Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photograph by David Dashiell

Through dance history, finding my own

Reflections from Jacob’s Pillow

“Confidence, Sophie. You need to work on your confidence.” That’s the voice of every dance teacher I’ve ever had, a cacophony of mental noise as I hastily pack my things for my morning contemporary class at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. I’ve never been to the Pillow before, despite reading about it every year since about age 12, when I learned what it was. Growing up dancing in Wyoming, and then moving to California to continue studying dance in college, I’ve always been on the wrong side of the country. This year, though, I’m finally in the right place at the right time.

It’s a muggy morning in the Berkshires and bolts of anxiety fill my body as I walk up the campus drive. Entering the Ben and Estelle Sommers Studio, though, I find myself melting into place, flowing like water to fit where I know. I’m suddenly more aware of gravity and my breath. As I exhale, my feet spread, melding with the floor like roots. I’m reminded I’m a dancer.

Ted Shawn Theatre, 2017. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

The class plays out in much the same way all the others have before it. I take my spot at the back of the classroom, get a little nervous when it comes time to move across the floor, and surprise myself when I’m able to learn most of the steps to the final combination—something that has historically been very hard for me to do. The ease comes, I think, when I let myself go, without a worry of a missed count or a limb out of place.

All the way through class, I’m writing in my head. 

Afterwards, sweaty and content, I set off to explore the Jacob’s Pillow grounds for the first time. Large backpack, water bottle, purse, and campus map in hand, I notice I start to draw some curious glances from members of the set-up crew. And with the lingering, more heightened proprioception that can only come from taking a dance class, I also begin to feel myself fall into my old movement patterns, hunching my back, trying to look small.

As a child, I loved to put on shows for my family and friends and was always auditioning for choir solos and speaking parts in the school plays. My fear of being seen came later in life, and though I’m working past it, I’m still reluctant to dance at weddings and don’t love to share my opinion or speak in front of crowds. In this particular moment, being noticed triggered my now-familiar insecurities, but I steeled myself, gulped down some air (and a granola bar), squared my shoulders and walked confidently down the nearest path, even though I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going.

Perles Family Studio at Jacob’s Pillow. Photograph by Robert Benson Photography

I ended up at Perles Family Studio, where I was able to observe a class of students at the School at Jacob’s Pillow learning a work set by Antoine Vereecken of Studio Wayne McGregor. McGregor happens to be one of my favorite choreographers; When his company came to Los Angeles in 2018, watching his Autobiography was something akin to a spiritual experience in the way it made me feel seen.

The same dichotomy of quiet comfort and electric excitement I had experienced while watching Company Wayne McGregor perform once again filled my body. Sitting in the back of the studio, I felt like something between a formal audience member and a dancer, intimately familiar with the process of learning a work, yet removed from it. In that moment, I could have been either version of myself.

Archives at Jacob’s Pillow. Photograph by Sophie Bress

Next, I wandered—still weighed down by backpack, purse, water bottle, and a load of informational pamphlets—into the Jacob’s Pillow Archives. It was quiet, an easy place to be, where all that was expected of me was to browse and read the largest collection of dance books I’d ever seen in my life.

When I was young, I rode my bike to the library every day each summer, looking for anything and everything to do with dance (as well as new young adult fiction), so it’s safe to say I was in a personal heaven. In the Archives, I read books, filled my Amazon cart full of new titles to buy for myself, and browsed the online archives, watching Pearl Primus, Maria Tallchief, Ted Shawn, and others dance right before my eyes. I felt the energy of the other writers, readers, and dance lovers who’d studied here before me: a subtle and unseen community.

When I emerged a few hours later, the Jacob’s Pillow campus was filling up, both with dancers laughing and talking after their pre-show rehearsals and audience members, tickets and picnics in hand, awaiting the evening performances.

I had almost made it to the main event—and the reason we gather at Jacob’s Pillow summer after summer. Tonight, I would watch Ballet Nepantla’s Pillow debut at the Henry J. Leir Outdoor Stage, as well as A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham in the Ted Shawn Theatre, returning with a work developed at the Pillow’s own choreographic residency program. One new beginning in this space, like my own, and one veteran’s homecoming, like the many who came before me.

As I sat in the audience, I felt sure. Sure of myself and my place, but also sure of the path that I’d taken to lead me here.

In visiting a place that is so intertwined with dance history, I was able to revisit some of my own. I realized that I may have finally found my confidence, accepting that perhaps it does not lie in the spotlight, but in the folds of life: in the dance libraries, the backs of classrooms, in my own mind, and in exploring a place that is new to me, yet deeply familiar. Each step of the way, I was reminded of who I am, who I’ve been, and who I’m becoming.

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