Transcript, Episode 64: Freelance Ballet Careers, the Dance–Drag Connection, and Madelyn Ho

[Jump to Madelyn Ho interview]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi dance friends, and 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 talk about how performers are feeling about the reopening of London’s West End theaters, and what that might pretend for Broadway’s eventual reopening. We will discuss a new organization called Ballet Unleashed that aims to connect ballet dancers not with company contracts, but with freelance opportunities. We will get into the creatively fruitful relationship between dance and drag. And then we’ll have our interview with Madelyn Ho, the Paul Taylor Dance Company dancer who also has a medical degree, and who’s been helping at vaccination sites in New York City. Madelyn had fascinating things to say about the way scientific thought can inform art, and the way artistic thought can inform science. She also talked about her experiences as an Asian American in those two fields, and why representation is so crucial in both dance and medicine. So, we hope you’ll stay tuned for that interview.

Before we dive in, don’t forget to give us a follow on Instagram @the.dance.edit, and Twitter @dance_edit. We have some exciting announcements coming up in the next few weeks, and that’s all the teasing I’m going to do right now, but if you’re following our social pages, you’ll be among the first to hear what’s going on. So, again, we’re @the.dance.edit on Instagram, and @dance_edit on Twitter.

All right. Time for the weekly dance headline rundown. Let’s go.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. So, Ellen DeGeneres will end her dance-centric talk show in 2022 after 19 seasons. The decision came after a decline in ratings over the last year, following reports last summer of a racist and toxic work environment.—though, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ellen said that she had long known that 2022 would be the final year of the show. It’s worth noting that our favorite, Stephen tWitch Boss, who was named co-executive producer of the show last August, already has a hosting gig lined up on an upcoming music competition series with the working title “Clash of the Cover Bands.” Basically, just can’t wait to see what tWitch does at all times.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Always. Always. As soon as that news broke about the Ellen show, I got a text from my mom saying, “But what will tWitch do?” I was like, “Don’t worry, he already has a gig lined up—he already has about 15 gigs lined up.” Really excited to see what’s next for him.

Lydia Murray:
Rawiri Waititi, the co-leader of New Zealand’s Māori Party, has been removed from parliament after performing a haka, which is a Māori ceremonial war dance, on the floor of parliament during a debate about indigenous rights.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We will link to some of the coverage of this story, so you can read more about the context here. But once again, dance is a deeply powerful form of protest.

Courtney Escoyne:
And The Royal Ballet announced a whole slew of promotions. So, effective immediately, Fumi Kaneko and Cesar Corrales have been promoted to principal, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Nicole Edmonds, and Calvin Richardson to first soloist, and Gina Storm-Jensen and Joseph Sissens to soloist. And as of this September, Mayara Magri and Anna Rose O’Sullivan are being promoted to principal as well. A huge congratulations to all of them—my inner Anglophile is bursting with glee. So many of these dancers are ones I’ve been rooting for for years. This is just delightful.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s such an incredible group of dancers—all of those promotions are so richly deserved. Yay.

Lydia Murray:
I know, I’m so happy for them. And keeping in that UK thread: ballet icon Dame Darcey Bussell has organized a gala to benefit ballet companies as they recover from the pandemic. The British Ballet Charity Gala will feature a live performance starring eight major UK dance companies at London’s Royal Albert Hall on June 3rd. It will be streamed in the UK, US, and Canada on June 18th.

Courtney Escoyne:
I just need to jot this down in my planner really quick. Carry on.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, save the date, please. We’ll include a link to the Pointe story with information about how you can stream the gala next month.

Courtney Escoyne:
Stage and screen luminary Phylicia Rashad has been named dean at her alma mater Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, effective July 1st. Well-deserved, great news.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. When Hamilton returns to Broadway during the great reopening of the Great White Way, it will require vaccinations of all employees, including the cast and backstage crew. The show’s producer, Jeffrey Seller, is the first Broadway producer to publicly announce this policy. It’s not yet known whether Broadway’s labor unions would be willing or able to challenge this kind of practice. The spokesman for the Actors’ Equity Association recently stated that a vaccination requirement “would be something we would find acceptable as long as the employer complies with the law.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Interesting development, because when they made that announcement, Jeffrey Seller said he did not plan to require vaccinations for audience members, which is a different approach than that of Radio City, which we just found out will reopen to full capacity, unmasked audiences next month, but require them to be vaccinated. These logistics are complicated, and I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing policies evolve over time.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and as it should be, I think this is going to be an evolving conversation and hopefully a data-driven one.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is the hope. Yes.

Courtney Escoyne:
As Lydia alluded to, the Broadway reopening news just keeps pouring in. As we record, The New York Times‘ list has it at 24 shows and counting, with Chicago joining Hamilton, The Lion King, and Wicked at the front of the pack on September 14th, Moulin Rouge! resuming on September 24th, and Tina, Ain’t Too Proud, and Jagged Little Pill coming back in October. And then there are shows that either got stuck in previews last March or have long been in the works, like Mrs. Doubtfire on October 21st, Diana and Flying Over Sunset in November, and the Chris Wheeldon choreographed MJ, Marianne Elliott’s Company revival, and the Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster-led Music Man in December.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And we will link to The New York Times‘ running tally of show news, just because we might be out of date even by the time we air tomorrow.

So that last Broadway news item, or collection of 547 Broadway news items rather, that segues right into our first group discussion topic, which is the West End’s reopening. On Monday, London’s theaters were officially allowed to resume performances, and the Agatha Christie show The Mousetrap—which, fun fact, holds the Guinness Record for the longest-running play—they actually reopened that night. Many other shows are returning this month and next. Social distancing measures are in place for the moment, but all this sounds very hopeful.

The question is, how are West End performers feeling about it all? The New York Times did a piece that talked with several of them. And while they didn’t include any dancers, there are a lot of big truths and big feelings in the story that feel relevant, not only to the West End’s dance artists, but also to the US-based performers who are waiting in the metaphorical wings for Broadway’s reopening.

Lydia Murray:
One of the Times‘ pieces really well-illustrated the senses of hope, joy, frustration, and relief, the feeling of taking back control, and the underlying trepidation that artists seem to be experiencing right now. Noah Thomas, the lead in Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, described cycling through these emotions and ultimately learning how to draw upon them creatively. And while the COVID situation and the theater landscape are improving, there’s also, as to be expected, a sense that the rug could be pulled out again, and you see that in the stories of the people profiled. The wardrobe head of The Mousetrap, for example, spoke about steaming costumes, and she said, “I know it seems hypervigilant, but who wants to be the one that mucks this up?” Which was a small example of that feeling that most of us probably have of wanting to help this process move forward to the best of our ability, and having probably a heightened sense of our own responsibility to this greater whole.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and I think particularly in the UK. Over here, Broadway has just been dark since March, 2020, but in the UK, there have been all these kinds of stops and starts in terms of the reopening of the West End. They tried last fall, only to be stymied; they tried in December, and some things went fairly okay, but then everything went back into lockdown. It does seem, just based on these interviews, that the general feeling right now is, “No, this is it, we’re back. We’re going to be back for good.” The vaccination drive is going really, really well, they are currently reopening with social distancing guidelines in place. Theoretically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that they will be able to come back June 21st without it, provided that current infection rates remain low, and that vaccinations continue a pace.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I mean a big if, but fingers crossed. There is the sense that this time it’s for real. And I think, unsurprisingly, one of the throughlines in this New York Times piece was the pervasive sense of gratitude, just thankfulness for the ability to be working in a theater again. But then there was also this throughline, and Lydia was touching on this too, of, now there’s a sense of deliberateness and thoughtfulness to every aspect of these productions. And again, we’re returning to our podcast theme of, “There’s no longer such a thing as business as usual”—and that, for the most part, is a good thing. I do think it will be interesting to see, once the excitement of the reopening fades a little, if or how all of the reflecting that everybody has done during this dark period actually changes performances and theater environments. And then it will be interesting to see what takeaways from the West End reopening might be able to inform the Broadway reopening process, and the larger US theater reopening process later.

Courtney Escoyne:
I also think there’s a definite sense as well, because the UK is reopening more quickly than we are here in the US, but as we talked about in the headline rundown, so many Broadway shows are planning to be back this fall—I think there is this sense of holding your breath to wait to see how it goes in the UK. Because if it goes well there, that means it can go well here, but if it doesn’t go well there, what’s that going to mean for Broadway?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, much remains to be seen.

So in our next segment, we want to discuss an idea that is new to ballet, or relatively new to ballet, even though it has been embraced by pretty much every other genre of Western concert dance. Pointe magazine recently ran a story about Ballet Unleashed, which is an organization born out of the pandemic that seeks to connect ballet dancers with freelance project-based opportunities. And it’s pushing back against this longstanding idea that the only “worthwhile” form of employment for a ballet dancer is a full season company contract. That’s a system that leaves many talented dancers out in the cold, since there are so few positions of that kind of available—and unfortunately there are fewer and fewer of them all the time.

So let’s talk about, first of all, how Ballet Unleashed works, and then why it’s taken so long for something like this to develop, given the prevalence and acknowledged value of freelance work in all these other parts of the concert dance world.

Lydia Murray:
So to describe how it works: recent graduates, from, currently, 11 schools, are able to apply and audition for short term performance opportunities. They can apply for a specific project, and each one typically runs for three to five months. Dancers who are chosen will sign contracts for paid work to be part of these jobs, and in the process, ideally they’ll make connections for the future. The contracts include creative process and rehearsal time with an emerging or established choreographer, and mentorship opportunities.

The creator of Ballet Unleashed is Mavis Staines, who’s the artistic director and CEO of Canada’s National Ballet School. She had long been dissatisfied with the traditional employment system in ballet, and how it allowed so many talented dancers to end up without work, and she questioned the idea that only a full season company contract would legitimize a ballet dancer’s career. Some of the program’s longer-term goals include paying participants’ travel expenses, running different projects in multiple locations simultaneously, creating a choreographic mentorship program, and expanding the program beyond the current 11 schools.

And as for why it’s taken so long for something like this to develop, partially, ballet is so traditional, and it’s wedded to a sense of hierarchy. There’s such a strong sense in ballet that legitimacy as a dancer must be conferred by a small group of authorities. And there’s that deeply rooted value of commitment and service that dancers are expected to demonstrate by working for a specific organization at a time, and fulfilling an artistic director’s vision there. But of course, times are changing. The pandemic has made even less work available for dancers, and the field can’t risk losing that much talent. And dancers now have more opportunities to take control of their own careers by freelancing, or building their personal brands in other ways, through digital content creation, for example. So it makes sense for this kind of program to form and to happen now.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I think it’s also worth noting that, traditionally speaking, if you want to go into a classical ballet company, if you do get that job in the corps, or as an apprentice, what you are going to be dancing most likely for your first year, or however many years, is large scale corps de ballet work. And then hopefully you get plucked out of the corps, recognized for your work, and get promoted, or get more demi-soloist roles, whatever it may be. But that is, traditionally speaking, what your stepping stone is—there’s always been this very straightforward, if difficult path.

And I think—we’ve talked about the future of the corps de ballet on this podcast, about the value of it, and what is still valuable about it. But we are in this time where large corps de ballets still maybe make people feel a little bit leery, on top of the economic ramifications of the pandemic, et cetera, et cetera. So it makes a huge amount of sense for this to be happening now, even though it is easy to look at it and be like, “Hey, why not sooner?” Because it has long been the case that major elite ballet institutions graduate incredible classes of beautifully trained dancers, but then there’s only a couple of apprenticeships that is given company to go around, and if you don’t get one of those, what do you do? You just graduated from your school, you don’t have a job, what now?

Margaret Fuhrer:
As the story says, one of the central missions of Ballet Unleashed is changing perceptions about the idea of a freelance ballet career, because yes, first of all, as you said, Courtney and Lydia, those options are just more plentiful, and make a lot more sense right now because of COVID restrictions. But also for many ballet dancers, it might just be a better choice artistically. It might be more fulfilling. It might offer more and different opportunities for artistic expression than sitting in the corps of a prestige company for umpteen years.

And by the way, the story notes that changing dancers’ perceptions is one hurdle, but the bigger hurdle is actually changing ballet schools’ perceptions of freelance careers. As Lydia said, old traditions die hard in ballet institutions, and that school-to-company pipeline, that’s a tradition that schools need some convincing to reconsider. So here’s hoping that another pandemic silver lining will be a new openness to alternative career pathways for ballet dancers.

Courtney Escoyne:
And hopefully a way for these freelance opportunities to be something that is actually sustainable for these artists.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That being the linchpin, because I don’t think anyone is trying to say either that a freelance career is a perfect model—clearly that path offers far less stability. There’s sometimes less money in it. We’ve talked a lot about the flaws in the way the dance gig economy is set up. But the central point is, yes, this idea that choosing a freelance career as a ballet dancer is a valid choice. Here’s hoping that the culture comes to see it that way.

Last but absolutely not least today, we want to talk about the two-way relationship between the arts of dance and drag. A couple of recent stories have explored this idea. Dance Spirit just published a piece online talking to several “RuPaul’s Drag Race” stars about how their dance backgrounds helped them succeed on the show. And then Dance Magazine, in its June issue, which is just out, has a feature looking at the dance–drag connection through a wider lens.

While all of us are drag enthusiasts, none of us are drag experts, so this is another one of those segments that’s really just a prompt to get you to read these stories. We’ll link to the Dance Spirit article in the show notes, and you can read the Dance Magazine story in the print magazine right now, or you can find it on dancemagazine.com in a few weeks. But let’s summarize some of their central ideas about how gender manifests through movement, and how drag allows some dance artists to more fully express themselves, and vice versa.

Courtney Escoyne:
So something that Brian Schaefer gets into in the Dance Magazine story, which I really appreciated, was actually talking about these two threads of development of drag as we know it today, one of which being theatrical drag. The term “drag” dates back theoretically to the 1800s; the tradition of playing gender swapped characters on stage in, say, Shakespearian plays, that is a well-established thing. It’s something that you see in ballet in the form of male dancers playing Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty, or the Stepsisters in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella being played by male dancers. On the other hand, there is also more recently the culture of club drag, which developed in the 1980s New York City ballroom scene, and was largely the purview of trans dancers who would show up, put on a show, very influenced by fashion magazines at the time, fashion photography. And for a really long time, these developed as very separate strands. One was very much about counterculture, the other one was very much about this highbrow theatrical tradition, doing drag for comedy.

Interestingly, something that’s kind of always been in the middle was The Trocks, which was founded in 1974, and while today it’s a very well-respected, well-renowned troupe that’s very beloved for obvious reasons, they talk about in the article, when they were first founded, that it was a “career ruiner.” But perceptions have changed a lot over the years. There’s much more mainstream visibility in terms of drag in general—thank you, RuPaul—and also just more openness to different manners of gender presentation, which is something that drag has always been very open to.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So the story positions The Trocks as, in their early days, more in line with theater drag and that kind of tradition. Now that line is blurring, now they’re more in the middle. But positioning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” as coming from the club drag tradition, and The Trocks as from the theater drag tradition, and then showing the blurring of those two lines together: Both the stories interview Brooke Lynn Hytes, aka Brock Hayhoe, who started out as a Trocks dancer before competing on “Drag Race” Season 11, where she often wore pointe shoes. There could not be a more visible illustration of how those two worlds are coming together—I love that. And I also love Brooke Lynn’s quote about how she never dreamed of doing the male roles in ballet, she saw herself as the tall girl in “Rubies,” which—that is fantastic. And also I would watch her do that any day.

Lydia Murray:
Brooke Lynn Hytes is so incredible. That importance of physical confidence and using movement to tell your personal story is one thing that struck me about this. Traditional gender roles in dancing, and ballet in particular, have been so oppressive for so long, and I love that drag can be a way of subverting that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and the relationship between dance and drag is of course, connected to larger conversations happening about gender roles in dance, to come back to yet another one of our podcast themes. Brian’s story points out that the popularity of drag has helped create a larger shift in social attitudes towards gender, which has in turn given dance artists a greater sense of permission to explore the way queerness is presented on stage, to give it more three-dimensionality than, say, the Stepsisters in Ashton’s Cinderella.

And when it comes to broadening ideas about gender expression, both on and offstage—dancers are natural people to lead that movement. I feel like maybe the best way to end here is by reading the quote that concludes the Dance Magazine piece. It’s from Duane Gosa, who’s a Trocks dancer, who says: “Why not have dancers be at the front of this? We’re already expressive in using our bodies to present ourselves.” And that’s really it. That’s really it.

All right, we are going to take a break, and when we come back, we’ll have our interview with Madelyn Ho, so stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH MADELYN HO

Margaret Fuhrer:
Welcome back, dance friends. I am very lucky to be here now with Paul Taylor Dance Company‘s Madelyn Ho. Hi, Madelyn! Thank you so much for joining today.

Madelyn Ho:
Hi! Thank you for having me on.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s so good to have you, and I’m so grateful that you made the time because you are juggling a lot at the moment. Madelyn is first of all, back to a full-time rehearsal schedule with Paul Taylor Dance Company, which is exciting. But she’s also an MD: She has a degree from Harvard Medical School. She’s a doctor–dancer, and she’s been spending her weekends putting that expertise to good use doing 12-hour volunteer shifts at two vaccination sites in New York City.

So, we have a lot to talk about. But to get started, how did you discover, first of all, your affinity for dance, and then how did you discover your affinity for medicine? What drew you to each of these two very different disciplines?

Madelyn Ho:
In terms of dance, I think it was…I was one of those kids that just loved moving. I would put on dance recitals for my parents at home, like in the living room, until they decided, how about we do one recital a year and you’ll be in dance classes and then there’ll just be an end-of-year recital. But I think it was also just my mom’s love for dance. She was a piano teacher and also loved dance. So, even when I was really young, before I even started my own dance classes, I was going to see dance recitals, and my mom really shared that love of dance with me. And I think that definitely had an influence on me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And how about medicine, then—this completely different area?

Madelyn Ho:
Yeah, so in school, I really loved math and science. For a while math was the thing that I loved the most, and then sort of more towards high school I really started to fall in love with science and biology in particular. And so for me, it was always these two loves of dance and biology and science, and those two for me actually are very interconnected.

I had thought about medicine more in college than high school—in high school it was very much this love of science in general. I had considered pursuing research as well, so had thought about doing an MD PhD for a while, and then realized that for me, medicine was the thing that drew me more, of being able to connect with other people. And I think that’s very much in line with how I view dance, too, of how dance is this way of connecting with people in a way that sometimes words alone can’t do.

And so for me, for medicine, it was actually—my love for it and sort of decision to go into medicine actually came from a personal injury. It was a dance-related injury, and when I was seeking help, I had gotten different types of diagnoses and was told basically, if dance is what’s causing you pain, you should just stop dancing. And as a dancer, that was not something that I could accept. A friend of mine actually told me about a dance medicine specialist in Boston, who I went to go see, and as soon as I started describing my symptoms, it was one of those things where they were able to know almost immediately. They’re like, actually this is actually very common in ballet dancers. You don’t see this as often in the rest of the population. So it’s actually not surprising that other physicians who might not be familiar with this, actually weren’t able to know so quickly and didn’t come to this diagnosis right away. I was such a good case for it that they actually asked if they could show my x-ray around to the other residents and fellows.

Margaret Fuhrer:
A poster child!

Madelyn Ho:
Exactly. And for me, that was a moment where I realized, this is a way for me to be able to blend both of these interests and passions in a way that I felt like I could bring something that other people might not necessarily have the background and experience to be able to bring to this, and be a way to help take care of dancers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So when you went to medical school, were you thinking, I am going to come out of this and eventually work to help dancers? Was that the original goal, and is that still part of your path?

Madelyn Ho:
Definitely going to medical school. That was something that I knew was there for me. I did want to explore more, because medicine is such a broad field. So, throughout medical school, I actually got interested in a lot of other things as well. I really enjoy surgery. I realized I don’t think it’s unrelated to dance as well, right? Just that fine motor dexterity, that very sharp, honed-in focus on that one thing, that one small area that you’re working on. I also really loved my obstetrics and gynecology rotation too, and women’s health. So it was one of those things where there were so many aspects of medicine that I realized that I really enjoyed, but ultimately the dance medicine component was still something that really drew me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m just, maybe I’m misremembering, but is it called the “operating theater”? You’re talking about surgery, comparing it to dance, and I was like, it’s kind of a mini performance.

Madelyn Ho:
Yeah!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Apologies for my very limited knowledge of medicine. [laughs] But I especially want to talk about—there were three years when you were both a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company and studying medicine at Harvard. How did you find balance during that time, and how did those two things sort of inform each other, when you were doing them simultaneously?

Madelyn Ho:
So for me, in some ways the timing of when I joined the company was quite perfect. I had just finished my third year of medical school, and so at Harvard, actually a large number of people end up pursuing something for another year and not graduating within four years. So many people pursue a different degree or pursue research for a multitude of different reasons. People end up graduating not within the traditional four-year timeframe. So for me to take a year was not unusual. It was when I wanted to extend that further that it became a little more unusual. But there were people who really believed in what I was doing, and there were mentors who very much supported my passion and recognized that there was a way to do it. It might not be the traditional way, but they were willing to support me through it with an atypical schedule.

Knowing that dance medicine was something that I really loved, there were definitely dance medicine specialists who helped me explore that further and taught me a lot, and also the other aspect of medicine I was really interested in is physical medicine and rehabilitation, which is again, a pretty broad field, but the aspect of it that I was particularly interested in is the sports medicine aspect. It was definitely challenging, but in some ways I felt that challenge allowed me to have an even greater focus, that when I was in each moment, I was very much in that moment and more present than I felt that I had ever been. It was the pressure of wanting to make the most of every moment, every second.

And so, you know, for me, I came in more prepared for each rotation than I feel like I would have potentially in other times, because as I was traveling to Boston, I would be reading papers or reviewing what I saw the last time I was in rotation or in clinic, and so that actually allowed me to be even more prepared. ‘Cause sometimes when you’re in the midst of a rotation, it’s so busy and so overwhelming that you don’t have the opportunity to do that. So in some ways I felt like I learned and gained so much more.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, being perpetually in the moment, because you can’t afford not to be—constantly in the zone.

Madelyn Ho:
Yeah, and then being in rehearsal and in performance too, it was very much like, just being so grateful for this opportunity to be there, to be able to do something that I loved and had dreamed of doing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It sounds like an extended period of flow state.

Madelyn Ho:
Totally, totally yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So fast forwarding now to the pandemic, how and when did you sort of realize, hey, I can be of service in this moment, and then how did you end up volunteering at vaccination sites?

Madelyn Ho:
So I started helping at the vaccine sites in mid-January. This is when the vaccines started being rolled out for the general population. To me, this was something that there was such an opportunity to be able to help and be of service to people who were really struggling during this pandemic. You know, this was something that everyone had been waiting for, and to be part of something so historical was so meaningful to me. This endeavor is something that happens with the work of so many people, right? There’s just so many components and it’s a big undertaking, and I felt like I was one individual who could help in this bigger undertaking.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk in a little bit more detail about what your actual work at the sites involves?

Madelyn Ho:
Sure. So I participated in a bunch of different roles—everything from helping get people checked in, helping to answer questions that people have, making sure everyone had all the paperwork necessary to be able to get their vaccines, and helping to manage the floor of the vaccine sites. There are, depending on the different sites, many vaccinators who are all working hard, so it’s helping them figure out what they need, if there’s anything that they need to troubleshoot, making sure that no vaccines go to waste. These vaccines are so precious, and so making sure that you have a good count of how many vials have been opened, making sure that all the vials are accounted for, making sure that they’re all being used and making sure that none of it goes to waste at the end of the day, at the end of the shift.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It sounds like you’re a vaccine-site air traffic controller.

Madelyn Ho:
Yeah, very much like working in the logistics of it. Making sure that all of it flows nicely. And also being there for people. People are coming in from all different backgrounds, all different experiences, and just helping people feel comfortable at the vaccine sites. There is a lot of fear. There’s a lot of anxiety—the pandemic has been really stressful. So being able to help people feel comfortable, whether that’s helping answer questions, helping to translate, and just being there for people. Just another human there with them and who gets it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Maybe it’s just because now I’m looking for dance connections everywhere, but first of all, the logistics side seems like choreography, and then also the human side of things—I feel like dancers especially are so empathetic. That is part of what we do, and that does seem like a skill that I’m sure you’re using very much in this context.

Actually that is the next question on my list is—and we started talking about this already—but how does your medical background inform your dancing, and how does your dancing inform your work in MD mode? I mean, we’ve talked about bodies, it’s all about bodies, but are there connections between the two that might not be obvious to an outsider?

Madelyn Ho:
One thing I found that has been overlapped between dance and medicine is the sense of problem solving. I feel like as dancers, you’re constantly problem solving, whether that’s figuring out the choreography on your own body, whether that’s figuring out the alignment, whether that’s figuring out learning choreography, or whether that’s, when you’re dancing with other people, whether you’re partnering, whether it’s spatially connecting and integrating with other people—there’s just so much problem-solving that happens in the moment on the spot. That’s a component of creativity I feel like we don’t talk about as much. And in medicine, too, it’s being able to problem solve and see things from different angles, to be thoughtful and and to have that openness to be able to see both the details and also be able to step back and see the big picture.

And I feel like that’s something in dance for me, too, especially as I’m learning more and more about Paul Taylor’s work. I feel like as a new dancer, often you’re very focused on your own part. But to be able to step back and see how Paul’s work is more than just the individual—it’s so much the connections between dancers, between the dancers on stage and that connection with the audience. We were talking about this earlier, too: just that human connection, to me, that’s something that’s shared between dance and medicine. Where in medicine, yes, there is the medicine component of it too, but we talk about it like the art and science of medicine—there’s that human component that, without it, you can’t practice good medicine. How can you connect with people in a way that brings them comfort, that brings them that connection is so important, both for the body and the healing, and also for conveying and providing information for patients and empowering patients to make decisions and understand their own health.

To me, that in dance, that connection with humans is so crucial. Dance doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And sort of going back to the pandemic, that is something that has been so missed in all of this—that human connection. Dance is, in addition to that connection, it also is a way to communicate. It can do things that words alone can’t do. It can provide people an opportunity to reach a place to confront certain things that they might not be able to do in a conversation. It allows you to explore things that may be hard to reach, or feelings or emotions—dance has a way to be able to draw that out in humans.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, these two crafts that both transcend language in ways that are really interesting. I love the idea of art benefiting from scientific thought and science benefiting from artistic thought, and how the two can feed each other.

So, you are this extraordinarily high-achieving person, and you’re also Asian American. And over the past few months, especially following the shootings in Atlanta, there’s been more and more open discussion of how insidious this whole model minority myth is, how it can both obscure and exacerbate anti-Asian racism. How have you seen model minority stereotyping, or other forms of race-based bias—how have you seen them play out in the world of dance or the world of medicine?

Madelyn Ho:
I really appreciate that you say that it’s more open now. I don’t think this is necessarily new. It just is now brought to the forefront. I think it’s really bringing out things that were already there. You know, one of the things that my parents really worried about me pursuing a dance career, was their fear that I might not have had as many opportunities as other people because of the way I looked. I feel Asian Americans in the arts just aren’t as prevalent. So my parents were like, there are not that many other people who look like you in the field, that makes it harder for you to establish yourself, to have the opportunities. I feel that I’m very lucky to be in the Paul Taylor Dance Company, because Paul Taylor really believed in the individuality of the dancer. He wanted all his dancers to be different, to be themselves and not to be like a cookie cutter form or shape—he wanted individuals. There are other company members or alumni who I definitely look up to, and I’m able to see someone of the same ethnicity as myself. That isn’t always the case in other companies.

In terms of race becoming, like, part of dance—I think it’s one of those things where some of it is ingrained in a way that people haven’t always considered. I feel like people are starting to, for example, with The Nutcracker. One of the divertissements is “Chinese,” and a lot of the second act are caricatures, but I feel like in particular, the “Chinese” act is often a caricature rather than character-driven. And to me that’s problematic. You know, there are dance companies who are starting to have conversations about it, but it’s taken a really long time for us to get there. And even still, it just feels like—I appreciate the work that’s being done, but it’s like, how can we continue?

And also not specific to dance or to medicine, but just in general, microaggressions, right? For example, I’ve experienced certain comments that people will make and sometimes I’m just so flabbergasted in the moment, I don’t even know how to respond. I feel like, just even bringing attention to that has been something that has been really helpful for me of recognizing that it is not okay. Because it’s sometimes in the moment, it’s easier just to brush it off, but then realizing that by doing so, it’s reinforcing that it’s okay for that to happen.

I feel like a lot of the work that people have been doing in terms of just advocacy in general, I wouldn’t even say specific to Asian Americans, to any group, is this idea of, how can you be a bystander, an active bystander? I feel like there are a lot of groups who are doing so much great work of creating actionable things to do. There’s a group called Hollaback!—I don’t know if you seen it and heard of it, but they’ve been doing amazing work in terms of bringing attention to, what are active steps that you can do as a bystander? Very clear, easy steps. And I feel like that is something that can bring about change in a way that applies just to every day, every moment, and that isn’t specific to bring attention to AAPI month, which is important, but how can we do more? How can we make it part of our daily lives and part of our daily actions?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right, not a talking point, not a box to be checked off, but something to incorporate in an organic way into our everyday practices.

Madelyn Ho:
Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, a saying that we’ve heard a lot over the past year is that dancers were among the first to stop work at the beginning of the pandemic, and they’ll be among the last to return to “normal” work life. So what does it mean to be on the front lines of the vaccine rollout, knowing that vaccination is what’s going to allow dancers to get back to performing, to get back on stage?

Madelyn Ho:
To me it’s just even more meaningful. There are many different strategies for us to get out of the pandemic, but for us here in the US, that is the main strategy. So every single individual who walks in the door, I earnestly say to all of them, thank you for being here, thank you for getting your vaccines, and I mean that truly and dearly every time. People are so grateful. Being part of these vaccine sites, you just see humanity in the beauty of everything, of how grateful people have been. Even when there is a line, people are like, I have been waiting for over a year, another few minutes of waiting is nothing.

So for anyone who’s hesitant about getting a vaccine, I encourage people to get it for yourselves, to get it for other people, to get it so that everyone can return to a life in which they can have choice and be able to be with other people. To be able for the arts to come back, for dance to be able to come back and be part of our society again.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know, it’s funny—I just recently got my own first dose, and the vaccine center, it was like a party. They were literally playing a wedding dance floor playlist, people were dancing. There’s just this sense of like, we’re almost there! We’re almost there.

Madelyn Ho:
There’s so much hope, right?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes! So much hope.

So finally, we haven’t really talked much about the dance that you’re doing right now. Can you talk a little about what is on your horizon as a dancer? What is Paul Taylor Dance Company working on that listeners should know about?

Madelyn Ho:
Well, we would love to be able to return to theaters and perform for audiences. To have a full theater with everyone coming together for this shared experience and to be able to perform live again is something I am so looking forward to. We have been very lucky that we’ve been able to be back in rehearsals and to be able to do a couple of performances where we have performed in an empty theater and being able to stream it out to everyone. The company has reall, innovated in terms of making sure that dance is still alive, and that we keep Paul Taylor’s work alive in during this time. So we’ve done a lot of virtual work. But it’s just not quite the same. I mean, it’s been great because we’ve been able to reach audiences that we normally wouldn’t have. You know, I have friends who are like, I’ve been able to see you more during this time than I would have otherwise, because you would have been in different cities! But there’s something very special about being in a theater next to other people and sharing that moment together and being able to celebrate the dancers and applaud.

I mean, I miss seeing performance myself and, and being able to perform live. It has made me really appreciate the beauty of the ephemeral quality of dance. To really just put yourself entirely out there and be vulnerable and be present. I very much look forward to that.

We have some outdoor performances coming up. You can always check our website at Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think it’s PTAMD.org. People can find it—we’ll link to it in the show notes.

Madelyn Ho:
We have things on the horizon, then, coming up. So, you know, we look forward to being able to dance for everyone again.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, we can’t wait to sit in the audience and see you. Somebody said this on Twitter and now I’m going to misquote it, but it was so great that I have to try. It was something like, “I can’t wait to wait 20 minutes to walk 30 feet from an audience lobby to the front of the theater.” I’m so looking forward to that, that crush of humanity that’s all just experienced a show together.

Madelyn Ho:
I like that murmur that happens right before the curtains go up.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Totally.

Madelyn Ho:
And just that shared feeling. For me, it’s when that curtain goes up, and that cold air rushes in—it’s everything. My whole body just tingles, and it’s the most alive that I am.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s magic. Well, thank you so much for all the great work that you’re doing in the dance world, and well beyond the dance world. I really hope that we get to see you onstage sometime in the not so distant future.

Madelyn Ho:
I hope so.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks Madelyn.

Madelyn Ho:
Thank you!

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Madelyn, whose schedule is so full, she literally had to do that interview at 8:00 at night—she does not have a single free daytime hour. I am so grateful to her for making the time! And in addition to checking out the Paul Taylor website, as she recommended, please make sure you’re following the company on Instagram @paultaylordance. They’ve been posting all kinds of great rehearsal footage that takes some of the sting out of not being able to see them perform onstage.

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

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.