Challenging Dance’s Status Quo

MADISON PAGE, a self-described dancer movement person in Portland, Oregon, dissects not only the term “professional” with regards to dance, but what dance is and how our social systems shape how we relate to it. Her responses are part of a larger series dissecting what it means to be a professional dancer. To read other perspectives on the topic, click here.

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What does your current regular dance practice look like?

I am in a weird place with regards to a regular dance practice. I have a growing awareness that the kind of dancing I’ve been trained in will probably have lasting repercussions – detriments to my body and mind. So, when I moved to a new city last year, I made a goal to only engage in movement that feels good and listen to how my body wants to move. This commitment still feels radical and difficult. When I am super honest with my body and its needs, I no longer can engage in a kind of codified “style” of practice per se. No ballet, no “contemporary” where I can’t keep up with the class. Instead, I go to improvisation classes, I have an Authentic Movement practice, an Axis Syllabus dance group, and I’m committed to learning as much about functional movement as I can. I go to the aforementioned classes regularly, but not enough due to time and money. Instead of beating myself up because of that limitation, I have to switch my framework. Can I frame everyday-movement in a way that facilitates my dance practice? Then boom! A dance practice is everywhere! It meets me wherever my body is – hiking, cooking, slow dancing with my boyfriend in the kitchen, even cleaning in a squat position! Haha! It’s noticing my weirdo idiosyncratic movement. Now, I am finding my authentic body, so dance isn’t limited to dance with a capital D. It’s still uncomfortable. I will always fantasize about being a ballerina and all of that, still have the guilt about not being in class all the time. But in truth, I just don’t have the body, or the stamina. So ok. I don’t have those things. Now my question is: “How is this body meant to move?”

Would you call yourself a professional dancer?

Well yeah, but, no. Yes – I’ve been paid, I have professional experience where my name is in a program, performed at reputable theaters with notable choreographers, blah blah blah. This American society treats dancers like dog shit in general, and especially independent artists. We have to finance our own work most of the time so, except for performing in fully funded dance companies, this is about as professional as I’m going to get.

But no, because I don’t dance for other people any more. There’s a certain assumption I have in my mind that being a professional dancer means dancing in other people’s work instead of making work of my own, so I guess… I am a choreographer now? Whoa. That’s a loaded term for me, a little too high and mighty. I don’t fully resonate with that term either. I am making my own work with collaborators and trusted friends, most of which features dance but is highly interdisciplinary. I like the term dancer-person now instead of professional dancer or choreographer. My old boss who ran Pieter Performance Space in LA coined that term and I really believe in it. Yes to being a dancer, but equal yes to being a person. Being a project based artist, I don’t get to perform super regularly, so dancer-person feels most true to how I feel.

What do you believe is necessary for a dancer to call themselves professional? Is part of being a professional getting paid?

Getting paid. This is important even though I have worked for free to deepen my craft and build community. It’s contradictory for sure. There are opportunities with no pay and so sometimes as dancers we take those because we know it’ll help us hone our craft. All that being said, it’s something I’d love to see improved in the future. We have a capitalistic society and economy – if we aren’t compensated, how else are we supposed to make art and improve upon it when national funding is so bad? I had a professor in college say, “I either pay my dancers or the work doesn’t get made.” What if all us dancers and choreographers practiced that commitment? There’d be significantly less dance and art no doubt, but perhaps then patrons, rich people, and our communities would recognize the gap, step up, support more art financially. LOL. I sound like a republican.

Is there a certain amount of training involved in becoming a professional dancer?

No, (although my ego opinion is that my parents and I paid a fuckload for me to get to this place!) as a dancer and art maker, I am more curious to involve “non-dancers” in my work. They have “trained bodies,” just not the kind I have. Like a Marcel Duchamp perspective – who gets to decide what training is anyway? What dancers get to dance with what kinds of backgrounds and abilities? What if you are a fantastic mover but can’t afford dance training? When we limit dance to having “training,” we are missing a lot of dynamic performers in the process. That is why it is crucial to expand the idea of how dance looks, both in practice and performance. This is what will push our form forward. When people see themselves reflected in the work and the performers we feature, it’s affirming. It’s making manifest the true strength of live performance: building instant community.

Do you consider project-based work to be professional?

Of course! It’s a creative solution to an impossible system that again, is so limited in funding. We decide to make work while we have day jobs and families, and invest in the art we care about.

Do you consider solo work to be professional?

Yep. I just did a solo show where I collaborated with my mother as the other performer but wrote and conceived of the piece in the studio on my own. Let me tell you, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The solo thing is no joke. People paid money to come to see it – so definitely professional.

Do you think the definition of a professional dancer is different than it was 25 or 50 years ago? If so, do you have any ideas why it might have changed?

I think this question again relates to funding, and also a shift in body politics. First, there is such little funding for the arts in America compared to other western countries. US arts funding also decreased significantly in the past 30 years. Who knows for sure, but I think that phenomenon lead to a higher rate of project based work rather than large scale, proscenium stage productions. And the project based work is interdisciplinary. Those of us doing such work have day jobs and can’t train as if we were in a national company, and, frankly, need to hone other skill sets in order to make money. Eventually, the money-making jobs make way for other connections and ideas, both in the dance world and beyond it, and I see these connections influencing the dance work (at least for me).

Second, there is widespread awareness about women’s issues in the past few years, and thankfully it’s becoming more acute in the dance world.  The way we view dancers’ bodies and the way choreographers treat a lot of dancers during the rehearsal process and in their training is, frankly, fucked up. I see a lot of women who are dancing professionally well into their 70s, people who are trying dance out in their 30s. It’s wonderful. Simone Forti puts great effort into bringing both dance and art students in her classes, for example. I spent many classes of hers dancing with art students who had never conceived of moving in a contemporary dance class. But with facilitation such as hers, they were pulled to do it. And I’ve learned so much from those experiences: curiosity, gratitude for my body in all its imperfections, new ways of moving. I hope, in this way, we will feature performers in dance work of all shapes, sizes, talents and abilities. So what I see shifting in my own community is a more expansive definition of dance and performance than we’ve seen in dominant American dance culture.

Are there instances when people apply the term “professional” to a dancer or group of dancers when you feel it shouldn’t be applied?

No… It’s not for me to decide who gets to be called what and when and why. I can’t pretend to really know what makes people professional because performance isn’t like most jobs. There is so much that goes into being a professional performer that transcends most skillsets and job descriptions.

Vice versa, are there instances when people don’t apply the term “professional” to a dancer or group of dancers when you feel it should be applied?

In reflection, the term professional dancer feels so limited to me. I see so many people who call themselves professional actors but move so well. Or those ladies in the park near my house who do kick boxing and are getting paid to facilitate the class. Again, it goes back to: What is dance anyway? To me, it’s movement of any kind. So I guess it’s movement + payment. Or something like that.

How might your cultural perspective – where you live, where you’re from, what form of dance you practice – influence what you think of as professional?

If I didn’t get into UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures department, my perspective on dance and performance would be incredibly limited in scope. I had the privilege of exposure – I danced, researched, made, and talked about a range of performances and trainings which departed from the normative Eurocentric dance practices found in a conservatory style department. I learned about institutional critique. I learned performance theory. For God’s sake, I took a class called “Choreographing the Voice.” And my privileged ass took it all for granted. I look back on it now, and marvel. Those teachers gave me the tools not just to be a dancer, but to be thoughtful and intelligent. Making work, I’m using what I learned, and am so completely grateful that I had the education I did. And someday, when I transition into teaching such classes, I look forward to passing it on.

What do you wish people wouldn’t assume about the dance profession?

Ugh, so many things! I wish people would come to more shows! I wish people wouldn’t be so afraid to watch dance because they don’t completely “understand it.”  What does that mean anyway? When you go into a gallery or see a mural on the street, do you say, “I wish I could understand ALL of this?” No. You pick up some things, you leave the rest and walk on by. I just wish more people would give themselves the opportunity to say, “I don’t understand what the fuck I’m seeing right now, but at least I showed up!”

Madison Page Pro 1

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Madison Page is a dancer movement person who makes work that, with any luck, examines the relationships between people, process, and performance. Informed by a background in contemporary dance, her work proposes making dances from models of vulnerability and selfhood. Her most recent work The Crack, made in a residency at New Expressive Work in Portland, OR, is an autobiographical piece involving the intimate history between her dance career and her mother. Her dances and collaborations have been featured recently at R/SF Projects (San Francisco), The Hammer Museum with collaborators Samantha Mohr, Caitlin Adams and Chelsea Rector, and Moskowitz Bayse Gallery with playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of the World Arts and Cultures Department at The University of California, Los Angeles, and holds a certificate in Dance Theatre from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, England.

To learn more, visit www.madisonpagemoves.com.

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