telling-ish, I knew the moment I was back in the studio, that first day of rehearsal of my first professional piece, that I had found home. I’m so happy I went away, because I realized, it’s where my life’s blood, where my breath was, where I found my reason for being in life.

This iteration of “Coast to Coast,” which is the program with Jacob’s Pillow, three of my first films that I made with three Boston Ballet dancers are now doing a reversal: they’re making their way to the stage. And I have reworked them for the stage, but we are using the furniture that I used in the films. I’ve renamed it, it’s called “Home Studies: Parlor Floor Life.” It’s just four different views of three people living together, and how they are dancing in their home space. I decided to keep it that way.

So I kind of told you everything in one lump.

That’s OK. What’s the difference between choreographing for film and choreographing for the stage?

The beauty of film is the very close intimate detail that one can get with the camera lens, focusing in on an eyelash, or the very intimate, very quiet look from someone to another someone. The intimacy of film for dance is something I want to discover more and fall into more, because it’s kind of the crux of my 16-year study of choreography, anyhow: breaking the fourth wall through the sensory system through proprioception, having the movement, the connection between the people on stage jumping that fourth wall. It’s been my focus: the study of intimacy, and how it can reach across the divide. So that is the big difference.

And then, of course, the drama and the fun of live choreography on stage is that palpable physical prowess that you can only get onstage, it’s the breaths that you hear. So what I did is I just expanded the choreography more to fill more of the space. I made the gestures a bit bigger. And then it’s the excitement of a live show that you can never see that exact performance again.

I find it interesting, the whole idea of playing with intimacy and stuff like that as well. Tell me a little bit more about your work, what are some other themes that you like to explore in your work?

Well, I’ve always been interested in narrative. And I think that’s because my two parents were actors when they met, so, literature, plays have always been a huge part of my life. I started working with narratives in maybe 2008, and I made my first full length that was a Tennessee Williams play. I did that when I was resident choreographer at Atlanta Ballet. And I fell in love, really, with full lengths. Like if I could live in full-length land from now on, I would. There’s something so all consuming, and it is just like the best meal you’ll ever have. There’s so much detail. I made a second full length called “The Crucible,” it was about to go to the Kennedy Center and go around the country when the pandemic hit. So that’ll come in, I think, a couple years. And now I’m on to my third full length, which is premiering in a few years. I just had my first design meeting today for it.

What does that process look like? How long does it usually take for you to put a performance together, and where does it start?

Well, my first full length, my father gave me the idea, and that was already back in 2012. And then I put it away, it was very complicated – it’s Tennessee Williams’ most complicated play, it reads more like poetry, so I couldn’t find my way through it as far as telling it in a in a dance way. And then I did. So from the time I really started thinking about it, until its fruition, that was a three-year process. In the studio, it’s anywhere from three to four months. But that’s so much preparation, you have to create a treatment for it, the scenes, talk to all the designers, for example. This is our first week of work for my new full length, and it will premiere in the fall of 2024. You know, a portion for me, even if it is subconscious, is always with that idea. So I have gathered tear sheets, newspaper articles, I’ve purchased five books. For me, it starts and lives with me until the premiere.

When I was speaking to other people about their experience in this field, one thing I think people at least seem to think is that choreography is a very male-driven field traditionally, and more and more women are becoming more prominent in it. I was going to ask, what has your experience been in this field? And are there ways in which you’d like to see it grow?

Well, first of all, we have to make the distinction, because in other choreographic forms other than ballet, there are far more women as choreographers, I believe, and women in leadership positions. You have to think of the modern dance movement, who started that. In the ballet world, that’s still true, it’s still more males than females in leadership positions. Things have shifted, there is far more movement in women getting into leadership positions, and more movement as far as women of color, getting into leadership positions, which is also extremely important. I just don’t want it to be a fad. I want this movement of gender equity to keep going. And it’s not just choreographers and directors: more female lighting designers, more female set costume designers, more female production managers, you know, just across the board, so we have more equity. I just wanted to keep growing. When young people see people that look like them in positions, it makes them realize things are possible.

Who are some of your inspirations?

I have to say this is kind of a stock answer for me, but it’s absolutely the truth: I’m really inspired by the world around me. Anytime you can widen your idea about art, go to your museums, read more, look to the living choreographers that were game changers (and there are quite a few that are alive right now). I’m a big proponent of people finding their own inspirations because it will mean more. If you need to dance, or if you need to be an artist, you will find a way.

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51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. The show is hosted by Jesse King, and its theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.

51%
Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast, "A New York Minute In History."