NEA Arts Magazine

Learning One's Body


Bill T. Jones sitting on a step at the library

Choreographer Bill T. Jones at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. Photo by Russell Jenkins

Bill T. Jones is one of the foremost choreographers in the world, having created a wide variety of multimedia dance works that explore challenging philosophical and social issues such as race, identity, and terminal illness. In 1980, 1981, and 1982, Jones received NEA Choreographers Fellowships. His company, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, continues to receive NEA funding for its highly creative work. Below is an excerpt from a recent telephone interview with Jones. A longer version of the interview is available on the NEA Web site.

NEA: Can you tell me how you began in the dance field?

BILL T. JONES: I was 19 years old and at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I was there to run track with the idea of going into commercial theater, as I had done some theater in high school. It was there that I was then enticed by a young relative, who was also going to the university, to not go to those track practices but instead come to these really great dance classes, taught by Percival Borde…. I went and I was totally enthralled by the multicultural aspect of the room, by the "smell of the sweat" when I opened the door, by the drummers.

So I was hooked, and shortly after that time, Arnie Zane, my new partner, and I went away to Amsterdam, and I got a greater sense of what it meant to be a professional dancer by taking classes there and seeing more things there. I came back with the idea of really making a serious attempt at this. That's how it happened. And then the rest of it, I think it had to do with learning one's body and learning one's tastes, learning about one's sexuality, all those things fell into being a dancer. I didn't think at all about making a living or anything like that.

NEA: What did it mean to receive the NEA Choreographers Fellowships in the early 1980s?

JONES: There was a sense of suddenly being a part of the club -- that literally, at the federal level, someone thought what we do was important enough to be funded. And on a psychological, emotional level, that was certainly a lift, and one begins to walk a bit more straight and upright and to think more seriously as an artist…. So that was what I think it meant. It also meant that we could begin to plan. We could begin to look for and attract administration [staff], which was rudimentary. We made lots of mistakes: we didn't really know how to get a board of directors. We didn't know how to get the next piece made. We were just going to do it on sweat and enthusiasm. But the NEA imprimatur was definitely important to us. And the perception in the funding world that you were somebody that should be funded was very important.