Transcript, Episode 51: Funding Black Dance, #QueertheBallet, and Martha Nichols

[Jump to Martha Nichols interview]


Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends. Welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Lydia Murray:
And I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing how the chronic underfunding of Black dance is making it even more difficult for Black companies and artists to come back from the pandemic. We’ll talk about #QueertheBallet, which is dancer Adriana Pierce’s movement to empower queer female and non-binary performers. We’ll get into the Framing Britney Spears documentary, and how Spears has always seemed freest when she’s dancing.

Then, we’ll have our interview with Martha Nichols, the teacher and choreographer who’s worked all over both the concert and the commercial dance worlds. If you’ve ever taken a class with Martha, or even if you just follow her on Instagram, then you already know how thoughtful and purposeful she is in her words as well as in her movements. We had this great, really wide-ranging conversation that I’m excited for you all to hear.

Before we dive into all of that, just a reminder that there’s actually more to The Dance Edit than this podcast. We also have a free daily newsletter, which is a digest rounding up each weekday’s top dance stories. It’s designed to take about one minute to read, but it also includes links to further reporting on each story in case you’d like to go deeper. You can find out more about that and subscribe at thedanceedit.com.

Now, it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown. Courtney, you’re up first.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, so Misty Copeland has penned another book, this time celebrating the trailblazing Black ballerinas of the past and present, from Raven Wilkinson and Lauren Anderson to Erica Lall and Michaela DePrince. Appropriately titled Black Ballerinas, the middle-grade title features illustrations by Salena Barnes and is set for release on November 2nd.

Lydia Murray:
So excited for that.

Courtney Escoyne:
And the illustrations look beautiful.

Lydia Murray:
They do. They look gorgeous. Kyle Abraham has been named one of Crain’s 2021 Notable Black Leaders and Executives. The distinction goes to Black honorees who have had an impact on New York City through their professional, philanthropic and communal successes, especially in the area of diversity and inclusion. So congrats to Kyle Abraham.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well deserved.

Lydia Murray:
So well deserved.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Absolutely.

Courtney Escoyne:
Theater director Kirill Serebrennikov will leave his post at Moscow’s Gogol Center after his contract ending next week was not renewed, prompting concerns about a renewed crackdown on artistic freedom in Russia. Now, you might recognize the director’s name from the Bolshoi’s production of Nureyev in 2017, which was canceled three days before opening night, prompting speculation of censorship since the ballet dealt with Nureyev’s homosexuality, or from his having been placed under house arrest amidst embezzlement charges that same year, which were also widely speculated to be connected to state censorship. Basically, it’s another intriguing turn of events in what has been nothing but a series of intriguing and slightly concerning events surrounding this director.

Lydia Murray:
SAG-AFTRA has announced a new agreement for influencers. Under the new plan, influencers who generate branded content as a form of advertising on their personal social media platforms can be protected by the union. They will be able to qualify for health and pension benefits. SAG-AFTRA had previously covered YouTubers’ advertising work, but now that has expanded to include all social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, Twitch and Facebook.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which, as we know, is a lot of dancers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, a whole bunch of dancers. Taylor Lorenz actually did a good story explaining all of this for The New York Times. We’ll link to that in the episode description.

Courtney Escoyne:
And continuing our shout-outs to Black History Month programming, we wanted to highlight Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Coming up next is their Cultural Awareness program, a digital split bill featuring Talley Beatty’s The Mourner’s Bench, a 1947 solo responding to social inequity in the rural South after the Civil War, and Matthew Rushing’s ODETTA, a reflection on civil rights activism set to the music of Odetta Holmes. They’ve actually been filming their dancers on location around Dallas all season. Going off the behind the scenes stuff they’ve posted, it’s going to be some gorgeous film as well as some incredible dancing. That will be streaming this Saturday, February 20th at 8:00/7:00 Central.

Lydia Murray:
This one is also near and dear to my heart as a former ABT intern. American Ballet Theatre is set to host ABT RISE Weekend Workshop on April 10th and 11. It will be a series of dance classes for second and third graders across the country given free of charge. The workshop aims to provide training to historically underrepresented populations in ballet. As a whole, the ABT RISE initiative, with RISE standing for Representation and Inclusion Sustain Excellence, aims to increase diversity throughout ABT.

Courtney Escoyne:
And on a very nerdy note, conductor and violinist John Stubbs discovered that we’ve apparently been playing a section of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score incorrectly for years. Some good, old-fashioned archival sleuthing revealed that due to a transcription error made when engraving the printing plates for the score back in the 1890s, a passage in the “Chinese” or “Tea” divertissement in the second act was marked to be played by a flute and a piccolo, when Tchaikovsky wrote it for two flutes. It’s wild.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I could not love this story more. It’s so nerdy and wonderful. We’ll link to it in the episode description.

Lydia Murray:
Walt Disney Animation’s first theatrical short in five years, titled Us Again, will feature choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid. The story centers on an aging couple named Art and Dot who find their zest for life again through dance on a magical night. Us Again will be shown right before Raya and the Last Dragon on March 5th in theaters, and will be released on Disney+ in June. It looks so adorable. I’m looking forward to that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It really does. And I loved that it was sort of broadly inspired by the viral dance that Keone and Mari did a few years back where they played an older couple, which is also just the best.

Courtney Escoyne:
Just let them do everything, thank you.

Lydia Murray:
All the things.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So in our first round table discussion this week, we want to talk about a story that ran in The Washington Post recently. There’s been a lot of mainstream coverage about COVID’s disproportionate effect on Black and brown communities in the whole of the United States. The Post talked to Black dancers and Black dance leaders about how pandemic restrictions have also been disproportionately hard on the Black dance world. That’s partly because Black dance organizations came into the pandemic with fewer resources. They’ve been underfunded for decades, and so they’re much less likely than white-run companies to have substantive endowments or cash reserves to fall back on.

Lydia Murray:
As the story in The Washington Post references, a 2017 report by Helicon Collaborative found that almost 60% of the art world’s revenue is going to only 2% of all cultural institutions, with organizations that serve communities of color only receiving about 4% of that revenue. A lot of the problems highlighted in the report as a whole are things that have been widely discussed, especially in more recent years, or even just within the past eight months to a year in terms of equity and funding or the lack thereof.

For one, it mentioned that most high-end arts donors tend to be white and earning over a hundred thousand dollars a year, and that individual donations to larger cultural organizations were on average six times greater than contributions to institutions of color and those that serve lower income communities, and a host of other factors that we’ve discussed a lot like the overwhelmingly white leadership of cultural organizations, which affect who gets awarded resources and validation. Denise Saunders Thompson, president of The International Association of Blacks in Dance, pointed out that some Black dance companies might not recover from the pandemic due to so many years of being underfunded. Even Dance Theatre of Harlem has no endowment or cash reserves, which is in stark contrast to so many larger, predominantly white companies, even though DTA is expected to survive.

But what happens to the smaller companies that might be newer or have less support or name recognition? The article went on to mention CooperMorgan Dance Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida, which is only 15 years old and had to go on hiatus due to the pandemic and is now shifting to becoming a 501(c)(3) to be eligible for grants after previously relying on ticket sales, donations and self-funding from the company’s founders.

NaTonia Monét, who played Tina Turner’s older sister Alline in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, had only just worked her way up to Broadway after over a decade of appearing in smaller productions when the pandemic started. She went from months of eight shows a week to suddenly nothing. She shared her fear of being unable to find a part after the major theaters reopen. Because as a Black performer, your main options are a few predominantly Black shows and a few token roles in predominantly white shows.

So all of this information really underscores the way that the issues we’ve been talking about, we meaning us on this podcast and the dance world at large, feed into each other, from the need for more diversity in arts leadership to the need to fund Black creators, just to name a few relevant concerns here.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think it also it makes a point of—and Lydia, you referenced this—about how the way funding is typically awarded has to do with the personal proclivities of the funders when we’re talking about individual gifting. And then in terms of larger foundational grants, it’s often based on showcasing a body of work that shows “sustained excellence,” whatever that means. And so when we’re dealing with a culture that has predominantly given funding to white artists, that means that over time, essentially the racial wealth gap that already exists in the United States among individuals becomes even more exacerbated when you’re looking at it on an organizational level.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s a self-perpetuating loop. There are some reasons for optimism, which the article talks about, and some of which we’ve talked about on the podcast before, especially the pledge made by some large philanthropic organizations, especially the Ford Foundation, to put real money toward helping Black artists specifically. But to come back to one of our common themes, the story seems like yet more evidence that we need better and more comprehensive government support for the arts. Because if we continue to rely on foundations and especially private donors, who are mostly older white people, we’re going to keep seeing these kinds of ugly funding disparities.

Lydia Murray:
Agreed.

Margaret Fuhrer:
In our next segment, we’re going to discuss a movement that pushes back against ballet’s rigid gender norms. Those norms have been challenged by a lot of dancer-activists recently, and not a minute too soon, but this movement is pushing from kind of a different direction. We’re talking about #QueertheBallet, which was started by Miami City Ballet alum Adriana Pierce. Pierce says she’s almost never felt represented as a queer woman in ballet. The idea that someone might deviate from ballet’s traditional vision of femininity is rarely even considered by people inside the ballet world, or outside the ballet world. So she not only wants to increase the visibility of queer female and non-binary dancers, but also to disrupt ballet’s whole gendered system of movement.

Lydia Murray:
Pierce left Miami City Ballet after seven seasons in order to focus on choreography and musical theater, and says that she often hasn’t felt represented as a queer woman in ballet. Her first project as part of #QueertheBallet is a pas de deux en pointe choreographed on Remy Young and Sierra Armstrong from ABT. She’s developing it during a dance residency at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, here in New York. She says, “I want to show people an authentic, complex relationship between two women through ballet. I want people to see that ballet can be more than a man lifting a woman in a tutu.” Lightly touching on a point in that last quote, one of the oppressive gender norms in ballet movement, I think, is that reliance on the idea of the woman as strong and whose strength lies in being delicate and easily handled, easily manipulated, at least physically. Challenging that is part of what Pierce and Kiara DeNae Felder are doing.

Courtney Escoyne:
So queerness, in all its varied and nuanced forms, really asks us to throw out the cisgender heteronormative scripts we follow as a society. For example, in romantic partnerships. And that’s the script that is heavily relied upon in classical ballet. We see a cis straight, ostensibly masculine male dancer courting a cis straight, ostensibly feminine female dancer—and feminine here meaning, on some level, submissive, even when we point to our strong female characters. Because as Adriana Pierce points out in the article, as Lydia said, the woman’s on pointe to be supported and turned and is the one being lifted overhead, which leads to her having less agency.

Queerness asks us to re-imagine what a relationship can be, to throw out those scripts that dictate what role a person plays in a relationship based solely on their gender. So when we talk about partnering, when we talk about dancing a relationship between two people onstage that is not cisgender and heterosexual, how do we re-imagine the script? And then going further, looking at dancers as individuals, because queerness exists regardless of whether a person is in a relationship or even wants to be—hello to my ace and aro fam—male-identifying dancers are taught to move one way and female-identifying dancers are taught to move another. Not only do I think we need to make space for our gender nonconforming siblings in here, I think we should take a cue from them and the rest of our queer community. There’s no singular, non-binary presentation in real life, just like there isn’t a singular lesbian or gay or bisexual or asexual or transgender presentation in real life. Orientation and identity do not equal presentation, so how can we apply that principle to our technique?

Again, this idea that queer women are inherently unfeminine and therefore cannot match ballet’s ideals is just so laughably absurd. Dancer folk are experts at adapting our movement signatures to the demands of choreography. How about instead of asking every ballet dancer to conform to a rigid idea of either masculinity or femininity, we expand our definitions of it? That can only lead to more versatile and more interesting movers and movement.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Retweet. Hard retweet.

Lydia Murray:
Hard agree.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And just to echo some of that, I just get excited watching artists like Pierce and like Katy Pyle of Ballez rethink the gendered aspects of ballet technique, because it’s not some existential threat to ballet. It’s an opportunity. It just allows, first of all, for more people to find a home in this art form, and it also allows for new and different kinds of creativity. Think about what we can do with pointe work when we separate it from that idea of delicate femininity, and it just becomes another tool in a dancer’s arsenal.

Courtney Escoyne:
Absolutely. And also expanding the idea of ballet’s only going to show cishet couples onstage, or even cisgay couples onstage. Because you do get some representation of two men together falling in love onstage. Particularly, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is the obvious example, but I want more than that. I want to get to see two women fall in love onstage. That sounds wonderful. I want it. And I want non-binary representation onstage. I want there to be more to what we present in ballet than just the cisgender, heteronormative fairytale. I think that the world is so much more varied and interesting than that. I don’t see any reason why ballet can’t reflect it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Bravo to this movement. So excited to see what comes out of it. Already, great things are coming out of it.

Now, we want to talk about something that a lot of people have been doing a lot of talking about for the past couple of weeks, and that is the documentary Framing Britney Spears. Or actually, we want to use the documentary as a jumping off point for a conversation about how dance has always seemed like an escape for this artist who, for decades now, has desperately needed an escape from the constant barrage of media attention.

So much of Britney’s identity—I love that I don’t even consider calling her Spears—so much of Britney’s identity has always been wrapped up in her dancing, and that’s still true today. Even though she’s not performing, I feel like a whole new generation is getting to know her mostly via these dance videos she’s been posting to Instagram.

Lydia Murray:
I can’t believe I get to fangirl about Britney Spears for part of my living.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Believe it!

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, Britney finding freedom through movement has been apparent indirectly and directly, I think, for over two decades now. It’s something that the audience can typically sense when watching the way she performs. She moves with a kind of playful abandon that suggests she’s genuinely in her element, especially towards the beginning of her career. It’s reflected in so many of her song lyrics, from “Me Against the Music” to “Slave 4 U” to “Circus” and beyond, but the narrative that the media shaped around her has almost always overshadowed her dancing.

In the beginning of her career, there is excessive focus on her sexuality and her sexy image. The conversation was so often about whether she was too young to be presenting herself in such a conventionally sexy manner, whether she was harming the next generation of girls and of course, I don’t really remember most adults really delving into what that harm was supposed to entail. It was kind of a general slut-shaming panic.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, no, I… Because I was quite young whenever Britney was first really, really blowing up, and I can remember getting that slight concern from my parents about like, “Oh, is this a bad example to be setting?” But also, I’d put on her music and I’d dance around my living room and that was wonderful and freeing. And again, what were we so afraid of?

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, exactly. And people were always talking about whether she was a virgin. That became a huge topic along with whether she could “actually sing.” That last concern was connected to the overall lack of respect that dancers get, I think. There was very much a sense of Britney being an inferior artist because all she can do is dance, so to speak.

But the fact that her dancing drew that kind of focus in the first place speaks to how powerful it was. And then that also ties into the larger issue of misogyny that Britney faced, the way that women can never be enough. They have to be nearly all things to all people. And when you succeed at one thing, that somehow negates the other thing that you’re expected to do or that you can do.

When that pressure apparently got to her and her mental health started to suffer and she was left seemingly alone—because, as Wesley Morris put it in the documentary, there was too much money to be made off her suffering—the media shaped a new narrative. Now, she was unstable, an unfit mother going off the rails becoming a has-been, and her artistry as a whole, certainly including her dancing, was then being overshadowed and undermined again.

Due to the heavy restrictions routine places on her interactions with the press, it tends to be easier for her to communicate through social media. But that’s giving a new generation a chance to see her dancing in a different light and through a different medium, particularly Instagram. So much of the documentary focused on the conservatorship that she’s been under since 2008, which places extreme, and many argue unnecessary, constraints on her career and her personal life and her finances. But that’s kind of getting more toward the Free Britney movement, and away from the dancing aspect of Britney as an artist.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, the documentary, it makes painfully clear… I mean, the reductive version of it is just how terribly we have treated and continue to treat female pop stars, like the insane double standards they have to negotiate. I don’t frequently literally feel my jaw drop, but my jaw literally dropped seeing this one magazine cover pulled up in the documentary. It was a Details magazine cover from like 2002, I think, with Justin Timberlake. The cover line was, “Can we ever forgive Justin Timberlake for all that sissy music? Hey, at least he got into Britney’s pants.”

So much to unpack there, but that was run-of-the-mill men’s magazine stuff at that point. Britney was a punchline. Britney’s body was her most valuable asset. I think that that’s part of why her relationship with dance is so complicated, because like you were saying, Lydia, especially back in the earlier part of her career, she was a really good dancer and a really good performer. Because her dancing was all about her body, and her body was considered by many to be the whole reason she deserved attention, it became the central part of her persona. At the same time, dancing was and is something she seems to truly love doing. Even though she’s ostensibly a musical artist first, she was really always a dancer first as, again, as Lydia said. So doing this thing that she loves is a way of escaping from the media machine that is her prison and also an accentuation of the body that the media machine lives to exploit. It’s so complicated.

I remember watching that “Gimme More” performance at the VMAs in…was it 2007? And not being able to get over the fact that she couldn’t move the way she used to. That it wasn’t just that she seemed unprepared, it was that she looked unable to do the things that used to come to her so easily. I’m really ashamed to admit this, but up to that point, I think I’d mostly just felt embarrassed for her, like, “Why can’t she get her act together?” Talk about internalized misogyny. But that was the moment where I started to feel worried as opposed to embarrassed, where it was like, “If she can’t dance, something is really wrong.” That’s how fundamental her dancing feels to her identity.

I mean, all that to say that first, we hope Britney is okay and safe right now. Her conservatorship situation as described in the documentary does seem truly bizarre and terrible. But we also hope that media organizations are taking a good, hard look at how they cover today’s pop stars, and especially Black female artists, who still face many of the same stigmas that these white pop princesses were dealing with in the early 2000s, with other challenges added on top. It’s like an impossible gauntlet for them to run.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I think we need to keep calling out the double standards as we see them because anything that is said about a pop star on your Twitter account is also being seen by other women who maybe share some certain identity labels with them. It doesn’t just impact these big stars who you think, “Oh, they’re isolated from this.” No. What is being said has a trickle-down effect on the rest of our society.

Lydia Murray:
I agree, and women who present themselves in a way that’s considered sexual are still human beings and deserve respect. I’m thinking of Megan Thee Stallion right now and what she went through after being literally shot and what she’s still going through with all the ridicule that has come her way.

Courtney Escoyne:
We need to keep calling out the double standards when we see them because that’s the only way things are going to change.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oof, that is an intense note to end on, but an important one. We’re going to take a break now. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Martha Nichols. Stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH MARTHA NICHOLS

Margaret Fuhrer:
Welcome back, dance friends. Today, we are here with the one and only Martha Nichols. Hi, Martha.

Martha Nichols:
Hello, Margaret. Thank you for having me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much for joining us. Martha is a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, a fount of wisdom, she is so many things. And actually, Martha, since you are so multifaceted, I’d like to ask you to introduce yourself, so that you can highlight the facets of your life and your career that you feel are most important for people to know about.

Martha Nichols:
Okay. I’m usually not great at this, and you would think by this time, I would be better at it. But I consider myself a versatile multifaceted artist— everything based in faith and spirit of Christ—who is a dancer, choreographer, speaker, writer, educator. I have danced in the industry almost 15 years now. Started with Cirque, to dancing on tour with Rihanna and Madonna, to dancing at the Metropolitan Opera, to dancing in La La Land and The Greatest Showman. I used to teach on NUVO and New York City Dance Alliance. And I still love educating and mentoring children. And now I choreograph for a lot of universities and professional companies.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. We have a lot to talk about. Actually, this particular moment, especially as we’re coming up on the one-year COVID-versary of the shutdown, it feels like a good time to zoom out a little bit, or a lotta bit, and think about the bigger picture. To start, I actually have some very large questions for you. First of all, can you talk about the “why” of your creative process? When when you’re making things, especially dance things, what is it that drives you?

Martha Nichols:
I would say on a presentational front, always the balance of the message and the music. Through a purposeful perspective, definitely the message, the intentionality, and the experience. I firmly believe that if dance is a language, everything we use while I create is me speaking. So, what am I actually saying? And if I don’t know what I’m saying, then I won’t continue. My friends actually laugh about it, where I’m like, “I have to cancel rehearsal. You can all go home.” But I’m just going to stand in the studio and figure it out. So, definitely the message, the experience, the spirit of it all, all of that definitely is heavily important to me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This idea of dance as a language—the way that we use language is so important, and people are increasingly aware of that. Can you talk about that a little bit more in a dance context?

Martha Nichols:
Absolutely. I feel that every everything I create, and not from an egotistical standpoint, but from a creative and existing standpoint, I see it as a contribution. And so, what my question to myself is always, what am I contributing? So, I’m creating this piece. Why am I doing it? And what am I saying? Of course, the boundary lies within… I can be… I am responsible for my level of clarity, I’m not responsible for the style of comprehension for those who are receiving whatever it is I’m contributing, but I am responsible for my level of clarity.

And so, if it is a language—and I do believe it is a language—my mother taught me that words… Well, I was raised to believe that words either build or destroy. And so, I never want to destroy, even if it’s unintentionally. Unless I think it’s something that needs to be just completely demolished, then I’m coming swinging. But as far as a healing, and an offering, a giving, an enhancement standpoint, dance is a language. And so, I always am accountable to what it is that I’m saying, whether it’s through movement, through spirit, through music, through staging, through costume, through lighting, through direction, I’m speaking on every level. And it is my responsibility to make sure that every aspect isn’t necessarily on the same note but it is in the same core, so that when it all comes together, there is this beautiful sense of harmony.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I love that. You’re clear about what you’re saying; people hear at different ways; they discover their own notes within that, that make up the chord. That’s beautiful.

Martha Nichols:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. And also, you’re the type of teacher who connects really deeply with their students, and I say that as the former editor of Dance Spirit, so someone who’s actually talked to a whole bunch of your students and heard them sing your praises. Can you talk a little about the philosophies that guide your teaching practice?

Martha Nichols:
Yeah. One of my main philosophies… Well, there are two. The first one is each child is an individual. And so, I don’t speak to them the same way. Even though there are certain characteristics and qualities that are shared amongst different students, I’ve never speak to one the same way I would to another one because they are completely different. And so, I think that assists in my ability to connect to them, because I never give a generalized note. If it’s in a massive ballroom and there are 400 kids, of course I’ll say this arm needs to be here, and that’s a general correction for everybody. But if I can get them side-by-side, I’ll whisper something to them. I call it a drive-by. I love a drive-by note, and I do them all the time. I’ll be in the ballroom and I’m walking by somebody, and it’ll be a quick like, “This is to you, fix this, don’t do this, blah, blah, blah.” I feel like it doesn’t have to be a performative, “Everybody, look at what I’m doing over here.” It’s like, my responsibility in this moment is your dance education. And so, this note, take the note. You can fix it, you can not, that’s up to you, but it’s my responsibility to come to you as you are.

And then, another philosophy that I feel like is common for me is that I speak to the child or student according to where they are, but I hold them accountable to their potential. And so, I’ve said multiple times, I will not lower my standard for you just because you’re insecure about what you think you can be. I will not. So, you’re here, show up and do the work. Do the work. I get that you’re insecure about these things and I will not bash you for it, but now that we know we’re insecure about it, what are we going to do about it? And I will do so… Again, depending on the student, there are some, I can make a joke about it. And there are some I have to tiptoe a little bit. There are some I can go straight for the neck.

I would say those are two philosophies. I’ll share a third one. The third one is definitely, I make them speak. I make them speak. There are certain notes that are general for… I feel like there are certain notes or corrections that are fundamental for any dancer or artist, but also, the way I give you that note depends on what you need and how you receive. And so, if it is a relationship, which it is, between teacher and student, I know as a teacher and as an artist what you need, but I cannot speak for your humanity or your spirituality. So, I’m coming to you as an educator, but I need you to still be in this relationship to tell me what it is that you need. And so, I will ask questions, and sometimes they laugh because they know, they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m about to be uncomfortable.” I’m like, “You’re about to be completely uncomfortable. And you would be surprised at how little I’m going to care about that because you will respond.” But it’s interesting to see them. At first, they’re extremely uncomfortable but I won’t budge. And then over time, they become so much better at either asking for what they need, or asking for what they want, or stating like, “Hey, I know you didn’t mean it that way, but I took it that way.” And it actually opens the door. It’s a really beautiful, honest communication.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. You’re holding them accountable for their own progress, but also tailoring your corrections to their needs. So, there isn’t this old idea of “take every correction as if it’s for you,” because I feel like that puts too much of a burden on students who are then—like, they feel this responsibility to shape their own training, with the teacher as a far-off authority figure, who wafts down corrections that they can grab at. You’re in there talking to them directly.

Martha Nichols:
I’ve been in my home studio a bunch during COVID, and I had a few kids ask me for solos. And with them, I remember my old process used to be, like, typical: You come in, we create the solo, we rehearse it few times, that’s that. And for some reason this year, I think also adjusting to where I am as a human, artist, spirit, educator, all things, they were like, “Can you do my solo?” And I was like, “Yeah, but not until we do a few privates first.” And they were like, “Oh, okay.” I was like, “Yeah.” I can choreograph on you, but if I have this time, which we never really had before/we never really created before, to be here and to work with you, then I want to do that.

And it was interesting, and a few of them, the first rehearsal, I was just like, “Hey, do you have your solo from last year?” And they said, “Yes.” I said, “Great. Pull it up.” And all of them were like, “Wait, what?” “Yup. Pull it up. We’re going to watch it together. And you’re going to critique yourself.” And all of them were like, “I hate watching myself.” I knew it and I was like, “Which is why we’re doing it.” We don’t watch ourselves to praise ourselves. We watch ourselves because that’s the way to critique ourselves. It is like back in the day, we only had mirrors. Now we have cameras, and phones, and GoPros and all these things. And so, this is a tool. You have to be able to watch yourself to critique yourself. And it’s really interesting too, they just sit silent and I’m cracking up on the inside. And I’m always just like “Scale of 1 to 10, how uncomfortable are you?” And they’re always like “A 12.” But I keep asking them like, “What notes do you see?” And I listen to what they’re saying.

And one girl the other day, she’s gorgeous. I want to say she’s maybe 5’9, and she’s watching herself and she’s like, “I need to be more full on this. I can use a deeper plié.” And I’m listening to her notes, and when we finished, then she was like, “Well, what did you think?” I was like, “Do people tell you a lot that you’re tall?” And she goes, “Yeah.” And I said, “So, are you insecure about that?” And she goes, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, you not using your plié isn’t the illness, it’s the symptom. The symptom is your insecurity about being tall, because you already feel insecure about taking up too much space, so you’re not going to take up any more. So, the more you become comfortable with your height and your size, you will naturally deepen your plié, you will extend further, you will travel, you will use your length and you will embody your shape.” And she just was like, “Oh, okay. Got it.”

I feel like they become more invested and excited about their growth and about showing up if they feel that it is an actual partnership and the burden isn’t theirs, it is a shared burden. So, I fully believe in the beauty of the conversation in the rehearsal room, in class, in the process all the time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There are so many incredibly talented kids, especially in this competition and convention world. Are you still teaching on convention right now or are you taking a break?

Martha Nichols:
I have officially left the convention world.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, interesting. Do you want to talk about that or no?

Martha Nichols:
Sure. We can go into it. I won’t go into it too deep. There are a lot of factors. I would say the most shallow factor or the least invasive one would be, I am a firm believer that with every sense of expanse or elevation, it comes with a breakup. And the convention world has been something that’s been a part of my life for so long, and in my spirit, the past few years have been like, “I don’t really know how much longer are you going to stay in this.” And since I was already in that space, COVID opened the door like, “Okay, it’s time. You had a good run. You loved everything.” But in order to fully receive what is next, my hands have to be open, and my hands cannot be open if I’m continuously holding on to where I’ve been.

And so, there’s no disrespect, there’s no hard feelings. It’s simply is like, “Okay, that was the end of an era. A beautiful closing of a chapter.” And so, I decided to step away to focus on the next evolution of Martha and what that comes with. Yeah.

I would say I’m still teaching, which I love, love, love, love teaching. But just like, I miss teaching on the large scale, but if I could pay someone to never judge another dance, I would. I was like, “I never have sit at a table in a ballroom and watch eight hours of contemporary solos ever again.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m done with that phase of my life. Yup. Okay. Well, I guess I’m curious then for your perspective as, not an outsider, but as somebody watching now from outside, seeing how the competition and convention world specifically have been shaken up by the multiple crises that have happened this year—by COVID, by the murder of George Floyd and the movement after that. How have you seen those organizations succeed and where have you seen them fail over these past months in dealing with those challenges?

Martha Nichols:
That’s a really good question. I would say majority, because I also have been… I’m somewhat of an extremist in how I do certain things. And so, usually when I’m like, “I need a break from something,” I shut all doors that could lead me to that thing. And so, with the weight of George Floyd, and the weight of masks being pulled off for all of 2020, and my own family stuff, I took a break from social media. It was just like, I only need to know about it if it actually has to do with me or requires my gifts or talents, but if not, call somebody else. So, I deleted my social media for a second and took a break. But in the little bit that I did see, I would say most companies fail because of a lack of understanding foundations and original intent. We’re so far removed from original intent.

I think people have failed because of the resounding dissonance that makes us uncomfortable. And I think people have failed because of who they think… Or no, that’s still dissonance. Who they think they are versus what it actually is. Perception versus reality and truth. One of the things about dance conventions is that they were never created with Black bodies in mind. And so, I think that has to be understood first before any true intentional, impactful, significant change truly occurs. Someone said, “Why do Black children have to be exceptional to be seen?” And I said, “Because it goes back to that original thought. The space was never created for us.” And so, you have to be exceptional because that’s the level that your talent and presence cannot be denied. If you were meeting the standard with everybody else in the room, then we can look through the lens of erasure and we can diminish and set aside, because you weren’t supposed to be here anyways. But if you weren’t supposed to be here but you come in dancing like that and you’re actually exceptional, we now have to acknowledge you. And so, I think the understanding of the, again, original intent. I think a lot of companies have failed because of that.

And I think there is also a failure in the understanding of what racism is, what white supremacy is, how insidious they both actually are. I like the word “insidious,” because it means that it’s so deeply ingrained that you only become aware of it once it’s fully integrated. And that’s what both of those things are in the culture of America, also in dance. I think sometimes it’s hard for creators, collaborators, enthusiast, organizers, businesses, to acknowledge it, because I think sometimes artists set ourselves apart from the rest of the world, it’s like, “We’re artists, we’re naturally more progressive. We’re down, we get it, blah, blah, blah.” Doesn’t mean that these ideologies haven’t seeped and crossed over into our world as well.

I was talking to a few businesses and they’re like, “We’re going to hire more Black teachers.” And I said, “Okay. Well, then, how is that combating racism?” And they had no answer. So I was like, “So, that’s not a solution. It’s a band-aid.” We need wounds to be cleaned, and not just a little bit of Neosporin.

And so, I think the people are missing the mark because of the reality and the depth of what is required and how these systems have been in place for so long that the hiring of one Black teacher is not going to fix it, the posting of a black square is not going to fix it. You, and by you, I mean anybody, were like, “Well, I did this and I did that and I did this in the past. I’m not…” That’s not going to fix what is going on in this moment.

And so, I think a lot of people are missing the mark because they’re not sitting with what is in doing the hard work to set and create systems in place that not only uproot racism, but also prevent it from shape-shifting to match the new structure that will be set in place. I think certain businesses have been successful in they’re adapting, they’re listening, they’re doing the research in doing the education and being accountable to what was an actively and intentionally moving forward. But personally, I would say there’s been more failure than there’s been success because it’s heavy. It’s heavy. And I would say a lot of businesses still believe Black Lives Matter and George Floyd is political, and I won’t go way deep into it, but it’s like, it is, yet again, an act of white supremacy to take the cry of a people and change the narrative to make it political, so then you can keep going on with your life and keep it pigeonholed into something that it’s not. It’s like at the end of the day, either you believe those three words or you don’t. Either you believe Black Lives Matter or you don’t. It’s not political. Has it been weaponized? Absolutely. Are people using it in politics? Absolutely. But when you strip away everything, either you believe it or you don’t.

And so, I think people have to sit with that. I know a lot of people were like, “Well, I don’t post about politics.” It’s like, “My life isn’t political. The purpose and the value of my life isn’t political.” So, either you believe I matter or you don’t. It’s very black and white. And if you do, then the prayer and the hope is that your life and your actions would move in a way to reflect that you believe that Black lives matter. And if you don’t, I think I have an unpopular opinion where I’m like, “If you don’t think I matter, then that’s okay, don’t think I matter, but don’t masquerade it as something else.” If you don’t believe it, that is fine. I support freedom of speech. I support in your freedom to believe what you want to believe. I also support honesty and transparency. And so, stand in what you believe in, but let it be what it is. Don’t present it as it is something else.

And so, I think understanding how racial inequality has been taken, stolen, and weaponized to support political gain, sometimes gets in the way of true effective change. Because we can use the fact that it’s political to validate the uncomfortability to therefore keep us from moving forward. And I think that’s the biggest nugget that businesses, and dance organizations, and dance brands are struggling with at the moment.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You’re asking of dance organizations, and dance brands, and dance businesses the same thing that you’re asking of your students, essentially: look at yourself and feel uncomfortable and sit in the discomfort.

Martha Nichols:
Absolutely. Because life requires us to be uncomfortable.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And these are also criticisms that obviously go beyond the competition and convention world. And I’m wondering—I mean, you have experienced all different parts of the dance world, but we, as a podcast, have underrepresented the commercial side of the dance industry, which is something we’re working on fixing. I’m wondering if you can talk, too, about how you’ve seen these crises affect the commercial dance world specifically, about how their response has been.

Martha Nichols:
I would say it’s affected the commercial world more from, I’d say, a practical and a process standpoint, when it comes to casting, and breakdowns, and demographics on jobs, and in that aspect. I would say as far as representation and people at the helm, there are more Black people and more people of color at the forefront, choreographically in the commercial industry than there are in other worlds, the convention world or on Broadway. And so, it’s like, yes, while record execs and managers may not be that, as far as there are so many epic Black choreographers that are the frontrunners that are holding the commercial industry together at this point. So, it’s definitely affecting the commercial industry, but I would say it’s not imploding as much, because there are more people of color who are at the forefront who are also paying it forward or educating who have been holding people accountable.

There’ve been more unapologetic Black leaders in the commercial industry, I would say, for a longer period of time—from Hi-Hat, to Luam, to Rhapsody, to JaQuel, to Luther, to Sean Bankhead, to Laurieann Gibson, to Debbie Allen—there’s been respected Black leadership in the commercial world.

Is there enough? No. As far as any marginalized groups of people, we definitely need more representation in that aspect. But I would say there’ve been slow changes that have been moving in the commercial industry to where the impact is mostly been, I would say, in audition processes, in breakdowns, and things according to that. But I think other worlds have been rocked so much because there’s not as much colored leadership across the board.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Starting at the beginning instead of the middle.

Martha Nichols:
Yeah, yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was nervous coming into this interview—first of all, because I have a lot of respect for you and your work, but also because a couple months ago, you posted on your Instagram about the importance of asking better questions. And I was like, “Oh, man, I better come up with some really good questions.” And this is not the best question, but can you dig into that idea a little further? What were you critiquing there?

Martha Nichols:
That’s funny. So many people have written to me or said something about that, they’re like, “Martha, you came from me.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry. I’ll be better about it.” I would say for me, it is a general overall foundational fundamental principle. Another reason why response to COVID, and George Floyd, and sexual misconduct, and all of the scandals that have been unearthed, part of the reason why we’re not progressing as well is because we’re asking the wrong questions. And so, when you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers. And for me, it’s not always about right and wrong, but I feel like when I say ask better questions, I mean, be specific, be intentional, and as the asker, understand what it is that you’re looking for.

Whenever I go into conversation, I usually listen to people, if they engage me in a conversation, my first thought is like, What are they looking for? Is it understanding? Is it agreement? Is it discussion? Or is it debate? Because once I understand which one of those it is, that dictates how I respond. Because if someone is looking for a debate, I don’t want to debate. And so, I’m probably going to shut this conversation down or ignore it. I just may not give it any attention. But if somebody wants to understanding, then I know I need to listen and be extra intentional about checking my defensiveness as I’m responding. So, it’s not always about, you need to do this. If you ask a better question, then I know how to come at you. I can be better when I respond.

And so, I think the intention and the specificity of asking a better question—I think asking better questions starts with self-reflection and it starts with this vulnerability of admitting I need help, or I need guidance, I need leadership, steer me. I lack whatever it is. I’m confused.

There’s so many different aspects to it, but I’m really critiquing the… I think culturally—and sorry if I’m all over the place—I think culturally, sometimes we make things abstract to cushion and make room for disappointment. And so, rather than saying, I don’t understand, or I’ve never done this before, can you help me do this? Or one of my favorite questions, What are you expecting of me? I think it takes a vulnerability and an honesty in that, rather than… I had a friend, she was like, “Are you ignoring me?” “What. No. Huh?” That’s not the question that you’re asking. That’s not really what you’re saying. So, let’s get down to the bottom of it. And when we got down to the bottom, it was, I’m not giving her as much attention and time that she wants, but for you to ask am I ignoring you? Clearly, I’m not. So, what are you actually asking?

Back in the day, 19-year old Martha would have been very rude about this. I would have given you the answer that I know you don’t want. I used to be so stubborn, and just so based on principle, don’t ask me questions that you don’t want the answers to. “Do you love me?” “No.” That’s not what you’re really asking. It’s not what you’re really saying.

And so, my critique on asking better questions is the honesty of what it is that you’re really looking for. Be specific and be intentional about it, because then you can truly talk about the issue at hand. There are few things worse than two people having a conversation and you’re talking about two different things, and so you walk away with two different understandings, which just breeds frustration, disappointment, the mismanagement of expectations, all of these things. And I feel that way in life, I feel that way with my relationships, in the classroom, everywhere. So, we have to be more specific and intentional about what we’re asking, so we can truly find the answers to assist us in our journey along the way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ve gotten really big and really broad and really zoomed out. And now I want to come back down to earth a little bit and make sure that we talk about the projects that you do have in the oven right now, what you have cooking. What should people keep an eye out for?

Martha Nichols:
I would say more mentorship, which I have always loved. Definitely teaching more. I just finished a new commission work with a company that I can’t say yet, just because there hasn’t been a press release just yet, and I have another one coming up. And a lot more, I would say, work being done. Just actually the releasing of things. I usually sit on things for a while. I’ll do a project and it’ll be a year before I actually share it for multitude of reasons. Usually, my insecurities and the judgment of what it is I’m doing, and does it work, does it make sense? All these things. Is it time? So, that. Writing a bunch more. I’ll be releasing some of those things. And I’m also going back to school. So, trying to balance that at the same time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What are you studying?

Martha Nichols:
Theology.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Which will tie into everything.

Martha Nichols:
Absolutely. I was reading about how wisdom and intuition have to be balanced with knowledge and information. I was like, “That is so true.” So, I just want to go get the information, again, just to enhance what already is and to help me weed through the things that I am holding onto that don’t necessarily serve me, that could be hindering me, and to just make me better as a human to make me better as a human, to make sure that every seed I plant builds and bears healthy fruit.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much for being so open about all of this. During the prep for these interviews—I’m talking to our listeners now—I always ask artists what they’re most interested in talking about. And you were like, “Anything. I’ll talk about anything.” And I love that sense of just transparency and curiosity, because I feel like you can see it in your work and the work that you make as well. Thank you for sharing that with us here.

Martha Nichols:
Absolutely. Thank you. Yeah. I definitely believe that. I love the spirit. Everything I do is from the spirit. And so, I think sometimes when we try to steer the spirit, we’re actually just trying to put human control on something that transcends humanity. And so, when you asked, I was actually in my kitchen cooking and we were laughing and I was just like, “Should I have something? I don’t have any… No, I don’t… No, I’m going to just let the spirit lead.” Wherever she is interested in, this is her conversation. And so, just make sure, Martha, you know what you’re talking about. I was like, think before you speak, but whatever is supposed to happen is supposed to happen. And I think that transparency is super important in conversation.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And the spirit was telling me to go watch your Instagram video, telling me to ask better questions.

Martha Nichols:
That is hysterical. So, I think there’ll actually be a lot more of that too. I might start opening up my Instagram and be like, “Okay, let’s actually have these discussions. What are your questions? And let’s sit and talk.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
And before I forget, what’s your Instagram handle so everyone can go follow you and keep up to date?

Martha Nichols:
My Instagram handle is @nichols14.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And are there any other places that listeners should seek you out on the internet? Website? Anywhere else you want to call out?

Martha Nichols:
Definitely my YouTube, which is my name, Martha Nichols. I’m trying to be better about all of this. Because I’ve been anti–social media probably since it came out. And usually anti–technology to a certain extent, where I’m just like, there’s just something special about in-person. And so, trying to actually release and share my work. So, definitely Instagram, definitely my YouTube, and my website. I have actually started posting my blog stuff over there. Those are the main three places usually.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Is your website marthanichols.com?

Martha Nichols:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. Yeah. Please, listeners, go check that out—her writing is so beautiful. Thank you so much again, Martha. This was really fun and educational too.

Martha Nichols:
Thank you. Thank you so much. If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Martha. She is such a generous conversationalist, just as she is a really generous teacher and mentor. The two of us talked for a bit after we stopped recording. She ended up recommending multiple books that are now on my reading list. She’s just great. Please be sure to follow the Instagram and YouTube pages and the website that she mentioned. We’ll link to all of those in the episode description.

All right, thanks everyone for joining us. We’ll be back next week for more discussion of the news moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Lydia Murray:
Bye, everyone.