Music credit: “Renewal,” written and performed by Doug and Judy Smith.
Amy Jordan: It’s like a recipe, and I looked at it in rehearsal, and I was like, “We need some tumblers.” and I went online, and I posted an ad on Dance NYC, and lo and behold, the next day, I had two tumblers. I was—I’m like, “Yes, I needed that!” Like, you know, we were the end of the show. It needed a pow.
Jo Reed: That’s choreographer Amy Jordan, talking about creating the ending of her recent dance, Rebirth. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
This past April, I was in New York City and stopped by the Alvin Ailey Center to see the fourth annual Jump On the DanceWagon Festival. Jump on the DanceWagon brings together contemporary performances by four up-and-coming choreographers. The last work of that evening was a four-part full-length piece that burst off the stage— combining ballet, hip-hop, jazz and contemporary dance into a cohesive whole that brought the audience to its feet. That was Rebirth. It was choreographed by former dancer Amy Jordan and performed by her company, Victory Dance Project. The sheer energy, grace and life that leapt off the stage that evening, I found, is in keeping with the mission of the two-year old Victory Dance project: “To Make the Impossible Possible with the Power of Movement.” Amy Jordan knows that power first hand. Diabetic since childhood, she was forced to stop dancing when she partially lost her vision. She dealt with that setback by founding a diabetes and obesity prevention program for kids, called SWEET ENUFF Movement. And the idea for the Victory Dance Project, itself, came about as Amy Jordan recovered from a near-fatal accident.
Amy Jordan: May 1st, 2009: When I was crossing the street in New York and was hit and subsequently run over by a New York City bus. And I was literally pinned under the tire and had no feeling in my right leg, which I thought at that point had been severed off my body. And I just kept thinking, “Uh oh.” <laughs> You know, dancing and I was literally saying, “Victory dancing.” It's funny what comes in your mind at your moment of potential transition.
Jo Reed: And that was way before the Victory Dance Project started.
Amy Jordan: Oh--
Jo Reed: One could say it started at that second?
Amy Jordan: It started at that moment. The paramedics thought I was hallucinating. They were like, “What are you talking about?” I practice Buddhism-- nature and Buddhism with the SGI USA and I was also chanting in the ambulance. So, between the “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and the “victory dancing, victory dancing,” they thought I was just completely in shock, which I’m sure I was at that point. So, I really feel like, on a higher level, it really manifested in that moment.
Jo Reed: And the idea of dance got you through it? The sense of wanting--
Amy Jordan: That was the first thing that came into my mind. I sort of knew internally that it was over for me, but somehow there would be something out of it.
Jo Reed: That would take you forward to the next step.
Amy Jordan: Mm-hmm.
Jo Reed: When did you start dancing?
Amy Jordan: I was small-- five, six-- and then I stopped and you know, I was a very athletic child and did a lot of other activities and then came back to it more seriously as a teenager. As many teens, it was another source of outlet. I have diabetes, and that's hard when you're young. This was in the ‘80s, way before the technology and sort of ideology of today around diabetes, so a lot of stigma at that time for me and I could go dance and express through my body and be physical. And it was at that point I decided to really pursue a career. I literally graduated high school on a Thursday, did my senior studio recitals on Friday and Saturday and was in New York in class at Steps the following Thursday. So, I don’t believe in wasting any time. <laughs> It’s just my nature.
Jo Reed: Clearly, if you’re still pinned under a bus, thinking “victory dance.” <laughs>
Amy Jordan: I was actually like, “I have to get to work and do the payroll,” and they’re like, “You’re not going to work any time soon, missy.” <laughs> I was like, “What?”
Jo Reed: You embrace a lot of different dancing. I’m thinking of Rebirth which is clearly influenced by ballet and modern and hip hop, it just embraces it all. Was that true for you as a dancer as well?
Amy Jordan: It became true. You know, I come from the old school, the very strict classical ballet, which I’m so grateful for, and not only for the actual artistic training but the discipline and the mindset and the responsibility of an artist and respect for what it is in the space. But as I am moved out into the bigger world and came to New York and was exposed to more theater dance, and then, I was accepted onto a commercial scholarship in Los Angeles in the late ‘80s at the time of Michael Jackson. Michael Peters was doing all his work; he’s passed on now. But Blond Ambition, Madonna, with Vince Paterson, and “Rhythm Nation”-- that era when the big commercial tours were kind of taking on a new life in terms of commercial dance and MTV was really coming into its own-- it was a really special time to be in L.A. And even thought I was 20 and I couldn't really appreciate it, I was completely overwhelmed and intimidated by it. <laughs> You know, people had their teachers, and I thought, “Are you crazy?” Like, I took the opportunity being on scholarship. I took 18 classes a week. Anybody that taught class, I just was like a sponge.
Jo Reed: You were learning all these different dance styles. Was there any that you really didn’t take to? That you were sort of resistant to?
Amy Jordan: I sort of had to learn to hip hop. <laughs> I was a little bit snobby about it at first. I was like, “I’m classically trained.” But all of a sudden, I was like, “Ooh, I got--” and then I was like, “Wow, this is pretty cool.” And then, when I came back to New York, I was teaching it. And—I feel very grateful that I have such a versatile training.
Jo Reed: Yeah, it certainly showed in the choreography I saw yesterday.
Amy Jordan: Oh, thank you.
Jo Reed: You could just see it all, but you blended it together so beautifully.
Amy Jordan: Thank you.
Jo Reed: This is what I wanted to ask you: when you have diabetes, you need to be very careful about your diet, and dancers often have real food issues.
Amy Jordan: Oh, yeah. Well that really was the catalyst to my visual impairment. I ended up actually having visual complications of my diabetes. And it really-- the end of a potentially really fabulous performance career. You know, but, as we say in Buddhism, “Every obstacle yields a new opportunity” so I couldn’t appreciate it at the time, but you know, I was hospitalized for my eating disorder and had to really spend some time—what’s the word—recovering? I don’t think recovering—I think I’ve outgrown it now. You know, I was so young. But it took its toll, for sure, in my early twenties. You know, I had eye surgery and I completely lost vision in one and part of the other and it was a very long, dramatic, traumatic experience. I had to stop driving.
Jo Reed: And you were in LA.
Amy Jordan: I was in LA. Yeah, so say no more. With a partial vision, working in a stage situation—I mean it basically ended my performance career. Even last night in the bows, someone was like, “You guys have to touch me on the shoulder, pull me this way, ‘cause I’m completely disoriented.” I don’t know. I don’t like being on the stage at this point anyway. Everyone’s like, “You have to take a bow,” and I’m like, “Ugh, can't I just be in the booth in my hoodie and my baseball cap, please? And you guys go be fab.“ <laughs> They’re like, “No.”-
Jo Reed: So you partially lost your vision, you couldn’t perform on the stage, what was the next step?
Amy Jordan: I very weirdly have both the artistic and the business side of my brain working simultaneously, and that's a blessing and--
Jo Reed: And rare.
Amy Jordan: Rare. I had started a youth-based dance diabetes and obesity prevention program for kids.
Jo Reed: That’s SWEET ENUFF.
Amy Jordan: SWEET ENUFF Movement.
Jo Reed: And SWEET ENUFF Movement was a finalist for Michelle Obama’s End Childhood Obesity Challenge.
Amy Jordan: Yeah. It was really cool. So, I had become very interested in everything going on behind the scenes and telling story and how to get the kids inspired to move and it was a little bit of a hiding place for me, too, ‘cause I always secretly wanted to work with professional dancers, and I was still a little bit feeling the loss of my own career.
Jo Reed: Okay, SWEET ENUFF Movement binds dance, fitness and nutrition for kids. Tell me how you developed this.
Amy Jordan: I started volunteering at the American Diabetes Association, where I soon found that—you know, when I was a young person with diabetes there was no real support system. I had no peers with diabetes. It was sort of this hidden thing. We didn’t talk about it. There was a lot of shame and denial in the family about it. So, when I found that commonality, I started a program, which then became my own company-- using dance and theater—you know, the arts is such a catalyst for unity and bringing people together, and it was a fun thing that young people could participate in. And then, we thought, “Well, let's take this into the schools and start a dialogue and get kids moving,” and it, you know, one thing builds on another. Because of my background and the level of community I had resource to, I could pull in very high level dancers that were—you know, especially back here in New York-- my teachers. The kids would be like, “Oh, I saw Mister Brian in Mary J. Blige’s video,” and it was really cool so we made it fun and as they liked us more, the conversation started to open up, you know, and they had a place to kinda talk about their concerns in a way that they didn’t otherwise.
Jo Reed: Yeah, well as you say, I think one thing the arts can do is open a door to conversations that are very difficult to have.
Amy Jordan: Yes. We kept the fun factor high. I always brought in people that were very relatable, so they felt very comfortable engaging. They got to meet Chef Mike from the Food Network, and he was a really cool, young, hip guy.
Jo Reed: Now, were you interested in being a choreographer at that time?
Amy Jordan: I had done a little bit of playing around when I was in LA, and I came back to New York in 2002. I re-immersed myself just in class with my own dancing at a certain point, years after all of my visual surgery and stuff was over, and I had kind of adapted to it, and I started looking at choreography. But in the years prior to my accident, I had become very interested in the behind-the-scenes-- not only the choreography, but the producing.
Jo Reed: So, it was after the accident in 2009 that you really moved into choreography.
Amy Jordan: Yes. You know, I had 18 surgeries in three and a half years, a lot of infection and cardiac trauma. And every time I turned around, there’s another life and death. Finally I was like, you know, let’s just go for the guts. I had no idea even, in the initial stages, that we were gonna end up with this whole movement but I do things big, so I suppose if I’m gonna take it on, I’m gonna-- <laughs>
Jo Reed: How did the Victory Dance Project get off the ground?
Amy Jordan: It was an interesting series of events that led to the first show, which was actually my birthday party. And again, because of the community that I had been affiliated to, I mentioned to a couple people, “Hey, do you know anybody that wants a gig? We had a little bit of money, and we wanna have this party, and we wanna try”-- and I mean, literally, for the first performance, which was like 200 people in studio at Ailey showed up. And I had this company of ten of like, the most in-demand concert dancers in New York. I was like, “Holy moly. <laughs> Do they know I’ve never done this in this capacity before, but--” <laughs> So, that was our starting point. <laughs>
Jo Reed: So, that’s how it literally came together. “Hey, do you know somebody?” See, that’s so interesting.
Amy Jordan: Yeah, I mean someone called someone, and then I knew someone. We had a little audition, but like, friends of friends and people I knew from the fitness community, people I knew from the SGI Buddhist community that were artists.
Jo Reed: And what was your goal, Amy? You know, you were doing something for your birthday party, but what was the thought process? What were you thinking?
Amy Jordan: I collaborated on that with an acquaintance of mine who had had a traumatic brain injury who does more performance art kind of work. “Like, what shall we call it?” Again, as a Buddhist, I was like, “This has to be encouraging.” And then the victory dance thing came back to me. It’s kinda like when you’re sure to come up with something. I’m like, “Let’s call it the Victory Dance Project. I don’t know.” <laughs> Let’s put up a Facebook page and-- <laughs>
Jo Reed: It’s a little bit of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney: let’s put on a show. My dad’s got a barn.
Amy Jordan: Yes, kind of like that, and then it kind of grew. I had this piece of choreography I had taught in class when I taught class prior to the accident that I was intrigued with, and I was intrigued by the story behind it. And then I thought, “Well, if we’re gonna do that, then we have to set that up.” I like to tell story. I want it to be engaging. So, I thought, “Well, we’re gonna have to set that up so it makes sense.” And then, I looked around, and I had six of the most beautiful male dancers in New York, and I thought, “This is probably not gonna happen again from a scheduling perspective <laughs> “I’m never gonna have them all in the room together.” You know, winner from So You Think You Can Dance, and one’s in Hamilton now, and one was seven years in the Ailey Company, and the other just came off Amazing Grace. I mean, it was crazy. So, I thought, well, I can’t not do something with these men, and that’s how— and that became the opener. And then, I thought, “Well, then we have to have a resolution to the other--” <laughs> I’m like, “Oh, we have this opening piece that I had choreographed in LA that I could rework that’s like, a fun production--” so suddenly, we had, like, a full 25-minute ballet, plus an opening. It just kept growing, you know <laughs> And then, we have to have a finale, because there has to be an end point. You can’t just drop people and have them leave, like-- <laughs>
Jo Reed: So was that Human Revolution?
Amy Jordan: Yeah, that was our signature work.
Jo Reed: So, that was the first--
Amy Jordan: It was a full ballet, 25 minute--
Jo Reed: The first Victory Dance Project was a full-length ballet.
Amy Jordan: Was a full-length, contemporary ballet <laughs>.
Jo Reed: And very well-received.
Amy Jordan: Yes. We were oversold, standing room only, <laughs> which is hard to do in New York. I was like, “Holy-- boy, there’s a lot of people.” And I also used it as an opportunity to have a talkback; both my colleague had her neurology team, and then, two of my surgeons came to talk about the point of, you know, overcoming trauma and how people do that, how that can—
Jo Reed: How art can be so helpful.
Amy Jordan: Yeah, and how their perspective of being in those moments that were so touch-and-go for so many, so long with me and these are the best trauma surgeons, literally, on the planet saying, “Well, we didn’t know how it was gonna go with you there for a while.” But, they literally rebuilt me, so having them there-- and it was my actual birthday, which again, I didn't plan. The only time they had the space available was on my actual birthday, so I was like, “Okay, cool.” <laughs>
Jo Reed: And from thence, the Victory Dance Project Company came into being. Tell me how you found dancers for that, because it's one thing putting it together for a night, but then saying, “Okay, let’s have a company--”
Amy Jordan: You know, that has sort of evolved, even into what you saw yesterday, as I'm growing into my role, had never done this in this capacity before. We did another performance in May. And I thought, “Wow, we sold out this show.” And then, my associate director, Chris Jackson, who was in the Ailey Company for seven years-- is on their faculty-- invited Renee Robinson, who is an icon, I mean, legend--
Jo Reed: Dancer. And she was with the Ailey Company.
Amy Jordan: Thirty-one years or something like-- last dancer hired by Alvin Ailey before he passed-- and took on the Revelations role after Judith Jamison retired it and-- just a master. She really enjoyed it, and I was running around in circles after the show, going, “Oh, my god, Renee Robinson was at my show.” So, all these seeds are getting planted. There’s something here. The shows are selling out, even in Brooklyn; that show was at the Actors Fund Theater in Brooklyn. We were getting this tremendous response, partly because of the level of the dancers.
Jo Reed: You have all these dancers and they’re fabulous but they’re also in other projects, doing other shows. How do you bring them together as a company?
Amy Jordan: I always come at things from the point of mission: what is our mission? As an artist for peace. That linear mission of: how are we turning poison into medicine? How are we transforming our situation? Make the impossible possible with the power of movement. There’s always that prime point underlying all the work. You know, you can go see beautiful dancing, but if there's no point behind it and there’s no heart behind it, even the most beautiful dancers, you know, kicking and turning is amazing but— So we, again, I was like, “Let’s have a gala.” <laughs> Let’s do it in 90 days with nine sections of choreography. I take these things on, and then I get in the middle, and I’m like, “Holy moly.” <laughs> “Oh, boy.” <laughs> But we did, at Ailey City Group last year, and it was a huge learning experience for all of us. Big undertaking for a new company <laughs>.
Jo Reed: But bringing dancers into the company, as you say, because you're interested in a mission-- you’re an artist for peace, so there’s that spine that runs down your work. I imagine you're bringing dancers in who are at least open to that if not embracing it.
Amy Jordan: One of the big things I'm learning as I’m growing into this role is to get very clear about that, because the level of the company-- and that we're fortunate to have some great benefactors so I determined as a producer that I would only work with dancers if they could be well-paid for their rehearsal and performance time, because--
Jo Reed: It’s New York, and you have to live.
Amy Jordan: Well, it’s New York, and you have to live, and this idea that artists work for free-- I don’t understand. These kids spend their whole lives training. You wouldn’t go to a doctor for free. So, we did get people that were like, “Oh, this is a cool job,” that maybe weren’t as invested in the mission, which was a good learning, teaching point for me. We actually auditioned, first company audition, when I really decided in the fall to really move forward at a voracious pace with this from a business marketing perspective and really build it out as something visible and important. <laughs> I went to my team, and we had an audition. And we said to them at the audition, “This is what we’re doing. This is why. This is what we expect. We’re on a mission. We might be doing these one-off performances, but they're all building blocks. They’re all important. This group has to be unified. You have to be on time. We know you're doing other jobs, but you have to be committed to this process.” And we really got that, it was really cool to see that transformation of just sort of having this group of dancers together, doing really-- it was beautiful work, but that cohesiveness to the mission that’s now starting to happen is-- I'm getting more clear about the company and where we're going and you know, engaging the dancers in the process of the production, the marketing, so they understand what goes into making this all happen, you know.
Jo Reed: You’re making a family. A professional family.
Amy Jordan: Yes.
Jo Reed: I'd like to talk a bit about actually creating dance-- the process of choreography. Do you begin on a person? How do you do it?
Amy Jordan: I listen to a lot of music. The Human Revolution ballet started with a combination I taught, pre-bus accident, Kelly Clarkson, “Addicted,” which is all about, you know, you’re addicted to the relationship, you know, and having challenged that myself-- art equals life—you know, I thought, “Well, this is interesting.” And I’m very visual, so when I hear the music, I get a visual of sort of the architecture of the work and what I want the message to be. It’s interesting, especially for me as-- I hate that word, but-- a disabled choreographer, learning how to communicate what I want, ‘cause I can't move anymore, certainly at that level. So, it becomes an interesting dialogue between myself and the dancers of: try this or try that. Or then someone will do it, and at this level, they’ll just be playing around, and I’ll be like, “Wait, do that again. <laughs> Let’s use that.” So, I have the overall architecture of what I want it to be, and then, we work backwards and kinda fill it in. And then, I have a whole staff of, you know, my rehearsal director. People can come in and help with the physical parts that I can’t do or can’t show.
Amy Jordan: I have very functional vision in one eye, so setting the work is often not a problem. I don’t really see the smaller pinpoint cleaning parts, and because I don’t actually dance anymore, I might miss things technically; so, I have help <laughs> with that. But it's been a learning for me on how to communicate. And I will go into the studio way ahead of time and create choreography and you know, I’m very organized; I don’t like to waste any time. And I have a very strong idea, or stuff already choreographed, when we hit rehearsal, and then, we mold it together. You know, you get in the room, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I have a very clear architecture of what the whole thing will be, and then we fill in the blanks with what I've created in preparation and then their input. They bring such a tremendous experience and talent, <laughs> ideas—
Jo Reed: Let me ask you this: what does seeing differently give you? Does that enable you to bring something else to the table because you're not looking at that stage the way I would look at that stage?
Amy Jordan: I’m sure that it does.
Jo Reed: I know that’s a hard question to answer.
Amy Jordan: I hadn’t really thought about it. I generally have such a clear idea of what I’m looking to get out of it, and I think part of the intrigue for the dancers in working with me and the Victory Dance Project is that they really get to participate in the process in a way that maybe they don't where you would just go in with a choreographer who’s like, “Do this and do this and do this.” You know, it's not like that here. <laughs> I have an idea; I may have some choreography set, but then there may be other parts. It’s like, “Try this,” or they'll be like, “What about this? Or what if I do that?” And it becomes very much a collaboration, and then they become very invested, and I think that comes through in the work. I’m fortunate to have a tremendous staff that come in and assist with that in terms of the practical stuff that I really don’t see. And I’ll be like, “Wow, I didn’t even notice that.” <laughs> My rehearsal director-- there’s a joke that Gary can see if your, like, fingernails are pointed the wrong way. <laughs> And he’s great; he’s a longtime friend. They were with me in the hours and days after the accident, so it’s a tremendous thing now for us to be together.
Jo Reed: Can we talk a little bit about Rebirth, which is a ballet in four sections? What’s the story behind it? How did it grow?
Amy Jordan: That was an interesting situation, because, you know, I really appreciated Ellen with Jump on the DanceWagon that we just did, giving you just a blank 20-minute slate. You don’t see that a lot when you're submitting work for festivals where you can just fill it in. I’m fortunate to have an extraordinary marketing coach and marketing team and looking at kind of incorporating more of my commercial background, ‘cause the work prior to that had been more strictly contemporary. So, I thought, “How could I do that, you know, with the opening and ending?” They were different pieces that were brought together that somehow weirdly connected. The opening and ending, the “Alive” and the “Kalikan” with everyone flying around that you saw-- my tumblers <laughs>. It’s like a recipe, and I looked at it in rehearsal, and I was like, “We need some tumblers.” And I went online, and I posted an ad on Dance NYC, and lo and behold, the next day, I had two tumblers. That’s the benefit of being in New York. I’m like, “Yes, it needed that.” You know, we were the end of the show; it needed a pow. And as a business person and a marketing person, it’s always, “Think like the buyer.” If I’m in the audience, I’m always thinking about: what we are we giving to the audience? What’s gonna keep them engaged? It’s the end of the show. It needs to be pow. You know, what can we bring to them? So, that work all came together; it was interesting. You know, again, kind of non-intentionally, it started out just as separate sections, but it all— I think because it all has an underlying message. You know, when we looked at it all together, we were like, “Wow, this really kinda all goes together, like--” <laughs> Came together sort of piecemeal, to directly answer your question <laughs>, but it works like that sometimes. <laughs>
Jo Reed: I presume you preserve all your performances through video?
Amy Jordan: Oh, I am adamant. I have Nel Shelby Productions. They’re unbelievable. That’s all they do, is shoot dance. Thank you, Nel. And even if people have people coming in, I bring them in. I don’t play with that, because you can do the performances, but that's the only thing I have to show people who we are and what we do. People are like, “What do you do?” I don’t skimp on that at all. I’m a stickler.
Jo Reed: And that’s so new for dance, when you think about videography being so new and how danced used to be passed along from dancer to dancer.
Amy Jordan: Yeah. I always have photographers; I always have cameras rolling in rehearsal for my own memory, ‘cause I don't have that muscle memory now, ‘cause I don’t actually dance. So, I have to video the work. And it's good for the dancers, too. We have dancers log in on the website so they can go review the changes, you know-- it’s good for them to see what we're talking about in correction. So, I always have cameras rolling and for own B roll, you know, as we’re telling the story of the process. But in terms of performance, that is an absolute. I’ve had sort of moments with producers where I’m like, “That’s a non-negotiable with me in terms of bringing in my own team.”
Jo Reed: When you think about the Victory Dance Project, looking ahead, where would you like to see it go?
Amy Jordan: I’m gonna build a dynasty. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Okay.
Amy Jordan: I really, you know, as an artist, I really want to prove that you can build a successful business, that people can be paid well for their skill and time and effort, that the work can continue, that it can have that commercial edge and support and all the things you have to have today: the social media, the celebrity endorsement. Say what you will about it, but it’s what you have to have. And to really make the impossible possible with the power of movement. It’s all relative. Everyone has something that they’re challenging to sort of be a catalyst in the world. As artists, we’re gonna create peace. We’re gonna be the ones to impact people's lives to the point that they’re gonna want something to change. So, just generally speaking, not just the Victory Dance Project. So, I take that mission on, you know, and how can we grow it and what avenues can we use most effectively and be paid well? There’s no working free here. You know, I’m all about: let’s see how far we can take it.
Jo Reed: I honestly cannot wait to see what you do next. Amy, thank you so much.
Amy Jordan: Thank you, we’re honored!
Jo Reed: That’s choreographer Amy Jordan, she is the founder of the Victory Dance Project. You can find out more about her and the company at victorydance.org.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Founding her company after a near-fatal accident, Amy’s work is an exuberant affirmation.