Since graduating from Western Michigan University's Department of Dance in 1994, Melanie George has forged a multifaceted career as a jazz dancer, choreographer, educator, scholar and advocate. From our Q&A conversation with Melanie, it is clear that these roles do not just overlap. Rather, they are deeply intertwined and synergistic. According to Melanie in her artist statement, "my scholarship purposely and strategically informs my choreography and pedagogy. I have great interest in upsetting traditional hierarchies in dance on the stage and the page."
For the past week, we have been lucky to have had Melanie back on campus bringing her wide-ranging expertise and perspective to our students. Last Friday, Melanie served as a celebrity judge for the annual Dancing with the WMU/Kazoo Stars competition and scholarship fundraiser, offering thoughtful praise, critique and commentary on the evening's performances. Over the past several days, Melanie has also worked in the studio, teaching jazz dance classes and staging new choreography on first-year students. And later this afternoon, in recognition of her years of research, education, innovation and excellence in the world of dance, Melanie will be presented with the 2017 College of Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Award for the Department of Dance.
Get to know more about Distinguished Alumna Melanie George in her interview with the Fine Print:
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should we know about you?
I am the dramaturg and audience educator for Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts. I work with nationally and internationally recognized artists in the incubation of new works for the stage. I also maintain an active freelance choreography and teaching career specializing in jazz dance performance and education.
What are your earliest memories of dance? How did you get started?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t dance. My first classes in ballet and tap were through my preschool. I recall learning a tap dance to a song titled “A Baby Duck.” My father still talks about the performance.
Let's look back at your college experience. How did you decide to enroll at Western Michigan University's Department of Dance?
I wish I could say I did a lot of research, but students didn’t do extensive campus visits back then the way they do now. I only had two criteria for the colleges I applied to: 1. The school had to have a dance program. 2. It needed to be far enough from home that I wouldn’t have to live at home, but close enough that if I wanted to come home my parents wouldn’t be too far away. Although I was accepted at Wayne State and Oakland University, WMU fit my criteria best. I am remarkably lucky that the program was so strong. My strategy could have easily backfired and I would not have the career I have today.
What do you wish you had known when you were a freshman at WMU?
I wish I had known how to take more risks sooner. I was a cautious and fearful teenager, but I didn’t have to be. Bold choices are opportunities to learn.
What was your favorite class at WMU? How did it shape your career and contribute to your successes?
My dance history courses with Professor Wendy Cornish were life changing. It was in those courses I discovered my talent for analyzing and synthesizing content in writing about dance. During my sophomore year, Wendy was encouraging of my work at a time when I was conflicted about continuing with the dance major. I wasn’t feeling successful, and my peers seemed to be progressing in ways I was still struggling. In Dance History I, I excelled. I needed that victory to see my potential in the field. I was fortunate to take classes with Wendy in dance history, choreography, dance management and dance production.
I also took every course I could fit in my schedule with Professor Bradley Hayden in the English Department. It was because of his courses that I pursued a practical writing minor.
There’s a lot I learned from Professor Cornish and Professor Hayden about nurturing students, which I later applied when I became a college professor at Kent State University and American University.
What's your favorite memory from your time in WMU's Department of Dance?
My freshman year, Joel Hall, a legendary jazz dancer from Chicago, was in residence during all of spring semester. His class was rigorous, but he was charming and encouraged my dancing. I was cast as an understudy in his piece, in spite of the fact the repertory was beyond my skill level. He must of seen something in me I did not yet see in myself. As a jazz dance specialist, I still use tools I learned in his classes when teaching my own students.
Tell us about starting your career. How did you land your first job after completing your education?
I wanted very much to reassure my parents that I would be able to support myself with the dance degree they financed, but I didn’t have any connections in the field, so I opened the phone book and started calling local dance studios to request job interviews. I got two job offers from that method. Teaching seemed like the route with the least obstacles to earning a living in dance. It turns out I was also good at it, and grew to love teaching within a few years.
What tips would you give to current students and graduating seniors as they prepare to enter the "real world" and secure work?
Great dancing will get you in the room, but being reliable, responsible, and kind will keep you there. The field is based on relationships and there are often two degrees of separation, or less, between you and someone you want to work with. Your reputation will follow you wherever you go.
How do you find inspiration? What's your creative process?
I often look to other art forms, particularly music and film, to inform my process. I take a three-pronged approach: research, pedagogy, and choreography are interwoven in every project. Writing is a large part of the process no matter what form the final project will take. This may be scholarly writing or prose, abstract or concrete. Though dance is an eloquent, visual, nonverbal art, language informs my understanding of content and context. It’s part of how I make sense of the world.
Who do you look up to? Who do you consider a role model? Who inspires your work?
I have had three artistic heroes since I was a child: Prince, David Bowie, and Debbie Allen. Though I don’t model my life or work on their achievements, what they have in common is great breadth to their work. None of them are defined by any one facet of their career. That kind of multiplicity is present of my career too. I take great pride in that. I learned that as a lifelong fan of those three artists.
What is one "ah-ha" moment you've had recently in your life or career?
I recently transitioned out of a career in full-time academia to working for not-for-profit arts organization and turning greater focus to my freelance career as a master teacher, scholar, and choreographer in jazz dance. Jazz dance and dance writing were skills I always had, but because they came naturally to me I did not value them enough. For many years, I thought I had to prove something to my peers, my teachers, and myself regarding my right to call myself a professional dancer. Instead of appreciating and cultivating my natural gifts I applied my focus to other areas. Now, having shifted my focus to what I love, I’ve never been happier in my career. I don’t have any regrets because I developed needed skills and I’ve been successful, but it’s also wonderful to feel so comfortable and excited by all aspects of my work.
The WMU College of Fine Arts has deemed this year "A Time for the Arts." Why do you think now is a time for dance? What is the role and importance of dance in society, politics or public discourse?
Dance is the most immediate of the art forms. It’s never the same way twice. It reminds us of our humanity, fragility, and the capacity and limits of the human body. The dual gift of the arts is that they both lead and reflect society. Dance, and all the arts, teach us the tools of critical thinking. They aid us in practicing compassion and self care. From an academic point of view, the arts teach students how to be disciplined and problem solve. They teach us about resilience and critical thinking. All of this is fundamental to leading a productive, successful, fulfilled life. There is never a moment when it’s not a time for dance and artists that make it.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
What I most love about my job is that there is no typical day. My schedule changes dramatically from week to week. One day I might be in rehearsals in New York City as a dramaturg for a contemporary artist. The following week I could be across the country in residence in a university dance program creating a new jazz work for students. A few days later, I’m back in upstate New York facilitating a community engagement program for children. I’m grateful for the technology that allows me to juggle my complex schedule efficiently.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love being in rehearsals, mine or other artists. I am a “process-nerd.” Watching a new artistic work evolve is always illuminating and a catalyst to immerse myself in new content. What has kept me so active and excited in my work is that I am first, last, and always a fan of the arts. I am more experienced and informed than I was as a young person, but that excitement has never wavered.
You've done so much in your career, from performing and choreographing to researching and educating. What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my career in aggregate. Since I graduated in 1994, there has never been a year where I did not earn a living as a dancer. A career in the arts is rewarding but it’s not easy. You need tenacity, discipline, strategy, a sense of humor, and a little bit of luck. I’m most proud of the consistency in my and upward trajectory of my career. I worked hard for it.
What do you still hope to achieve in your career? OR What would be your dream job (aside from what you're currently doing)?
I am incredibly happy in my work, but I’d welcome the chance to work in any artistic capacity with the estates of Prince or David Bowie.
Melanie George is a dance educator, choreographer, and scholar. She holds a BA in dance from Western Michigan University, an MA in dance and Graduate Certificate in Secondary Teaching from American University, and movement analysis certification from the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in New York.
After two fulfilling years as resident scholar at Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts (formerly American Dance Institute), she joined the organization full time in 2016. As dramaturg, she works closely with internationally recognized contemporary performing artists in the incubation of new works for the stage. In her role for Lumberyard, she has contributed to projects by Susan Marshall & Company, Raja Feather Kelly, and David Dorfman Dance, among others. Upcoming projects include new works by David Neumann, Kimberly Bartosik, and Keneza Schaal, as part of Lumberyard’s partnership with Brooklyn Academy of Music. Additionally, she brings 20+ years of arts pedagogy and administrative experience to facilitate audience education and engagement at Lumberyard.
Melanie has an extensive teaching history including positions with The Roeper School for the Gifted and Talented, the Washington School of Ballet, and as Assistant Professor of Dance and Dance Education Program Coordinator at Kent State University. From 2008-2016, she directed the dance program at American University, specializing in jazz, movement analysis, dance composition, musical theatre dance. During her time at American University, she increased program enrollment by 200% annually, founded the American University Dance Company, created the Dr. Naima Prevots Guest Artist Fund, and facilitated partnerships with DC-based embassies and arts organizations leading to 20+ guest artist residencies and master classes with nationally and internationally recognized artists.
Melanie has presented her research on jazz dance improvisation/pedagogy throughout the U.S., Canada and Scotland. Publications include “Jazz Dance, Pop Culture, and the Music Video Era” for Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches (University Press of Florida) and “Imbed/In Bed: Two Perspectives on Dance and Collaboration” with Joan Meggitt for Working Together in Qualitative Research (Sense Publishers).
Melanie is the founder and Artistic Director of Jazz Is… Dance Project. Her choreography spans concert dance, theatre, and vocal staging. Choreography commissions include works for universities in Idaho, Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (2016 Helen Hayes Award Nominee for Outstanding Choreography), and the Gaylord National Christmas on the Potomac Launch Event.
Melanie has served on the boards of the National Dance Education Organization and Dance Metro DC, and committees for the National Endowment for the Arts, MAP Fund, the Society of Dance History Scholars, VelocityDC Dance Festival, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Ohio Board of Regents.
In honor of Western Michigan University's annual homecoming festivities, the We Will Reign series celebrates and highlights the successes of College of Fine Arts distinguished alumni.