On Leadership

Living Dance

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 17, No 3 (Winter 2006)

John R. Killacky

Walking to my office in the financial district of San Francisco, I was stopped by a man who asked me if I remembered him. The man, Rick Hood, reminded me we were both students at Harkness Ballet in New York. We had not seen each other in more than thirty years.

At lunch a few weeks later we reminisced about the early days. Those were heady times for my twenty-year old self. I had arrived from Chicago and was in David Howard's class alongside Gelsey Kirkland. Once doing jumps, she landed badly and had to be carried out. Of course the class continued...

My body was not balletic and soon I was off performing with Contemporary Dancers in Winnipeg and Jean Erdman's Theater of the Open Eye in New York before falling in love with Grand Union and Meredith Monk. Along the way, I got a degree in psychology from Hunter College, sojourned to India, and became an arts administrator.

Rick performed with American Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Cleveland Ballet where he met his wife. After retiring from dance, he got his M.B.A. from Harvard, moved to San Francisco, and started marketing financial services for Charles Schwab.

At our lunch, we spoke about how dancing gave us unanticipated advantages later in life. While colleagues tended to approach problems in a linear fashion, we would more often tackle an issue from multiple perspectives, improvising our way to a solution.

Personally, dance gave me poise, self-confidence, musicality, and cultural literacy. I learned to work in an ensemble, as a soloist, or in the background. Improvisation illustrated how group wisdom was superior to solo problem solving. Choreography helped me understand gesture and spatial design. I was able to locate myself in the world. Through dance, I crafted an identity with other gay men as positive role models.

In running a one-person office for Laura Dean and then Trisha Brown in the early 1980s, I relied more on ingenuity than on experience when booking and managing tours, writing grant proposals, working with boards of directors, and balancing the books. Since I had no prior administrative experience, the dancer in me was often called upon to work intuitively.

As my career progressed to PepsiCo Summerfare, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Walker Art Center, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the San Francisco Foundation, my dancing days continually proved invaluable. While I had been hired for what I knew, each job became learning what I did not know. Every position was like a glorious rehearsal process, acquiring new skills while always following the lead of artists.

Other colleagues also started as dancers. David White danced with Kathy Posin in his early years running Dance Theater Workshop. Chuck Davis' success with Dance Africa can be attributed as much to his artistry as to his business acumen. Choreographing a dance is not dissimilar to curating a festival.

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of Arizona State University Public Events, founded The Dance Connection and performed with Santa Fe Dance Theater and Colorado Dance Theater in the 1970s. Arlene Schuler danced with the Joffrey Ballet and now runs City Center Theatre. The New York Times' own John Rockwell studied with Anna Halprin in the 1960s, and Deborah Jowitt has written eloquently about her own dancing in The Village Voice.

Harvey Lichtenstein, the visionary former director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, performed with Pearl Lang, Sophie Maslow, and Mary Anthony. Other dancers in Lang's company with him included Paul Taylor and Glen Tetley, as well as Cora Cahan, Eliot Feld, and Bruce Marks when they were children. "Once you're a dancer, you are always a dancer," Lichtenstein told me. He still loves watching class and dances around the house "quite to the astonishment of my puppy."

Cora Cahan, currently director of New 42nd Street, not only danced as a child for Pearl Lang, but later with Norman Walker, May O'Donnell, and others before managing Feld Ballet and helping build the Joyce Theater. Being a dancer, for her, "prepares you for virtually all the challenges one engages in a lifetime. The discipline, the training, and the never-ending aspiration to get better make for a very rare concoction."

"Everyday," she said, "you start all over again with a plié or contraction, and you are faced with bold truths in the mirror of your limitations, and everyday you struggle to go deeper or higher...to be better and overcome gravity, to excel. We dare to take risks. If it doesn't work, we will think of something else. If it does work we will make it better.”

Cahan's perspectives on dance have particular resonance for me. Reconnecting to my dormant dancing self was essential in recovery from spinal surgery nine years ago. Initially, I was paralyzed from the neck down and had lost sensation in my right side and had no proprioception (sense of location) on my left side.

Standard physical rehab was providing little success. However, I realized when being transferred from bed to wheelchair that my body could hold itself up (although briefly and with assistance). While the kinesthetic connections were lost, I thought I might be able to learn to stand up visually. So I asked to work in front of the mirrors. Therapists were skeptical and reminded me everything is backward in a mirror. “Yes,” I countered, “but I learned to dance with mirrors.”

It took some days with leg braces and a walker, but eventually I stood in front of that mirror. What I could not feel, I could see. What I could not do kinesthetically, I accomplished visually. Over the next weeks, I also began to walk between two parallel bars in front of the mirror. The dancer in me taught my mis-circuited body to walk again.

Ten years later, I continue dancing through life; albeit slowly and with the assistance of a cane.

John R. Killacky is the program officer for Arts and Culture at the San Francisco Foundation. This article is reprinted with permission from Dance/USA Journal, Spring 2006, Vol. 22, No. 1. All rights reserved