2019 Ambassador Laura Blake
Kathryn Harden: (00:04)
I am Kathryn Harden, a former Dance Wire Ambassador in Portland, Oregon. I am here with Laura Blake to talk about her career and life in dance, and as part of the newest Dance Wire Ambassador group for the Artist Stories Series. So welcome, Laura. Can you give me an overview of your current titles?
Laura Blake: (00:40)
Currently? I’m an independent artist and choreographer. I also am a principal dancer and choreographer with a Allegro Dance Company. Those are my main titles right now.
Kathryn Harden: (01:01)
Awesome. Very exciting. When did you start dancing? How did you get into dance?
Laura Blake: (01:11)
I started dancing probably about 11 years ago, so I started as an adult. It started very, very briefly. It was just as a hobby. I had been shown by family friends some Egyptian belly dance, and she taught me three private lessons that summer. It was the summer after high school, and I was fascinated by it. About a year later, I was working full time and I wanted to start doing something artistically again. Because I grew up as an artist. I grew up in classical European music playing the flute and the piano and choral music. A lot of that had dropped away in my life after graduating high school, but artistry is such a main drive for me that I really needed to do something else.
Kathryn Harden: (02:12)
To beat that hunger.
Laura Blake: (02:14)
Yeah. So I was like, oh, let’s go try this ballet dance thing. It seems fun. It’ll be a fun thing to do for a while. And so I found a teacher who is an American cabaret belly dancer rooted in Egyptian technique. And I was taking lessons from her weekly for a while. Pretty much a month in, it went from my feeling like this is a fun hobby to, I think this is what I wanna do forever.
Kathryn Harden: (02:52)
A pretty big leap.
Laura Blake: (02:52)
It was pretty big. It was gigantic. It was really important for me at the time, because like I said, artistry is important to me and finding something that I was passionate about was really profound at that moment in my life and gave me a lot of direction. And then I just dove head in, and I was training a lot. I was showing up at the dance nights just to watch other artists and to listen to the live music. I was really fortunate to be in Boston where there was still live Middle Eastern bands playing weekly.
Kathryn Harden: (03:36)
That’s definitely unique. Not something every place offers.
Laura Blake: (03:39)
So I had the joy of being able to go when I had this new, ignited passion for something that I was training in constantly, I could just go to the restaurants and hear this music that I was falling in love with and see all these dancers. Then they had an open mic dance night on another night. I’d just be able to go and dance and get feedback and start figuring out who I was and just experiencing that joy. I think is so integral to all artists and why we do what we do.
Kathryn Harden: (04:19)
Absolutely. And so what was that turning point for you where it was a hobby and then became like, this is what I wanna do. What was that moment for you? That a-ha moment.
Laura Blake: (04:31)
I don’t remember the exact moment. I don’t remember where I was sitting, what I was doing, you know?
Kathryn Harden: (04:42)
But a feeling must have changed.
Laura Blake: (04:44)
It was a feeling. I don’t know how to describe it other than the most similar thing that I’ve had for it is falling in love with someone. There’s a moment that you just know that this is so that you want, and this is something that you need to do.
Kathryn Harden: (05:07)
That’s a good way to look at it. And Egyptian dancing, can you elaborate on that? Because that is so unique.
Laura Blake: (05:18)
I began in Egyptian belly dance, and Egyptian belly dance is a dance form that is rooted in Egyptian folkloric dances and has been what became became more of an entertainment and stage performance. The costumes started changing, the venues started changing, and there’s a lot that we could go into that. It’s a really beautiful dance form with this really earthy feeling to it. Your carriage is pretty lifted, but while you have this lift, there is also a very heaviness too.
Kathryn Harden: (06:18)
This weight to it.
Laura Blake: (06:19)
And it’s so beautiful.
Kathryn Harden: (06:22)
It sounds beautiful, can’t wait to see more of that. And so, because you started dance as an adult, I feel like you definitely have a different perspective than someone that’s put in as a child and their parents are paying for them to go to this thing and you’re kind of forced to it, but you chose to do this from the very start. What has dance meant to you in that sense of your life, as falling in love for this art form as an adult?
Laura Blake: (06:57)
It’s meant a lot of different things. Coming to dance as an adult is a really interesting thing. I began my dance when I was 19 or 20, something like that. And of course, to really master any dance form there’s years and years of work that you have to put in.
Laura Blake: (07:30)
I’ve been dancing for about 10 or 11 years, and I’m just now truly getting to a place where I feel like my everything has come together in a different way. I’ve been dancing professionally and semi-professionally for the last five years, but there’s a difference between being ready to get on a stage and mastery.
Kathryn Harden: (07:57)
Absolutely. There’s this polishing sense to do it.
Laura Blake: (08:02)
And so it’s been really interesting to, as an adult through my twenties, be going through that development, and what does that mean psychologically in the world. In a world that values youth in a really interesting way that isn’t always positive. What does that mean? And I think that there’s more room for that in fusion, belly dance and belly dance in general than there is in more Western rooted dance forms oftentimes. What it’s meant for me artistically is a chance to create. I grew up as a classical musician, and the idea that I was taught was that you drill, drill, drill, drill technique, technique, technique, technique. So you can become the voice for someone else. I can’t even imagine writing music. I was paper trained as a musician. I was never taught that that type of creativity was something that was accessible. I think I have a lot of psychological hang ups around that idea with creating music, but because I started dance both as an adult with a lifetime of artistic training, and because I started it in one, an improvisational dance form, and the different type of training I found that I found was able to find a creative voice in a different way in my dance words. And making a dance makes sense to me, choreographing makes sense to me, finding an inner voice makes sense to me. And it’s been really profound to see that shift over the last 10 years going from like, your role as an artist is to tap into an internal state where you’re channeling somebody else’s work into, I’m tapping into my own state to create my own.
Kathryn Harden: (10:28)
Right. Once you’ve gotten those foundational skills, then you get to tap into your own creative outlet, and express that.
Laura Blake: (10:35)
And that’s profound for me.
Kathryn Harden: (10:37)
Life changing. You had tapped in a little bit, or mentioned, that because you started as an adult, you’re facing these psychological battles, because as a child, you’re still figuring yourself out as an adult, you have a pretty good idea of who you are in a sense. And then you bring in this art form that just shifts your universe. What kind of challenges were you faced in your pursuit of dance when you started at 18 or 19?
Laura Blake: (11:23)
There’s a lot.
Kathryn Harden: (11:35)
Yeah. We all have them.
Laura Blake: (11:37)
I think there’s a definitely a thing that happens with your community when you start as an adult, as an artist. So your community, your friends, your family. We’re definitely brought up in a culture where it’s like, if you didn’t start dance when you were five, what are you doing?
Kathryn Harden: (12:01)
Laura Blake: (12:03)
There was definitely some challenges around people being concerned, people worrying and me just being like that’s cool, but I’m doing that anyway.
Kathryn Harden: (12:17)
That’s great. Not having to feel like you have to persuade someone or validating what you’re doing.
Laura Blake: (12:24)
I had the example of thankfully like a lot of people in this dance scene who did not begin their careers until they’re around 30, and I knew that it was gonna take time for me to develop anyway, but you don’t want to worry the people that you care about.
Kathryn Harden: (12:46)
They have your best interest, hopefully.
Laura Blake: (12:51)
So that can be a challenge. And it’s also a psychological challenge to, no matter how well intentioned they are, if someone isn’t really there supporting you into this thing that can have its own weight to it.
Laura Blake: (13:10)
I think some of the other things that were a challenge, but ultimately really good ones were, battling with your own psychological states and your own ideas of competition and idea within artistry.
Kathryn Harden: (13:33)
There’s always that self-doubt.
Laura Blake: (13:34)
And dealing within dance community.
Kathryn Harden: (13:42)
Because you’re new to Portland, in a sense, you’re not originally from here. So you’re coming into a new dance community too.
Laura Blake: (13:49)
Yes, but this began even back in Boston, and specifically it became for me a real psychological development around supportive community within an artistic scene. Because again, coming from a classical European music background, there’s always this idea that if you’re not the best person in the room right now, you will never have a career. And so it pitted a lot of people in competition against each other and that’s just tiring.
Kathryn Harden: (14:20)
Kind of takes that passion away.
Laura Blake: (14:22)
Why do you want to do that? Right. And so I was really grateful to have a couple of mentors as I was developing as a dancer who taught me that I didn’t have to approach things that way. And it was really better for my psychological state, better for artistry and better for community.
And therefore better for my art scene. The more that we as artists support each other, the stronger our art form is.
Kathryn Harden: (14:56)
I wholeheartedly agree. We feed off of each other and that’s the only way we can survive. You mentioned community. What resources and people and opportunities really helped you the most to get to where you are today, or along the way?
Laura Blake: (15:29)
I’ve been really grateful to have a lot of mentors along the way. Our scene is definitely, I guess this depends on the person, but many of us end up training with a lot of different people, which is wonderful. It really helps you develop your own voice to train with a lot of people and see a lot of different people’s perspectives. My biggest influences in many ways have been a couple of people. One of them is a woman named Bevin Victoria who is actually another Dance Wire member, one of the ambassadors this year. She and I started training together and dancing together back in Boston and she really opened my eyes a lot. I was dancing a lot of her choreographies and she really did mentor me in a lot of ways during that time period. Then we both moved back to Portland and continued dancing together. We’re in the same dance company, Allegro PDX right now. And because I’ve danced with her so much, you can see her in my style.
Kathryn Harden: (16:58)
Laura Blake: (17:00)
And it’s really wonderful to me when I see that, when there’s somebody who has been so important to you as a movement artist, whether just because you’ve been dancing with them long enough, that that has become part of your voice or just part of your perspective of things.
Kathryn Harden: (17:23)
You can see their influence in your style and movement.
Laura Blake: (17:27)
Not only physically and artistically, but also perspective-wise, she’s somebody that I’ve grown a lot around. She’s been very important. There’s a dancer here who owns the studio studio toura, which is like five minutes away from here named Rachel Bryce, she’s one of the worldwide names in our dance form. And she’s the reason why I live here. And she’s one of the reasons why I started doing fusion dance. I saw her 10 years ago online and loved what she did. She’s one of my major inspirations.
I was coming here to train with her and to train in her programs, and then I decided to move here so I could have access to her studio and the community that had begun to build around that, because there’s this wonderful thing happens, especially with art forms where it’s like when larger name teachers or performers move to a space, community starts building around it. And so it’s been really wonderful to me to have access to not only Rachel, but to the community that is built around it. That’s been profoundly important to me because now I’ve been dancing with many of these dancers in my dance company for two or three years, and my life would be very different without these people in it. So I’m very grateful for the role that Rachel played in facilitating that community and what these individuals mean to me personally, as both an artist and a human.
Kathryn Harden: (19:25)
That’s really special because it’s helped you grow, not just in your art, but that’s a big move, to move somewhere because you’re that inspired by someone and it’s clearly helped you grow as a person too and given you perspective. What stage do you feel that you’re in your career? And how do you want to move forward with that as far as goals that you have? Especially in the companies that you’re with.
Laura Blake: (20:08)
Like I touched on earlier, while I’ve been dancing professionally and so many professionally for a few years now, I’m just now really feeling like there’s a crystallization happening in my voice and in my technique. While mastery is this far off concept that we are always constantly pursuing. I’ve finally gotten to a place where there is fluidity. That it is mastery, fluidity, whatever you want to call it.
It’s hard to articulate that, but now that I’ve gotten to that place, there’s a lot of really exciting art happening in my mind and in my work that I’m really excited about. And so, where do I feel like I am in my career? I feel like as an artist, I’m finally catching my stride, and I’m really excited for the next few years to see what happens in that. I’m excited to be facilitating choreographies and seeing what that means for other people. I’m always really grateful when other people want to be involved in my work. I’m really grateful to be able to create that type of community and to be able to have a chance to put my voices on other people, and that’s a major thing that I want to be doing more of more choreography.
Kathryn Harden: (22:01)
And do you have any shows coming up?
Laura Blake: (22:04)
My dance company Allegro has our yearly fundraiser that is happening in a couple of weeks on March 23rd and past that, it’s mostly smaller gigs and training.
Kathryn Harden: (22:20)
That’s the best way to get your work out there, get people to see it. Lovely. How has it been balancing your artistry with arts management or administration? Because I know when we talked earlier, you had mentioned we all have to, as artists, we’re always marketing ourselves and we do not just one job, but many jobs, all of them. How has that been for you?
Laura Blake: (23:12)
That’s been a real challenge for me. Again, I grew up with this idea that your responsibility was to practice as hard as you can, and then you’ll be hired by a symphony if you’re lucky then there’s other people to do that work.
Kathryn Harden: (23:33)
Kathryn Harden: (23:35)
It’s not that simple.
Laura Blake: (23:36)
Not that simple in the slightest and that actually slips into sort of very classic, classist ideas around artistry and what being a successful artist means.
Kathryn Harden: (23:49)
There’s the stigma.
Laura Blake: (23:50)
I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with other professional artists, where so many of them are like, art school was cool, but you know what would’ve been great? Business classes.
Kathryn Harden: (24:08)
Like, real life experiences.
Laura Blake: (24:09)
Real life experiences. I mean these are the things that you’re going to need to support your artistry. To make it happen, to make sure you have a platform for it. To make sure you can put food on the table.
Kathryn Harden: (24:22)
We all gotta eat.
Laura Blake: (24:25)
So, administrative work has always been a bit of a challenge for me. Since I’m an independent artist in a niche art form, you definitely have to do all the things you’re responsible for. All your social media marketing, responsible for all of your news kits, you’re responsible for most of your graphic design if you can’t afford to hire somebody, you’re responsible for editing your promo reels, and editing all your own music, all that gets into an artistic space too. And that can be fun. So finding the time to make sure that that happens every week and still managing to do your choreography and your costuming and…
Kathryn Harden: (25:19)
Still be creative.
Laura Blake: (25:20)
Still be creative. It’s definitely been a bit of a challenge for me. My happy place is definitely still the creative space. I think it is for many people. I’m constantly having to work with myself to figure out what it is that I need to do to make sure the admin happens.
Kathryn Harden: (25:36)
And it’s good. I mean, if we don’t know, we learn right? It’s good for us to know how to do everything. Where you are right now, do you have an artist statement or a long term vision that you hope to accomplish through your work?
Laura Blake: (26:06)
I think my honest answer is I’m not sure yet.
Kathryn Harden: (26:10)
I love it.
Laura Blake: (26:11)
I know that I need to be creating, and I know that my voice has shifted over the years.
Kathryn Harden: (26:21)
As it will constantly.
Laura Blake: (26:22)
It will constantly. And what do I want to do with it? I’m not certain, I just want to keep on going.
Kathryn Harden: (26:33)
That’s how we will get better, and also how we’ll just create more art. Awesome.
You said you’ve been here for a little over four years. How would you describe the current dance scene in Portland? Maybe some things, especially in your niche style of movement, things that you really appreciate and value, you mentioned community, but also things that you see are lacking that Portland could work towards improving.
Laura Blake: (27:08)
We’ll start off with good things. There’s a lot of really strong artists here both technically and expressively. It’s incredible to know that given on any week I could probably go with somebody and see a world class dancer, just performing somewhere, that’s probably a tiny hole in the wall, and that’s amazing.
Kathryn Harden: (27:50)
Laura Blake: (27:51)
To be able to have it be normal really allows a community to begin pushing because once you have that sort of sense of this quality is normalcy then really exciting things start happening. There’s so much exciting art happening here. So many people who are pushing their limits artistically and creatively, and it’s just so wonderful to be able to see that.
Kathryn Harden: (28:29)
And to be a part of it.
Laura Blake: (28:30)
And to be a part of it. I appreciate that there is a culture of kindness here and while all communities are made up of humans, so that isn’t perfect, the fact that there is intentionality around kindness, professionally and support professionally here is something that I find extremely important for the health of artists and community. And I’m deeply grateful for that.
Kathryn Harden: (29:04)
I love that here.
Laura Blake: (29:06)
Challenges are that sometimes people are kind of isolated.Everybody’s working all the time and we don’t always have a ton of community events happening. So that can definitely be a challenge.
Kathryn Harden: (29:33)
Or if we do, it can be very segregated in a sense.
Laura Blake: (29:36)
Kathryn Harden: (29:39)
Which is why Dance Wire’s so great.
Laura Blake: (29:42)
It is what makes Dance Wires so great!
Kathryn Harden: (29:44)
Because then I get to meet cool people like you. In an ideal world, what would dance look like in 10 years to you?
Laura Blake: (30:04)
Just going to say what I said earlier, I really hope that the artistic world reaches a place of more equity where we’re able to break down racial barriers and queer barriers and class barriers that are just completely integrated into almost all art scenes right now, and makes it really hard for people to have accessibility and even just the class scene, not even necessarily really being a professional, but that is the major part. The professional scene should be breaking that down more. I just want to see a world where all people can have access to art in a way that can really be recognized and valued, not just tokenized valued. I’m a queer artist and it’s sometimes a challenge in some particular scenes to see that I’m presented in any real capacity.
Kathryn Harden: (31:23)
And feel like you’re heard.
Laura Blake: (31:24)
Feel like I’m heard, again, going back to the word valued. You can dance all you want, but if somebody doesn’t value who you are, you’re not necessarily going to have access. And I think that is true for so many classes of people, and art is such an openhearted thing and who you are shouldn’t keep you from that.
Kathryn Harden: (32:06)
Of all the areas in our life that should be the most welcoming. I wholeheartedly agree.
Kathryn Harden: (32:17)
Thank you so much, Laura. I’m so grateful to hear your story and just get to learn a little more about you too.