NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Jesse Katen, Owner of the Jesse Katen School of Dance. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
For the past decade, I’ve had the joy of traveling as a professional dance competition judge, focusing mainly on special awards. I love nothing more than drawing attention to what young dancers do well and using that opportunity on the stage to teach as well as praise.
With an excitingly full season planned, I had only traveled to one site--for an incredible display of stellar talent in Great Neck, New York--before the entire season, both judging and teaching at my studio, was brought to a heartbreakingly anticlimactic finale. Due to the impending pandemic, competitions were postponed, studios closed, and my college classes were moved online in a panic-ridden scramble.
Such changes are especially devastating for dancers; our magic ends when the movement stops. I think of our beloved Martha Graham, whose remarkable life reached its lowest point when she sat it out, thinking she was too old for the stage. But then I remembered Graham was lifted from her despair by the sudden realization that--as many of us are finding--there's no reason compelling enough to keep us from what we love. Her life's meaning was restored by a return to the spotlight.
While we’ve made great leaps forward in coping by finding innovative ways to teach dance remotely (thanks to NDEO especially), there can be no doubt that this pandemic shows us just how social our art form is. Dancers, fueled by the energy generated through the performative encounter, lose something ineffable in technological renderings and pixelated translations. Subtleties of our expressions are effaced, artistic nuances are elided, and this is to say nothing of the loss of those mini-performances of our audiences from which we derive so much inspiration—synchronous smiles, the following-along of the head of engaged audience members, and of course the irreplaceable sound of applause heard live rather than through the tinniness of a device’s speaker.
Tempted to withdraw into disappointment and fear, I was then contacted by a dance mom whose daughter had received a special award from me years prior. She said, “I think now more than ever the dancers need to hear from you. For this season at least, their dreams are dashed.”Affected by her words, I created a video, using the miracle of what I call “virtual venues”—any of the countless ways we can share our art whether through synchronous or asynchronous means on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or other platforms--to suggest that dancers create their own. “Now is your chance,” I urged. “Some of you dream of attending performing arts high schools where you spend your days dancing; now is your chance to pretend that’s your life! You’re released from school, spend your day dancing! Show us all what you can do! Use this opportunity to push yourself in new ways--read about dance, think about dance. Stir your passions!”
What drew many of us to dance in the first place is what will see us through this crisis: stepping into the glow of the spotlight and driven by the feeling that we really matter, marveling at our abilities to affect others through our movements. In so doing, we dramatically affect, even invent, ourselves.
But also we can derive strength from the comfort, reassurance, and indeed transformative power that the ritual of performance loans us at this or any other time. I encourage my dancers to not let their ambitious personal standards sink with the advent of "pajama pedagogy." Apply your makeup, glue your rhinestones to your face, and, remember, in putting on your costume, you inhabit the role you love so much. Performance teaches us that in feeling “as if,” we actually become. Virtual venues, despite their limitations, afford us the opportunity of expanding our audiences and, perhaps, the magnitude of our performance capabilities. We have a bigger space for our personalities to fill. Instead of our rooms being the place where we dance like no one is watching, we must instead dance like the world is watching. It just might be.
Like any crisis, this pandemic marks a turning point (forgive the pun). In which direction do we move from here? Despite the ubiquity and utility of virtual venues at this point in history, I think the outcome will be that we are reminded the magic of performance is nonetheless irreplaceable. There’s no shame in feeling that. After all, dance’s sociality is ingrained in its very evolution. Jennifer Homans points out in her thorough and lyrically written history Apollo's Angels that at its beginning, ballet was as much an etiquette as an art. It was a system of actions and interactions among and between people, a way to craft and display one's identity. What an extraordinary tradition for us to be a part of--not just ballet, but all dance; all felt movements offered as art. To this day, it remains a transcendent source of connection between people.
At this turning point, we may find some novel ways to move forward, but I venture that we will find as many ways to treasure the timeless aspects of our art and profession. Our performances, if ever taken for granted, will spark new magic. The blinding glare of the spotlight, the rush of air as the curtain opens, the smell of hairspray and eyelash glue--these are all, like dance itself, experiences sensed, lived through, and given meaning by the body. These aspects of dance--the experiential, the corporeal, and the felt--are what will draw us back together and inspire us to keep moving into the future.
During what we didn’t know would be our last week of class together, my dancers were already joking about creating a "covid choreography." No doubt I'll be seeing that at numerous sites next competition season! And I can’t wait because there will be a next season. After all, dancers know, better than anyone, how to look forward--to the next rehearsal, the next show, the next season, the next performance. And how to make it magical. Merde!
Jesse Katen is the owner of The Jesse Katen School of Dance in Windsor, New York and is a professor at SUNY Broome Community College. Known for his observant and powerful special awards on the dance competition circuit, he has traveled the country as a judge for Sophisticated Productions Dance Competition for ten years and, in 2016, was awarded the Outstanding Dance Judge Award by the Association of Dance Conventions and Competitions in Las Vegas. Dedicated to community service and education, he has served as President of the Rotary Club of Binghamton, President of the Board of Trustees of the Broome County Public Library, President of the Binghamton Rotary Charities Fund, and in 2014, raised $8,000 for the Rotary Foundation by performing a tap dance with his 72-year-old student, a past Rotary District Governor. In 2019, he received the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. He writes on issues of dance education, composition pedagogy, and performance studies.