Beth Whelan

2019 Ambassador Beth Whelan.

Emily Running: (00:03)

Hello, this is Emily Running. I am the founder and director of Dance Wire in Portland, Oregon. I’m here with Beth Whelan, and it is December 1st. We’re going to talk about her life and career in dance as part of the Artist Stories series. Welcome, Beth. To get started, can you give me an overview of all of your current titles, dance related and non dance related, if there are any of those?

Beth Whelan: (00:33)

I am an independent choreographer and the freelancer around town, freelance dancer. I’m also a company member with Tongue Dance Project, I am communications director at White Bird, and I am also a writer for Oregon Arts Watch. I cover local dance performances and review them or preview them and chat with choreographers and artists, which is really fun.

Emily Running: (00:59)

Awesome. Tell me about how you got started dancing.

Beth Whelan: (01:05)

I have the most classic dance beginning. I started when I was three in ballet and tap, back in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. That’s where I’m from. I went to Jane Lapoten School of Dance and I was there until I was 18.

Emily Running: (01:22)

Ballet and tap the whole time?

Beth Whelan: (01:24)

Ballet, tap. Then I picked up jazz, which was the most exciting day of my 10 year-old life.

Emily Running: (01:32)

Totally. You discovered this whole new world that people have been hiding from you.

Beth Whelan: (01:37)

I was like, pop music?! And then it got even better when I was 12 and started modern, and that is what I’ve stuck with.

Emily Running: (01:45)

Oh, you got modern since 12?

Beth Whelan: (01:47)

Also lyrical, and I did pointe for a hot second, which was fun, but probably never again. And then after high school, I decided I wanted to go to college for dance, and I went to George Mason where I got my BFA. That’s where I found my love for choreography. From there, I freelanced a bit in D.C., which was close to my college in Philadelphia. Then spent a summer back at home in the Philadelphia area and decided I wanted to move to Portland. I got here in 2017, and have been creating and dancing here.

Emily Running: (02:37)

Did you think that there would be crazy, amazing dance opportunities in Portland, and that’s why you moved, or did you move for other reasons?

Beth Whelan: (02:44)

It’s a funny question, because we spent a lot of time in my last year of college talking about what our plans post-grad were. We actually had a whole course designed to decide what you were doing with your life.

Emily Running: (02:59)

That’s amazing. What did the course entail?

Beth Whelan: (03:02)

It was called Senior Synthesis, I think. We had guest speakers come in who would talk about what they were doing in their life post-grad. It was everything from admin to choreographers to freelancers, to people in big companies, and gave us a big range of what was possible, or teaching, just tons of different opportunities, which is helpful. Because I feel like you don’t really know what’s coming.

Emily Running: (03:32)

My other tangent question, before we get back to your official answer, is in your program did you actually learn resources like budgeting, or did you learn how to do things like…

Beth Whelan: (03:46)

A bit. We talked about budgeting and came up with fake budgets and researched.

Emily Running: (03:53)

Or marketing? Or, you know, being the tiny business that you have to be to be a choreographer, or…?

Beth Whelan: (04:00)

I wish we had known more about that and the marketing, which is where my day job at White Bird has been really helpful in teaching me about marketing, and crossing it over into my own personal artist practice. But, we were encouraged to look up dance service websites. And so, I brought Dance Wire to my class. I was like, I found Portland’s, it’s Dance Wire. Here we are, three years later. My whole class was all excited.

Emily Running: (04:32)

That’s awesome. It’s funny, you’ve never told me that story.

Beth Whelan: (04:34)

I know. So it was in the works before I even came here. What was I answering?

Emily Running: (04:41)

You were answering if you came to Portland because of the opportunities.

Beth Whelan: (04:48)

I honestly, I don’t know if I really told anyone this, but I was doing a big search of all of the cities and the states that I maybe wanted to move to. And I had my eye on the West Coast just because I spent my whole life growing up on the East Coast. But the real reason I came to Portland was because I thought it was so beautiful, the natural area around Portland. I found pictures of the Gorge, and growing up in suburban Pennsylvania, I didn’t know that even existed in the United States. I was just really blown away. So from there I was like, I hope they have dance, and started researching about the dance here. It was a little bit hard to find out what was going on on the local freelance level.

Beth Whelan: (05:38)

I quickly found like BodyVox and NW Dance Project and OBT [Oregon Ballet Theater]. But it was challenging to find who the choreographers were in town that were creating project-based things or had small companies. I found a couple, and I had a feeling that I was just not seeing the full picture, but I honestly just crossed my fingers that there was going to be what I wanted when I moved here. I painted this whole picture of Portland for everyone who was questioning why I was making such a big move, I kind of amped up the dance scene to everyone back home to validate why I was moving. Then when I got here I was happy, I felt like it was pretty easy to get connected in, and have been happily hopping from project to project since I moved.

Emily Running: (06:33)

Totally. You came in and you were just like, here I am, I want to get involved. But then you followed through, just made it happen. I mean, that’s part of it, is just making it happen yourself.

Beth Whelan: (06:46)

I think that’s maybe due to a little bit of that East Coast hustle that’s ingrained in me. But, quite honestly, I moved for the nature and was hoping there was dance to keep me happy, and there was, it worked out.

Emily Running: (07:01)

What does dance mean to you or has meant to you in your life?

Beth Whelan: (07:13)

I was thinking about this last night. Oh, I don’t know if I was supposed to give away that I knew the questions.

Emily Running: (07:20)

It’s okay [laughter].

Beth Whelan: (07:20)

Insider note. I think, well, it’s such a large question, which I’m sure everyone says.

Emily Running: (07:31)

That’s why we put it right up front, let’s just get to that part.

Beth Whelan: (07:34)

I think if anything, since it’s obviously been a part of my life since I was so young, I think what it’s meant to me has changed over the years, and I would hope that it does for everyone. Looking back, it’s just been that one thing that’s been consistent, and has been able to evolve with me as I’ve grown. I feel like I’ve cycled through a lot of hobbies and interests and like every instrument, but dance, I feel, continues to change as I do. I now expect it to keep doing that as I get older. It feels like that one thing that I can rely on to fall back to whenever I want to, which happens to me more often than not. It means the hobby and passion for me that has always reflected where I’m at in my life, and mirrored what I’m thinking about, and what’s important to me. It almost serves as a log too, of where I was at. When I look back on videos of myself dancing when I was younger, pieces I choreographed, it’s so clear to me. I quickly remember everything I was thinking of.

Emily Running: (08:58)

You have a reference point for what was going on in your life and what people you knew and stuff like that, cool.

Beth Whelan: (09:06)

Having that log of where I’ve been with dance has also made it easier for me to be happy with where I am at dance right now. Because I’ll remember how I felt when I was doing a piece or something, maybe when I was a teenager and had self doubt and things, and then I’ll look back on it now and I’m like, well, that was a great time because I remember I was learning this and that. And it’s okay if I looked bad doing that turn, or couldn’t accomplish that jump, it seems small when you look back. I try to keep that in my mind now when I start to get critical about where I’m at creatively. Just remembering that years from now, I’ll look back and see I was going back and forth over the same ideas and concepts, and what I was trying to move forward with what I was interested in.

Emily Running: (10:06)

It’s interesting because you know, they always say yoga is a practice, right? Like, you don’t just go to a class here or there. I don’t know, do it for one reason, it’s really just about this consistent, ongoing thing that you have in your life. And I never, I guess oddly, haven’t thought of dance exactly in that way, of that reference point and working through a particular mindset, or you know just helping you advance. There’s so many of those things that it is good for.

Beth Whelan: (10:39)

I like that idea too, of it being your practice that you return to. Some days it might not be what you want it to be, like yesterday I went to floor to improv for the first time in a really long time. I probably laid on the floor for 50% of the time. I was there, and yeah. For a second, I was like, oh man, this is not what I was hoping for, and it’s been such a long time since I gave myself that space to just be creative alone in the studio. And then, by the end I was like, you know what, it’s okay. I made it here, and I danced for half the time and got a little bit of movement out and maybe the next time I’ll be ready to dance 70% of the time, you know?

Emily Running: (11:22)

Totally. What were the challenges that you’ve faced in your pursuit of dance?

Beth Whelan: (11:33)

Oh, this is a perfect segue. Recently, it’s been creative block, which I feel is something that not a lot of people talk about often, especially in terms of how art is shared nowadays, especially on social media and things like that. It’s all like, what are you doing next? You finish a show, and everyone’s asking what your next project is, and there’s always the next post coming, and you created a new phrase and here it is, and then now you’re teaching class here, and it just feels almost like a rat race a bit. And I often feel like there’s not much space for a lull, and a time to regroup as an artist. And that’s something that I don’t want to say I have struggled with too much, but it’s definitely something I’m facing now, and trying to be patient with myself as I work through. This is like the longest period I’ve taken in between creating pieces. And I’m still dancing and moving every week. That is one of the main things that I am facing, and also probably the most relatable to most artists. Creative block. But, I don’t know that everyone is willing to admit it.

Emily Running: (12:59)

Right. Or maybe it also feels, like you’re saying with social media, maybe it just feels like nobody else has that. And everybody probably does. Or they go through periods where they’re just not feeling inspired or not feeling fresh. I mean, sometimes you can be creating a bunch of things and they feel like what you always create. It’s the same movement my body always does, and I can’t break it, or I don’t want to.

Beth Whelan: (13:26)

Right. And you’re so familiar with it that to you nothing about it seems new. And sometimes, I think it just takes a moment to step back and maybe notice that for someone watching it, that’s new for them. It makes me think of, I remember pretty clearly the first time I realized I was actually appreciating the colors of winter, I don’t know, probably a couple years ago. I remember driving down the highway, I was back at home on the East Coast, and so everything turns brown. Out here, it’s so beautiful how there’s still evergreens, but everything is brown. And I remember being like, wow, I feel like I’m finally appreciating the lull of winter and seeing the beauty of it. And I feel like I’m trying to apply that same respect to a lull in our industry.

Emily Running: (14:29)

Everything does have a cycle or a rhythm. We can’t be on full force all the time. It’s just not how we’re built, we need those down times. We need the dark moments. We need the seasons.

Beth Whelan: (14:46)

I’ve only been out of school for two and a half years now. So, out of school and then out of any super regimented schedule of having, your choreography is due on _____, you know? And so, I’m still kind of getting into the flow of my own. Like being creative up and down. So, it’s just getting used to what my own patterns are, how often new ideas are going to bloom in my mind.

Emily Running: (15:23)

And what else you’re balancing in life, because in school you’re balancing a lot of things, but they’re kind of grouped, you know, they’re all under the same umbrella of school. So, what people, resources or opportunities have helped you the most?

Beth Whelan: (15:43)

I would definitely say first and foremost, all of the teachers and instructors that I’ve had. I feel like they’ve just been real pillars of support and inspiration throughout my life. I could go through and name drop a couple, but I just think in general, I’ve really looked to my teachers for guidance and to be eyes outside of myself. There was one teacher that I had in college who was really open about her own life throughout our time in college. And she would always say to us, it was something to the extent of, you have to live your life outside the studio fully if you want your movement to be full of life.

Beth Whelan: (16:47)

It was beautiful. I felt like she really had embodied that in the way that she would share her life experience and encourage us to be humans outside of the dance studio. And that’s something that I really feel strongly about and try to put into practice as much as I can, to have a rich life outside of dance. And to immerse myself in other worlds, and hear other people’s stories and attend to my own. But I do believe that you’re not going to have anything to say in your movement if you’re not living your life. And having experiences to talk about, or observing the world around you, to then put it through your body. I would definitely say my teachers, of course my family, they’ve been really supportive from day one, sitting through my three hour long recitals as a kid. Bless their hearts, and then all through college. And now being so far away from them, they’re still very right there with me.

Emily Running: (17:59)

Teachers and family. Nice. So, what stage do you feel like you’re at in your career right now?

Beth Whelan: (18:09)

I feel like that’s an interesting question to me, because I’m not quite sure that I know. I guess I could say that I have a career in dance because I’ve put so much time into it. But, I also feel like I’m not really sure what my career is, I don’t know. I don’t wanna be like, I’m only 25, but I am. So I hesitate, it feels a little bit more to me like when I feel creative, I am creative, and that’s what comes out. I’m not really a five-year-plan person. I don’t want to say go with the flow, I kind of just move through my life and when I feel like I need to say something through movement and through dance, I do that. But at the same time, I do realize that I’ve been working on giving energy to this outlet for almost my whole life now, and have carried it over into my professional life.

Emily Running: (19:29)

Your day job, career, yeah. Day job career.

Beth Whelan: (19:34)

I do feel like if I were to label where I’m at in my career as an artist, I would say I’m still in the lab. I’m still testing out all the things that I want to share and want to explore, which feels fun. It feels like a good place to be. Because I feel like I haven’t walled myself in in any way yet. There’s still room for anything to come in, and I feel good about that because I don’t feel ready to nail myself into one idea or one big artist statement, like we were talking earlier. I feel like I’m still testing out what colors I’m playing with.

Emily Running: (20:34)

I was once asked what the ladder is like in a choreographer’s world? What is the ladder like, what are the stages to get to the top? And I was like, what a strange question. I can’t, what do you mean a…, like I get the corporate ladder. I get that, that’s what you’re trying to compare it to. And yet, it just isn’t even a thing. I suppose maybe if you grew up being like, I want to be the artistic director of this company, you know like whatever, some Ballet company, then there’s maybe a ladder you go down, but otherwise the life of an artist really isn’t a ladder form. That’s not how it works. So your plan is to move forward organically, which is how you’ve been doing it. And I think that that’s great.

Beth Whelan: (21:36)

I’ve always been a little wary about the idea of fitting. I know you can do this, fit an artist’s world into exactly what you’re saying, like a set projection of exactly how it should go.

Emily Running: (21:47)

A trajectory. Yeah.

Beth Whelan: (21:49)

Like, first you start a company, and then you present a show, and then you go on tour, and then you’re going on an international tour. Obviously you can follow that, and tons of people do and strive towards it. But, at the same time I don’t think, there’s no difference from that to someone who starts attending to their artistry when they’re in the middle of their life. To me, those are the same. You’re always an artist whenever you decide to be, and the steps and the accomplishments and the achievements don’t really mean much to me. I think it’s more, so are you happy with what you’re doing in this current time of your life? And if that’s going on a tour around the world, that’s awesome. And if that’s creating a piece for 10 people to see, that’s awesome too.

Emily Running: (22:55)

That leads into the next question about, and it backtracks a little bit, I think, to what else is happening in your life. So, how is it balancing your artistry or this exploration of movement that you have going on in your life with your career, or your work, or other elements?

Beth Whelan: (23:25)

It’s hard. My day job is at White Bird, which is for anyone who’s unfamiliar, a local dance presenting company who brings international, national and local artists to perform in Portland. Yeah, it’s hard. Like I was saying earlier, it’s given me a ton of tools to cross over into my own artist practice, especially within marketing, that was a whole world I wasn’t ready for. I think being in that world all day, and then trying to go to class and rehearsal at night and continue to be in that world, or try to come up with new ideas for myself, it almost sometimes feels like an overload of dance.

Emily Running: (24:18)

So, not that full life outside that has multiple influences and aspects. It kind of feels too consumed by dance maybe?

Beth Whelan: (24:30)

Yeah. A bit. Sometimes I crave a bit more blank space in my life as an artist. I mean, that being said, it’s pretty wonderful to spend my time during the day researching other dance companies, and getting to spend time watching their videos, and choosing what content I want to share through White Bird’s channel and things like that. So, I do feel like it’s offered me a lot of ways to connect further into the dance world. I found a lot more companies and choreographers I wasn’t familiar with before. It comes with its challenges of feeling inundated with dance. I feel like that balance is a lot harder to find, of having a full life and personality beyond dance. It starts to feel like my whole existence is dance. I don’t know if that’s what I want, you know?

Emily Running: (25:36)

Do you think you would be interested in having a day job that was focused on something different?

Beth Whelan: (25:48)

I would be interested in how it would affect my marketing.

Emily Running: (25:52)

Like vegan cookies, I don’t know, marketing for a bakery, just a different industry in general, or is marketing something that you would want to continue with?

Beth Whelan: (26:05)

I don’t know. I would be curious how pulling out some dance in my life would affect my own creativity. Marketing-wise, I feel like the reason I like marketing now is because it’s dance. Because it’s relevant to things I care about. But I have been self-teaching myself graphic design for the past two years, which has been really fun. And that’s something that feels like a good balance of creativity, and also some type of visual artistry, but also practical and I like the technology behind it. I think it’s also good because with dance, I don’t want to say I don’t like to be critiqued because I wouldn’t say that’s true, but I get a little protective of my own things and I kind of like the freedom to just create whatever I want, and that’s exactly what I want it to be. And I kind of like having that check with the graphic design element, you still have to run it through other people and get other people’s feedback. So I think that’s a good, healthy thing for me to have a creative project that still gets put under the eyes of other people, and then I have to go change, and I think that’s probably good for me to have that in my life.

Emily Running: (27:34)

Nice. So how would you describe the current dance scene in Portland? What is awesome? What is lacking? You can freely describe whatever comes to mind.

Beth Whelan: (27:54)

I have a really lucky perspective through my work with Arts Watch, you probably feel similar getting to sit down and do these interviews. Because I’ve had the same opportunity to sit down and interview a handful of artists in Portland about their work that they’re presenting. In that way, I feel like I’ve had a really lucky opportunity to get inside some people’s heads, and really see what they’re thinking about, and ask them more questions than what they hand out on their program. From those experiences, I feel like Portland is just bursting with people with ideas, which is awesome. It’s more often than not that I leave one of my interviews for Arts Watch feeling really inspired by the people that I just talked to, and makes me want to keep creating.

Beth Whelan: (28:52)

So, in a way I wish that more people had that chance to sit down and chat and hash out their ideas as artists. And also just really strong work ethic, especially on the choreographers’ side, the people who are here choreographing, independently or with their companies are really dedicated, which is something I really admire. Last year in February after Trevor and I put our show on at Linda Austin space, I feel like that just put into perspective how much it takes to put on your own show as independent choreographers. Since then, I have huge respect for everyone who’s doing that because I’m sure a lot of people in the dance world are aware, but I don’t think anyone in the outside world is quite aware of just how much that takes.

Emily Running: (29:54)

Although maybe not even in the dance world, because as you’re saying, until you did it yourself, you really don’t have a sense of it. I guess from my perspective, I also often notice that dancers might not have an understanding of what all goes into that and just how challenging it is, how big it is.

Beth Whelan: (30:15)

Even getting the word out about your project beyond your circle. I know through White Bird, just to get our posters out, we have over 30 volunteers that are all around the city putting thousands of posters out. And then when it came time to get posters out for my own piece, I was like, oh my God, where do I even start? First, with the cost of how much it costs to just print posters, but then just the time it takes to drive around and hit coffee shops and local businesses, it’s crazy. Let alone all the time it takes to be creative in rehearsal and money to pay your dancers, it’s just crazy. So, I do feel like Portland has a lot of people who care so deeply about their work that they are willing to put in the time and effort to do that, which is super awesome.

Beth Whelan: (31:08)

I feel like a lot of people feel this way, the class scene, taking-class scene, in Portland is kind of weird. And I know that I play into this too, of not always showing up for class every week. That’s a challenge, I know for studio owners and people trying to run classes, it’s really hard. I experienced that when I was teaching class back in the spring, that it’s hard to get people to come to class.

Emily Running: (31:51)

People kind of say that they want class, but then right, often don’t show up to class. Or there’s not a lot of consistency, or there’s just not a single space in town that has all the professional levels.

Beth Whelan: (32:06)

Exactly. I think that’s an interesting thing about classes in Portland, the level of classes. I think there’s a lot of open classes, which is awesome. I think there’s tons of adults who want to take classes in Portland, which is great. But I do wonder if that maybe pulls professional dancers away from class, because they’re not sure what level they’re going to get when they get there. But I mean, that being said, I definitely have been one to skip class and stay home and drink coffee.

Emily Running: (32:39)

I mean, everybody does that on occasion.

Beth Whelan: (32:43)

Many times, yeah. But when you do show up to class and the same group keeps coming, it feels really good to have that community there every week. And know that you’re all going to show up on Wednesday night and work hard and get better together.

Emily Running: (32:56)

I think that there is room, and I’ve heard this from multiple people I feel and myself, there is definitely room for professional level classes that you do show up and you’re pushed, and you leave feeling like it wasn’t just me going to move around a little bit and it was nice, but it was like, yes, I got in there and I did something.

Beth Whelan: (33:24)

Otherwise I do think the community in Portland is really supportive. I can’t even think of a show that I’ve gone to that wasn’t either or sold out or almost full.

Emily Running: (33:38)

And that had a ton of other dancers at it. I think that that’s really important too.

Beth Whelan: (33:45)

It’s great. I feel like that goes a little bit unnoticed, that every time you come out of a show that you’re dancing in, there’s going to be a whole handful of dancers there. Who came to see you and support you and I think that’s really awesome. That’s probably my favorite part of the community here, that you can count on people showing up to see the shows that are being created. It makes it feel more worth it.

Emily Running: (34:10)

Exactly, and seeing other people’s work and just supporting it, knowing how hard it is to bring it to life. If you were to paint a really idealistic picture of dance in the future in Portland, what would it be? What are one or two key things that you’re just like, ah, I wish this, and maybe classes are one of those, I don’t know.

Beth Whelan: (34:34)

Maybe a more unified class front, or people coming together.

Emily Running: (34:43)

Or a location? Anybody want to open a studio that has all the…?

Beth Whelan: (34:47)

Yeah. I think on a weekly basis, coming together more often would be awesome. But the one thing that I do wish that Portland had is a giant summer dance festival on the river. Like how New York has that, it’s open to the public. And I think we have such a beautiful riverfront and it’s weird to me that there’s hardly anything happening. There’s like no restaurants, no bars, there’s like one area to kind of sit. I just think there could be so much happening, and I know the market and everything happens there. But when I went to the, uh, what was it? Maybe it was the Folk Festival, no, the jazz fest?

Emily Running: (35:36)

Blues Fest is on the waterfront.

Beth Whelan: (35:37)

Yeah, yeah. When I went to that this summer, I just couldn’t stop thinking this could be dance. All these people could be here to see dance, or they could pair or dance with it or something. I feel like there needs to be more dance happening in public spaces to help Portland realize that dance is happening here on a local level.

Emily Running: (36:07)

And at quality. And the quality has grown a lot in the 11 years since I’ve been here. So, the quality is there and the number of things happening is there.

Beth Whelan: (36:19)

In some of the meetings that I’ve had through work with some of the local newspaper publications, we’ll sit down and ask them why there’s not a whole column on dance or whole section on dance, the way they do huge listings of music concerts and things. And multiple people have said there’s not enough happening here to do that. And I’m like, the last Dance Wire calendar that came out, or was it, it was either Dance Wire or…

Emily Running: (36:50)

I can give you a real stat from our annual report, which is that in the past year we’ve posted 559 dance events to our calendar.

Beth Whelan: (36:59)

It’s almost every day each month that you can see dance in Portland. I wish there was more visibility for local artists. And more opportunities for them to share their work without having to empty their wallet to do so. Yeah. Summer dance festival and big classes.

Emily Running: (37:22)

I like it. Anything else in the last few minutes that you want to say that I haven’t asked you about?

Beth Whelan: (37:30)

I don’t think so.

Emily Running: (37:31)

Awesome. Well, thanks for chatting and telling your story.