BY KARA DAVIS
Editorial Note: Each August for the past six years, Stance on Dance has asked dance artists at different points in their careers what “making it” means to them. Please join us in looking at what “making it” means as a dancer, artist and human.
My mother always jokes that I began dancing in her belly during a Ravi Shankar concert at Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas that she attended when she was eight months pregnant. According to her, that music made me somersault and stomp like crazy long after the concert was over. I began taking dance lessons when I was eight years old in the cement-floored basement of Bonnie Neville’s home in Hutchinson, Kansas. Once a week for one hour, I was taught the steps of the ballet and tap dances we would perform for our annual spring recital. I daily practiced my recital dances in our carport playing the vinyl 45 records that Mrs. Neville freely gave to her students on my plastic Fisher Price record player. My mother never told me to rehearse; I always just wanted to. My mom often reminisces that the “recital never ended” and that I wore my costumes until they were tattered to rags. During family gatherings on Super Bowl Sunday, I would enlist all my cousins, babies included, to perform in a piece I would choreograph for the adults during the half-time entertainment. Everyone got to choose their outfits from my dress-up box stash, which mainly included costumes from past recitals and Goodwill excursions with my dad.
The famous 13th century Sufi poet and mystic Jalaluddin Rumi wrote, “Let yourself be drawn by the strange pull of what you love. It will not lead you astray.” Dancing has been my meditation, my “first love,” the one thing that has allowed me to derive meaning from the chaos and suffering of this world. Dancing through the years has allowed me to viscerally experience the transient nature of fear, happiness, love, anger, heartbreak, pain, exhaustion, the list continues… Dancing demands that I daily interface with and attend to the ever-shifting complexities of my existence. Dance reminds me that nothing in this physical world stays the same. It has taught me how to embrace change and value effort, regardless of how unsettling either may feel. As a result, I have learned to greet the panic that often accompanies unfamiliar territory or situations with curiosity and openness. (The panic is never absent, I’ve just learned how to “make friends” with it!) When dancing, choreographing or teaching, I confront the worst and best parts of myself. Wearing these three “hats” reveals places in me where I still need to grow, yet confirms the value of what I have to share. Dancing gives me the courage to stand at the edge of uncertainty as a strategy for living. It consistently affirms the vast intelligence and expressive breadth of the physical body so often dismissed by patriarchal paradigms that prioritize that which can be measured. Dancing has been my biggest ally in the fight for social equity.
While I was training, I didn’t aspire beyond dancing for a classical ballet company and performing all the major ballerina roles before I reached the (“old”) age of 30. Pointe shoes, fouette turns, tutus, and the mysterious glamour of being a respected ballerina illustrated my version of “making it” in dance. Reality was quite different however, and I was wrong about many things. Luckily, life worked out much better for me than I ever could have imagined as a 20-year-old signing my first ballet company contract. Early on, several abusive and sexist professional situations forced me to reevaluate the aspirations I had for myself as a dancer and pushed me to reexamine the notions of “making it” that I thought came with working in established companies. As much as I loved ballet, I was frustrated by the scrutiny many of my female colleagues and I faced from our male directors for either physical factors beyond our control or blatant abuses of power. The exhilaration of dancing became suffocated by an anxiety caused by feelings of perpetual inadequacy.
Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1996, I attended a Contraband performance at Theater Artaud directed by Sara Shelton Mann. I left the theater feeling like my world had been completely blown open but also that I had missed my true calling in life. Newly inspired, I spent a year working odd day jobs – house managing at local theaters, café work, secretary at a criminal law firm – to support myself while I retrained in modern and release techniques. I spent months feeling ridiculously inept and foolish in class, struggling to learn combinations that, unlike ballet, had no codified vocabulary. The scariest part of this transition was that I had to let go of my need to “make it,” which historically had been the motivating force I used to assert myself and get professional work. I felt I was not only learning how to dance differently, I was learning how to value my work as a dancer and my responsibility towards the greater field of dance. Slowly I discovered that if I didn’t inherently value what I had to offer as a dancer, nobody at the front of the room would either. I realized that by prioritizing my own standards of excellence in a creative situation rather than obsessing over others’ opinions of me, I could more fully participate in my evolution as an artist and contribute to the work I danced. I replaced my material goals of dancing for companies and doing particular roles with what I desired for my day-to-day life – namely dancing full time for and with inspiring people whom I shared a mutual respect. I wanted to perform work that would stretch my versatility, challenge my fears and that, at the end of my life, would leave me the most well-rounded artist I could possibly be. I vowed to never put myself in another degrading situation where I felt disposable as a woman or as an artist.
One by one, five choreographers entered my life who impacted and informed the years of my performing, teaching and choreographing career: KUNST-STOFF co-directors Yannis Adoniou and Tomi Paasonen, Amy Raymond (formerly of Ballet Frankfurt), Janice Garrett, and Margaret Jenkins. These choreographers couldn’t be more aesthetically different from one another and all their creative processes were collaborative. I felt valued not only for my capabilities as a dancer but also for my creative mind, my perception of the world and, ultimately, my humanity. Eventually I was able to quit my day jobs and financially support myself as a freelance dancer bicycling around the city to attend sometimes three to four rehearsals during the day.
A life of dance has blessed me with so many unquantifiable gifts! In San Francisco, I participated in the creation and performance of over 50 original pieces of work with many of my favorite Bay Area choreographers and companies. I have shared 10-year performance histories with dancers who have become my extended family. I’ve made lifelong friends while traveling to far-away places. As a choreographer, I gained my creative sensibilities through osmosis, learning from multiple artistic processes. Presently I teach incredibly committed students who daily remind me to maintain a youthful curiosity about the field we share. My artistic and teaching peers inspire me to take more risks in my work as well as in my life. I continue to become my most brave and empathetic self because of a lifetime of practice, performance and service to the field of dance. Instead of “making it” in dance, I perceive my dancing life as constantly “making me.”
Kara Davis danced for Ballet Met, Atlanta Ballet, Ohio Ballet, the San Francisco Opera Ballet and Ballet Jörgen in Toronto, Ontario. In the 20 years she has lived in San Francisco, she has performed works by Margaret Jenkins, Alex Ketley, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Val Canaparoli and Robert Moses. She is a founding member of KUNST-STOFF and Janice Garrett & Dancers, both of whom she danced for over a decade. She has received multiple “Izzies” for her dancing as well as her choreography. In April 2006, she founded project agora with Bliss Kohlmyer-Dowman, an organization that presents evenings of interdisciplinary work. She currently teaches and choreographs for LINES Ballet’s BFA and training programs, and graduated with honors from St. Mary’s in 2011.