Interview: Irada Djelassi
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Q: What has been your professional dance journey?

Dance has been a part of my life forever. My mother danced with Boston Ballet, then in Germany with Tanz Forum Dance Company, and then moved back to the US right before I was born. Once she got back to the US, she opened a studio: Mass Motion Dance. I grew up in that dance studio. After high school I went to UMass Amherst, got a BFA in Dance, then moved to NYC to follow my dream of performing. I was always passionate about choreography. I worked with a lot of smaller companies in NYC, and then when my mother opened her second studio in Boston, she asked me to move back here and manage the studio for her. That was in 2003. So, 17 years ago now. A couple years ago, I took over the ownership of the Boston studio and have been teaching there the entire time.

When I moved to Boston from NYC, I reconnected with Katherine Hooper who was a good friend in college. We started working with a small group of dancers, which became a small professional dance company: Bosoma Dance Company in Boston. Four years ago, I was feeling the financial struggle of running a small dance company, and having a child, and balancing the studio. It was too much for me, so I stepped away from being the artistic director of Bosoma. But I still fully support the company, and it is still a very successful, small Boston company.

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

My mother Terri Gordon—by far. She has always been positive and educated, and even while I was growing up, she took us to see shows. She took us to Jacob’s Pillow and to Broadway shows. She was always passionate about Modern and that is where my real true love of Modern comes from. Outside of that, a lot of artists have influenced me. Leslie Partridge was an amazing mover, and she was my senior thesis advisor in college. She was at UMass as an Artist in Residence before she went back to NYC. Then, when I went to NYC, there was a relationship there.

Q: What have been some challenges in being a studio owner or professional dance career? Or as an educator?

Funding. In NYC I worked with small companies at Dance Space which don't exist anymore. Now, it’s Dance New Amsterdam. We did some showcases, but I was always working and bartending and it was hard to get to class because of my other jobs. When we started Bosoma in Boston, it was hard to find the funding to pay the dancers and make money from it.

I loved doing this, but as I got older and had a family, it was financially a challenge. The other challenge in my professional performance career was that I hated auditioning. It was always a challenge for me.

Q: Do you believe dance can be a platform for social justice topics? If so, how?

Yes. I think there are a number of ways that social and economic issues can be presented in choreography, whether the viewer understands [immediately], or if it is a feeling audiences have that has been created through the movement.

Q: What inspires you and drives you forward as an artist, educator, and teacher?

As a teacher, I love to see how dance can free students from being self conscious or uncomfortable; it is so empowering and healthy to be physical and to be held accountable. I find that, whether it's through performances of kids at the end of the year, or seeing kids show up for class even if they don’t feel motivated, I always see them leaving feeling satisfied. As a choreographer, I like to make people realize they can feel something through movement, and appreciate the way the human body can move.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as an artist, educator and studio owner?

The Boston studio has two major sources of income: the monthly tuition that students pay, and the spaces we rent out to more than 10 small dance companies and independent artists. So, there are a large number of people coming in and out of the Boston Dance community. The day we closed, the income from rental space ended completely. For the first week, we let people go in and use the studio by themselves, but that also ended [as the pandemic developed]. That was March 12th and today is March 26th. Our students had already paid March tuition and no one has said anything yet. I am anxiously awaiting what April 1st will bring. We have an auto-pay system, and we sent out a letter that asked people to continue to support us. We asked people to continue paying tuition, but that we would support them if they were unable to. I asked that people be honest, because a large number of parents in our community have secure salaries. I know there are also a number that do not have secure salaries. We uploaded classes online, and there are live classes as well. We have also been sending additional activities, like coloring sheets, terminology of ballet worksheets, and anatomy books. I would love to keep everyone active at home, and being a parent of an 11 and 12 year old, I know how important it is to keep them moving. There is a part of the studio that just wants to keep our kids dancing. From the business part of things, I am trying to give them enough to justify their tuition payment. I have one week to figure out whether or not everyone is going to pay their tuition. I have gotten some letters from parents that would like us to suspend their tuition because they lost their job, or because they are scared, and we reply that we understand and we want their child to continue to dance. We are letting their child use our resources, and hopefully we will see them when this is over. Ultimately, I don't know what will happen April 1st. I assume a small number of people will not be paying tuition, and I assume it will get worse. The month of May will be worse, and even more people will drop off if we can’t open the studio. July is always, always difficult. I set money aside the entire year [for July] because kids go to camp, and I'm now looking at the possibility of no income for 5 months. One month I can make—five months... I don’t know if I can make that. By the same token, I also had two parents just make a donation to the studio on top of the tuition they paid me, I had another parent offer to pay someone's tuition who can not afford tuition, which was an amazing gesture. I've sat down with what we have to see how we can get through the next 5 months. I told all my faculty I will pay them, and that I am committed to paying them as long as I can pay myself. Hopefully I can do that.

There is this stimulus package for small businesses, but the small business package is for less than 500 employees. With 8 employees and 8 partners, we are not even considered a small business. We are a speck of dust, so whether we get money from the stimulus package or not will be interesting. The application itself is so overwhelming—I haven't even started. I am trying to reconfigure the entire dance studio to go online, and take care of the kids who just started on Wednesday from home, so managing that and trying to find the time to fill out the small business loans and stimulus package is a lot.

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)?

Dance. I feel like moving and dancing and being active. If you are not a dancer, just being physical is mentally so important. Also, just today, my kids and I kept talking about finding the silver lining in all of this—I usually have a hard time slowing down and stopping and being home for dinner. It is nice to just sit with my family. There’s value in slowing down and stopping. The other silver lining, as I was telling the studio kids, is that in reality, doing this kind of online thing, where we are in a space where we need to find a way to move, has forced dancers to find other ways to move and be only accountable for themselves. As a teacher, I can not push them in the room. It is all about them and their own motivation. During the normal year, the students don't have the time to take class with a lot of people outside the studio. But right now, they have had an opportunity to take class from people all over the world. I think those are some silver linings.

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

I have found that people are taking the time to connect to each other, and are really seeing the value in one another, whether it is through Zoom, or personal little connections. For me as a teacher, I know how important it is to connect with my students, but over the last 3 weeks, I have really understood how important it is to still connect online. In the world right now, it is very strange to go grocery shopping and see people wear masks and gloves. Our Sunday social activity was the Starbucks drive through. This is what social distancing is. Some people are really understanding the importance of it, but I also see a lot of people not seeing the value of social distancing, and I personally feel like this may go longer because some people are just not caring.

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic?

I think that we, as dancers, will be able to re-teach people the importance of human connection. I think we will all need that. We need to learn how to be in the same space again. Aside from the performers and choreography, that’s the important thing about live art: audiences and people coming together for live shows.

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