Art Work #7: Isabelle Collazo, Dance Artist and Educator

You dance more than you think you do, says Isabelle Collazo. Whether you're listening to the radio in your car, moving through the street, or just processing information about the world through your body, your life is filled with more movement than you may realize on first blush. "For a long time dance has been sequestered to the realm of physical education in schools, but I think this is changing," she says. "It's being recognized as a physical way of thinking and a way to challenge the Western mind-body split." Isabelle has studied dance all around the globe, but these days she's pursuing her MFA in Dance with K-12 licensure at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Here, she talks about bringing dance into public schools, moving away from a split between "artist" and "teacher," and why dance isn't just about "hot bods." Enjoy!

So! You’re a dance artist and educator. How do those two careers blend into each other, help each other, or hinder each other? And why “dance artist” and not “dancer”—is there a subtle difference you’re trying to tease out?

I would say for the most part these identities feed and inform one another. There is a saying in mind-body practice where you have to work to balance inner and outer awareness. The dance artist side is my introverted self—I think critically, challenge myself, my peers, authority (my rebellious body!), and ground my findings in intuition, collaboration, and felt experience. The educator side is my extroverted self—I works to translate these ideas into tangible experiences that can be facilitated for folks in the form of performances/demonstrations, words, and participatory activities. In the past these identities were entirely separate and based in tropes and archetypes: the artist, misunderstood, isolated, trying to make her way in the world, and the happy-go-lucky dance instructor, taking whatever gigs were offered and spending hours on YouTube studying how to teach jazz dance to elementary school students in China (as one example...). This stark distinction completely drained my time and energy. But within the past couple of years I've been able to draw authentic connections between my artist and educator selves, which has empowered me to do my best work and ensure my daily activities are more closely aligned with my values—a work in progress.

I choose the term "dance artist" over "dancer" because it is more all-encompassing (and lessens the possibility for questions like "Do you dance on your toes? Have you auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance?"). To be honest, I've never felt like a pure "dancer"—I have studied dance and mind-body practices for the majority of my life but have also pursued my interest in others arts and academic disciplines. When I was young, I loved visual art and my mom thought for sure I would be a painter. I went on to formally study instrumental and vocal music as well as musical theater. I was enamored with history and language arts, and developed a passion for social justice issues and world cultures. I was fortunate enough to study dance in my public school program and learned quickly that dance was much more than perfectly executing a series of steps; it was a way of being in the world and an open platform where I could synthesize my interests.

Now most of my work is in public schools, where I provide dance education to low-income students through my (small but mighty!) organization Whole People Movement. I work with schools to create conceptually-driven dance projects unique to the interests and needs of their communities. A few examples: In our project "Dance Against Bullying," elementary school students and I worked to create a live performance and dance film that challenged bullying culture at their school through movement and poetry. During our residency "Dance with Pride," I worked with middle schoolers to create original dances and a dance film that explored social emotional concepts like perseverance, integrity, and empathy, and as part of the program I was able to hire four professional dancers to perform original choreography. In "The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker" (inspired by the amazing book by Patricia Hruby Powell) I worked with a group of teenage female students of color to create a dance theater piece that told the story of jazz dance visionary and activist Josephine Baker and a finale that highlighted her signature movement language. Next year, I will lead a school project that has to do with navigating physical and ideological borders. Although I am teaching dance, I not teaching a "general curriculum" but rather am approaching these projects from the perspective of an artist. I want to continue this work and take part in projects I am passionate about that bring value to the communities I serve.

In my experience, people can be pretty weird and skeptical when one says that they’re going to make a career out of art. When did you decide to really go for the dance thing, and how did people react? Are there any places in your life/work where you’ve encountered surprising resistance? 

This, surprisingly, was not much of an issue for me. I grew up studying the arts and my parents were very supportive. Actually, when I told my parents I wanted to major in history they were disappointed. They were like, "But don't you love dance?!"

That being said, I have met folks with a narrow view about what it means to pursue dance as a career. I once had someone tell me I was too soft to be a dancer. And by their standards, I would agree. But like I said, there is more than one way to make a living and be an active contributor to this field. To be successful takes far more than a perfect bod; you have to be open to the possibilities about what role dance can play in your life, be proactive about finding in-roads, define what success looks like to you, and be able to articulate your point of view to naysayers with confidence and (a little) sass.

What made you decide to go to grad school, and what have you gotten from it so far? 

I decided to go to grad school because I wanted to immerse myself in dancing/dancemaking/pedagogical practice and had some very clear goals in relation to each of those disciplines. I also wanted to get my MFA and K-12 teaching license so I would have more job opportunities when I graduated. So far, outside of learning content related to my field, grad school has taught me about how to make peace with imperfect decisions, how to place more value on my time and expertise, and how to better communicate who I am as an artist and educator to people who either don't know me or may not initially value what I do.

Do you consider yourself a freelancer? What pays the bills in your line of work? If you roughly divided your income up into percentiles, what would that look like?

When I am not in school, I would definitely consider myself a freelancer. I have made money working as a teaching artist in public schools, teaching dance in China at a private arts school, choreographing for various projects (musicals, show choirs, high school dance performances, etc), I worked as an education coordinator and administrator for an arts organization, I served at Honky Tonk BBQ, I taught yoga, I danced for several independent artists and also worked as a dancer at a bar mitzvah....

I'm not sure about percentages because it has always been in flux depending on what kind of work has been available, but I will say teaching has accounted for the bulk of my income.

What are some goals you haven’t achieved yet? Big future dreams? 

I want to run my own dance program—either in the form of expanding Whole People Movement or overseeing a high school dance program. I also want to keep taking dance classes and educating myself on my art form (it's endless!) and do choreographic residencies to continue to develop my craft (and would love to do a residency at a national park!). I want to learn how to speak Spanish, get good at gardening and cooking vegan food, read all the books I own, have a family, travel and explore new places/cultures, and be happy and peaceful. And graduate from grad school!

Are there any huge pieces of misinformation floating around about your career path in general?

YES—there are many, but I will say one of the biggest pieces of misinformation is that ballet is "the basis" for all dance. Is ballet the basis for tap dance? Balinese dance? West African dance? I think you catch my drift...

I also think dance is such a multifaceted art form that often gets relegated to (as my former teacher Tere O'Conor so eloquently summarized) "hot bods doing cool moves." Technique is essential but I don't think there is a "default technique"—technique should be in service to the type of work the artist wants to make. As in, the style and the technique develop concurrently.

How do you “get it done,” whatever that means to you? I’m curious if you have a daily routine and if so, what that looks like. 

I don't have a routine per se, outside of making my bed, trying to remember to meditate, and drinking my coffee. I usually take showers at night and (try to) have all of my things prepared for the following day. I think getting it done has to do with having clear goals and objectives and setting boundaries for yourself, not being a perfectionist (or staying up all night! Either works!). Practically, I use Google calendar and schedule everything on my to-do list. I think it's also about being aware of your energy and using your energetic upticks to your advantage. Also, coffee.

I know you also do a lot of choreography—was that an intentional shift for you? How does that play into your life/work/goals? 

Choreography has always been part of my identity as an artist and dancer. I started choreographing on my little sister and her friends for their elementary school talent shows when I was young. I have always been interested in being part of the creation because it's impossible for me to perform something I don't believe in. This is another reason why I am unable to call myself a straight up "dancer"—if I don't believe in a project ideologically I can't go on stage and perform with conviction. So it feels more natural for me to serve as a movement/performance collaborator on a project.

Your work obviously has a huge physical component. I feel like other freelancers are trying to stay fit so that they don’t crumple into a pile of dust at their computer before they turn 30, but for you, physicality is surely an integral component of the work, not something you do so you can continue to work. I don’t know if I have a really interesting question here, but I guess it’s something like…what are your thoughts on the body? 

My thoughts on the body are—there are many ways to be in "shape," many ways to exist in the world. I think our society tries to portray health like this monolithic thing when in reality if you as a person are fit to do what you want to do I think that's being healthy. I don't advocate for eating a bunch of hamburgers and pizza and fries on the regular (although I do eat those things sometimes!) but I it's silly to think that health looks like having rock hard abs. I think it's as simple as always be prepared to do whatever it is you are trying to do—mind, body, spirit. For me personally, this means to live within my means, eat sustainably, no pork, lessen the meat, lessen the dairy, drink water, eat organic, lessen the sugar, alcohol, and caffeine, get outside, ride my bike, do yoga, take technique class, improvise, choreograph, meditate, spend time with loved ones, dance, and ultimately do what brings me an authentic sense of joy. Because above all else joy and passion are what fuel us to live our best lives and be our most embodied selves.

Thank you, Izzy!Read previous installments of Art Work here