Interview: Demetrius McClendon
Edited by: 
Q: What has been your professional dance journey?

I got my first professional gig in college. I did two nutcrackers and after college my first job was at Giordano Dance II company and during that time I was in the process of auditioning for Dance Works. I had auditioned for them twice, and Julie Nakagawa wanted to see me again in a private audition and once I got confirmation I got a full contract with Dance Works, I left Giordano II because I felt that was a better opportunity. It felt right and it felt like the right thing to do. I worked with Dance Works for two years and after I left I did guest works with companies like Lyric Opera and worked with smaller companies in Kansas City and met a lot of great people and did a lot of different things — mostly contemporary ballet and some hip hop in the mix. I started as a hip hop dancer actually. I have done a little bit of everything over the past 10 years. 

Q: Who are important mentors or important people in your life that have shaped the way you dance and or think about dance?

I have a few.  I have been big about believing in spiritual and emotional elders. I believe in people guiding you through your experience. One of my biggest dance mentors is Julie Nakagawa. She is like a dance mother to me. She really groomed this particular trait within me to see things from a new light. She taught me how to use my perspective to see opportunities in the world. There are challenges in the world but if you can shift your perspective you can find opportunities. She has been key in teaching me how we can live life with spiritual and emotional values and still be about the business aspect as well. My second mentor is Pierre Lockett. I met him when I was in high school. I was a part of this community engagement program through the Joffrey. He is like a father to me now; I have known him for so long. And we have a lot of meetings and I talk with him very often when I need to make a decision. He is really good with helping me figure out things through a business aspect. He is the first person to challenge me, to always see that there is more. He was not always the easiest to work with — he really pulled the most out of us. He taught me how to see a good work ethic. He helped me see things about myself and how to move forward as a dancer and as a person. 

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre-professional or professional dance career?

I have had a lot. I think we all have our different things that we struggle with. I would say in pre-professional and going into professional work, a reoccurring thing in my life was not feeling good enough, not feeling confident in myself, because of lack of facility in my body. I would compare myself to others and what others tell you you should look like, and that drained me energetically and that kept me from enjoying the work I was putting in. I believe that joy needs to be a part of your practice, and I felt I was becoming a slave to the thing that gave me so much life because I was not enjoying the process. I felt not confident with what I had to share. It is still a challenge but i see it from a different perspective now. 

Q: Do you believe dance can be a platform for social justice topics? If so, how? and/or Have you used your art form to make a difference?

Of course. When I look back at all the great companies, like Alvin Ailey and all these people who use dance to tell our stories, I think that is a beautiful part of it — us having a platform that allows us to tell our stories through dance. That is such a universal language. It is something you can see and get so much from. It tunes into the essence of who and what we are. When you see someone move, it is communicating to you something very personal and it relates to our humanity. Because we all have this shared connection to humanity that we all tap into and engage from different points. I think that dance could and should be a powerful platform to tell our stories and help us think more critically about things that are happening in the world. There is still more that can always be produced. We want to get people thinking, seeing things from a new lens that challenges them and invites them to engage in their own artistic navigation of the world whether it's socially or politically. I think dance is a powerful platform. 

Q: What inspires you and drives you forward as an artist and a person?

For me I don't separate art and myself — art is how I see the world. Dance is more than a career; it is a spiritual practice that invites me to keep going within and exploring the unknown and it is the way that I speak and my passion for life. It is the way I internalize. It is a form of medicine for me. I cannot separate the two. I will say I always felt a profound responsibility, a social responsibility, to the world and some of my ancestors — MLK, RJ Lord, all these people who gave their life to make sure the world can be a better place — and that inspires me. I know that dance saved me. I’m from the South Side of Chicago and I was a challenging kid. I went through a lot at a young age and dance was the one thing that helped me see that I have a purpose in life. It made me wake up everyday. I had something to wake up for and made me want to be a better person. Just knowing dance has this energy that can shift and change your life — I don't think I would not be here without dance. It inspires me to share that with others, especially young people. Not just on the South Side of Chicago. There are hoods around the world and I'm inspired to share the things I have learned. 

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?

It has made a lot of uncertainty. It was last week that our show was pulled, two hours before the show. Thankfully they paid us because we had already done all the rehearsals and everything. I am super grateful for that. For the next couple of months, everything I had was cancelled. I was supposed to go on a tour in Europe in April and May. That was obviously cancelled. My performance with the Gutherie was cancelled, which was my musical theater debut. The day afterwards I got a call from Jennifer Owen [of Owen/Cox Dance Group] to do her summer season and then three day laters that was cancelled.

Q: How do you think we can continue to create and share art during this time?

I think what you are doing right now is very powerful, doing these interviews, and making sure we are still engaging our artistic selves. And what we are called to do we should still follow that passion. I am a yogi so I think it is important to tune within and I think this collective moment of pause is a time to tune in and listen within. I think that it is inviting us to understand ourselves more to see creative ways we can still be socially engaged and in the community. A friend of mine told me to say socially engaging instead of distancing because we are still engaging. I think it is a good time to tune into what we are becoming. I read something that said, “Life is a process of becoming and sometimes you need to slow down and see where you are to more creatively move forward.” We need to connect more with others and ask critical questions. 

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic?

I have seen beautiful things. There is an organization that rented a hotel where they temporarily house homeless people. I think it helps us to see we have to be responsible for those who are most vulnerable. I see people taking care of the elderly more. I think people are re-thinking things like universal health care. I see people giving classes online and making sure we are still taking care of our bodies and the sharing of information is amazing. We are recognizing the community needs to be the heart of how we move forward or we cant move forward together. 

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 think there are a lot of unsung heroes who give us motivation to wake up everyday and we have not been able to celebrate these people. I see the U.S. having a deeper respect for the arts and seeing how necessary it is for our world. I see tangible changes pouring into a community that feeds all of us. I see also more work on the real issues. I am all about abstract art but I think that there is collectively a lack of art that engages us to think about the social issues that are holding us all back and I would love to see more of that. 

Q: What is one thing you think we can all do each day to lift our spirits and help uplift the people around us (physically present or virtually present) that may be struggling?

From a yoga aspect, breathe mindful breathing. Whenever I teach dance, I encourage them to be mindful of the way they breathe. Our breath is a life force that keeps us moving and when we do not have the relationship our breath we get bogged down. I believe taking care of self gives you something more. I think being just with ourselves and finding peace of mind within us the more responsible we can be with our communities. 

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