"You should take that Modern class."
"I don't know anything about dance. What could I possibly get out of a Modern Dance class?"
"The movement is great for your conditioning and the teacher is really cool. I'm telling you, you need to take that class. Mindy likes it. There are twelve women to every guy. Do I really need to go any further?"
This was the conversation Jerry, my future best man and college roommate, and I were having one afternoon before enrolling in classes for the quarter at The University of Montana. I didn't have any experience with Modern Dance and was, frankly, trying to find something more fun to do. My schedule was filled with enough academic classes and I needed something fun to work on. Fortunately, my core classes conflicted with the other more conventional fun classes offered that quarter. By "fortunately" I mean that this would be the beginning of a relationship with an art form that I've been in love with since.
I'll never forget the day I nervously set foot on the Modern I studio floor on campus. The space was awesome. Lofty ceilings, maybe thirty feet overhead. Big enough to hold twenty to thirty students and give them room to move about. Mirrored at one end, piano nearby. I vividly remember the smell and feel of the hardwood dance floor and the space that accompanied it. The creative stew you make when you combine this big space with live music, mixed with an inspirational teacher and a bunch of young people dancing is special. Throughout that quarter my mind opened up and I understood what Jerry was talking about.
My first teacher was Amy Ragsdale. She made the notion of dance so accessible. A new world of possibilities lay across the threshold of that studio everyday I showed up for instruction. The space was a safe place insulated from other responsibilities. It was always fun. Learning a few simple techniques along with watching people who were good at it inspired me. Mind opening and uplifting, I started to develop a relationship with Modern that I haven't been able to shake. When I see a dancer with skill and artistry I am somehow closer to myself. Closer to the way I feel. Meditative and present.
Dancing in that space was freeing. An athletic pursuit of a different nature than the soccer games I was used to playing. I learned a bit about the relationships between balance, flexibility and strength. Somehow these relationships completely escaped my high-school self. Clearly, as a teenager, I didn't have the depth to understand the multiple facets that make up top level athletes, and dance is full of them. I learned that there is artistry in finding a beautiful line and being able to repeat it. People who are good at it are rare birds. I learned that dance has vocabulary and can be used as an incredibly powerful story-telling medium. That a good choreographer can bring you to an unspoken understanding. Their stories can put you in touch with your emotions and present infinite combinations.
I did dip my foot into the pool of performers in the dance program. Being one of so few men dancing I think they would've taken any guy who was willing to work hard and pay attention. In the process of putting on a dance concert, you go through rehearsals and tech rehearsals that add up to hours and hours of togetherness. You learn a lot about a person in those hours and you make some pretty good friends. You also learn that grace is an invaluable quality to poses when you are working among a group of physically tired mentally exhausted individuals. I performed in three showcases on campus; a duet with Gilly Hull and a piece choreographed by Tarin Chaplin. Gilly was a high-school friend of mine who was willing to take a chance with a novice. She danced in high-school and had a lot more to offer the dance community than I did. The exposure to the choreographic process was a great lesson in communication. Tarin, on the other hand, was not from Missoula. A guest choreographer from New York, she had a considerably more abstract aesthetic than I aligned with. She managed to round up three men to be in one of her pieces. Being from "the big city" she was used to working with dancers in possession of a deeper skill set than the three of us. I can only imagine she thought of us less as dancers and more like props. Needless to say, she wasn't bound by the conventional notions of Montana and could have been from outer space as far as I was concerned. Regardless of all this, we put on a show and I learned a lot about myself in the process.
Although my performing career didn't last very long my love for this art form took a solid hold. This all came to me through the urging of my good friend, Jerry. If there had been soccer offered at the same time as Modern I, none of this would've happened. With the smile of fate and three studious quarters of Modern dance I will be forever in love with its' expression.
Years later my relationship with Modern changed a bit. My good friend Jeff, from high-school, came back to town from New York and found out through conversation with Amy and Karen, that they were having trouble finding transportation for their dancers to get to performances outside of Missoula. Jeff was dancing in New York now. Being that he got started in Missoula at the university he was back visiting friends. Amy and her colleague Karen Kauffman formed a dance company with the University of Montana and had taken dance on the road. Jeff mentioned that they should get in touch with me, maybe a car dealer could help them with a transportation problem. Later I was invited to the board of MoTrans Dance Company as "Minister of Transportation". MoTrans later morphed into Headwaters Dance Company and lost its' affiliation with The University of Montana. I think the relationship with the University became a bit stifling, and increasingly put limitations on what the company could accomplish. Additionally, the competition for funding on campus can be rather fierce. There are many protocols that have to be followed before anyone from the school can fundraise for a project. The politics are exhausting.
My experience with the boards of these organizations lead me to have a deeper appreciation for some of the challenges Modern Dance faces. With arts funding already limited, and Modern being one of the less "understood" art forms, it was hard to raise enough money to support a company. The lack of public understanding of what Modern Dance is, made private fund raising difficult. Although audiences appreciated the work of the company it seemed like every year we would just cover the budget. It was surprising to me that the fund raising challenges were so prevalent in an arts accepting community like Missoula. My involvement was filled with lots of introspective moments where I would ask myself the value of what I was working for. After all, if its hard to raise the capital to do the project, maybe the value of the project doesn't warranty the expense. Over and over this internal conversation would repeat itself with the same conclusion, "Hell yeah its' worth it!"
With the sciences and technology being the favorite child of most universities and the focus of most investors, how do the arts stand a chance? Math and the sciences are exciting in their own right. I wouldn't argue that discovery isn't valuable and thrilling. Pressing for the solutions to the problems that plague mankind is vital. Surely there are people who believe that through science we will provide the answer to every question and shine light into the last dark corner of the universe. But, as science infringes on the last vestiges of the unknown I believe there will be masses of people who will seek the security of the mysteries of humankind. After all hope is an emotion, not an answer. Love is a feeling not a solution. The balance of the equation between two people isn't science it's feeling. Putting people in touch with those feelings is going to be a skill that we will all continue to seek out. Having the skill to put those emotions in a frame of reference, whether written, danced, played, painted or sculpted is a valuable exercise in understanding. Men and women will continue to seek out a place where emotion rolls out beyond the shadow of explanation to a place where they can explore and get closer to themselves and their community. A place where inspiration runs freely, and they have their sights beyond the horizon where their unknown self waits to be discovered. So, yes the arts are worth it. There is power in inspiration. There is power in having a deeper understanding of yourself. The arts, and for me Modern Dance, help clarify this understanding. Modern brings me home and keeps me grounded. In the end I "feel" more in the balance of an artistic equation, rather than a mathematical one.
This past October Headwaters Dance Company put on its' final fall concert. It was a bitter pill in some ways. I have looked forward to this concert every fall now for more than fifteen years. The understanding that this would be the last one was something that I was having a hard time coming to grips with. Amy Ragsdale is the artistic director of the company. Watching her work through the same issues was hard to watch. If I am honest, I feel a twinge of guilt that I didn't do more while I had the chance. Amy and I have become good friends and I felt disheartened for her. In planning for this concert she invited all of her past dancers back to participate. The ones she could find anyway. In the end nine could return. This was impressive to me, considering some of these dancers were coming from a great distance. It was gratifying to be associated with this community of artists. Validating that so many would come back and share their craft with Amy and the company. They'd flown the coup years ago to pursue dance, and a life outside Missoula. They were beautiful to watch before they left, and more so now. Seeing Amy's enthusiasm for working with this group of dancers and discuss their accomplishments was an inspiration to me. It became clear Headwaters had made a contribution to a larger dance community beyond Missoula. Many of the former dancers had serious chops outside Missoula and Montana. The number of dancers and their talents made this concert one of the best in my mind.
I took my daughter, Sloan, to the Thursday night performance. After watching a piece about a mother and daughters' relationship called, "The Day I Bathed My Mother" I turned to see a tear running down her cheek. "I don't know why my eyes are watering.", she said. I thought, "Because that was a story with a powerful message, and you love your mom.", but I didn't want to steal that from her so instead "That's alright" was all I said. Sloan was beginning to understand herself a little bit better. Coming to a closer understanding of her relationship with her mother. Figuring out how meaningful that relationship is. I'm not sure she is mature enough to fully realize that or not, but she will be one day, and she'll be a better person for all of us. "Naranj", a piece from the repertory, was danced as a trio in this concert. Normally a solo, the addition of two dancers gave one of my favorite pieces new dimension. The finale, "Lay Bare the Bones", gave Amy the opportunity to show the audience how Headwaters produces work. Something new that I haven't seen before. The demonstration gave insiders a look at how phrases and the language of a piece develop through the use of prompts in combination with the dancers individual creative ideas. Reinforcing the notion that dance is about a community finding voice. Seventeen dancers performed in this work which gave it a dynamic range that I'm not used to seeing. The piece was a powerful ending to the concert. An exclamation point at the end of years and years of performance.
Of course I left wanting more. In any other year that would've been okay. I could look forward to the next year's performance. This year there was a sense of loss. The emptiness you're left with when you have the last bit of something good and the flavor has left your senses. Thankful that I got a taste in the first place, disappointed the plate was now empty. Not prepared to have to look for my next meal. Hoping that something this good would come along again. In the words of Robert Frost, "Nothing gold can stay". The cycle had come to a close.
A week or two after the fall concert I met with Amy for a beer. Her positive demeanor ever present, I was greeted with a smile and a hug. We talked about the concert. I got to tell her how I thought the piece she danced with Ashley about mothers and daughters was beautiful. I made sure to tell her how it made Sloan cry. It was a chance to thank her and congratulate her on a great concert, with our best turnout in years. There will, thankfully, be more dance coming from Amy and other choreographers who have branched out on their own. Joy French's Bare Bait Dance Company. Maybe Brian Gerke or Laurel Sears will put some more work up for the community. Anya Cloud in San Diego, Roxanne Madler in Los Angeles, Felecia Kutch in New York, the list goes on. Through the years I have found it challenging to explain to people how grateful I am for the experiences I have had with Dance. I am thankful to have been a small part of some of this and will hold on to it for ever.