What Choreographer Laurieann Gibson Wants in a Dancer

Photo courtesy of Laurieann Gibson

You probably recognize Laurieann Gibson as an expert judge from the TV shows "Making the Band" and "Born to Dance" (or from her DT cover story, June 2011). Maybe you've seen her explosive, original choreography for Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and now Justine Skye. But for an artist with such a distinctive creative vision, it's surprising to hear that what she really wants is for dancers to be themselves. "When I teach, it's not about me. I don't want you to mimic me, I want you to understand you," she says. "Mimicking the teacher doesn't produce anything: Then it's just a bunch of people making you think you're a great choreographer because the dancers are hitting everything, but they aren't really dancing."

This perspective stems in part from her own background. Growing up in Toronto, Gibson was almost always the lone non-white girl at the barre. But training at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—and then finding her own choreographic voice—she discovered that difference doesn't have to be an obstacle. “Passion and belief in the gift of dance can supersede what you look like, even what the world says a 'dancer' needs to be," she says. “I'm always aware of the climb and the tough times I went through—and there are still tough times. I teach to arm the dancer with knowledge, with structures to make you the most technical and strong and capable version of yourself possible."

Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

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Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

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Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.

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