Professional is Awake

HOLLY MAIZ is a dancer, mover, dance/movement therapist and improviser in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who practices dance in a deep, integrative way that informs her understanding of professionalism. Her responses below are part of a larger series dissecting what it means to be a professional dancer. To read other perspectives on the topic, click here.


What does your current regular dance practice look like?

I have a daily practice that allows my body to awaken the feedback loop between listening and moving. I have a lot of trainings in my body – I have had a meditation practice since I was 15, I have studied Qi Gong in China, yoga in India, Body-Mind Psychotherapy and Pilates. My primary interest is the languages of the body. I’m interested in keeping my body available. If I don’t do that, pain is an incredible teacher. I also work with improvisation every day. If I have a half hour, for instance, I’ll do two 15-minute improvisations, even if I don’t have a lot of space or I’m sitting in an airport. Improvisation to me is a process of emptying, then finding sensation and seeing where that moves me.

Would you call yourself a professional dancer?

I do, but I don’t have to. Here’s what I mean: A lot of people think if you’re not getting paid to dance, you’re not a professional. I’m a dance/movement therapist; I use dance and movement modalities to address issues folks have. I work with movement every day and make money from it. But that’s not the same as dancing and getting paid for it. However, I recognize that I am engaged, experienced and skillful at movement and dance, which defines professional for me. I’ve been involved with dance all my adult life. I have worked with different companies, at nonprofit events, and done a lot of solo work, but our culture does not necessarily value what I do as an artist. The fact that many artists are not adequately compensated for what they do during their lifetimes has more to do with where they happen to live culturally than with talent. I look at what is paid and, though I often find beauty in it, it seems squeaky clean and focused solely on entertainment. It doesn’t require audiences to show up in their own bodies.

What do you think is necessary for a dancer to call themselves a professional?

When I go see a show, it’s easier to watch if I am connected and have a heart for who I am watching. I think a dancer must have heart and engagement in what they’re doing. That can mean a lot of things, like being fascinated with history and multiple forms. There are people who are technical but not engaged. I don’t want to look at them. I see that mostly in ballet and modern dance companies, but even in physical theater, people can get wound up in rules and how they are supposed to look. You can go to classes and learn to make shapes, but lack an aliveness that reaches through the body. For me, being a professional comes down to skillful experienced practice. I don’t want to use the word “training.” It’s more about being awake.

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

We can all benefit from learning from someone who has a different experience than we have. I try to stay away from the word “training,” though I think taking class and learning from a skillful teacher is wonderful. There are certain technical skills that are hard to develop out of class. Training is important, but it can be overemphasized and imply a negation of the individual. In my view, awake experience is training.

Do you consider project-based work and/or solo work to be professional?

I don’t see any model of working as more professional than any other. The thing what’s great about having a project or working solo is it can be done in a chunk of time that allows work to develop in a certain way. In my life now, I really like solo work for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is I get to make choices for myself. Even in a project, and certainly in a company, you have to commit to a bunch of people and their decisions for a certain amount of time.

It’s similar to what goes on in the world of visual art. There is art in fancy galleries or museums selling for millions of dollars. But I can also stumble into a studio of an artist who is, for whatever reason, not able to be a part of that big market, and their work might be amazing. There’s a real engine around “professional,” and I don’t have a lot of respect for that engine. It’s often about the money and the sleek blurb in the paper.

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 it’s changed, and yet it’s still the same in some ways. There’s still a lot of fantasy around the world of ballet. Most audiences don’t truly know how incredibly difficult and punishing of the body it is, and how little those dancers make. In some ways, I don’t think the dance world has changed enough.

I hardly ever call myself a performance artist even though that’s what I consider myself to be because of the 60s when men would walk onstage with a banana in their underwear, pull it out and eat it, and that was the show. If someone is incredibly present and reflective through their body, they can pull that off, but a lot of performance art has been known for being self-indulgent and in-your-face.

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

Yes. You can make money dancing, but if I watch you and don’t feel myself light up in any way, I wouldn’t call you a professional. A performance is about communication, so when you put dance out there that is devoid of communication, it’s not professional.

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?

Sometimes dancers don’t take their own seat, so to speak. You should decide for yourself what your interests are and how you want to work. There comes a time, and it can happen anywhere and intermittently, when you have to weave together all your threads and integrate the person you are and the experience you have, and then take that to the next level. That, to me, is a professional mindset, regardless of pay.

I personally believe the dancers who are most professional spend many hours alone in a studio just moving and seeing what happens. If you’re going after experience and shaping your life around a practice, then call yourself a professional. Why not?

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?

Borrowing from the world of visual art again, there are the museums up on the hill and then there are the out-of-the-way studios, but beauty is beauty. Humans may have some different perspectives about that, but there’s also a through line that is indescribable, but for me has to do with having heart. It’s not a feeling that comes from the brain. It’s about connection. There’s something about form, shape, rhythm and color that allows humans to connect in terms of beauty.

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

I wish most people wouldn’t assume dance is completely separate from them. I don’t want everyone in the world to get up on stage, but I do want people to not think of dance as something distant and unknowable. I want people to know they can connect to dance. We’ve lost some of that. In our culture, we tend to like entertainment. We want a show. We don’t want to be challenged. But when dance touches a person, they might start a movement practice or support a kids’ dance program. It spurs empathy and connection, and sometimes even financial support in the world of dance.


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