An interview with Ali Duffy, PhD, professor and associate professor of dance and honors at Texas Tech University
Many dancers often remember becoming interested in dance at a young age after seeing someone else perform. For Ali Duffy, author of Careers in Dance, that dancer was Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Little did Ali know, but watching this film would spark not just an interest in dance, but a career as a dance educator.
Teaching and researching in a postsecondary dance setting, Ali understands the need to adapt. Whether it's supporting Gen Z students with a more diverse curricula or embracing the reality of the distance learning, Ali enjoys her lifelong pursuit of dance.
How did your interest in dance begin, and what kept you interested?
I became interested in dance upon watching the 1985 film Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, after which I immediately began plotting my escape from my parents’ house so I could go “make it” on DanceTV, just as Sarah Jessica Parker’s character did. My parents then enrolled me in a jazz class, and I discovered I had a semblance of rhythm and decent flexibility! From there, because I started dance training rather late in comparison to other young dancers, I felt the need to catch up on the technical foundations of genres I had missed: ballet, tap, lyrical, and musical theatre. Dance remained central in my life throughout high school and college and into graduate school and my professional life.
There are two reasons that dance has kept me interested: (1) I view my dance education as a lifelong pursuit, so I continue to learn more about the discipline every day and discover new avenues to pursue in the field all the time, and (2) I have found myself in the position of “chasing” dance: never really being the best at anything but having the perseverance and drive to keep doing it anyway. I always say that the people who are still in dance are the people who choose to stay in dance.
You hold several degrees, have taught in a variety of academic settings, have been published in several prominent journals, and have founded a dance theater company. What (or who) influenced you to pursue these opportunities and follow your passion for dance? How were you encouraged to follow your passion for dance?
I’ve always been inspired by other artists, particularly those who create a diverse body of work, those who seek to develop connections between dance and other disciplines, and those who aren’t afraid to try new things, even if those new things flop. Two of my favorite choreographers are Bill T. Jones and Twyla Tharp, who both discuss vulnerability and failure as critical to their learning and growth. I’m also inspired by choreographers such as Rosie Herrera and Crystal Pite because they play with the boundaries of genre and reinvent the idea of narrative structure in dance works. I have also been inspired by educators from whom I have learned and who have mentored me. I have been fortunate to experience wonderful teachers and mentors, so I see my work in academia, in part, as a way to give back to my students the opportunities that were so graciously offered to me.
As you work with Gen Z dancers and students, what are you discovering or learning as a dance teacher? What needs are you seeking to address when working with this current generation of dancers?
I am noticing that Gen Z dancers are incredibly prepared but also less resilient than their predecessors. Gen Z dance students face an astoundingly complex world in which to situate themselves as adults and to find their place in a competitive field. And, importantly, college-age dancers face a world in which teens’ health and well-being are declining while, simultaneously, health care and social support services are being decimated. However, while they face seemingly impossible circumstances, Gen Z dancers come fully equipped to jump right in to collegiate dance programs, often with a solid grasp of multiple genres and of social and cultural contexts of dance in society under their belts. Because of an influx of social media influences and dance on screen, by the time they get to college, these students’ dance training has already been shaped and refined in many ways by a multitude of influences. This means that postsecondary dance educators must adapt to meet these students where they are by supporting more diverse curricula and providing strong mentorship, for which they may need additional training. We educators should continue to recalibrate our teaching practices to meet the constantly evolving needs of our current students.
How have you had to adapt your teaching or presenting due to COVID-19? How has this helped to grow you professionally or artistically?
I am teaching entirely online by choice in the Fall 2020 semester and, though I’ve experienced some technological challenges, I support dance education taking a more central role in distance learning. Now, nothing can replace an in-person, live dance experience; nor can a technique class happen in exactly the same way when being delivered online. The three-dimensionality of the body is diminished. However, as an artist and educator, my skills are expanding exponentially out of necessity during this pandemic. We already knew that dancers were adaptable and enterprising, but this pandemic is throwing us the curveball of a lifetime. I have been inspired and motivated by my fellow artists and educators to keep leaning in to the discomfort of learning new ways to teach and make art. And the art that I am making is increasing the diversity of my own body of work and is challenging my audiences and me in unexpected ways.
What’s a memorable question you’ve been asked when someone has discovered your career is in dance, and how did you answer it?
People often exclaim at how “fun” my career must be and, honestly, I get frustrated by this assumption. I mean, yes, a dance career can be an abundant source of joy and satisfaction. But I cannot imagine a career more demanding of every part of oneself; the physical, intellectual, and emotional requirements of a dance career are unlike those in other professions. Dance is all-consuming and often hair-yankingly difficult. We dancers are asked to engage every part of ourselves in the pursuit of new ideas and knowledge, and we are asked to accomplish Herculean tasks with miniscule budgets and at breakneck speed. Dancers train and study for decades even before college to be experts in their field, and that expertise should be recognized and legitimized by society at large