One of Canada’s dance icons, modern guru Margie Gillis is known for her emotional, intelligent solo works, which are simultaneously mysterious and charismatic. Born into a family of athletes, Gillis began ballet and gymnastics training at age 3. As she grew up she studied with artists like May O'Donnell, Linda Rabin, Lynda Raino and Allan Wayne, and eventually began to develop her own modern technique. In 1975 she gave her first acclaimed solo performance in Vancouver, which brought her weighted, deeply musical style national attention. In addition to being a respected soloist, Gillis has also choreographed for other dancers and companies, and has been a guest artist with The National Ballet of Canada, Ballet British Columbia, Momix, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company (where she performed two works by her brother, Christopher, who died of AIDS in 1993). Gillis is an Honorary Cultural Ambassador for both the Quebec and Canadian governments, and in 1988 she was the first modern dance artist appointed to the Order of Canada. This year, she was made a Knight of the National Order of Quebec. —Marisa Graniela
Dear younger self,
Though you have no self-discipline, you have a huge, aching passion for life in motion. I want to start by thanking you for being so courageous and curious. Thank you for believing that the most beautiful thing in life is a radiant soul. Thank you for asking questions and putting those questions to the litmus test of dance. Thank you for being humanistic, wild and philosophical.
You are very ambitious, but understand that your life will twist and turn in ways you never expected, and that it is not possible to do absolutely everything. You need to establish limits and take care of yourself a little better. When you are asked to step up, however, put away your fear and feelings of inadequacy and push forward.
You are so lucky to have your brother. He is teaching you that love stretches the soul. Learn to value his difficult times for the lessons they teach and the compassion they engender.
Lastly, thank you for believing that there is always more to create.
Your forever grateful older self,
Photo by Michael Slobodian
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.