Morgan Thorson on What Fuels Her Radical Choreography​

A moment of repose—as an audience member looks on—in Thorson's five-hour Still Life. Photo by Val Oliveiro, courtesy of Thorson

Dancing in choreographer Morgan Thorson's latest project is more than a little like running a marathon. In the summer of 2015, Thorson created Still Life, a five-hour, live installation dance at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. Nineteen dancers took turns performing in a public gallery space four days a week for three months. “I unconsciously seek extreme physical states," says Thorson. “That's fueled my choreography—to create situations that create those extreme states." It all makes sense when you consider her background: the discipline of serious ballet study mixed with the competition and rigor of sports (she played lacrosse and did swimming and diving), and a healthy dose of New York downtown dance thrown in for good measure. This month, she'll resurrect Still Life—with a couple of new twists—at the American Dance Institute's 160-seat theater in Rockville, Maryland.

Performance: Danced with Jennifer Monson and Ann Carlson

Choreography: Began creating dance projects in 2000; Guggenheim Fellowship, 2010; Doris Duke Award, 2016

Teaching: Creative Campus Fellow at Wesleyan University; certified practitioner of Skinner Releasing Technique

This Still Life "For the Weisman, I developed this dance cycle that could be repeated but would decay over time because of the dancers' endurance. In this version, I'm focused on having the dancers think more aggressively about killing the dance. What happens to the dancers when they're possessed to kill the dance? When the material is gone? It requires a different kind of presence—it puts a lot in their hands. We also have these spontaneous cuing systems as another new layer. The dancers know the signifiers, but they don't know how I'll use them or pass them around. What happens when you don't know what's going to happen? I'm curious how we'll communicate within something that's falling apart and still keep the composition actively growing in the moment."

The audience's role “The audience could come and go and participate in a variety of ways. They could come and seek some sort of contemplation. They could come and rest. They could come and watch the movement. They could come and watch us rehearse—at the beginning of each installation, we would have a half-hour of rehearsal."

The hardest part of dancing a five-hour piece “There's this discipline: Sometimes the galleries were empty—no one was there—so it was really about the dancers having a relationship with this dance cycle when there's no one to project to. That was an interesting puzzle for the dancers. I was the stage manager, and even I would leave sometimes, so that they could really be alone with the dance."

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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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