2023 Ambassador Eric Nordstrom
Emily Running (00:01):
Hello, my name is Emily Running. I am the Founder and Vision Director for Dance Wire. I am here on July 18th, 2023 with Eric Nordstrom to talk about his life and career in dance. So, welcome,
Eric Nordstrom (00:17):
Hey, Emily. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.
Emily Running (00:20):
So to start off with, tell me what your current titles are.
Eric Nordstrom (00:25):
Yeah. I’m an Instructor of Dance at Lewis and Clark College and Portland State University. I’m also an Independent Dance Filmmaker, and in the past I’ve done a lot of work with dance performance.
Emily Running (00:35):
Awesome. What styles of dance do you teach at Portland or in, in your teaching?
Eric Nordstrom (00:40):
Yeah, totally. So I come from kind of a somatic lens, which means that we’re working with the knowledge of the body. So to do that I pull on anatomy to help students better understand how their body works. And then the idea is that as they’re moving, they’re forming a deep relationship to their own physical being as a way of expressing and working with dance.
Emily Running (01:04):
Awesome. Cool. Give me a brief overview of how you got started in dance. What were your pivotal moments?
Eric Nordstrom (01:12):
Yeah, totally. So I got started in dance in high school out of all the places to start. I don’t know if that’s unusual or not, <laugh> it might be. But yeah, I went to this Arts Magnet High School in Vancouver. It’s a public school, still exists, but it’s focused on arts and integration of arts and academic subjects. I went there as a theater kid. I loved theater in part because I’m dyslexic and when I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of audio books, but theater captivated some really complex and interesting things. So I wanted to be involved in theater. And at this Arts Magnet School, I took a dance class and then just kept going with that as being a deep love.
Emily Running (01:53):
Awesome. You and I have something in common. I am also dyslexic, which I kind of recently discovered. But did you discover that early in life? Were you, was it an official thing for you?
Eric Nordstrom (02:07):
Yeah. This is fascinating. I love this.
Emily Running (02:09):
I also bring this up because so many other, now that I know so many other dance artists I have learned are also dyslexic. So yeah. I’m curious if, yeah. How did you find out?
Eric Nordstrom (02:22):
Yeah, I found out in high school like freshman year, and it wasn’t even like an official diagnosis. It was just like an English teacher being like, things aren’t like, like you’re very proficient in class conversation, but you’re writing, there’s a gap. And so this could be what’s going on. Since then I’ve learned that there’s so many strengths to being dyslexic, and that oftentimes those are only weaknesses if we’re put into situations or contexts where we can’t use the tools that are most effective.
Emily Running (02:54):
Yeah. I read The Dyslexic Advantage. I I don’t know if that is one of your resources or books, but that was one that helped me understand what the advantages are.
Eric Nordstrom (03:05):
Yeah. Yeah. Neurodiversity, it brings out, I think society needs that. Yeah. Because it offers multiple perspectives which ultimately creates more strength.
Emily Running (03:15):
Yeah, absolutely. So we jump right into the meaningful stuff here. What does dance mean to you or has meant to you in your life?
Eric Nordstrom (03:25):
I love that question. I feel so fortunate to have had a life that that has been full of dance, and in many ways I think that took a lot of bravery to step into that and and also just gratitude for the opportunity to be able to do that. For me, dance has been a way to, to kind of, I feel that inside all of us, our bodies are telling us so many different things about how we’re relating with our emotions, with our ideas, with other people, and dance has been a real container to kind of parse that apart and to understand how to process that information, how to listen to that information and what it means. So ultimately, I feel my practice of dance has helped me gain a deep understanding of myself, but also myself in relationship to community and other people. And that is, I feel just like, thank you for helping me understand how to be a little bit more human.
Emily Running (04:23):
Yeah. So you mentioned the word bravery, that it took bravery. Tell more about that. I’m curious, you know, I agree, but I’m curious what is that type of bravery?
Eric Nordstrom (04:36):
Emily Running (04:40):
How can somebody else be brave and step into this for themselves?
Eric Nordstrom (04:43):
Thank you for picking up on that. I think there’s you know, out of all the, so this is, I’m sorry, I’m going to answer this in a different way. So one time I was in a nursing home just talking, you know, visiting an old family member. I ended up talking to just some random nice old lady sitting at a table, and they were like, “what do you do?” And I was about to tell them that I dance and teach dance, but I was like, we’re kind of having a little tongue in cheek conversation, I’ll just joke a little bit. And I said, oh, I’m a financial consultant. And I just saw their eyes light up and give this sense of like affirmation and acknowledgement. And I, honestly, I felt too bad to let them know that I was joking. And so I just let it slide. But oftentimes, when I explain that I’m involved in dance for people outside of the dance world, it creates a sense of usually respectful curiosity, but usually not right away a sense of affirmation or approval. And so I think, you know, to choose a life that’s kind of deeply cultured, but maybe outside of the mainstream culture of what’s accepted or understood is a leap of faith and takes some courage to do.
Emily Running (06:04):
That is amazing. And I love that answer from you.
Eric Nordstrom (06:11):
Yeah. I also feel really bad about those old women, that I lied to them. It was intended just to be a good joke, <laugh>.
Emily Running (06:19):
That’s ok. Yeah. I think that probably, I don’t know, I won’t speak for anybody else, but I have certainly done that. It’s just easier sometimes not to say what you actually do. Because again, then there is that inevitable, or maybe not inevitable, but there is certainly an element of, “huh, what does that even mean?” You know, there’s a lot more that comes to it. Well, what challenges have you faced as a dance artist?
Eric Nordstrom (06:51):
Yeah, and I think what we’re talking about now about kind of that bravery and leap of faith to go into dance certainly has created a challenge, and particularly as somebody who identifies as a straight male, it feels that challenge has been, perhaps because of that identification, amplified. But not, oddly enough, within the dance world. There’s been many times where I’ve been the only guy in a dance class and my dance training has been predominantly by women. But it’s all been just a wonderful positive experience. And I wish that oftentimes the gender diversity in a class was a bit more even and not so askew. But that never has felt like an impediment to me being interested in dance, because all that information, that community, the support is present within the world of dance.
I think what’s hard, what has been hard for me, is outside of dance, that perception of saying, “oh, like, like, isn’t dance more of an effeminate thing?” Or, “why are you a straight guy dancing?” has often been the subtext of conversations that I’ve had with people who are not involved in dance and don’t have the same understanding or involvement. So in a way, I think me wanting to be in dance is kind of this wonderfully radical thing that I feel is so important and is gonna you know, I hope, I hope that there’s a shift that allows more people to to be able to do that. Kind of looking back at the history of dance, dance hasn’t always been like there’s been, sorry, I’m just taking a moment here to formulate a thought.
So back in the 17 hundreds the idea of masculinity and dance was you know, there was a real connection there. Louis the XIV, King of France did a lot of dance, head of state. Now, oftentimes we don’t think of dance and heads of states as being associated. When I look back through history, particularly like Western and European history, we can see multiple systemic models of patriarchy as being a massive constant. What hasn’t been a constant is the understanding of masculinity, and masculinity has always kind of shifted and morphed in relationship to what supports the patriarchy. So in a way I feel like me saying I want to be masculine, but in a form like dance, I’m choosing to be masculine in a way that is divergent from current trends, and ultimately, I feel that that’s really effective and healthy for me.
There’s something now about masculinity in our current culture that just isn’t working. We look at like mass shooters like 95 plus percent of mass shooters are males. And I don’t think anybody knows exactly why, but that is a shocking statistic. I feel for me personally with my involvement in dance, I’ve been able to be physically expressive, which is akin also to helping me be emotionally expressive. And I think anytime that we’re not allowed to truly be expressive to who we are, there’s a, there’s repression that ultimately in some way or another is gonna bubble up. And I feel that I’ve been able to to truly be who I am, but to do that, it’s been a massive challenge to kind of buck the social expectation. But when I step back and look what I’m doing, I feel really grateful that I’m able, that I’ve had the courage to kind of step into the shoes that are mine.
Emily Running (10:44):
Yeah. And it’s interesting because you talk about kind of history, but also cultural experiences, because I think different cultures, men are celebrated in dance in a totally different way. And it’s obviously, we’re talking about your experience here, and you know, it would be so interesting to have a conversation across dance styles, across cultures about what that means. Right. Because we are stuck in kind of the social construct that is or the social fabric that is dance in America and what has been offered. So what people, resources or opportunities have helped you the most?
Eric Nordstrom (11:34):
That makes me think back to so many good memories that I’ve had. One of them is dancing with Mary Oslund, who was a longtime choreographer here in Portland. And she brought a deep complexity and sophistication to her work that through being a company member, in her company over years, I was able to grow from, and appreciate. And I think work like that draws dancers in that company together to have a very close knit, and very you know, you’re, you’re working in a very familiar and involved way with people that forms a deep relationship, so both interpersonally and technically.
Emily Running (12:17):
It’s interesting. I want to kind of reduce those resources into a couple of things, not reduce them, but consolidate the concept into building trust and relationship and community over time. That there’s an element of repetition and normal, like routine practice ongoing that it sounds like was really important part of that.
Eric Nordstrom (12:48):
Yeah, definitely. Yeah. That it just didn’t happen in a week. There was years, yeah.
Emily Running (12:54):
Yeah. That it was over the course of a long span of time with, and did the company stay pretty similar? The people in the company stay largely the same throughout that time?
Eric Nordstrom (13:05):
Largely, yeah. There were, you know, a few people coming and going over the time that I was there, but definitely but there was a such a kind of a core ethos of what that was that as new people came in, there was a very clear sense of community that was already in a way of working that was established that then the other people could easily plug into. Some other really inspirational moments for me was getting to work with Nancy Stark Smith, who was one of the original people to help cultivate the form Contact Improvisation. And I took an intensive with her when she was in her seventies, and I think oftentimes we think of dancers being younger, and this was somebody who had just had worlds of wisdom deep deep sensibility to be able to offer with this specific form of contact, but in doing so also you know, created this amazing community within her classes that was informed by her practice and her history with the form of contact improvisation. Simone Forti is another person that I’ve made a short documentary film about, and I’ve gotten to study with. Again, she’s now in her eighties at the time I worked with her she was in her late seventies, and somebody that was implemental to the start of Post-Modern dance in the sixties. She took class with Robert Dunn and the Judson Church folks, and then you know, was able to, has cultivated that perspective and is able to continue to, to offer it as she is continuing to perform and to teach.
Emily Running (14:52):
I want to go back just a little bit to talk about your Contact Improv. Talk about what is that experience, because it’s an interesting, it’s like such a different engagement and dance than maybe some people are even familiar with, right? It’s not choreography and steps in 5, 6, 7, 8, and, you know, learning in front of a mirror. Describe a Contact Improv scenario and what you get out of that.
Eric Nordstrom (15:24):
Yeah, totally. It is, I think, a very different kind of paradigm of working than what most people associate with dance. And I think there’s many avenues of dance that are effective and important, and Contact is certainly representative of one of those corners. So Contact Improvisation is a dance form that often done with two people, but can be done with more. And it’s using the point of contact or where you’re coming into contact with another person as a point of information about what is possible from here. How can I give weight, receive weight, move, pivot, slide. So it’s a very dynamic form, but it’s a form that requires you to be very present with information that you’re getting because sometimes it’s very easy not to be present to think ahead. And as soon as that happens, I find I usually am on my face, on the floor <laugh> as opposed to being lifted or supported or you know, finding finding that dynamic that physical dynamic that’s able to continue to flourish. So for me, it’s a practice in presence and being present. It’s a practice in reception and receiving information that’s there, and it’s a practice about truly being connected to myself, because everything that I’m understanding, I’m understanding through myself, so I need to kind of understand what’s happening for me, what my experience is, and then I’m able to connect to somebody more deeply – somebody else.
Emily Running (17:00):
What an important life lesson, life practice, right? Yeah. What a beautiful practice to have.
Eric Nordstrom (17:10):
Emily Running (17:10):
What stage are you at in your career, would you say? Or maybe you could even describe what you see the trajectory being so far, and kind of where you’re at on that.
Eric Nordstrom (17:24):
I think it’s really easy to think of a person’s role in dance as being singular like, you are a this or you are a that. But I think many of us throughout life in different stages of life, assume different identities. And that’s certainly been the case for me in dance. In my teens and early twenties, it was about being a student, about gathering information. In my mid twenties and early thirties, it was about using that information to perform to be a performing artist, to be an artist. And then as I’m getting in later in my thirties, now in my forties there’s been a shift to saying I’m still interested in performance, but I’m also very interested in teaching and how to share this information that I’ve cultivated in my teens, my twenties, and my thirties with other people as a way that they can perhaps maybe appreciate some of the depth, some of the inquiry, some of the information about myself and how to relate to other people that I’ve cultivated.
And I have no idea what the next stage is going to be. You know, if you asked me in my teens or my twenties what the next stage would be, I couldn’t tell you then either. To me it feels you know, there’s kind of these, these arcs that happen, and you write an arc as long as it makes sense, and then you see oftentimes a shift of identity is hard because it means kind of saying, “oh, I’m not who I was.” But I think the other option is to have a false identity, for me still trying to be a performer like I was in my twenties when I’m now really more interested in teaching and having that be a larger aspect of my life. So, I am eager to see what the next stage will be or how long this arc will last.
Emily Running (19:18):
Did, did you feel resistance during any of those transitions? Did you feel tension or did they kind of happen organically and somehow that stage closed and the other stage opened? Or was there struggle?
Eric Nordstrom (19:38):
That’s such a good question. I think, you know, to be a dance performer takes a massive amount of training of time and energy. And for those things to align takes a lot of drive and commitment, and so to to perform all those things were in place for me. And that was something that had been such a central part of my identity. And to come to a spot to say where maybe it doesn’t make sense for that to be as central, and that something else like teaching is going to be more central. I knew in my heart of hearts that that was the shift that made sense, that that’s how I could help to do more good in the world, that that was the toolbox that I was gonna work with. But it was a little, it was a hard moment to say, I’ve got all this commitment to performing and opportunities are presenting themselves in different areas, but it wasn’t heart wrenching. It was just kind of like a, I don’t know, like a, like a snake shedding its skin. It was just kind of a shift but there was some weight to that shift, for sure.
Emily Running (20:59):
And external factors, I mean, this is the thing is when we see dance as a lifelong endeavor that goes through different phases, it also means that all the other things going on in your life and your family or your people, or health related things, financial related things, all these things are kind of feeding into this. And we are constantly trying to figure out how the dance part relates or fits in or doesn’t, or needs to shift or change.
Eric Nordstrom (21:35):
Yes. Teaching at a college offers a certain level of financial stability that being a performing artist did not. And that was not the sole reason for that shift. There were a lot of factors, but that was certainly a factor to consider that was pulling me in a different direction.
Emily Running (21:54):
I’m adding another question here. Do you have any just one piece of advice that you want all young dancers to consider?
Eric Nordstrom (22:04):
Oh, that’s such a good question. I think when you are thinking of dance, there’s so many different ways to approach this field. So listen to what truly makes you happy, and there’s going to be a lot of people telling you how you should dance or who you should be. And I think most of those people truly do mean well. But the only person that can really tell you how you wanna dance, how you wanna relate to dance is yourself. And so to listen to that. I also think diversifying is really important. It’s easy to get this single lens of like, I am this kind of dancer, but my work with being able to branch out, to dance on film, to being able to work with teaching, to work in with Contact Improvisation as well as Contemporary and Modern dance all of those things have cultivated opportunities that if I only focused on one of them I would’ve missed out on a significant range of experiences that have been really important to me.
Emily Running (23:09):
Excellent, excellent advice. So describe the current dance scene in Portland. What is fabulous? What needs work?
Eric Nordstrom (23:19):
Yeah. let’s start with what’s fabulous, because there is a lot that’s fabulous in Portland. I see some companies that are doing amazing work, often with very little resources but somehow they’re able to to cultivate engaging, thought-provoking work. And so I think we should just step back and say some incredible things are happening in Portland, and if we look back over you decades, like in the early two thousands, some incredible things were happening, in the nineties and the eighties. Portland has an ethos of independent artists saying, “I want to do something.” And, and for however long of a period of time, it’s possible being able to cultivate that for themselves. What I’d like to see shift is a way for Portland as a city to be more aware of that wonderful work that’s happening and to to help continue to cultivate it.
There’s lots of different ways that this can happen. In the past colleges and universities have been more integrated into the professional dance scene. We can see this with Portland State in the 1990s where classes were open for dancers to take, professional dancers that weren’t just college students. And out of that came some different dance companies, performance opportunities. Portland State was also doing a great job in the nineties of hiring a lot of local artists, so as a way to bring that experience to their students and to help supplement the income of artists by creating teaching opportunities. Before that, in the seventies and eighties, Reed had a summer college program that nationally attracted people from all over to be able to come there and study in the summers, and that was a direct line for a lot of people in Portland dancing at that time to get that information. In the future, I’d love to see our colleges and universities continue to find ways to cultivate opportunities like that. I’d also love to see the city be able to be more active in helping to you know, the city on a higher level has helped to cultivate art spaces. The Armory Theater is a great example of that, but art spaces are like a forest. There’s an ecology, and if you just have big trees in a forest, that’s not a healthy forest. So I’d love to see the city have the same commitment that it’s had for larger art spaces and also, you know, including the Schnitzer, the Newmark to be able to have some of that city money cultivated into creating smaller and medium-sized venues because space is the lifeline of being able to create performance work. And if you don’t have a performance venue, you don’t have performance.
Emily Running (26:36):
Or a rehearsal venue. Dance requires space not just living rooms. <laughs>
Eric Nordstrom (26:37):
Exactly. (Inaudible)when I interviewed her, she said, “dance is a problem and you have to have height, width, depth, and, you know, it’s not just something that you do in your head.” And I feel that the people that are creating dance in Portland now and in the past have done incredible work, but with incredible challenges. And so if there is a way to ease some of those challenges of space, I think then we’ll see the asset of dance in Portland grow exponentially. Oftentimes I think sometimes there’s an either or like either dancers need space or funding, and I think it’s a both. Like the role that RACC, the Regional Arts and Culture Council is playing in Portland by providing project grants is fundamental to artists for helping them to hire lighting designers, costumes, all the cash needs that go into a performance.
Unfortunately, a large part of those grants are also going into just paying space, which then goes to a landlord and not into the artist economy of Portland. So I think the cash that’s being provided for artists is fundamental and deeply needed and I hope will grow. Also, there’s a whole piece of the puzzle that’s missing is just the space that’s gonna be provided for artists. And I think those two pillars are so important. And while some nonprofits might be able to offer that in some modicum, the way that it’s really going to be effective in Portland is to have that organized by the city.
Emily Running (28:15):
So you’ve already been doing this, but is there anything else as you’re painting an idealistic picture of Portland dance in 10 years? What else? You’ve mentioned gender ratios in dance, you’ve mentioned age things so far. So tell me.
Eric Nordstrom (28:40):
So do you want, I noticed the word idealistic <laugh>. Do you want Eric’s idealistic vision of dance? Or do you want what I think the reality of dance in a decade is gonna be?
Emily Running (28:51):
I want the dreamy dream version.
Eric Nordstrom (28:53):
Okay. Dreamy dream version. I love it. I’m just gonna put on my dreamy dream coat right here.
Emily Running (28:59):
This is what artists do, right? Like, they think they create something that is not possible and they make it possible. Right? Look, when you’re setting a goal, do you just set the realistic goal, or do you set the dreamy dream goal and just see if you can get there? So this is like the true, if I could have everything I wanted, because, yeah. How else are we going to figure out how to build the ladder to get there?
Eric Nordstrom (29:25):
Yeah, totally. So in 10 years, my hope is that there’s this radical shift that dance can be widely inclusive of multiple genders, ages, cultural backgrounds, and that all those things come in to inform how we understand dance, and then ultimately, what dance as an art form is able to express. To do that amazing content it’s my hope that everybody that wants to make dance has rehearsal space, has a performance venue that’s the appropriate size for what they want to do, and continued funding to be able to do that. It’s my hope too that that people that are interested in sharing their experiences are able to have that opportunity in a more expansive way, whether that’s being a teaching artist in a studio, or whether it’s having more opportunities in our academic institutions here to work with college students or both going back to Portland State in the nineties, to have academic institutions be able to open their doors so that those resources can be shared with public and professional dancers.
Ultimately, I think that all those things would create kind of this wonderful mix of having dance not be a singular thing, but something that helps us understand everybody’s being, and everybody’s perspective and where they’re coming from in this life a little bit better.
Emily Running (31:07):
I like it. I’m there. I’m with you. I’m in, I’m in it. <Laugh>.
Eric Nordstrom (31:13):
Do you want, do you want the reality now of what I think is gonna happen in 10 years?
Emily Running (31:15):
Sure. Yeah. Okay.
Eric Nordstrom (31:18):
Yeah. I think that we’re going to continue to see people fighting really hard for dance. I think that because the training programs in Portland, that there’s very few dance majors or training programs that are cultivating students for dance, we’re going to see people who dance continue to have an interest in Portland, but come from outside of the city, and because of that, it’ll be a lesser population. I think that we’re going to see nonprofits that cultivate dance continue to come and go because they’re at the subject of having to rent space. And as spaces, as rent increases, as real estate markets change, if you don’t own a space sooner or later, you’re gonna say goodbye to it. And so organizations that organize around a space that’s rented you know, there will be a continued flux of those organizations coming and going and you can step back and say, “oh, well, there’s still the same number of people are coming and going,” but what we’re losing is that institutional knowledge, that sense of depth as well as breadth. So it’s my hope that larger factors like the city and the other institutions in Portland realize what’s here, realize all the incredible will and effort that’s here, and has a way to continue to sustain that so that we’re a plane that’s taking off, and then finding this ease of cruising at 30,000 feet as opposed to perpetually taking off and landing and taking off and landing and using all that fuel and energy each time we take off and all of that time and reorientation of having to land and take off again.
Emily Running (33:00):
Yeah. How do you, how do you see Dance Wire playing into this? What can we do to support this? The moving towards the dreamy dream version?
Eric Nordstrom (33:11):
Yeah, I love that. And I’m sorry that my reality version is so bleak. Or it’s not bleak, I guess it’s a far cry from what I think the ideal could be, and so that’s a really great question about Dance Wire. I think that you recognize that there is this gap about what’s possible and what’s potential and what’s existing. And so I think you know, Dance Wire is doing a great job of helping to make connections and networks so that it’s not just a single person doing this, but that there’s shared resources. And I also think that Dance Wire is doing a great job of helping to say that dance is many things, and so let’s expand our definition, let’s expand our understanding of what dance can be. And by doing that, I think each person then can expand their understanding of how they’re relating to dance and what it means to them. And they may be surprised as we continue to do this together, that there’s ways that dance affects them and relates to them in ways that they never anticipated. It’s just that moment of deepening in together into the education and the discovery of what’s possible.
Emily Running (34:23):
Yeah. I love that. So, final thing is how can people find you and learn more about you and what, I know you have a website. What will we find on your website? Point people in a couple of different directions.
Eric Nordstrom (34:38):
Yeah, thanks. Well, if you go to www.eric-nordstrom.com you will find some of the dance films that I’ve worked on. You’ll find information about upcoming workshops as well as past workshops that I’ve done. And you’ll also find out some information there about some of my performance background working with Mary, and then many other fabulous choreographers that I’ve gotten a chance to work with in Portland and also in other places. So yeah, I encourage people to check that out and if anybody has any thoughts or feedback, you can email me right from that website.
Emily Running (35:15):
Perfect. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of your insights and life experience with us today. We look forward to seeing more of what you’re up to this year as a Dance Wire Ambassador.
Eric Nordstrom (35:32):
Yeah. Thank you Emily for interviewing me. And also thank you to Dance Wire for – what year is this for Dance Wire?
Emily Running (35:38):
September will mark 10 years. The beginning of 10 years. Yeah.
Eric Nordstrom (35:43):
That’s a massive accomplishment, and something that I think will continue to grow in importance in its place in the city.