“Some people, it appears, are born to dance. After analyzing the DNA of the families of 85 professional dancers and 872 other people, researchers spotted two genes that appeared in the dancers, but not in the others. They weren’t genes for rhythm, coordination, or flexibility. Instead, people who love to dance are genetically programmed to respond strongly to hormones and chemicals that promote feelings of spirituality, social communication, and bonding with other people. ’The genes we studied are more related to the emotional side of dancing,’ researcher Richard Ebstein tells Discovery.com. Dancers, he said, have ‘the need and ability to communicate with other people and a spiritual side to their natures that not only enable them to feel the music but to communicate that feeling to others via dance.’”
This excerpt from The Week magazine (Health & Science, 2008) exemplifies my passion for dance, the body and the need to communicate my deeper emotions through dance, and now dance photography. My work continues to drive me in a way that I can only describe as natural and native.
In the beginning
I was born and raised in the intimate Redwood Forest of Northern California, known as Humboldt County. Nestled in a small bay on the coast, I found my dancing voice later than most. Having dabbled in ballet, jazz & gymnastics at the age of 5, Gymnastics won my heart. Or maybe it was that every time my mom picked me up from ballet class I was sitting outside the class watching, and she would ask, “Why aren’t you in class?” Upset, I would respond, “She kicked me out of class for doing a cartwheel.” Needless to say, when I was five years old, I didn’t realize when the teacher turned toward the stereo system, she could still see me through the mirror. When I let go of the ballet barre, ran out into the room to show off my best cartwheel, and quickly returned, it was always a surprise when I was told to leave class. This is when my mother decided our money would be better spent on an activity I was actually participating in, gymnastics.
When I am asked why I started dancing I always think of Brook McCurdy, a childhood best friend who stuck with dancing when I cartwheeled my way out. Being best friends, we collaborated often to perform little shows for our families and friends. She would choreograph, showing me all the dance steps, and I would teach her gymnastics skills to include. Our most memorable performance was a fourth grade talent show to Ghostbusters with turns, cartwheels, sassy hips and a round off to the splits finish.
Not until age 14 did I make the transition into dancing daily and begin training. At this point Brook encouraged me to take the financial and time committing plunge into a young dancers life. I began training at the Studio of Dance Arts in Eureka, CA and sophomore year of high school I was asked to join “Apparitions”. This six-member dance company, whose training and repertoire included modern, ballet, pointe, jazz, belly dancing and African dance, was my initiation into becoming a professional dancer. I just loved dancing and had sincerely found my passion.
I had only been dancing two and a half years when it was time to start applying for colleges. I didn’t want to stop dancing but I never imagined I could continue training in college and become a professional someday. Dancing in college is not a desirable profession to spend big University money on from a parent’s perspective. So I double-majored in dance and math hoping to appease the parent and grandparent worries as well as give myself a few more options upon graduation.
University of California, Santa Barbara was where the intense phase of training truly began. I had many great instructors in ballet & jazz, but the true core of the UCSB dance department was in their modern dance program. I excelled in modern, but cried in ballet. Since I had started so late, I was playing a lot of catch up, and my ballet teacher threatened many times to hold me back in Beginning Ballet. My modern teacher on the other hand, promoted me to sophomore modern in my second quarter encouraging my professional pursuit and narrowing my focus. I studied Limon, Graham, Muller, Lubovitch, and various blends of the great modern dance pioneers. All my teachers pushed me, especially my mentors, Christopher Pilafian and Tonia Shimin. They encouraged traveling for summer training so that I could explore other teachers, styles and potential companies to dance with in the future. The UCSB Dance program, with all it’s great teachers, guest artists, performance opportunities, as well as my drive and dedication, produced a professional modern dancer in 1999.
One week after Graduation I packed my suitcases and hopped a plane to New York City, the dance mecca of the world, where I would train, audition and crave to sign a contract with a major modern dance company. My first week in the Big Apple I landed a small paid dance job and a tiny studio apartment in Brooklyn. Things continued this way during my 2 years dancing in NY. I worked with many up and coming choreographers and dancers such as Terri and Oliver Steale, Nina Buisson, Robert Battle, Max Stone, Risa Steinberg, Bradley Lundberg, and Jennifer Muller. Some exciting dance jobs were assisting Milton Myers and dancing in companies such as Mimi Garrard Dance Theatre, Sandra Kaufmann, Infinity Dance Theatre, Morales Dance, Marie Christine-Giordano and more.
One major highlight was dancing with David Parsons Dance Company for the millennium project in Times Square. This 24-hour spectacle celebrated many different countries’ New Year traditions from around the world, as well as their respective dance styles. August 2001, the proposal came. I was offered an annual dance contract with salary and benefits from Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. This meant relocating to Denver and touring the US, performing and teaching dance! My dancing dream had been met and a family had been created. I truly loved this company experience. I believe it was my greatest growth spurt as an artist, dancer and person. As I worked multiple jobs, taught dance in Denver, and assisted in opening my brother’s coffee shop, Ziggi’s. I was still dancing full time for Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. I really learned about conserving energy, functioning on next to no sleep and as my mom would quote me, ‘Just rollin’ with it’!
The transition to stop dancing professionally was not a difficult decision for me. I had been dealing with foot & ankle pain for the past couple years and was very fulfilled and happy with my performance roles, traveling experiences and, of course, teaching.
I was craving to rest my poor feet and share my passion of dance in a different way. This is when I started coaching two competitive gymnastic teams and running the dance program at Gymnastics Unlimited. It had been hard to follow through and stay on track with my students when I was out of town dancing, so once I retired, my time was dedicated to my students. I loved this feeling of guiding, structuring and molding these young athletes into, not just gymnasts, but gymnasts who could dance!
Dancer Finds a New Voice
When dancing with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble I had a camera with me always, mostly documenting the experiences we shared on the road. Once retired from dancing professionally, I continued to take pictures but had no technical education, and became frustrated with my plateaued growth. I took summer classes at CU Boulder, attended local workshops at camera stores, and realized I was falling in love with photography. After much research I decided to attend the Art Institute of Colorado, with a two-year program, which allowed me to continue coaching gymnastics and teaching dance. I fulfilled assignments with dance using local professional and pre-professional dancers. The feedback was positive and I was encouraged by friends, colleagues and teachers to keep it going.
Louis Greenfield, my favorite dance photographer and whom I have collected work from since I was a young dancer, was my early inspiration. Having studied many people’s work while in school I wondered how I could make this dance photography thing stand out. I pushed myself to think outside the ‘studio’! I decided to combine my love of the outdoors, sense of adventure and daring attitude by removing dancers from their comfort zone. Taking them out of the studio and off the stage and putting them in new environments gave both my images and the dancers new life. Often these environments were outside, slightly precarious and weather sensitive. The positive feedback continued and my camera and I danced on!
The Dance Photographer
Graduating with a portfolio in Dance Photography has continued to bring me work and keep me inspired to some day photograph for Dance Europe and Dance Magazine. I also continue to love photographing bodies. Yoga, Pilates, fitness and most athletics also fulfill my craving to capture the essence of strength, grace, freedom and emotion. People ask me, “Are you still a dancer?” Yes, of course I am and I will always be a dancer. My talent as a dancer has simply ‘shifted.’ Michelle Dillon Photography has been created.
Go After Everything!
I would love to share with all the artists, dancers and athletes out there something I have lived by my whole life. I create the lucky life I lead through my inspirations, not settling and going after everything!
Go after everything!!! Take every audition, apply for every job, understudy every lead and work toward the best in all those. Go into each new opportunity with confidence and lighthearted expectation. This is how I live a fulfilled and successful life with no regrets. Take each experience, that moment or day, for what it is. The audition is a free class, why not take it? The interview, a learning experience, so ask questions. Learning a part you may never perform keeps you humble and quick on your toes. Remember; focus on the journey and you will always be where you want to be. Whatever you want, desire, believe in; don’t think too much, Just Dance!