Claire Westby: Professional Dancer, NYU Dance Teacher
Claire Westby is a Freelance Dancer living in Brooklyn. She moved to New York from Minnesota eight years ago and graduated from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Claire has been dancing professionally in the city and touring internationally since graduating. Besides rehearsing and performing she also dabbles in making her own work, teaching dance and yoga, sewing, cooking and training her new dog Bernie. The first time we saw her dance, our jaws hit the floor. She is a dear friend of ours and we are HONORED to feature this incredibly talent in this week's Spotlight.
1. What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I actually went through a major marine biology phase (this was when Free Willy and Flipper were big in the 90's). I also loved cooking as a kid, so my big dream was to open an underwater restaurant that served seafood. I was super serious about it. I drew up menus, blueprints and even decor ideas. It was basically a giant glass bubble submerged in the ocean with a restaurant inside so you could watch the fish as you ate.
When I finally started dancing it wasn't such a clear-cut, "that's what I want to be when I grow up" feeling. It was more that I could never stop (and clearly I still haven't)! I would make all my friends dance and act out ballets in my parents' living room for hours. I loved everything about dance- the structure, the way you could express individual creativity, the competitiveness, and the whole community surrounding dance. Though maybe when I retire from dance I'll fall back on my "see-your-food" seafood restaurant!
2 . Can you tell us a little bit about your passion of dancing including experiences with your company and your substitute teaching at NYU?
Well I joined Liz Gerring Dance Company in the spring of my graduation from NYU and I'm still dancing with her. It's been really interesting to go from being a complete underdog in the company to being someone who she really relies on. As I've shifted into more of a leadership role in the company, I've been experiencing more pressure but also more joy in the company's success. We recently returned from our first international tour to Angers, France. Though I've danced with Liz consistently for six years, I still consider myself a freelancer. I reached a major milestone for myself a couple weeks ago when I performed at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), that was with the choreographer John Jasperse. I also had the opportunity to perform in Bejing, China with yet another choreographer, Cherylyn Lavagnino. One of the biggest challenges in my life right now is scheduling rehearsals! Sometimes I'm envious of the 9-5 life.
On top of rehearsals, I try to teach as much as possible because that's probably where my career will eventually go. I love teaching but it still makes me nervous, more than performing sometimes. I think that will wear off the more I do it though. My favorite thing to teach is ballet even though I'm a modern dancer. I think ballet can be a great base for all types of dance when taught in an anatomically healthy and correct way, which is what I try to do.
3. Your industry is full of harsh criticism on performance, body image, age, sexuality, etc. How do you deal with the stress and pressure all while proving your worth?
It's definitely a challenge to handle all of the attention that is put on your physical appearance and ability. I mean, in rehearsals it's common to be staring at your own reflection for hours trying to learn choreography or perfect a move- that can be psychologically difficult. Luckily I've found a niche where the community I am a part of is accepting of diversity in all categories. Part of what many people find interesting about the type of dance I do is how different bodies look when moving. Of course, I'm not on Broadway or in a ballet company so I think different rules apply there.
4. What was the best advice you have ever given to a student and the best advice you have ever received from a teacher?
When I was about 15 years old, I had a ballet teacher that told me very simply, "Don't let dance be your whole life". I remember being floored by that because she was such a successful dancer and most ballet teachers are so intense, basically implying that you need to eat, sleep and breath dance in order to make it. The timing of that was also crucial because at that age you're kind of figuring out what the rest of your life will be. And it's a scary thing to decide to become a dancer. It essentially means you're never going to make a lot of money and you will always be hustling to get work. That's a scary thing to face as a teenager. I needed to hear that even if I did decide to be a dancer. I'm a whole human and dance is how I make a living but the rest of my life is just as important.
I actually didn't even remember saying this at first but I was teaching this summer and after one class a student told me I said "Remember we are here to PRACTICE dance!" I think I was trying to get the students to challenge themselves and not rely on their habits- to not worry about making each step perfect. It's so common (definitely not just in dance) to have this debilitating fear of messing up. It sounds corny but messing up really is how you learn, one hundred percent it's the best way to learn a new skill and retain it. I really need to take my own advice though because I'm constantly guilty of not doing something because I'm afraid I might not be good at it. I am trying though! Thinking about my life as one giant "practice" helps.
5. What is next for Claire Westby?
Coming up this year I have a handful of performances in New York. Next month I'm premiering a new work by Liz Gerring called (T)here to (T)here .
In general I wish more people would go see dance! If you're looking for something stimulating and different to do, go check out a show. The Joyce, BAM, Danspace, The Kitchen, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Movement Research, Triskelion Arts, P.S. 122, Gibney Dance Center, La Mama Moves, and New York Live Arts are just a few of the great places I like to go see dance shows.
Interviewed by Emily