What does the word mentor mean in our Western culture? 1) A trusted counselor or guide. A mentor who, because he is detached and disinterested, can hold up a mirror to us— P. W. Keve 2) Tutor, coach; to teach or guide usually individually in a special subject or for a particular purpose
Synonyms: Verb: coach, counsel, guide, lead, tutor (Merriam-Webster, accessed 2021).
We use the word “mentor” for anyone who makes a positive, guiding influence on another person’s life. Not every dance teacher can be, or wants to be a mentor, because it’s a mutual decision of total generosity between the mentor and the mentee. Finding the right mentor is like finding the right partner. It's complicated! Being a mentor is essentially about being a role model in all aspects: professionally, artistically and ethically, which implies responsibility and deep care.
As a Latina artist living and working in NYC, I reflect on my past and my future and what it means to be a mentor in these times. Being a mentor is not just being a source of inspiration, much less a reference on a job application.
It is about committing to deep dialogue, sometimes intense and difficult.
As a building is constructed, scaffolding surrounds it. Doubts crumble and ricochet down, while beliefs are supported and strengthened.
What is the difference between teaching and mentoring?
1. Teaching Is About Knowledge
The role of the teacher is to share their knowledge through instruction and explanation. In the traditional sense, teaching involves formal lessons on a subject, often including a detailed lesson plan and methods of assessment.
2. Mentoring Is About Experience
Mentoring, on the other hand, is more informal and relational in nature. A mentor acts as an advisor, sharing knowledge based on their lived experience. There’s more sharing between the two as mentors strive to help their mentees grow into peers.
Why do we need mentors in our artistic lives? A young artist is sometimes lost and disoriented. It's not uncommon to bounce between feeling wildly insecure and being a devilish rebel. Growing into the life of an artist is difficult, but very rewarding!
Mentors aid in navigating one's fear of failure, eliminating distractions, and locating resources while often helping to strengthen a poor support system (emotional, economical or psychological).
Mentors are like beacons that re-orient, helping you find your inner strength and your artistic ancestors.
Many times when teaching, (especially dance criticism or dance history) I find that many people do not know important and influential dancers, teachers or choreographers that came before them, and they have no curiosity in learning. This leads to a kind of arrogant ignorance, thinking they are creating something new when they are repeating something that happened in the 60s. We cannot know everything, but it is a waste of energy to repeat an old idea that's already a part of the shared dance legacy. Dance education is about honoring the past, celebrating diversity, while also researching in order to move ahead and push the boundaries of our field.
I feel that one needs to be in dialogue with one's artistic ancestors in order to make progress, to grow as an artist and human being. The old adage is true, you have to know where you've been to know where you are going. Mentors help you in that journey.
Sometimes you need to rebel against your ancestors and disagree with your mentors, and that’s also part of growing for some!
Most of my mentors were international visual artists, writers, regisseurs, theater directors, and choreographers. Why? As a curious artist, I needed to know what happened behind the scenes in different genres. How can I “make it” as an artist in a world where knowledge was so scarce? I needed to understand the artist and the person behind each of my mentors, in order to find who I was. There is an important distinction to be made between mentors and inspirational artists I never met in person. Getting involved with different art forms and disciplines has given me greater perspective to understand the possibilities and the limitations in making my own artistic choices.
My first mentor was the Argentinean sculptor Rafael Martin (1935-2018). I studied sculpture with him from 1995-1999 in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. Guy Ariel Kruh (1953-), a French semiologist and regisseur, was my second, and I studied Semiology of Theater and the Delsart system with him.
For choreography, my first mentor was the American dancer and teacher Jim May. Under his wing, I learned to be even more acute with my artistic choices in the dance field. When I moved back to the U.S. in 2005, I started to take classes again with him (at that time he was the Artistic Director of Anna Sokolow Dance project), and after two months I just quit. He could not understand why I did not come to class. It was not because I did not like the class or because of the technique. I just felt that it was becoming too strong of an influence on my own movement vocabulary, and every time I would begin my own choreography, I was using Anna’s choreographic approach. I needed to create some distance, not personally but artistically. I needed space to explore who I was.
In 2007, Jim called me and asked me to choreograph for the Anna Sokolow Theater Ensemble and of course I said yes, as it was a tremendous honor. It was thrilling to reacquaint my own voice with Jim and Anna's technique and artistry. At that time I was already on another path, finding my own way.
I feel that sometimes students can never find their voice because they are always under the influence of a certain style, teacher, or academy. Some dancers need to keep their traditions because their function is to keep that tradition going and pass it on to the next generation.
But there are other dancers and choreographers who need to find their own voice, and that was my path. It was painful because at the same time I missed those classes, but I recognized that I wasn’t being myself, I was just being the people and choreographers I trained with. It is okay when you make choreography and you cite a dance ancestor. You know that it reminds you of certain things and you are aware. The problem is when you are not aware of these influences.
So a dialogue with ancestors should always be present, but sometimes you need to fight with their rules, even if you agree 100%, in order to find your own voice, your own attitude. And of course part of who you are will be influenced by your ancestors. You may end up developing an existing theory more deeply, or you will do the exact opposite.
Whatever the case, you need to have a dialogue and you need to look for mentors. That is very important. The mentors will not come to you, you as an artist need to get closer to what you like. Get close to the fire. Allow that mentor to be contagious and infect you with the knowledge they have to offer. Maybe it will just be for a period of time, and then you will move on. Mentors understand that when they live through these experiences. In my classes I sometimes say, “I love that you are coming to my class, but I do not want you to stay in my class forever. You need to move on.” It is part of this generosity and freedom you give to your students. It’s the same with your kids. You want them to be independent. You do not want them to depend on you. You want them to open their wings. You want them to find their own artistic voice. As a mentor, part of my job is to help them to think for themselves, because “to educate is the practice of freedom” (Hooks, 1994). You recognize there are things in common, while gently encouraging differences.
Mentor and mentee choose each other
Sometimes I chose a mentor and they did not choose me. In some ways it’s like a romantic relationship – one person initiates, one pursues the other, there’s a mutual agreement – and the transmission of experience and knowledge happens. Again, I feel it is important that you have mentors, because you need to have artistic, spiritual and ethical dialogues.
Once, I thought that I found my true mentor: One of my ballet teachers in Argentina. I loved her. I even copied certain attitudes or certain gestures that she had. She was great. She was a mother, had two kids and also had a successful international career as a dancer. She was so elegant, so professional. I just loved her. That is, until I started to choreograph. I was sixteen years old, and I started to choreograph this one piece that was supposed to be performed for a festival. I invited her to one of my rehearsals, and she did not like what she saw. She said, “This is not a democratic system, if you want to perform this piece for the festival, I am not allowing you to perform in my company anymore.” For me it was really hard to experience this because I admired her so much. But then I realized that this speech came more from jealousy of me beginning to spread my wings. So even though I admired her greatly, I never went back to take her classes or dance in her company. I quit dancing for her. I felt that she was not the right mentor for me anymore because she did not encourage me to find my own voice as a choreographer. I am very thankful for all the technical lessons and insights she gave me, but not the artistic or professional aspects. The jealousy she expressed, and her competitive impulses caused her to say what she said, and that drove us apart.
A good teacher is an excellent student. To teach is to be true to yourself, to acknowledge your darkest corners and your brightest moments. Teaching requires constant internal growth, a thirst to grow, to improve, to develop, and to evolve. A good mentor is an eternal support, a point of reference.
Finding a mentor that’s right for you is about seeing them as a kind of mirror of your future self. Are you projecting yourself onto them or idealizing your future self? Perhaps. But being with the right mentor will help you embrace who you really are and bloom into your potential. Many of my mentees over these years tell me that they learn simultaneously how to be an artist as well as a woman, by seeing themselves reflected in my daily choices as both mother and artist.
The pandemic affirmed that I have to adapt, grow, and think out of the box! Teaching online makes me create new methodologies, and this is refreshing for me after teaching for 30 years.
Teaching online since March 2020, I have observed the students developing their focus, commitment, and enthusiasm, but not all the students feel engaged while studying online. Being so isolated has made some of them feel disconnected from their own bodies and lost. That's why I have found myself needing to change my methodologies. Depending on the content, I either alter class times to be shorter, or just meet once a week for longer periods to avoid Zoom fatigue. Altering the class rhythm, time administration, content and the sources of inspiration helps keep the students engaged. I send them a lot of links to articles, readings, and videos to see on their own time, research and study, so through critical thinking, I guide them into dialogue and discussions about the topics to empower students, create community, and camaraderie. I've found that during this pandemic, we are all sharing our vulnerability, our private spaces, and our art in a deeper way!
Back in June 2020, after hearing the needs of my international dance community, students and dancers, asking for personal coaching and mentoring, I created two online programs: The Online Choreographic Mentorship Workshops and the 1-ON-1 Choreographic Mentorship. Participants wanted not only to receive encouragement and be able to improve technically and artistically during this pandemic, but also to belong to an online hub/virtual space, and spend quality time where artists meet, connect, exchange and collaborate.
Why make myself available to be a mentor?
Because when you love what you do so much, you want to share it. Also, because I received so much love and care as a mentee, I feel a responsibility to give it back to the next generation of dancers, choreographers and teachers. I want to make a better future for everyone and help make a better community. Dance, for me, is a union of a person with her interior. It is a communion with yourself, with others, with the environment, and with life.
Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York and London, 1994.
“Mentor.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/mentor. Accessed 11 Jan. 2021.