Interview: Arielle Israel
Edited by: 

Q: How did you begin dancing?

I have an older sister who is three years older, and she was dancing and I wanted to do it. I went along for the ride with her. Then I fell in love. I didn't fall in love until high school. I started playing the violin very young, and was interested in being a musician as well.

Q: What has dance taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage with the world? 

It has taught me discipline. Dance has taught me how to remain poised and graceful under pressure. Putting the work into something. Delayed gratification; not seeing the result right away but knowing you are putting in the work. Seeing that delayed gratification can take years. With anything I do, I try not to rush it and just enjoy the process of dance. Technical rehearsal, dress rehearsal, then going on stage — it is always a process. Everything is a process, that’s how life goes. I feel people don't often enjoy the process and the journey, and I have tried to be present and this has helped me throughout my entire life.

Q: Has dance helped you overcome any hardships in your life?

I would say yes — a few years ago. I have been a very strong person and not letting people see me break, which is not good for your mental health. A few years ago, I had an injury — three tibial stress fractures. I was in double boots. It not only broke me physically, but it softened me mentally. I had to be vulnerable to heal. Dance has helped me overcome being afraid to be vulnerable. In general, having dance as a career, I would say it is a challenge. This something I love to do, and when you put your best work forward and get criticized for it, it’s hard. It's not like I do a day job where I get criticized for not doing my best, but I know each day I'm working hard and trying to put my best foot forward.

Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside of dance that influence and inspire your artistry?

Music. I don't play anymore, but music played a big role, even in the studio. I feel like there's the dancers that love to count and the ones who want to just follow the music. I am definitely a follow the music dancer. I love to teach. It’s a great side hustle but I do love influencing the younger generation. I try to instill in my classroom for little kids that you think doing this may just be a hobby, but there are so many lessons you can learn from dance. I love writing as well. Writing helps influence my creativity and keeps the juices flowing when the body is tired. I do lots of journaling. I don’t love to choreograph; I do it for the side hustle for kids sometimes, but I don't feel it is my best effort. When choreographing, I struggle with how what feels good on me may not be the case in others. You have to adapt to what looks good on others, and I don't have that skill because I don't practice it. Like dance training, choreography is a practice. I admire choreographers.

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre professional and professional career?

Pre-college, I grew up at a competition studio, so I didn't know that I hated competition dance until I found concert dance. I wasn’t naturally flexible, I wasn’t a tumbler. I didn’t have tricks, and that's what wins. I work for a competition on the side. It is always about the razzle dazzle, and I just didn't have that. I thought I'm not a good dancer because of it. My best friend growing up was the top dog at the studio. I had a teacher at the studio who introduced me to the concert world through summer intensives. I loved taking class to take class, and not worrying about competing. I loved the different discipline and mindset of concert dance, and I clicked with it. I was going to quit dance; this influenced my confidence. I always felt like the underdog, always, in competition. In college, I came out of my shell. I went to Maryland for college and left North Carolina. Throughout my pre-professional college days, I needed to rediscover who I was as a dancer. The biggest struggle in pre-professional has been my confidence in discovering who I was, and being comfortable in weaknesses. As a kid, if you don't have someone to nurture you, you don't really know. It is a huge thing I teach my students as competition dancers. I encourage them to see dance outside of what they know. I think it is also the generation of technology, and kids these days have better access to the concert world and other realms of dance.

Q: How can dance be a platform for social justice issues?

I think the biggest way is that you can be as literal as you want, having a piece through choreography that speaks about something. I think things that happen again more and more now is you see less gender-specific partnering. It is hard when I dance for an American jazz company. It is pretty straight-edge, my company. At this moment, I am the only person of color in my company. I had the dream to dance with Ailey because I saw people that looked like me, and I wanted to dance with them. But I love being the representation in the all white American dance company. With jazz companies, it really isn't diverse, even though jazz is based off of Afro-Cuban roots. I am proud to be the representation, even though it’s hard sometimes. What motivates me is that I will be the one person for a little girl in the audience to see and say, “I can do that too, because I look like her.” There are many avenues for social justice, such as choreography, but also representation on stage.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation reaction)

I am sure we are all in the same boat. We are not performing or rehearsing. We found out I think March 13th, the week of Hubbard Street’s show. I feel so bad for them — they were literally in the theater when they were told their show wasn't happening. It was kind of boom, boom, boom, everything happened. The end of our spring series show was cancelled. We do a big program — eight weeks in the Chicago public schools, where we teach science and health. We teach about the body, nutrition, through jazz dance. Each dancer gets paired with an under-resourced school. We receive something financially from that, but the fact we can't even do it — when you see the impact this program has, not being able to do that is really hard. It has been a financial hit as well. I work for a competition studio and freelance, so now during my days I am babysitting. I never thought I'd be babysitting, and it's exhausting. It has had a big effect mentally as well. When it first hit, we spent rehearsal Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., working our asses off. When you aren't able to have that, kind of… Maybe it's a pride thing, but when you take the final bow you are on a high for a week, and then taking that all away is a big hit mentally. Gyms are closed, so it's hard to stay active. It has had an effect mentally. We all teach virtually and get a migraine all week constantly staring at a screen. I’m fortunate enough to work for a studio where we set up virtual class so we get our full pay. I teach Sunday through Thursday on top of my own rehearsal schedule, and I have been able to continue to get paid from the teaching gig.

Q: Initial cancellation?

I remember it exactly. I was teaching. It was a Thursday and I was in my class and I see an email from my executive director on my watch. And I was anxious because I had just heard Hubbard was canceled, and I thought, “This is it, our shows must be getting canceled.” The next day in rehearsal, we were about to do a half run of the show happening in two weeks. We were already running our shows. Our pieces are max 12 to 15 minutes, so we do more pieces in a rep and break it into half and full runs. We got an email Thursday saying, “Come in, we will discuss further.” Friday, we get there and our director comes in and says we will treat this like any other day. We were all so emotional — we didn't know what would happen. Artists like to know what is going to happen, and many are type A personalities and we don’t handle uncertainty well. After that, they sat us down and said, “You will not come on Monday.” Then they gave us dates to come back, but it kept shifting, and now we are not sure when we will come back. Things keep getting knocked off the list and pushed back. We do not have a start date now. This pushes into fundraising time for us, too. I don't know what will happen in the future. It's so unknown. I think everyone took it differently. That Thursday, people were saying, “Well, if we aren't doing the Harris [Theatre show], why are we doing a run?” I just wanted to dance! At the end of the day, I don’t just dance to perform, I don't care if I'm not performing — I want to dance. There was a divide in opinion there. There were the more hopeful people and the people who were more like, “What are the facts, what's happening?” I kind of fell in the more “I just want the facts. At this point what is happening?” camp. I don't like uncertainty. Not to say it's not okay to be hopeful, but we would have calls and it felt more like trying to keep us motivated but there was no information. It was no one’s fault; no one has the information. I was someone who in a negative way, was shutting down. I didn't want to hear the positive; I just wanted to hear what was happening. Now people are wrapping their heads around it, and this is going to last for longer. Even when this is cleared, even when there is a vaccine, people will be so scared to be around people. I don't know where that will take us. Trying to stay positive. I think there is a difference between being realistic and being negative. I think you can be realistic and positive. I think that's where I'm at. I'm trying to stay in tune with what are other places doing at this point.

Q: Do you guys have company class?

We have only done one so far. We aren't doing a routine class. They are with the Giordano technique — there is certification. On Mondays, there is a Giordano jazz class offered but we don't take ballet everyday or jazz just for the company. Maybe it will happen in the future. At this point, everyone is doing their own side hustle. For me, I am doing my side hustle that takes up most of my day, on top of teaching.

Q: What is a message you would like to say to health workers on the front lines if you could?

I would just say two words, “Thank you.” I feel like it is such a hard time for them, and they have it harder because they go in and out of hospitals and they can't see elderly family, and it's such an incredible sacrifice. And for them to stay positive and remember why they chose the career path. Sending so much love.

Q: What other interests have you delved deeper into during this time? Daily routine?

Before babysitting, I would write and journal a lot. I was diving deep into journaling and listening to podcasts. I love journaling about emotions and how social upbringing affects yourself now. I journal a lot about that. Now with babysitting, I wake up, drink some tea — I am someone who chooses sleep over breakfast — then I hate myself later because of it. I babysit from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for six hours, then I come back and have just enough time to lay flat on my bed and read. Then I teach virtually for two to three hour time frames. Then on the weekends, I live near some friends so we visit a little with one another, we’re being safe. I have dived into reading more and journaling even more. I started five different mini books and we will see in my lifetime if I ever finish them.

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic? Do you think the pandemic will make us a more socially conscious society?

I would say I talk to my mom every day, even if this pandemic wasn't happening. I’m talking to extended and even immediate family more. I FaceTime my sister a lot, who is planning a wedding, which is fun! Also, she’s spending more time with her fiancé, now that they are quarantining together I can get to know him more. I would also say reading. I have always struggled with reading, not that I don't like it, but it takes more energy from me, and at the end of the day I just want to sit and watch Netflix and not think. It has been nice to have time to read and write. I start so many journal entries — I have five different ‘what could be’ books, and then I come back and work on them… I am very comfortable being alone and not doing anything. If I have a day off, I do not fill it. Everyone knows me and says, “You are the most productive lazy person I’ve ever met.” I am a hard worker but I don't overstress about it. I think I feel the energy of everyone slowing down. It’s been so nice to feel that everyone slow down take a break. I feel like people may be happier right now. People may be stir crazy, but I feel we are all healing mentally. I sense everyone is secretly loving the rest time. Of course I miss dance, but I do enjoy my alone time, and getting to remember the things that matter most — I can't dance for forever, but family is forever, so getting back into contact and daily routine with health and family. I have been cooking more as well. 

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

I would like to see, as we are coming into it, more government support of the arts. I have applied to some grants, but the fact that so many people are out of work and there is not enough for small organizations to support employees is insane. I think I’d like more outreach programs. I would like to see more community. You see it now with everyone supporting everyone. Before I would say all different companies were separate. In Chicago, it's not like that — everyone is more of a family in Chicago, and I want to see more of that. The bicoastal and midwest come together, all the companies, like, “Hey, let's do a joint online class with Giordano and a company on the east coast and live stream it.” I hope that it continues with the community from what we are learning now. I think this is a great way for concert dance companies to evolve with the times. I feel like a project based and Instagram life is taking over and this may make the concert dance companies become more in tune with technological advances and provide more access to people… I feel like outreach geared towards the under resourced areas and using more virtual and physical things there.

Q: Can you say more about the idea of companies being really separate?

I don't have much experience — it’s more of a feeling. The one thing that brings the Chicago dance community together is we have Dance For Life Chicago in August, where all the major companies — Giordano, Hubbard Street, Joffrey and smaller companies — we put on a show every year. The companies don't merge, but we do a finale piece with people from different companies dancing together. Every company does a piece. It is so fun. We do it at the Auditorium Theatre and the companies watch you perform in the wings. I feel like there isn't anything like that in NYC. For a lot of summers, I trained at the Ailey School in New York, and I did a summer program with Complexions… I can't say there isn't a show where all the major companies come together, but I don't think they do. It feels like every company for himself. Each company has their own season and it's very separate. Now that this pandemic happened, even from the top companies to the little ones, we are all in the same boat. We need to find ways to use the concert dance world, because we see so many companies fold. Basically, companies stick to their own season and there are no joint performances and classes, and I think it's kind of sad, because we all do the same thing. I think with Dance For Life, someone that goes and sees Joffrey shows may see us and say, “Oh, I love jazz,” and it could be a good financial support as well.

Transcription courtesy of