So you think you can write about dance?

One dance crit­ic answers the eter­nal ques­tion: Are you a dancer?

4 minute read
Loving the shiny costume: Melissa Strong (second from the right) at her first dance recital, in 1981. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Loving the shiny costume: Melissa Strong (second from the right) at her first dance recital, in 1981. (Image courtesy of the author.)

At a fancy holiday party last year, my friend introduced me as a dance critic from Philadelphia. The guests were impressed and I was flattered, if abashed. I clarified that I write freelance for Broad Street Review, and I have a day job as an English professor. It all probably sounds more glamorous than it is.

Common responses to my two gigs strike an odd parallel. Often, new acquaintances joke about having to watch their grammar when they hear I teach college English. Le sigh. Yes, I teach writing—a common professional choice for anyone who’s not a bestselling author. But I don’t research prepositions, and I’m not a comma cop. Meanwhile, the top response to my work writing about dance is “Are you a dancer?” And I’m not sure how to answer that question.

The recital years

Dance, like words, is something I care about more than the average person. But I have never danced professionally. My dance training mostly consists of the sort of lessons— ballet, tap, jazz, gymnastics—taken by children of a certain gender and economic privilege.

My first dance teacher, Gertrude Holmes, also had taught my mother. Mrs. Holmes sat in a folding chair and called out instructions. I remember my dance-recital debut at age three because I loved my shiny costume and the makeup my mother painted on my face as much as I hated the scratchy feel of tulle. I also keenly felt my lack of a prop: some of the other girls carried dolls, since we performed to a lullaby and mimed rocking babies to sleep.

I continued dance lessons longer than most, loving them but never aspiring to serious study. After ninth grade, I turned my attention to theater, the place for weird, artsy smart kids. I performed in dances and musicals, and I learned the difference between fruging and go-go dancing in rehearsals for Hair.

The new girl

Dance became less important as I pursued education and career. As an adult, I realized with humility that a sense of rhythm and passable ability to move cannot carry me beyond the beginner level. Yet I never left dance behind. I signed up for the occasional class, struggling to make shapes with my body, recall French terminology, memorize choreography, and face my reflection in studio mirrors.

I hate being lousy at dance, but something drives me to persist, even as age imposes physical limitations. In grad school, I regularly attended the Sacramento Ballet and enrolled in beginner ballet as I finished my Ph.D. Then I accepted a job at a university with a student dance ensemble, and I guest performed in its 2011 recital. “Who’s the new girl?” I heard someone ask backstage. “That’s Dr. Strong,” came the reply from a student who recognized me in costume, contact lenses, and stage makeup.

After joining the faculty at Community College of Philadelphia, I took a summer intensive at a dance studio in the city. Supposedly it was beginner-friendly, but I appeared to be the only non-professional or pre-professional dancer. The workshop challenged me mightily. Several times I left the studio in tears, and I finished the week with new empathy for my students’ struggles with learning.

Dance writer Melissa Strong meets her former CCP student, PA Ballet dancer Erin O’Dea, backstage at the ‘Nutcracker’ in December 2019. (Photo by Yuka Iseda.)
Dance writer Melissa Strong meets her former CCP student, PA Ballet dancer Erin O’Dea, backstage at the ‘Nutcracker’ in December 2019. (Photo by Yuka Iseda.)

Loving dance, my way

So am I a dancer? The short answer is no. And people find this answer surprising. Many expect a dance writer to dance, despite not having the same expectations of other fields. For instance, most food critics are not chefs, and most film critics are not actors or directors.

Many things help me write about dance: I do research, read reviews, attend performances, listen to the podcast Conversations on Dance, and actually try dancing. However, the top items in my toolkit are critical thinking, analytical writing, and ability to meet deadlines. Also special pens with LED lights. Designed for astronomers, they allow for legible note-taking in dark theaters.

Graduate study in the humanities combined with a lifelong love of dance prepared me for my work today. I started writing about dance when I realized that I already analyze every performance I see. This is how my brain has worked since my first dance recital.

Teaching also has been a surprising help. The same questions guiding responses to student work inform dance reviews: what are they trying to say, how do they convey the message, and how effectively do they do it?

I enjoy telling people that I am a dance critic, but even more, I love the intellectual and creative challenges of putting words to a wordless mode of expression. It’s my way of staying involved in an art form I always loved. With a light-up pen, my ideas are ready to take the stage.

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