Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Speaking of shyness...and dance

At a certain point in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by... you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are... especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself... But I am this person. And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.
Patricia Clarkson (Miss Dodger) to Elle Fanning (Phoebe Lichten)
Phoebe in Wonderland (2008), directed by Daniel Barnz
Eva Yaa Asantewaa (photo: Deborah Feller)
I grew up an only child, a self-conscious, shy kid overwhelmed by the many larger-than-life--and sometimes out-of-control--personalities in my striving Barbadian immigrant family and our network of African American and Caribbean friends. Born in New York and raised Roman Catholic in a northern Queens neighborhood steadily transitioning from Irish and Italian to Black and Latino, I retreated into the rich worlds of books, writing poetry and television parodies, and absorbing the 1960s' abundance and diversity of music. Just the idea of speaking to or in front of people would unnerve me. I'd fret about it before, during and after.

Oddly enough, I loved to dance and, in those moments, did not mind being watched and enjoyed. I have vivid sense memories of papers shaking in my hands as I stood to read in class, and equally strong recall of improvising dances to the sensuous calypso, Latin and soul music records played at our big family gatherings. Music and dance were things I just got. Smiled upon for providing entertainment, I was never encouraged to build upon this sensitivity to music and obvious talent for movement and choreography. In fact, for a reason I could not grasp at the time, my family actively discouraged me from even imagining a path that could lead to a profession they clearly deemed unsuitable and unseemly. Instead, I gained approval all around for being smart, quiet and manageable. If it was a frequent puzzlement to people that I was a shy girl, it was also a relief. It took me a very long time to learn how to make trouble.

Since I loved dance so much, I stuck with it in my own way over the years into young adulthood, seeing a lot of shows, studying various forms--from Graham and Isadora to jazz, from Afro-Brazilian to Middle Eastern--and eventually writing about dance as a professional critic and journalist. Through the energy and example of dancers--as through my own spiritual studies and practices--I developed an individual and purposeful voice.

And yet, whenever I watched a dancer grow diffident during a post-show Q&A, deflecting a question or answering with something vague and abstract or deferring to the omniscient choreographer, I wondered if I could be looking at the same person who had just torn up the stage and wow-ed the audience. I began to suspect that introversion and discomfort with verbal expression might run in the family of dance. And I considered some of the consequences of this shyness: How do you make a case for yourself and your worth as a performer or creator of dance if you cannot speak up for yourself? How do you effectively communicate with colleagues, collaborators, potential presenters, curators, funders, media, audiences? In these difficult times, how do you advocate and fight for your art in a society that fails to value or prioritize it?

A few weeks ago, I posted a notice on my Facebook Timeline, a call for dance artists who experienced shyness in youth, who might or might not consider themselves somewhat shy as adults and who would be willing to talk about how introversion affected their lives and work. A handful of my Facebook friends quickly replied. While a few urged me to contact people who they felt were shy, I only wanted to work with subjects who identified and volunteered themselves. I drew up a list of questions and began conducting phone interviews, little realizing how profoundly I would be moved by what these interviewees would share with me.

In each interview with the talented and accomplished artists you will meet here--Chris MastersJennifer EdwardsJonathan Riseling and Audrey Kindred--I was astonished to hear elements of my own thoughts, tendencies and experiences, then and now, in their stories. Each of them struck me as possessing a kind of liberated power that I also recognize working through me in adult life.

Although, at the outset of each interview, I actually could feel a part of myself regressing to a place of vulnerability and shyness, I ended up feeling comforted, encouraged by each artist's honest sharing and grateful for new insights.
How I want to live out loud, uncensored and free, to feel like myself on the outside, and to forgive myself when I fall, shut down, get scared, go small. -- Jena Strong, "This is the Yes" from The Inside of Out (2013) 
Chris Masters
(photo: Robert Flynt)

Dancer-choreographer Chris Masters, 31, hails from the suburbs of Detroit and started dancing around age twelve. His performance career includes work with Martha Clarke and Doug Elkins, and he recently joined the cast of Third Rail Project's critically-acclaimed immersive theater work, Then She Fell. Masters traces his introversion back to age five when his parents divorced and his grandparents assumed custody of him and his two-year-old sister.

"Living with them was wonderful--a warm, safe home life--but they were so much older," he says. "The zest for showing things and doing things with children wasn’t there. We did not live in a neighborhood with other children my age. I missed out on traditional boy things like Little League.

"My shyness wasn’t paralyzing, but it was problematic. All the way up through my undergrad years, I still had issues initiating conversation, meeting new people, putting myself out there. The wallflower, not the life of the party. My sister and I both have introverted tendencies. Mine were a bit more extreme. My sister could do the normal things with a little more gusto.

"I had an inkling, from a very young age, that I was homosexual but never acted upon it or even questioned it. A piece of my introversion had to do with anxiety or apprehension about opening myself to that possibility. My grandparents both have very strong views about a lot of things. My parents had left, and I knew that I had to do whatever I had to do to keep that safe environment, even if that meant closeting who I was."

Typical adolescent feelings of self-doubt and gloom compounded Masters's hesitation to hang out with his peers. He compensated, as so many shy kids like myself did, by escaping to the magical realm of books.

"I got lost inside someone else’s world where I could be a visitor, reading about things and places I wanted to experience," Masters says.

Shyness proved a boon to his education, helping him maintain focus.

"I wasn’t interested in making jokes in class," he explains. "I wanted to learn. I was fully present, in the moment, reading people's body language and taking in new information all the time. Instead of playing at recess, I'd sit and read. A bit of a nerd, in a manner of speaking! I got good grades, and my teachers noticed my shyness but treated me well. They never pressured me to be extroverted.

"The fact that I started dancing when I was twelve, just as I was ending elementary school, starting middle school, pushed me back into a corner. So, even if I had felt comfortable being more social, people could point and laugh at me for being a dancer. It caused me to be a little bit quieter. But as soon as I went to college and wasn’t the oddball for wanting to dance, I started to feel almost an immediate shift--being around people with a common goal and passion.

"In my first undergrad year, I made three dances–they were all awful!–but I was proud of them and not embarrassed to talk about them. Also, being in much smaller classes--maybe a ballet class with eight to ten people--definitely helped me to come out of my shell.

"In my late teens and early twenties, my sexuality hadn’t been fully actualized. I didn’t feel that I was being absolutely honest, though I was starting to become confident in my ability to say something of interest, having coffee with a friend, discussing a book or a music artist, or making a dance. But there was still a lot of tongue-biting going on. I wasn't fully transparent.

"I definitely still feel some social anxiety. When I’m not running the show, I retreat back. When I’m teaching, when I’m talking about my work or it’s being presented, when I have to market my work and be my own advocate--in those situations, whether it’s natural or if it’s a bit forced, I find it much easier to wear the hat of an extrovert."

Still, putting himself out there in a professional setting--say, to engage in a post-performance talkback session--can take a huge toll.

"It takes a lot out of me, mentally and emotionally, to have to be that person," Masters says. "My recuperation period is pretty intense. But just give me my couch, a glass of wine and a book, and I'm as happy as can be."

Masters credits his time in a two-year MFA program in dance (University of Iowa) for strengthening his professional voice and sense of self-worth as a choreographer.

"I needed to retreat from other requirements and just focus again. I selected a program with a strong mix of composition and theory to anchor my work with some kind of logic--not just making dance for the sake of making dance. My ability to vocalize and write about my work has increased ten-fold. I'd had a small dance company in Detroit for four or five years. Though I felt happy with my choreography, I wasn't getting any traction with it, I think, because of my inability to talk about it and color in why this was important, why the community needed it. I couldn't fully crystallize those thoughts. After grad school, I felt more confident.

"I recognize that some artists feel that their work should speak for itself. Some of us are able to sell our work very well, and some of us aren't. We're really awkward in social settings--talking to a potential funder, stumbling over words. Of course, there are also those who feel that their work transcends the need for explanation because it's just amazing.

"But one of my colleagues gave me this piece of advice. When I feel bashful--or, perhaps, I don't feel qualified--she told me: 'No one's going to walk up to you and give you $100,000. If you're not actively putting yourself out there, as uncomfortable as it might make you feel, the likelihood of someone just stumbling upon your work and deciding that it's brilliant, without having a thoughtful conversation with you, is probably pretty low.'

"You have to take it upon yourself to ask for what you want. The answer could be, 'No,' but you won't know that it's a firm No until you ask. If you don't, someone else will take that space that you could have occupied. And, yes, I have to remind myself about this every single time I write a grant proposal!"

Jennifer Edwards

Jennifer Edwards, 40, serves as a partner in Edwards & Skybetter Change Agency, co-founded with fellow dancer-choreographer-consultant Sydney Skybetter to conduct "the business of facilitating change within creative companies...when some major technology, communications or programmatic shift happens (or needs to happen) within an organization." They promise to "move organizations through a process in a matter of hours or days that it would take them months or more to accomplish on their own." Okay, if it takes guts to be a dance artist--and it certainly does--this change-agent role sounds even more demanding. Can a shy person really pull that off?

Edwards grew up an only child, born to parents approaching middle age, in a tiny New Jersey town. She spent a lot of time by herself, having little interaction with other children. As is common in such situations, her inner life far outpaced her outer life.

"I was mostly shy around adults," Edwards says. "I have a muscle memory of being very small and hugging my mother's leg, constantly not wanting to be seen. But then, when I went to school, I was punished a lot for talking in class--the kid stuck in the corner all the time. That changed my behavior quite a bit. I developed a reaction to adults where I'd clam up and be very withdrawn. When I was around kids, I was excited, but then I was told not to talk.

"When we'd have to go around and read in class, the sweat...oh my gosh... the drop in your stomach! I'd sit there, not listening to anyone else, terrified, and just reading, reading, reading the one sentence that I would have to read aloud. When it came to my turn, I'd be so quiet, and the teacher was constantly telling me to speak up. 

"My grandma used to say, 'You're a tiny little mouse in a tiny little house!' That was my existence for a very long time. Afraid of my own voice, or noise of any kind. Really afraid of being. Being seen, being heard, being noticed."

At the same time, she felt completely at home and thrilled to be dancing onstage--no surprise to me!

"I couldn't engage in group play, but if it was a group of dancers and we all had this way of being with each other in our bodies, then it was easy to transition into group activities."

At age eight, Edwards faced a family crisis--her mother's cancer diagnosis. Her mother died when the youngster was just fifteen, a critical time in psychological and social development. 

"I didn't know how to talk about things and advocate for myself. When my mom died, my dad was not actively in the picture. He didn't know how to be a parent, and I didn't know how to navigate the world in a verbal way. So, it definitely impacted my education, because I didn't know how to ask for help. I could do my assignments well, but class participation was hard. But in that point in our development as a culture, girls didn't talk in class either."

Edwards calls herself "a very good listener," a skill that serves her well in her new role as a  consultant to organizations. "That was my way of being involved in things. I've just always been very observant, a whole-body listener, trying to figure out how to engage. How do people do this?

"Because I didn't know how to be like the people who did things so easily, it was always about the how. I was watching everything from how they inhabited their homes to how they cooked a meal or poured water. Everything was a study for me all the time. It became like live cinema."

Did shyness have any effect--positive or negative--on her training and work in dance?

"When I was at North Carolina School of the Arts, a couple of teachers were brought up on charges and let go," she remembers. "They had been entirely abusive. I didn't know how to tell my parents why I didn't want to return, and that led them to put me into a regular public high school.

"Later on, making my work, having just finished my MFA, it really held me back that I couldn't put myself out there. 

"You know, though, a lot of my career has been as a spoken-word poet. So I really overcame it. Just threw myself onstage at the Nuyorican [Poet's Cafe] and went for it!"

She had taken a brave step during her high school years--signing up for a course in public speaking.

"But even now, when I do a lot of public speaking, there's always this tension, days when I just retract.

"My shyness comes out actually being in community rather than leading a group. Being in a place of leadership is comfortable because it's still protected. Shyness comes up a lot when I'm just a member of a group."

I suggested a reason for this apparent contradiction: A leader can prepare to apply herself to a specific role and task, whereas for group members, the roles and rules might not be as clear cut, and the shy person might not quickly figure out how best to fit into the overall picture. Like Edwards, I'm on much firmer ground when I have a job to do.

Auditions don't go easily for Edwards. She also finds it challenging to talk about her own dancemaking, much of which, interestingly, involves speech, relationships and the tension between internal and external worlds.

"I'm blown away by people who can be articulate off the cuff," she says. "I always wonder,  Do they have talking points for everything they do? Are they just prepared all the time? They can always speak with authority. I constantly want to get better at that, feel really grounded.

"In my development, I've allowed myself to go to very quiet, internal places. It's fine to live there, but it's tricky. I found myself in conversations, all of a sudden, like, Wow, I don't know where we are. I've just been completely hanging out with myself over here. I don't know where you all are!"

Hierarchical authority can squelch dancers' ability to speak up for themselves, as can corrections and criticism projected onto and internalized by them. Edwards pushes her dance students to exercise their hidden verbal skills and develop confidence in speaking and drafting professional tools such as artist statements and program notes.

"For the class I just taught at Skidmore, each student had to get up and speak in front of their classmates. I get shyness, understand it at a core level, but I hear this argument over and over again: 'I'm a dancer, and I shouldn't have to explain myself to my audience.'  It's lazy. You're not helping people to understand this medium. You're a teacher.

"Introspection may be natural to most artists. We need to go inside and be self-aware to make the work that we make. But it's also our responsibility to take the time to communicate what we're making.

"Communication is a muscle that you need to train and practice using. It isn't something that you're either good at or not. We can all learn to do different things. Practice in low-stake ways. I love talking to strangers, and it's actually easy to do. Have a conversation on a train with somebody who you're never going to see again!"

From Edwards's personal experience, she knows that daring to speak up can unlock the body's energies and release a lifetime of stress. It's almost miraculous.

"I had irritable bowel syndrome, I had ocular nerve disorder, and I've been completely symptom-free for over ten years," she says. "The more I practiced the things that scared me the most--and speaking was one of them--the more my physical symptoms receded.  So, it's not just about communicating with other people; it's also about communicating more clearly with myself, breaking down those walls and fears that prevented me from being a full, healthy human."

Jonathan Riseling

Jonathan Riseling, 48, performed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (for which he won a 1990 Bessie Award), The Jamison Project, Jennifer Muller, Lar Lubovitch and numerous other contemporary dance troupes. He has had an equally extensive career as a dance educator. He now teaches at The Putney School, a progressive co-ed boarding school in Vermont whose famous alumni include composer David Amram, filmmaker Errol Morris, playwright Wallace Shawn and a few members of the Kennedy clan.

Riseling reflected on rootlessness in early family life as one source of his introversion.

"You know how Army brats are constantly moving? Well, I'm a hippie brat," Riseling says.

"My parents kept moving. A tent community in Vermont in the summer. A tenement in lower Manhattan. Then we were in Boston. By the time I was about four, we ended up in the Midwest, pre-K through sixth grade. Nice little college town. Brought up mostly by my mother. My stepfather worked the night shift, so I didn't see a lot of him. I got an old-school kind of reading-'riting-'rithmetic education, and I was part of the Head Start program, which was incredibly valuable.

"Seventh grade, my hippie parents decided to move again, go back to nature. They got a super-cheap farm in Kentucky. Turns out it was super-cheap because you paid part of your rent to the bank in bales of tobacco."

"They thought they would be part of the food movement but, instead, they had to become tobacco farmers. That was a shock to the family. I hated it and ended up moving to New York City to live with my father. I hadn't seen him since I was about three.

"I had done part of eighth grade in a Brooklyn public school, and the transition from country to city was rough. I ended up right in the middle of a neighborhood that was divided racially--Black and Latin gangs, gang wannabes, white gentrification. So, by the time I got to the High School of the Performing Arts, I was incredibly introverted.

"I'm the oldest of four children, definitely welfare kids, never a lot of money around. My stepfather was abusive. Since he worked at night, and my mom was trying to go to college I was--quote/unquote--the responsible one. We didn't have a television until I was twelve. So, I found my escape from the demands in life through becoming a voracious and fast reader. I never really talked with other kids in my neighborhood, most of whom were a few years younger. I wasn't playing. I found my reality in books, and it became a defense mechanism.

"In class, I operated on the 'speak-when-spoken-to' principle, don't say anything when you don't have to. Monosyllables. I created a persona to keep people away. Very long hair. Always wore a hat with a brim and always had a book in my face. I can still walk down the street in New York City with a book in my hand, reading, and not bump into people. It's like I built a little box around my head. People tend not to bother you."

A young reader with clearly-defined choices for his age--Hermann Hesse, yes; The Great Gatsby, a decided no--he was also drawn to writing.

"Much of my writing was sarcastic parody, which I kept doing over and over again because my teachers loved it! I also have a love for words themselves. Out of the twelve words that sort of mean something, there is the perfect one."

Riseling's relationship with his birth father--a political activist living in a far-left commune--did not work out well. Taking dance classes after school provided another form of escape.

"I came late to dance, but I could catch up because shyness helped me to focus, almost obsessively, within the dance classroom. You obsess about your foot or your flexibity or your musicality or whatever it is. To this day, I'm not good at entirely self-motivated activity. I need a little outside push, a deadline. Given that, I go all in."

Citing the multiple intelligences theory of developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, Riseling describes himself as extremely kinesthetic and auditory.

"When I learn dance, in my mind, I don't necessarily go, 'And 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.' I'm going 'Boom-boom-chickee-boom. Dah-dah-dah.' It's a rhythmic thing. Spatial arrangement. I can see my body flipping around in space and fit myself into that vision. That's how I process learning movement. So, when I teach, very often, I'll use very emotive language or sound effects."

His inherent learning modes help him to craft vivid directions for his dance students, guiding them away from reliance on external feedback--"the mirror is your enemy; it will turn you into a zombie"--and into their own creative realms and powers. Teaching appears to be an ideal outlet for his sensibilities and voice. Socializing? That's still complicated.

"I will chat with anybody about anything," he says, launching into a mini-performance of his younger self working at Starbucks, effusively admiring a customer's earrings or pooch.

"But, at the same time, I am extremely anti-social. I never want to go to the go out, period. I'm so happy being a hermit. With a book, with my laptop. My ex found it very frustrating."

"I will occasionally regress," he admits. "I'm capable of not moving my butt off the couch except for bodily functions or food for two days. I could read four books in a row and absolutely love it."

Riseling, who has performed dance works that require that he wrestle with text and vocal expression, sees a lot of shyness or verbal self-consciousness among dancers.

"'I don't do that! My talent is in my feet!'"

Where does this come from?

"More in ballet than modern dance...ballet is a dictatorship where you don't speak in class, you're always at attention. As we say, the bun is screwed on very, very tightly--which is necessary if you want to excel. You're never asked to speak.

"Most of the dancers I know are very uncomfortable speaking publicly. Every time they have to do a lecture-demonstration, where all you have to do is say, 'Hi, my name is.... We're here to do this dance called.... 'I can't do it! I can't do it!'

"When we're dancers, it's so easy to really remain very young emotionally. We're told what to do. This is when you show up. This is the class you're going to take. Now it's four hours of rehearsal. Now you get on the bus. Now you go to the airport. This is the hotel you are staying in. This is the only restaurant that's open. Now, do it again.

"You think you're grown up, because you have a job, make money, pay your rent, but you're not, really.

"You're completely isolated in this bubble. And that won't last--particularly for dancers. We're done when we're forty. If we're lucky, we last 'til forty. And most of us don't have any other skills. But you have to go out and present yourself in the real world and hustle. Not everyone's going to be a choreographer or a teacher. And even if you are, you're going to have to present yourself. 'Hi, my name is Jon. I'm a great dance teacher, and you should hire me.'

"The day when you could just send in your resumé and your headshot is gone. Without that personal connection, you're just one of five-thousand people, and everyone can do what you can do.

"Finally, what's important," Riseling says, "is not what you've done but who you are."
Audrey Kindred

Audrey Kindred, 48, and her twin sister were born in Ethiopia, the children of a young American educators. Their father, a law professor, taught at a school funded by the Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975), instructing the country's first generation of lawyers. Their mother, a fine artist, taught at an art school. Kindred, who says she has spent the past decade reconnecting with her experience of Ethiopia and its culture, describes these schools as "two of the most wonderful spots in Addis Ababa." The family lived there for four years, staying even through and after the parents' eventual divorce. Kindred's mother eventually brought the girls to the states to live in New York City before relocating to northern Maine.

She remembers kindergarten classes where teachers could not tell the difference between her and her sister. Her mother theorizes that, in her anger at not being recognized by these adults, Kindred refused to speak to them, and a form of shyness developed out of this initial resistance.

"Whenever I would have to go to the bathroom, my sister would speak for me. So the teacher saw me as being incapable and would say to my sister, 'Then, please take her to the bathroom.'"

Apparently, Kindred's sister had this teacher well trained. Whenever she wanted to skip out, she would say, "Audrey has to go...," and the teacher would inevitably say, "Please take Audrey...." Unfortunately, that only reinforced Kindred's unexplained behavior.

"My sister really was the talker," she says. "And I became a non-talker."

As with other shy kids, Kindred paid extremely close attention to her environment, and she didn't always like what she saw.

"I wasn't happy with the way people hurt one another in the world," she says. "I felt very scared to become part of that battlefield, but I also felt hopeful that--maybe in fantasy way--I could enact a different kind of power in the world.

"I was trying to create the angel of myself.

"I didn't want to involve myself in the darkness within friendships, within interpersonal stuff. I would stay a little removed from it and try to sparkle my energy into it. I had a great hope that I could create more goodness by doing that.

"I saw my eyes as the things that did the talking--a silent communication to the world. And I see dancing as some extension of that--a way to keep blessing the world without interfering too much."

She thought of herself as as happy child. Only through therapy later in life would she come to recognize the pain her parents' divorce had caused her. Even so, early on, she could look around and sense how desperate people's lives could be, even in the midst of her beautiful East African surroundings.

At 28, Kindred was diagnosed with narcolepsy--excessive sleepiness and the uncontrollable tendency to fall into deep sleep during normal waking hours. This disorder, coupled with her shyness, produced in her a sense of difference and isolation. Before a lover confronted her and named her condition, she had lived like this for many years, thinking that all she had was an interesting personality quirk.

"I lived in a world of my own. I was very quiet, very sleepy. I smiled a lot, wanting people to like me, but I had a big space between me and the world that was hard to cross."

She remembers that, as a youngster, she would fall asleep in classes and during exams, a source of shame as well as denial by herself and others.

"I became the sleeping kitten in the corner--so cute and so acceptable. I was perceived as smart, but I wasn't achieving what smart people achieve. Nobody could understand why. It's a very elusive disorder. So little information about it existed when I was a child."

While the narcolepsy kept its own tight control of her body while, shyness, in its own way, robbed her of energy and agency.

"How does your voicelessness live in your body? If you're in school, and you have an answer to a question, the only and appropriate way to reveal that answer is to raise your hand. I remember the feeling of my triceps being sown to my ribs with shyness, the feeling that I could not possibly expose my whole body to lift my arm in the air to tell you the answer. It was too much.

"You can try squeezing your arm into your body and then try to lift your hand as you would have to in a schoolroom to be seen. It's impossible. I remember this terror in me. I could not open my physical shell.

"Even my handwriting--perfect penmanship--was microscopic. It's such a hiding. What was that about? What is shyness trying to hide? Why is it that feels so dangerous?"

In third grade, during a brief spell in Indiana before her mother took the girls to Maine, performing dance became magical for her--"the typical ballet child fantasy," as she recalls. In Maine, Kindred found nothing comparable to satisfy her newfound craving for physicality except sports. Then a dancer moved to her area--"She married a potato farmer"--and started a school. The twins became her first students. Many years later, when it came time for college, Kindred chose Bennington, "because they valued dance."

In her twenties and thirties, although her creative ambitions had fully emerged, Kindred found it impossible to tell a date or other people close to her whenever she had an upcoming performance. "I could tell my sister, because there was no risk there, only witness." Saying "I love you" to someone was also profoundly difficult, "almost like I had to push it from the back of my brain," she says. "And I surprised myself that I could find that connection between the brain and the mouth."

Dancing, though. Ah, dancing!

"It felt like privacy in public. You could be so private, dancing, and be so public. That was an enormous relief to me to be expressive.

"Dancing brought me into the breath. Breath brought me into a greater awakeness. Breath brought me into my own sound, my sigh. Eventually, I was waking up more and more in my consciousness, waking up in my body more. I trusted my body, even if I didn't trust my words, could take risks with my body, even if I couldn't take them with my words.

"The breath links all of that together. Through the breath of moving, I found tools to conquer my shyness.

"I started to love words! I began to write more, to speak more."

Her lover, a writer and orator who Kindred describes as courageous, put her in touch with her own courage. She began to make dances about the narcolepsy, and they were full of words--a coming out on all fronts.

"I watch snails a lot in this season. They're in their shells and afraid, but when they come out, they really go far! I connect with that.

"I started to love to speak in front of people. At some point, I became in charge of Movement Research, and I was hosting all these forums, and I loved that space of being a spokesperson for a community, to stand up for other people and their art. It was surprising how much I loved it.

"As a dancer, I loved improvising and taking risks with words. I studied a little with Ruth Zipporah, a changing point for me. She said, 'Boy, you're a mover, but can you bring yourself into the rest of yourself?' She saw how movement dominated my entire sense of myself, and she challenged that: 'Can you be as powerful being still? Try that!' And I'd be, like, What? 'Can you open your mouth and let something come out without knowing what it's going to be?'

"In some sense, I almost started to love talking about dance more than I loved to do it! It amazes me that words are such a big part of my life now, so much of what I bring to the world.

"How did I do this? I remember the girl who couldn't speak."

Kindred stops to consider how her appearance played a role in her shyness.

"Being considered pretty and sexy was terrifying for me. I wanted to be accepted, but people accepted me in a way that made me uncomfortable and scared. Getting through my teen years and young adulthood without getting raped and pregnant seemed impossible. I put a huge, protective shroud around myself, a golden shield. I was often called a slut. How could I prove to the world that I was good?

She mentions having had an "inappropriate experience" with an older man who knew her family well. "Not rape," she says, "But enough to create shame" and a concern that revealing what occurred would bring blame upon herself or the man.

"'What do I do about this?' I buried it in my body.

"My second boyfriend, a very verbal person, said to me, 'Would you like to learn to talk?'

"He said, 'Because I'd like that. I'd like to learn to talk about the hard stuff in life. If we could grow together that way, it would be good for each of us, whether we decide to make a life with each other or not.'  His question was, Can we talk about this to be safe together?"

She finally told him her story--but not before saying, "You will not like me after this. This might be the end of everything."

Kindred's recall of discomfort (and self-diminishing self-protection) under the male gaze triggered memories of my own coping strategies as an attractive young girl and young woman. In her next thought, she drew a connection from this to the world of performance, perhaps identifying the very thing that made dance a place of power for both of us.

"If you're going to be audienced in the world and whistled and catcalled, and that's not the way you want to be audienced...well, performance was like a Take Back the Night for me. There was enormous safety for me. In dance, I found that I created the way I want to be viewed.

"My heroes became Jennifer Monson and Yvonne Meier, mentors for me, in a way, completely unfeminized in their movement." By describing these dance artists as "unfeminized," she makes a distinction between their uncompromising fierceness and the kind of performance that, as she sees it, coyly flirts with the world, seeking approval. "I was so relieved to see their work. Dance is a remedy or a healing path that shyness can find and, when it does, it's an enormous relief.

For Kindred, shyness is a state of being that we can--and must--pass through.

"A lot of people get attached to their shyness, and when I see that, I fear for them. It's something that we romanticize and think is a beautiful quality," she says.

"Your shyness is a part of you, but it's the shell, and you are the snail. When you find your safety, let yourself out."


I welcome your comments. Please feel free to share your own experiences, observations and ideas about shyness in the lives of dance artists.

Also, please link back to this article and share it with your friends, students and colleagues.


Eva Yaa Asantewaa
InfiniteBody (

Artist Bios

Jennifer Edwards is a writer, choreographer, educator, and an organizational development and communication consultant with Edwards & Skybetter | Change Agency. A sought-after speaker and teacher Jennifer has been called on by various organizations including The American Heart Association, Columbia University Medical Center, HUD, the Girl Scouts of America, and The Juilliard School. Major publications have written about her work in stress management including The New York Times and Martha Stewart's Whole Living MagazineShe is currently a visiting professor at Skidmore College, and has served as a Scholar in Residence for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Known for her work in both dance and spoken word poetry, Edwards has earned titles including Sister Spit Slam Champion and her album Exposed won an Indy Girl Music award and was nominated for Just Plain Folks and Outmusic awards. Jennifer’s recent projects include choreographing the relaunch of Expatriate, a play by Lenelle Moïse. and

Audrey Kindred lives in Brooklyn and teaches children PEACE: Processes of Ethics, Arts, Creativity and Empathy. Currently she teaches with Bent On Learning's Yoga programming in public schools, and directs New York Society For Ethical Culture's "Ethics for Children." Movement research processes are central to her life and she has done the work of programming, choreographing, and contemplating dance over many years, sometimes publicly, other times more privately.

Chris Masters completed an MFA in Choreography at The University of Iowa, where he was recipient of the Iowa Arts Fellowship. Masters began his teaching career at The University of Michigan – Ann Arbor at the young age of 21. Between his time in academia and the professional stage, Masters has performed the work of Martha Clarke, Jeff Rebudal, Colleen Thomas, Stephanie Liapis, Jana Hicks, Keith Thompson, Doug Elkins, and Jan Erkert, among others. Currently, he is making dance under the name ChrisMastersDance, and his work has been presented in New York at Galapagos Art Space, The Stables, Irondale Center, Judson Memorial Church, and 100 Grand Performance Space, in Detroit at Detroit Opera House, Boll Theatre, and 555 Gallery, as well as at The University of Michigan, Albion College, Wayne State University, and The University of Iowa. Recently, Chris has joined the cast of Third Rail Projects' Then She Fell.

Jonathan Riseling graduated from the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City as a recipient of the Helen Tamiris Award. He was invited to join the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble and later was accepted into the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Mr. Riseling left to dance with a number of other companies, among them those of Jennifer Muller, Lar Lubavitch, Zvi Gothiener, Amy Pivar, and Francis Patrelle. He worked with Judith Jamison, assisting her in choreographing and staging her works until she formed her own company, The Jamison Project, in 1998. There he held the position of Assistant Rehearsal Director to Ms. Jamison, as well as dancing lead roles in her repertoire. In September of 1990, he was awarded a 'Bessie' award. He has taught at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, STEPS On Broadway, Danspace, Peridance, Ballet Hispanico and Ballet Academy East studios in New York City, the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and as Adjunct Professor for the Universities of Adelphi and The New School for Social Research. Currently, he teaches dance at The Putney School in Putney, Vermont.

Eva Yaa Asantewaa
InfiniteBody (

1 comment:

RoseAnne Spradlin said...

Thank you Eva, and all the artists who participated. I appreciated and was touched by reading these personal stories. The 'history' of a performer (or choreographer) is something not everyone sees onstage, or cares to see. And yet, it's there and if we block it out, we are often bothered by it, it becomes something we can't accept, we don't like. How much richer it is to look more deeply and fluidly, through time and into time, as we regard each other in the present moment.

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