Last Updated: November 7th, 2018

I always loved turning. Why? Because I was good at it. So when the lanky young Russian teacher, only three years my senior, glared at me critically after a pirouette combination, I froze. “Jeeeeeeem!,” she screeched. “Vat is thees? In ballet turn like thees, in jazz turn like thees, what you do is…I don’t know.”

As she comically demonstrated my errant pirouette, I understood that my turn out was somewhere between the ideal ballet retiré and the parallel retiré for jazz dance. I floundered in some unknown middle ground. The various techniques I trained in—ballet, modern, jazz—seemed to combat each other. They all fought for supremacy. Each one encroached upon the other. Deep down I wanted them all to work together. But every day my body received messages saying certain aspects of one technique were incongruous with certain aspects of another.

These messages were clearest when coming from my teachers. Jerry, slight, frail, but with fiery eyes, strolled around with a kingly-air in the transformed church that served as the Ballet Center at the University of Akron. The cool, shadowy air of the building demanded reverence for the study of the art of dance. Our young paths were illuminated by the glints of sunlight slicing through the Tiffany window. This was a kingdom out of past, lost to time, and immaculately groomed, white-haired Jerry was its diminutive ruler. Once I saw an otherwise sweet-looking Shitsu violently attack an unassuming visitor. That is how Jerry approached teaching—and the other professors. And like the Shitsu, which betrays its own ferocity as it nips at your ankles, I found him amusing—and often insightful.

“I don’t know what that mad Russian woman is teaching you, but your technique is all wrong,” he commonly said. My professors spent as much time arguing the faults of their peer’s approaches as they did explaining to us theirs. My Graham teacher, Tom, was austere, impressively built, and expressively intense. It seemed that the Graham repertoire had not just been learned in his mind, but absorbed into his every pore. In contrast, Linda, who also taught modern dance, had short, stark hair and a make-up-free complexion. Her contemporary approach embraced diversity of movement styles yet inwardly rebelled against the ballet and Graham vocabularies.

Every professor and student at the Ballet Center gravitated to this deconsecrated church for the same unified reason: a love of dance. But the culture we found inside was one of fragmentation. Ballet, modern, and jazz battled for disciples, each claiming its own validity and superiority. I graduated and moved to New York City to find that my college experience prepared me perfectly for the real dance world. The Us versus Them mentality of the dance world infiltrates every corner. In addition to the fragmentation between the genres, a multitude of other conflicts exist: concert dance vs. entertainment dance, East coast vs. West Coast, Broadway jazz vs. Los Angeles jazz, Classical ballet vs. Contemporary ballet, uptown dance vs. downtown dance (in NYC), commercial schools vs. non-profit schools, and recreational training vs. pre-professional training. I found a dance world focused on the differences between its diverse facets instead of celebrating its commonality.

It was then that I began searching for what I called “Integrity” in dance. This word resonated with me and became a banner I carried with me. I wanted to find the consistent thread that not only connected the various aspects of my dance career, which now involved performing, choreographing, and teaching, but also my personal beliefs and values with my outer profession. Through the integration of eastern philosophies, developmental psychology, somatic practices, integral philosophy, and mindfulness practice I found my highly coveted “cohesion.” Eastern philosophies and somatic practices (mind-body techniques) have worked side by side for decades already. It was with the discovery of mindfulness practice that my vision of a dance world with integrity came into focus.

Now, philosophy can be a bunch of bluster and brouhaha. In the dance community, where physical action and intuitive wisdom take precedent over rationality and discursive thought, we want practical and applicable ideas. My hope is to integrate all these ideas into a new vision of dance with practical approaches for dancers: Mindful Dance—my personal theory derived from years of working in the trenches as a performer, teacher, choreographer, administrator and writer. The specific applications are personal and developed from my own experience and creative intuition. This theory is open-ended. If it appeals to you, then I encourage you to play with it. Do not swallow it whole as a rigid structure. Bend it, twist it, turn it upside down as you develop your own Mindful Dance vision and practice. And, if—in the middle of your playing—you get a free moment, let me know what you discovered.

James Robey is a contemporary dance-maker, performer, teacher, father and husband: not necessarily in that order. He is Founding Artistic Director of James Robey Dance, director of the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, and author/creator of the Jazz Dance Technique and Syllabus™. Visit his website http://themindfuldancer.blogspot.com.

image: man dancing via Shutterstock