Dance as a Connecting Force

By Sara C. Nash

Sara Nash small.jpg

Portrait of woman.

Photo by Jeffrey Filiault

In the summer of 2002, I found myself in a converted black box theater in Prague watching dancers collide, embrace, then drift apart. That’s the moment I sensed how powerful and profound the act of people moving, or not moving, through space and time can be—the act we call dance.

I had moved to Prague in March, the year after graduating from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and begun working at Tanec Praha, an international contemporary dance and performance festival. Throughout that summer, I discovered a new universe of expression as I watched artists and dance companies perform works that looked and felt like nothing I had seen before.

The festival culminated in a sited work at Prague Castle performed by artists from multiple countries. Few spoke the same language, but it mattered little. They collaborated through movement. I worked as a guide, helping the audience wind their way through the castle’s hidden alcoves and dimly lit halls to watch bodies and relationships unfold. For myself and many in the audience, it was a thrilling new way to experience dance, place, and one another.

Twenty years after taking my first ballet and tap class, I was transfixed.

Dance has always been a connecting force for me. As a kid, it was a means of spending time with my older sister as we wiled away countless hours rehearsing made-up numbers in our family’s wood-paneled den (the word choreograph didn’t enter my vocabulary until much later). At school, it was my first pathway into exploring ideas physically and discovering how I wanted to move in relation to the world around me.

I continued dancing in high school and college, and since that summer in Prague, I’ve worked steadily to match dance artists with the resources they need to create and tour their work. I’ve had the good fortune to see dance in intimate theaters, grand halls, parks, galleries, bathrooms, parking garages, studios, and stages on nearly every continent, and in cities and towns across the U.S.

I often think back to what one of my favorite theater professors at Mary Washington, Gregg Stull, told us: that every time he goes to the theater, he expects to be changed in some way by the time he leaves. Back then, I wasn’t sure what he meant, but through the years, his meaning has become clear: time and time again, I have experienced how dance, in all its many forms, creates shared spaces that illuminate, challenge, and transform us in ways big and small.

People often ask me to describe dance in America, and I struggle with this question. It seems to presume the answer can be boiled down to one single definition or example. From what I’ve seen so far, dance in our country has never taken a singular form; its power stems from the myriad individuals and communities who make and share it, and from the endless ways that our moving bodies can conjure meaning, beauty, and connection out of time and place.

As I join the NEA as director of Dance, I’m excited to continue to foster growth and engagement for dance artists, organizations, and audiences alike. Choreographer Liz Lerman has persistently asked, Who gets to dance? and Where does dance happen? My hope is that all of us do, in as many places and ways as possible.