Prioritizing Embodiment: A Conversation with Dance Teaching Artist Molly Heller

It has been an honor getting to interview Salt Lake City-based dancer Molly Heller over the years and to work together on various projects in person in the Bay Area through Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.

This interview completes a trio of phone interviews over the past year. I knew I could turn to Molly for thoughtful inquiry and generous inspiration for the field as we navigate the pandemic. Check out the other two interviews here:

What is in this moment? What is showing up today? Musings on Hope, Dance, and Teaching with Molly Heller (February 24, 2021)

New Levels of Teaching Artistry: An Interview with Molly Heller about Distance Learning in College Dance Programs (August 18, 2020)

Molly is a teaching artist through and through. The interconnectedness of her work in the classroom and for the stage is deeply interwoven. Ever poetic and thoughtful, Molly is a fabulous artist to interview, as she also mindfully selects her word choices and themes.

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Jill Randall (JR): Riffing off some of the ideas I wrote the other week in this article about teaching practices, I made this word bank of aspirational words. Do 1 or 2 of them speak to you at this time, as you look back at the Spring Semester teaching at the University of Utah in the School of Dance?

share, offer, put into motion, hold space for, listen, respond to, co-create, reciprocity, dialogue, fluidity, emergent, flexibility, questions/questioning, feedback, co-learner, journey, generosity, teaching for transformation, to move and be moved

Molly Heller (MH): They are all necessary, and in some ways are one in the same. One does not show up without the other if we are being integrous within co-creating.

Co-creating is always my starting place. Then there will be reciprocity, questions, offerings, and flexibility. They are holding hands together — they are interconnected.

The only aspirational word I am thinking less about, is the idea of transformation. That was very present for me pre-COVID, especially within my research around trauma. I’m still interested in transformation as a way of thinking — the idea of making friends with your whole self (stemming from Buddhist practices). That transformation is not about going somewhere different or being something/someone else, but the full acceptance of your whole self.

Sometimes we end up putting the arrival — or goals — first. For me, that takes away from the process. “How do I show up today? How do I exist with others?” Sometimes transformation does not show up until years later, through reflection. What if transformation just happens without us willing it to happen?

For me, during this last year, I really had to let that go. It was just enough, to be enough each day, to show up. And to accept that some days are uninspired. “Moving today can be enough. Turning on my computer today can be enough.” What a privilege, what an honor it is to move. That can be enough. To believe that within yourself, and then to share that with your students. I have been thinking a lot about moving one’s body in front of other people, especially when we are so isolated. Training for something became irrelevant for me this year.

JR: I have also been thinking of this quote from our colleague Michelle Boulé, which also beautifully explores the ideas of transformation and doing enough:

We get to be embodied…that is a radical act. To be in touch with the very simple truths that are deeply expressed through the vessels of our bodies. It’s so easy to take that for granted and to dishonor that space. Dancing, although I sometimes feel like I could walk away from it at any moment, is a gift and honor. It’s a way to access transformation. If it stops feeling like that, then maybe it’s time to do something else (forever or for a while). And we don’t need to be so precious about it either.

JR: In terms of artistic projects, I loved watching the online Ririe-Woodbury show in February. I loved your piece, especially Florian Alberge’s solo at the end. I was very moved. I loved that I got to watch it several times during the week after the premiere.

MH: His solo was very moving. It was such a big project, especially making it in the heart of COVID. It was very collaborative (with the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Heartland Collective). We worked mostly on Zoom for about 9 months.

(Catch the trailer for “Full View” here.)

JH: Tell me more. Have you had time to create work post the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company project?

MH: Not since finishing “Full View” in February. Heartland Collective will reconnect very soon — prioritizing moving together without a creative agenda and also rediscovering what a collective means and looks like to us moving forward. This will be our first time gathering in the same physical space in 1.5 years.

JR: What about other shows? What are some online shows or in-person events that have spoken to your heart or lifted your spirits?

MH: Most of the work that I have seen this past year was student-based — supporting our School’s students and faculty. They were all outdoor or online performances.

I felt really disconnected, but I needed to pull back. Not to be inundated with online viewing.

I am inspired by seeing people navigate working outdoors — how they adapt, especially the graduate students within their thesis work. I was really impressed. What is it like to rehearse outside? How do you work when the weather is not ideal, or to be masked when your work requires expressivity?

My friend Juan Manuel Aldape also premiered a work with puppets — Regio — and it really inspired me. His mom, dad, and wife were in it. The soundscore was really beautiful. It was inspiring to see the work that he has been making.

JR: We have been so focused on pivoting/adapting/keeping going. But I think it is important to name what we have lost, too, over the past year. What have you missed?

MH: Everything!

I think that what I miss the most is that I know myself and others through kinesthetic empathy. There is an awkwardness I now feel being social without that nonverbal practice in the studio. I read energy nonverbally. I am really missing that and mourning this side of myself that I derived a lot of connection through, and relied on, to deepen relationships. I feel dried up. I am struggling to tap into that.

I miss that element of my relationships. The little moments in the hallway with colleagues. The intimacy of being really up close with another person. And how that makes me more alive throughout the rest of my day.

To have a place in the world. Mourning the dance class space where I wasn’t monitoring being 6 feet away from people or worrying about the fit of my mask. These are current distractions which can get in the way of being present. I mourn that kind of uninhibited space.

I physically mourn being in the dance building at the University of Utah. I haven’t been in the building this past school year. I miss feeling my body in a space curated for movement.

I am a big fan of adaptability. I can be happy dancing outside or in a parking lot. But the ability to connect with the ground in a studio is unparalleled. To roll on the ground with my back on the floor. To feel gravity in a different way. To be in an uncluttered room.

The accepted space for a hug and contact. Understanding your anatomy through another person’s anatomy. I did not understand how much deprivation I would feel. Being around other bodies, moving, communicating. The laughter. The moments of joy that emerge.

Now everything is overly planned. The online space feels less improvisational. The sides of myself that felt whimsical are now framed. I feel sad, and although this is slowly shifting, I have lost a part of myself that I felt really capable of accessing before.

JR: I also feel so much sadness about that! I myself think about the informal and casual interactions. When you take away the essential things in the dance community, such as 2 minutes checking in with a student before class, laughing together, clapping when you watch someone else move, making a side comment in class. All of these beautiful ways we interact, react, and relate. So much of it is actually about joy and levity. That has been the loss I have felt.

MH: The intermediate moments. The unplanned.

JR: In this moment, what does wellness look like to you, going into the summer? What is the new hope for wellness, the vision for wellness?

MH: Many of the principles in my classes relate to wellness.

What does kindness look and feel like? Kindness for yourself, and your space; kindness for others. The actual action of kindness. The feeling of it.

Michelle Boulé has said, “How do you follow desire versus fear?” I really connect with that alongside wellness.

Drawing from Buddhist philosophy…the idea of the movement of something. Things in life move away from wellness when we are not in a state of flow. The river. Being the stone in the river: grounded, a part of it, allowing the river to shape and move you, but still having form. The ultimate state of flow in the body… I believe that kindness relates to this. Sometimes when I’m guarded and kindness feels farther away, I check into my fears.

In the classroom space — what are we caught in? How can we stay in motion with emotion? Nothing judged or overly contained. The motion of the emotion is the river for me. How can my body be included more to feel more?

The last idea is: the paradox that everything is a transition. And, what if there are no transitions? That liminal space between things. That’s where we are right now. The acceptance of that. To accept this in my body. The idea of decentralizing thinking and prioritizing embodiment. That is wellness for me. Getting out of my head.

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Jill Randall

Jill Randall

Jill Randall is a dancer based in Berkeley, CA.