Cheryl Callon ~ Margaret Putnam Dance Writer's Scholarship
My name is Cheryl Callon, and I am a contributing dance writer for TheaterJones, an online performing arts news website serving North Texas. Writing has always been one of my strengths and dancing is a lifelong passion. I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in dance from Sam Houston State University in 2004 and 2008, respectively. I also danced with Kista Tucker Dance Company from 2006-2007.
In addition to writing for TheaterJones, I am an adjunct dance professor for Collin College and Richland College. The field of higher education affords me the opportunity to mesh the physical excitement of dancing with the intellectual stimulation of critical analysis. I constantly challenge my students to think critically about the art of dance, whether in a lecture setting or technique class. Being a professional dance critic also challenges me, as well. In watching and analyzing other artists’ works, I’m able to evaluate my own methods of teaching and performance.
The last sixteen months as an emerging dance writer has allowed me to find my voice as an artist and a writer, but it has also taught me about the relationship between human beings and their art forms. My goal is to continue that exploration, continue forming my identity in the area between the artistic and the intellectual, and to contribute to the body of literature on dance.
A huge generational gap separates the members of the dance writing community. At least that’s what I gathered based on the Dance Critics Association conference held in New York City this summer. From the attendee demographics to the panel topics to the panel members themselves, the mouth of that chasm screamed out from the fifth floor of the Joan Weill Center for Dance, home of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
The conference was attended by essentially two groups. The first comprised of old school (and consequently, older) print journalism dance critics and writers who had thousands of articles and maybe a few books to their names. The second group didn’t necessarily fall into an age category (although most, including me, were probably under 40), but what distinguished us from the former group was the medium through which we write and the topics we cover.
The former group looked like they were all friends, so they were sitting and standing together on one side of the lobby before the first conference session. I naturally gravitated towards people who seemed to be most like me, as do most people when thrust into a group of complete strangers. This mostly consisted of other attendees my age, who were all women, interestingly. All of them, like me, wrote for at least one online publication or blog.
The panel topics varied greatly, due to this stark contrast, and the dichotomy spoke once more. In some panels, I felt completely clueless; in others, I felt ahead of the game because I was already utilizing a certain technology or attentive to the newest methods of dispersing dance to the masses. So, let’s examine the first statement.
More than once in my notes did I write, “I know absolutely nothing about print journalism.” That was probably the second-most shocking realization from the conference. I’m a degreed dancer who also happens to be a decent writer, not a journalist or general writer who just happened to start writing about dance, as is the case for many of the more established critics. It was a cognizance that just underscored how new to this profession I really am.
I didn’t necessarily learn the ins and outs of the print business, but that doesn’t mean that those panels run by the seasoned writers were completely useless. Out of those conversations sprouted many topics on which I could write and research.
I found my home in a few fascinating panels, most notably the ones on using social media and online publications as a way to expand my audience and broaden my writing scope, and the one on television dance. The latter interested me, obviously, because this summer I wrote a weekly analysis of So You Think You Can Dance for Theater Jones.
Aside from panel topics, the most interesting moments of the conference came during conversations of conflicting opinions due to, again, the generational gap. Longtime dance critics made statements on how things “should” be written or what’s allowed, and the latest group of dance writers (I hesitate to say “critic” because many of them admitted to never writing reviews) disagree based on philosophical differences over the role of a dance writer. Some discussions got so heated that it was like watching a civilized boxing match.
Among those younger voices, who sometimes flippantly stated their aversion to concert reviews, came one of reason from Marina Harss. Although she agreed that dance writing needs to cover a broad range, she emphasized that criticism is an important part of the cultural conversation, that it creates a record. It was a nice affirmation of what I do, because at this moment, I’m mainly a dance reviewer; my work as a whole hasn’t expanded to features and profiles.
Another writer that caught my attention was Robert Johnson of the Newark Star-Ledger and former editor of Dance Magazine. While he might technically fall under the category of the old-school journalists, he didn’t carry the same elite loftiness that plagues others of his generation. What I liked about him is that he’s not afraid to make a statement. Others were carefully tiptoeing around ideas that might be offensive to someone, but he had to guts to unapologetically state his mind but not in an arrogant manner.
As with most conferences, one of the most valuable things to take away is a new contact. Or several. Due to a photo I tweeted of one of the panel members, I got quite a few new Twitter followers, many of whom weren’t even at the conference. Since much of the freelance writing these days is liberated from geographic boundaries, these new contacts could easily turn into a writing job.
The second most valuable thing I received was inspiration. I said earlier that my body of writing doesn’t include many features, but that is changing. My notes are full of questions, tangents, topics and remarks that could easily turn into an article or twenty.
But it’s not just my writing that will benefit. In teaching my Dance Appreciation classes, I’ve lately felt that some of my lectures were a bit flat, like I had grown tired of the same old material I’d been droning on about for four years. With fresh material, I feel much more energized to delve those topics with my students.
Overall, it was an eye-opening experience. Not only was it humbling in emphasizing how much I still have to learn, but it opened up new doors and ideas for my future as a dance writer. The field of dance writing is typically left to college dance programs and journalists, but in creating this scholarship, The Dance Council of North Texas has shown that they value all facets of the dance community.