Nicole McCall

2023 Ambassador Nicole McCall

Jessie Nowak (00:01):

Hello, my name is Jessie Nowak and I am the Operations Director at Dance Wire. Today is August the 30th, 2023, and I’m here with Nicole McCall, one of our ambassadors this year to talk about her life and career as a dance artist as part of our artist stories series. Welcome. 

Nicole McCall (00:20):

Thanks for having me. 

Jessie Nowak (00:22):

So what are your current titles? 

Nicole McCall (00:24):

Ooh, I am the Director of Dance Your Heart Out, which is a business I started myself, but I’m also a Teaching Artist for The Right Brain Initiative and Arts for Learning. 

Jessie Nowak (00:35):

Excellent. So briefly, can you give an overview of how you got started in dance? 

Nicole McCall (00:41):

Yes. I was a hyperactive child and my mom put me in dance classes when I was a kid. That’s my studio start, just a normal five year old doing dance classes, but then as a young adult moving back to Portland after college, not having any friends, I also had kind of a rebirth as a dancer, as a social dancer, so I used partner dancing as a way to make friends, and so that’s how I got started in that world.

Jessie Nowak (01:09):

Nice. What kind of partner dance do you do? 

Nicole McCall (01:12):

Presently I’m doing Swing, Lindy Hop, Salsa and Blues dancing, and in the past I’ve done Tango as well.

Jessie Nowak (01:21):

Okay, fun. I am very interested in partner dances, but they happen so late at night. <laughs>

Nicole McCall (01:29):

That’s true. That is true, and there are some that are earlier than later, like Zydeco, Zydeco dancing. There’s cultures, you know each of these partner dances will have a culture, and so you’re absolutely right. Salsa dancing has been great for me as a mom because I can put my kids to bed and then leave the house and go dance all night. <laughs>

Jessie Nowak (01:49):

Nice. I love it. Alright. What does dance mean to you or has it meant to you in your life? 

Nicole McCall (01:57):

For me, dance has just been pure joy, I think in the studio atmosphere, like I was saying, my mom put me in a studio when I was five, and that part is definitely lot more effort. There’s a lot more effort to build technique and things like that, but for me to live in my body, that is the essential component that brings me so much joy and the artistic expression of being able to non-verbally show what I’m feeling. To match a song or to express an idea, but it all just boils down to being in my body and feeling and showing this joy that I have, that’s what it means to me. 

Jessie Nowak (02:48):

You can see that in your work with Dance Your Heart Out. 

Nicole McCall (02:50):

Oh yeah. Thanks. That’s what I try and bring that. It is funny because with my work as a Teaching Artist in the schools, I measure what my success rate by the number of hugs I get from the kids when I walk in the building, so that is for sure. Thanks for that comment. I appreciate that. 

Jessie Nowak (03:11):

Yeah. Can you talk a little bit more about Dance Your Heart Out and how you get dance into the schools? 

Nicole McCall (03:18):

Yeah, sure. Dance Your Heart Out has been my parent company for a long time now, so that was the name of my Limited Liability Corporation when I owned the studio out in Hillsboro. And then, so it’s continued and that’s my business name as I work in the schools presently. And so being a Teaching Artist for me was a shift from being a Studio Teacher at night and a Studio Owner at night and on weekends, and I wanted to shift my working hours to daytime. And so, that Teaching Artist role of combining dance with state standards learning for the kids, it’s really arts integration. So, that new avenue and that new way of bringing dance to children everywhere, especially in this Portland area, Hillsboro area, that was really great for me logistically as a mom, just to be able to have a schedule that matched my children’s schedule. And so, my work in the schools really is listening to what teachers want their students to learn, and then me designing a lesson plan based on dance and how I can make that happen. So, in a concrete kind of way, I’ve taught multiplication, I’ve taught biomimicry, I have taught the causes of the American Revolution, and then post Covid, I definitely have been teaching social emotional learning skills over and over and over and over. And it’s never boring, it’s always rewarding, and I feel really useful in that capacity for both the classroom teachers and the students. And I love that part of my job. 

Jessie Nowak (05:13):

And it’s so needed. 

Nicole McCall (05:14):


Jessie Nowak (05:15):

So needed. I’m also a mom with kids in school, and last year was rough. It was rough, even more than the previous years, which is surprising. But yeah that social emotional component is just, that feels like it’s going to be ongoing for a while. 

Nicole McCall (05:34):

I think so too. I think what you’re probably referring to is this thing that we all have, even coming back from a vacation, we’re recording this at the end of summer and people are going back to school, and it’s this concept of reentry and transition. So I’m happy to be a support person for both teachers and students in that time. 

Jessie Nowak (06:00):

Well, and there’s a fundamental shift from studio to going into the schools. Where the studios is they have to come to you and you’re going to them.

Nicole McCall (06:09):

That’s right. And for interesting challenges as a Dance Instructor, when a student comes to the studio, maybe their parents have signed them up and they didn’t want to be there, but for the most part, that’s an elective, that’s a whole extracurricular of an entire class studio built on kids who want to be there. If I’m in the schools, the bell curve of life says that there’s going to be a handful of kids delighted to be dancing with me, and there’s going to be a handful of kids who are really not happy. And so, I get really excited about focusing my lesson planning on engagement and how to increase engagement of all the students all the time. And I make micro-decisions while I’m teaching just so that that engagement level is in the high nineties or a hundred percent, and that’s a personal and professional challenge I really enjoy. And I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. 

Jessie Nowak (07:16):

Well, again, that joy comes through and there’s something infectious about joy and movement that I feel like, I can’t speak for the kids, but if it were my experience, it’d be something I’d look back on with fondness. Like, I learned about biomimicry through movement and experiencing it in my body as opposed to reading it on paper just doesn’t cut it. 

Nicole McCall (07:40):

That’s true. That’s true. In fact, it’s really interesting you say that about the memory thing, because the Director over at our Right Brain Initiative, she and I were talking and she had helped arrange a residency where I go into the school in every single classroom, and this particular one was at the school where her children went at Jackson Elementary in Hillsboro. And I said, with excitement, I said, “oh, I get to go back! I was there, that was the very first place I ever did.” And she said, “wait, hold on. What year were you there?” And I said, we figured it out, and I told her I was doing this whole global cultural as best I could, little samples of folk dances from around the world. And she said, “my daughter remembers that was her favorite.” And that made me so happy. 

Jessie Nowak (08:31):

Yeah, that’s amazing.

Nicole McCall (08:31):

That was really fun. And it was fun to go back and some of those teachers are still there, and they were just reconnecting. The connecting is a wonderful component of dance. 

Jessie Nowak (08:43):

Absolutely. Yes. So what challenges have you faced as a dance artist? 

Nicole McCall (08:49):

Yes, alluding to that concept of studio time versus in the schools during the daytime, the first challenge I had was just the logistic hours of owning a dance studio. And of course before that, being a Dance Instructor, just not being able to clone myself because all of the demands on us are in these after-school time slots and wishing I could be in two places at once so I could earn money on Monday nights in two places at the same time. And then again, so that turned into being the Studio Owner and realizing to be the Studio Owner I really needed to be physically on site at the exact same time that I would’ve wanted to do family dinner at home. So when I became a mom and my son was two years old, I really had a fork in the road in terms of logistics, and many studio owners decide to raise their children at the studio. And I had the space, I could have done that, but my challenge really was right there, just trying to figure out the schedule for my personal style of being a mom and a Studio Owner. What was my level of involvement? What was that going to be on the schedule? And that’s when I decided to sell the studio and make a shift towards trying to find this daytime hours. Now that I’m in the daytime thing, it’s just seasonal and it’s very irregular work. It’s not year round where I could be at a dance studio and I could have classes year round, but maybe fewer hours. Work in the schools is great, but I mean, it is not necessarily employee status. That’s not what I have. I have a contractor status, so it’s a little irregular, which is kind of a challenge. And when I think about doing more and I start dreaming about other things, then the challenge in my mind becomes finding space and finding space. And finding space to rehearse or have your own class, that is, I think a challenge for dancers all over. And it’s funny because about this concept of space, I lived in Ireland for a little while, and over there they have a whole different kind of structure, and over there no one really leases an entire space. They don’t take on that huge burden. Somebody owns it and then it’s rented out, including hotels and the hotels and their little exercise rooms and swimming pools and the whole thing. So it’s much more achievable for small business owners in Ireland to just rent space throughout the city and have a place to do that. And I look at 24 Hour Fitness and places like that that have these gorgeous rooms that are just sitting there, and I have liability insurance and I could, and then they’re very much entrenched in big business to business contracts, and it’s so close yet so far. And so I kind of pine for those Ireland days where space was there, you just have to rent it out by the hour. And so that is a little bit of a challenge. The other challenge I can think about is once I became an entrepreneur, I struggled with learning new skills, especially technological skills. When I was working for other people, I would be tasked with learning something and I would have to go learn it and no problem. But once I was a Studio Owner, just the time it would take to learn something new, I would just contract the jobs out to other people. Could you just build my website for me? Could you do this for me? I don’t know how to do it. So what that meant was that’s fine, I got those things done, but it also meant that I didn’t learn those skills myself. So I would say space, timing, and building technological skill sets are challenges. 

Jessie Nowak (12:58):

Yeah, definitely. So what people, resources and opportunities have helped you the most? 

Nicole McCall (13:06):

Oh my goodness. I’m grateful to Anita Mitchell, who was the original Owner of Northwest Conservatory of Dance, and she’s the one who hired me and saw me work and then sold her business to me. So I’m very grateful to her for her trust in me and mentorship in a way. Yeah, absolutely. And then also there’s some people over at Body Vox and a woman named Renee who kind of turned me on to this idea of being a Teaching Artist and what that looks like, and Heather Jackson at Body Vox hired me for that role. Elizabeth Burden trained me and kind of tutored me a little bit on that before I started going off on my own doing it. And so it’s the mentors, it always comes down to the mentorship, and I find that to be so key, and I’m very grateful to that for all of them.

Jessie Nowak (14:16):

Oh for sure. Little legacy. Whether it’s a legacy of a technique or a legacy of a philosophy or a skillset or whatever it is.

Nicole McCall (14:25):

100%, Yes. 

Jessie Nowak (14:30):

What stage do you feel like you are at in your career? How do you want to move forward, and what goals do you have?

Nicole McCall (14:38):

I love it. This is a great question. I love looking forward. I really do. That’s where my head resides most of the time. I’m kind of a dreamer and then a doer. Well, the personal is political. No, that’s not what I want to say, but what’s happening in my personal life will guide my professional goals for sure, because like I said before, I made a shift to working during the day while my children were in school, and so now they’re coming towards the end of their schooling. And so, the shift is coming again, and so I referred to the start of my career was in the studio, and this middle section is in the schools, and my personal life now is more in that social dancing side of things and connecting with people on the social partner dancing. So I think my future is going to be more in the partner dancing and developing that, maybe taking some ideas that I’ve developed from the creative dance work in the schools and applying that so that everyone can feel like they can dance on the dance floor. And my goals with that, well, I do have many, and they’re kind of lofty, so I might just keep them close to the vest a little bit and just keep, but I definitely see myself more in the partner dance world. I’ll say that for sure. 

Jessie Nowak (16:08):

I love that flexible and fluid look at your career. You know what the thread is that holds it all together, but depending on the season of your life, it’s going to look different. 

Nicole McCall (16:18):


Jessie Nowak (16:20):

And it isn’t always easy to be that flexible. 

Nicole McCall (16:26):

That’s a good point. I mean, we all need to be able to pivot and isn’t that a great dance word too actually, now that I say that out loud here. And, business people talk about pivoting all the time. We love watching Shark Tank and things like that, and there’s a beauty in pivoting because it’s a living in the moment and seeing things for as they are and being able to just be calm and present in that type of way. So yeah, the power of the pivot is so nice.

Jessie Nowak (17:04):

I aspire to that, to be present and calm in the moment. 

Nicole McCall (17:08):

Right. Yeah. 

Jessie Nowak (17:14):

How hard is it balancing administrative work with your artistic pursuits and training, and/or training? 

Nicole McCall (17:21):

It’s not hard. It’s just not what I want to do. 

Jessie Nowak (17:25):

<laughs> Love that answer.

Nicole McCall (17:28):

Right? Yeah. It really is just a matter of dedicating some time to it. I mean, there are so many resources now with software systems and programs like Jot Form has been fabulous for my website, for having people sign up online and things like that. It’s so easy. And so some of these advances in technology make the admin really simple. It does require attention, and where your attention goes, energy grows. And so, if I neglect what I call the nuts and bolts of life, these nuts and bolts, they’re not exciting, they’re not artistic necessarily, they’re just logistics. But if we ignore the nuts and bolts of life, then we don’t have the foundation of what we need to keep the structures going for our business side of our art. So I just have to pencil it in and do it. Just face it and do it. 

Jessie Nowak (18:30):

Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about foundations and infrastructure and how it’s such a key component of the work that we do. If you want to work for yourself, if you want a gig, if you want whatever it looks like as a dance artist, you have to have infrastructure to do all of the things. And yet it’s so neglected in terms of like, “here’s what it means to be a dancer.” Well, and also you need a structure to support what you’re doing. 

Nicole McCall (18:55):

Yes. And I think that, to be honest with you, this is one of the areas where I feel pretty balanced in terms of my art versus kind of being a Manager and getting the job done. I find that both sides of my brain are firing a lot at the time, and so I’m happy with a spreadsheet, I have no problem with QuickBooks and different things like that. I don’t struggle with any of that. So I feel blessed in that way that it’s not a struggle for me as much. 

Jessie Nowak (19:31):

Yeah. How would you describe the current dance scene in Portland? What’s fabulous and what needs work? 

Nicole McCall (19:38):

I have such a limited view because of my exit from the studio life. So, I can say a little bit. I would say that we have in this city a great variety of, for the size of our city, a good variety of classes that adults can take. I wish, I pine for more jazz, like straight up jazz classes. I pine for that. And I do also wish that we as a city, this is another thing about being the size that we are, I wish we had more opportunities for children who are tween-agers and teenagers to be beginners and have an excellent technique class of any style that’s not Parks and Rec, something that they will be held to a high standard because children know if they’re being held to a high standard and if they’re just in some sort of a recreational-based class, but they have pre-professional aspirations, there’s a mismatch there. So I would love to see these students who are underserved get more strenuous technique classes. There’s very little, and again, being a Studio Owner, I can empathize with why it is the way it is, but still, I want this for the children.  

Jessie Nowak (21:21):

Just to clarify, you mean like, because pre-professional are (usually) for kids who start at three to five years old. Is that what you’re saying? And if you are a beginner later in your childhood? 

Nicole McCall (21:30):

Yes. So yes, exactly. Presently, I am teaching some private lessons to some high school students who are in musical theater with their high school musicals or the dance team, and they never had Ballet growing up. And now they’ve hit this place where the rest of the dance team are doing turns in a la seconde and they don’t know what to do, and so where do they go? And I’m happy to help them because they can’t find a dance class for them to learn these things that are so challenging at their age and be a beginner. So yes, that’s what I was talking about. 

Jessie Nowak (22:07):

Yeah. This question is somewhat related, but I’m going to ask you to take it even a step further. Paint a really idealistic picture of the dance scene in Portland in 10 years. 

Nicole McCall (22:19):

Okay. I’m closing my eyes and I’m going to daydream about this for a second. Give me a second here. I think the dance scene in Portland in 10 years, oh my gosh. Wouldn’t it be amazing if every suburb had a really robust dance studio for children with both recreational and pre-professional tracks so that whoever wants the pressure of really learning hard strenuous stuff, they could go that way. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if Whitebird as a producing company was able to expand who they could bring into town and for visiting dance companies to perform? Whitebird has done amazing things for this city, and oftentimes Portland is relegated to having performances during the week, and I would love to have performances on the weekend and fill the Keller Auditorium, and then I’m thinking about all the cultural dances that we need to see more of and have a bigger presence and oh my gosh, a concept of a big, huge woven fabric of all these different pieces and all the different parts of the city so that the students can get access wherever they are, and increased visibility for our BIPOC teachers and dancers. That would be amazing. Yeah, I love that idea. 

Jessie Nowak (24:14):

Yeah, I love that too.

Nicole McCall (24:14):

Oh my goodness. And wouldn’t it be, oh my gosh, what am I thinking? Also, even in the state of Washington, dances is required and it’s part of their actual curriculum. I think that arts education being woven into our school system, including dance, we need to get back to that. I think our funding changed decades ago with, I forget, was it Measure Five? We just need to get back to really bringing arts into our schools. I could talk more about that, but that’s a good summary right there. 

Jessie Nowak (24:52):

Well, it’s like the concept that, obviously dance is a skill and it comes with a bunch of other skills, but what is integral and important for every human being is that it teaches you who you are. It shows you who you are, and it shows you, can I learn new things? Can I do challenging things? Do I know when something isn’t for me? Or it teaches you about who you are as a human, which is, everyone needs that. 

Nicole McCall (25:20):

Yeah, absolutely. 

Jessie Nowak (25:23):

Alright, Nicole, well thank you so much for coming in today and chatting and sharing your vision and your wisdom.

Nicole McCall (25:30):

Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.