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Mindful : December 2016
A Mind in Motion By Victoria Dawson Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan Dana Tai Soon Burgess, 48, is a choreographer whose troupe, The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, has been a part of the Washington, DC, cultural landscape for almost 25 years. Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman describes him as a “national dance treasure.” Burgess serves as the Chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance at George Washington University and is the first choreographer-in- residence at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Burgess was a competitive martial artist for eight years, an experience that cultivated in him a lifelong dedication to meditation and mindfulness. Why were you drawn to martial arts? Actually, I told my parents that I wanted to learn to play the piano. A week later, my dad and I were in the car, heading to what I thought would be my first piano lesson. Instead, he dropped me off at a martial arts stu- dio. In retrospect, it’s hilarious. But it was perfect: He knew I was a kid who never stopped moving around, and he knew I was looking for something to connect me to my Asian heritage. He was trying to put the pieces together, to figure out what kind of artistic out- let I was actually asking for. When I was 15, he suggested that I try modern dance. It’s fascinating how he under- stood what my journey was going to be for me. What drew you to meditation? My martial arts instructor began every class with breathing and visu- alization exercises. As a kid, I didn’t recognize those practices as medi- tation: They were about developing concentration and a sense of calm. Later, when I went into contemporar y dance, I began searching for a medita- tion practice I could do independently on a daily basis. When do you practice? I meditate every morning, lying on a yoga mat in my home office, for about 30 or 35 minutes. If you don’t meditate for a day, can your husband detect any difference in you? Oh, I’ll bet he can, because I get very agitated and frenetic about making sure everything is in its perfect place. It’s as if I’m struggling for order on a more superficial, physical level, which I guess is a reflection of my internal world being slightly at odds. I feel a little more protected if I meditate each morning. If I don’t, I can feel the permeation of negative energ y from others. I’m sensitive and don’t like conflict. So when I encounter someone who has a more aggressive personal- ity, meditation helps me fend off that energ y. Meditation strengthens me. How do you cope with stress? Meditation allows me to put stress- ful moments into perspective, to feel connected to the larger world. I think, “Nothing has changed that much—the universe has not changed dramati- cally between yesterday and today.” What is happening to me is not some catastrophe; it’s just a ripple in time. What’s the connection between your work and your meditation practice? Because my choreography comes from the subconscious, I look for a bridge between my conscious and subcon- scious realms—a way to clear my mind and almost see choreographic images or maps. It’s like a place between sleeping and waking, where honest answers to questions I’ve been rumi- nating about will pop up. What about during rehearsals? In general the outcome of my practice is how I interact with the dancers. Mindfulness, for me, means under- standing that action creates ripples. I believe in being aware of my actions and their consequences. Can you explain? In a rehearsal, if I’m moving too quickly and a dancer doesn’t under- stand how he or she is affecting the stage, then mindfulness is not about being short-tempered or flippant: It’s about taking the time to explain or illuminate the relationship that dancer has—in movement or in per- formance emotionality—to the whole scene. It’s being attentive to the needs of all my company members in order to get the group together in a piece of choreography that can, in turn, be transformative for the audience. ● “Mindfulness, for me, means understanding that action creates ripples.” 32 mindful December 2016 LIVING | walk the talk