Art Work #7: Isabelle Collazo, Dance Artist and Educator

You dance more than you think you do, says Isabelle Collazo. Whether you’re listening to the radio in your car, moving through the street, or just processing information about the world through your body, your life is filled with more movement than you may realize on first blush. “For a long time dance has been sequestered to the realm of physical education in schools, but I think this is changing,” she says. “It’s being recognized as a physical way of thinking and a way to challenge the Western mind-body split.”

Isabelle has studied dance all around the globe, but these days she’s pursuing her MFA in Dance with K-12 licensure at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she focuses on culturally-responsive dance pedagogy, dance film, and healing trauma through movement and performance. Here, she talks about bringing dance into public schools, moving away from a split between “artist” and “teacher,” and why dance isn’t just about “hot bods.” Enjoy!

So! You’re a dance artist and educator. How do those two careers blend into each other, help each other, or hinder each other? And why “dance artist” and not “dancer”—is there a subtle difference you’re trying to tease out?

I would say for the most part these identities feed and inform one another. There is a saying in mind-body practice where you have to work to balance inner and outer awareness. The dance artist side is my introverted self—I think critically, challenge myself, my peers, authority (my rebellious body!), and ground my findings in intuition, collaboration, and felt experience. The educator side is my extroverted self—I works to translate these ideas into tangible experiences that can be facilitated for folks in the form of performances/demonstrations, words, and participatory activities. In the past these identities were entirely separate and based in tropes and archetypes: the artist, misunderstood, isolated, trying to make her way in the world, and the happy-go-lucky dance instructor, taking whatever gigs were offered and spending hours on YouTube studying how to teach jazz dance to elementary school students in China (as one example…). This stark distinction completely drained my time and energy. But within the past couple of years I’ve been able to draw authentic connections between my artist and educator selves, which has empowered me to do my best work and ensure my daily activities are more closely aligned with my values—a work in progress.

I choose the term “dance artist” over “dancer” because it is more all-encompassing (and lessens the possibility for questions like “Do you dance on your toes? Have you auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance?“). To be honest, I’ve never felt like a pure “dancer”—I have studied dance and mind-body practices for the majority of my life but have also pursued my interest in others arts and academic disciplines. When I was young, I loved visual art and my mom thought for sure I would be a painter. I went on to formally study instrumental and vocal music as well as musical theater. I was enamored with history and language arts, and developed a passion for social justice issues and world cultures. I was fortunate enough to study dance in my public school program and learned quickly that dance was much more than perfectly executing a series of steps; it was a way of being in the world and an open platform where I could synthesize my interests.

Now most of my work is in public schools, where I provide dance education to low-income students through my (small but mighty!) organization Whole People Movement. I work with schools to create conceptually-driven dance projects unique to the interests and needs of their communities. A few examples: In our project “Dance Against Bullying,” elementary school students and I worked to create a live performance and dance film that challenged bullying culture at their school through movement and poetry. During our residency “Dance with Pride,” I worked with middle schoolers to create original dances and a dance film that explored social emotional concepts like perseverance, integrity, and empathy, and as part of the program I was able to hire four professional dancers to perform original choreography. In “The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker” (inspired by the amazing book by Patricia Hruby Powell) I worked with a group of teenage female students of color to create a dance theater piece that told the story of jazz dance visionary and activist Josephine Baker and a finale that highlighted her signature movement language. Next year, I will lead a school project that has to do with navigating physical and ideological borders. Although I am teaching dance, I not teaching a “general curriculum” but rather am approaching these projects from the perspective of an artist. I want to continue this work and take part in projects I am passionate about that bring value to the communities I serve.

In my experience, people can be pretty weird and skeptical when one says that they’re going to make a career out of art. When did you decide to really go for the dance thing, and how did people react? Are there any places in your life/work where you’ve encountered surprising resistance? 

This, surprisingly, was not much of an issue for me. I grew up studying the arts and my parents were very supportive. Actually, when I told my parents I wanted to major in history they were disappointed. They were like, “But don’t you love dance?!”

That being said, I have met folks with a narrow view about what it means to pursue dance as a career. I once had someone tell me I was too soft to be a dancer. And by their standards, I would agree. But like I said, there is more than one way to make a living and be an active contributor to this field. To be successful takes far more than a perfect bod; you have to be open to the possibilities about what role dance can play in your life, be proactive about finding in-roads, define what success looks like to you, and be able to articulate your point of view to naysayers with confidence and (a little) sass.

What made you decide to go to grad school, and what have you gotten from it so far? 

I decided to go to grad school because I wanted to immerse myself in dancing/dancemaking/pedagogical practice and had some very clear goals in relation to each of those disciplines. I also wanted to get my MFA and K-12 teaching license so I would have more job opportunities when I graduated. So far, outside of learning content related to my field, grad school has taught me about how to make peace with imperfect decisions, how to place more value on my time and expertise, and how to better communicate who I am as an artist and educator to people who either don’t know me or may not initially value what I do.

Do you consider yourself a freelancer? What pays the bills in your line of work? If you roughly divided your income up into percentiles, what would that look like?

When I am not in school, I would definitely consider myself a freelancer. I have made money working as a teaching artist in public schools, teaching dance in China at a private arts school, choreographing for various projects (musicals, show choirs, high school dance performances, etc), I worked as an education coordinator and administrator for an arts organization, I served at Honky Tonk BBQ, I taught yoga, I danced for several independent artists and also worked as a dancer at a bar mitzvah….

I’m not sure about percentages because it has always been in flux depending on what kind of work has been available, but I will say teaching has accounted for the bulk of my income.

What are some goals you haven’t achieved yet? Big future dreams? 

I want to run my own dance program—either in the form of expanding Whole People Movement or overseeing a high school dance program. I also want to keep taking dance classes and educating myself on my art form (it’s endless!) and do choreographic residencies to continue to develop my craft (and would love to do a residency at a national park!). I want to learn how to speak Spanish, get good at gardening and cooking vegan food, read all the books I own, have a family, travel and explore new places/cultures, and be happy and peaceful. And graduate from grad school!

Are there any huge pieces of misinformation floating around about your career path in general?

YES—there are many, but I will say one of the biggest pieces of misinformation is that ballet is “the basis” for all dance. Is ballet the basis for tap dance? Balinese dance? West African dance? I think you catch my drift…

I also think dance is such a multifaceted art form that often gets relegated to (as my former teacher Tere O’Conor so eloquently summarized) “hot bods doing cool moves.” Technique is essential but I don’t think there is a “default technique”—technique should be in service to the type of work the artist wants to make. As in, the style and the technique develop concurrently.

How do you “get it done,” whatever that means to you? I’m curious if you have a daily routine and if so, what that looks like. 

I don’t have a routine per se, outside of making my bed, trying to remember to meditate, and drinking my coffee. I usually take showers at night and (try to) have all of my things prepared for the following day. I think getting it done has to do with having clear goals and objectives and setting boundaries for yourself, not being a perfectionist (or staying up all night! Either works!). Practically, I use Google calendar and schedule everything on my to-do list. I think it’s also about being aware of your energy and using your energetic upticks to your advantage. Also, coffee.

I know you also do a lot of choreography—was that an intentional shift for you? How does that play into your life/work/goals? 

Choreography has always been part of my identity as an artist and dancer. I started choreographing on my little sister and her friends for their elementary school talent shows when I was young. I have always been interested in being part of the creation because it’s impossible for me to perform something I don’t believe in. This is another reason why I am unable to call myself a straight up “dancer”—if I don’t believe in a project ideologically I can’t go on stage and perform with conviction. So it feels more natural for me to serve as a movement/performance collaborator on a project.

Your work obviously has a huge physical component. I feel like other freelancers are trying to stay fit so that they don’t crumple into a pile of dust at their computer before they turn 30, but for you, physicality is surely an integral component of the work, not something you do so you can continue to work. I don’t know if I have a really interesting question here, but I guess it’s something like…what are your thoughts on the body? 

My thoughts on the body are—there are many ways to be in “shape,” many ways to exist in the world. I think our society tries to portray health like this monolithic thing when in reality if you as a person are fit to do what you want to do I think that’s being healthy. I don’t advocate for eating a bunch of hamburgers and pizza and fries on the regular (although I do eat those things sometimes!) but I it’s silly to think that health looks like having rock hard abs. I think it’s as simple as always be prepared to do whatever it is you are trying to do—mind, body, spirit. For me personally, this means to live within my means, eat sustainably, no pork, lessen the meat, lessen the dairy, drink water, eat organic, lessen the sugar, alcohol, and caffeine, get outside, ride my bike, do yoga, take technique class, improvise, choreograph, meditate, spend time with loved ones, dance, and ultimately do what brings me an authentic sense of joy. Because above all else joy and passion are what fuel us to live our best lives and be our most embodied selves.

Thank you, Izzy! Read previous installments of Art Work here

Art Work #6: Tanya Marquardt, Writer and Performance Artist

“Once upon a time I tried to explain everything that I do to people at parties,” says Tanya Marquardt. “After years of watching most people’s eyes glaze over, I now say that I am a writer and a performer. But if they inquire further they find out that I dance, choreograph, direct, make theatre, work collaboratively, write memoir and plays and, and, and….”

Tanya’s work and career has indeed been a series of beautiful ampersands. She’s studied theater, dance, and writing; she’s done a show in IKEA and has a memoir, Stray, coming out from Little A—and that’s just scratching the surface. In nearly twenty years of working as an artist, Tanya has acquired a lot of wisdom about navigating the thrilling and torturous roads of the art world (after reading her interview, I’m inspired to apply to about 500x more grants than I currently do). We also share the same incredible agent, Erin Hosier. Here, she talks about liminality in art, the financial shock of moving from Canada to NYC, and the freedom of self-producing. Enjoy!

Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep, Mabou Mines Artist Residency, 2017. Photo courtesy of David B Smith.

What led you to study theater, then dance, then creative writing? How do your various skill sets intersect?

Theatre was really my first love, and I wanted to be an actress. For my undergraduate degree I went to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, which is a program that emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration, ensemble, and self-producing. From day one of my professional training I was collaborating with filmmakers and dancers, musicians and visual artists, and we were encouraged by the faculty to make work that mixed forms together. And I found that I loved that space between art forms and wanted my art to exist where things were risky, at times problematic, and difficult to define. And this training and interest led to me wanting to train in other art practices, eventually getting a dance certification and then an MFA in Creative Writing at Hunter College.

I feel like there is this tendency, and I think it’s present in all fields, towards definition, a snappy quip, a soundbite, a tagline that we want from artists and makers to orient ourselves to their work. I want to defy that. I welcome failure, and confusion and being undefinable. It means that sometimes my work feels very strong, and other times it roams around in a mess, but it feels real to me, closer to my life and the way I want to express myself. And also, I think liminality opens up potential meanings for the viewer or the reader, even if it comes from experiencing an uncomfortable performance or piece of writing. I also take that liminality into the process, and am continually defining the space where my skills intersect, overlap, smash against each other and meld. Sometimes the relationship is very clear, like the relationship between playwriting and memoir writing, and sometimes the relationship takes time to work itself out, like the relationship between dancing and writing. It’s exciting to live in that space, I recommend it.

What draws you to doing so many different things?

To be honest, I am not completely sure what draws me to so many different artistic expressions. Even when I was a little kid I was making up shows and writing and dancing around for my parents. So I think part of it is a natural interest, an inclination towards being an art maker. But also, I find that the deeper I work on a theme or the more I uncover about a story, the original form needs to shift so that I can discover more about the work. So a piece that starts as fiction may end up as a dance, and then a year later be a play that I then turn into a short work of nonfiction, and round and round and round. This way I can dig and find depth, which is one of the things I am interested in as an artist. So in that way my process is prismatic, it wants to shed light on all the angles. Continue reading →

On Self Promotion

A couple of weeks ago, I did two things that were extremely minor to the rest of the world but major to me: 1) I started promoting my work as much as I wanted, and 2) I stopped apologizing for promoting my work. Wait, no! I actually did three things, and the third is the most important: 3) I stopped apologizing for my work, period. Cue a huge side of relief and a little bit of a middle finger thrown up to the world in general. I’m done feeling guilty that some people think it’s “weird” I write about murder. I’m done feeling like I have to hide certain aspects of my success so that insecure people can feel better about themselves. I’m just done! Done with the weird freelancer apology dance: “Sorry for spamming you but here’s another article, it’s kinda long, no need to actually read it, LOL! Oh and while you’re at it, curious when my paycheck will arrive, not to bug you but it’s been four months, sorry for being a nag!” D-O-N-E.

Continue reading →

Art Work #5: Sonya English, Actor

I have always been fascinated by how Sonya English gets it done. She’s a real-life working actor in LA, the city where everybody says it’s impossible to be an actor. Perhaps you’ve seen her in a Wendy’s commercial? On “Workaholics,” or “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”? She’s equal parts hustle and thoughtful intuition, and I’m thrilled that she’s spilling some of her secrets here (seriously, actors, her tips are worth their weight in gold…or in cigarettes, when the apocalypse hits).

Here, she talks about auditioning for absolutely everything, investing in new skills instead of fancy cars, how to take the Church of Scientology’s free seminar for actors without going clear, and why it’s so valuable to have someone in your life who can talk your brain off the “fear track.”

At parties, what do you say when people ask you what you do? Is there any point, in the telling of what you do, that you stumble?  

The first stumbling block is right out of the gate, deciding between “actor” or “actress.” I don’t have a strong opinion either way and I don’t find it particularly interesting to talk about, so I’m mostly reading the crowd and anticipating which they’ll take less issue with.

The big one for me is, do you do comedy or drama? Or, do you do TV or movies? I’d have asked the same questions before I was an actor, so I recognize the kindness and interest behind it, but it always leaves me feeling tongue-tied. The truth is that I audition for TV, movies, commercials, animation, videogames, web series—from one-liners to leads. Unless you’re talking to a magazine-cover celebrity, they’re probably not being super choosy.

One thing I find impressive about you is that you seem to be working a very difficult system. You’re making a living as an actress in LA in a way that’s quite clever. So many people seem to think there’s two poles: the starving barista desperate for parts, and then the celebrity. You’ve carved out a place for yourself that’s neither one of those things. How did you do it?

Here’s the secret!! I think everyone should know it! It involves a cheesy blue-and-yellow 24×36 inch cardboard piece of marketing that changed my life.

Continue reading →

Art Work #4: Rhonda Telfer, Writer

Rhonda Telfer grew up just outside the tiny town of Sheffield, IL, in a beautiful white farmhouse amid her father’s green cornfields, and the landscape of her childhood still figures prominently in her writing today. She has written two children’s books, a young adult novel, and numerous short stories for children; she also posts weekly essays at rhondatelfer.com. Suffice it to say that if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be a writer. And if I ever wander into a bar in Sheffield, IL, someone always asks me if I am my mother.

Here, she talks about the creativity of stay-at-home motherhood, the number one inspiration for her art, and how her first novel took twenty years to write. (PS: BUY IT!!!! It is amazing, and the perfect poignant/painful/nostalgic read for hazy August days by the water.)

You write, you act, you play piano—is there anything the woman CAN’T do? Talk to me a little bit about the role of art in your life and how you see your various skills manifesting, both in the day to day and long-term.

I supposed more than “skills manifesting,” being an artist has to do with the way you interact with the world. I like words skillfully used—i.e. witty and beautiful. Conversation and writing like that grabs me. I also like to re-arrange my furniture—that’s art, right? I’m done with acting (too old for my dream roles of Eliza Doolittle and Lady Macbeth) and as my grandpa used to say, I only “tickle the ivories” for private audience (me). Long-term manifestations? Three more books: an adult novel, a picture book, and a collection of essays. But I think you have to be really famous to do the last one, right?

When you were a mother of four young children, did you have any time for art? I can’t imagine you had much time to create in the stereotypical sit-down-at-the-easel sense (maybe I’m wrong!), but were there any ways that art popped up unexpectedly in those intense mothering years?

Being  a mother grew me as a writer. In some ways, bringing a new person into the world, watching them grow into their own person…and all the “witty and beautiful” that comes from them, enriched me as a thinker. And it also got me collecting books. I did a lot of jotting on paper—things the kids said, or images that occurred to me for a later story, various dashings-off of descriptions of my world. And I read aloud to them lots. The actress in me liked changing my voice for each character. I can still do a pretty epic “Jabberwocky” performance.

Continue reading →