photographs by Lissa Gotwals
Dance has taken Michelle Pearson all over the world – as a professional performer, a state department cultural envoy, and a William C. Friday fellow – but she has always had a home at Raleigh’s Arts Together.
“It’s kind of like grandma’s house,” she says, “where I come and I’m accepted for exactly who I am.”
She grew up dancing with Arts Together, a nonprofit community school just west of downtown that offers classes in dance, art, drama and more for children and adults. And these days Pearson, 42, is back, teaching what she calls a “hard-core technique” class and doing contemporary choreography for the multigenerational Rainbow Dance Company. She danced with it as a child, and now her daughter does, too.
Pearson’s roots at Arts Together, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, run deep. But the branches she has put out into the world since her first days there reach even farther.
Pearson started taking dance classes at 8, when she moved to Raleigh, and admits it wasn’t exactly love at first plié. But when she started taking classes from Lemma Mackie, who soon thereafter founded Arts Together, something clicked.
Pearson’s involvement with dance grew, and by high school she was dancing five or six days a week. She earned a dance scholarship to East Carolina University, but even then she wasn’t completely sold on dance as a career.
“I went to school still not thinking I was going to major in dance,” she says. “I was planning on math or something like that.”
But she found that dance had crept into every corner of her life, including math. “I figured calculus out through movement back in high school,” she says. “I was one of these kids, as soon as I could get up and see the different revolutions and the lines and stuff, it made sense.”
After college, she headed to New York City, dancing with two companies and waiting tables until her big break, a full-time gig with Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange in Washington, D.C. There, she found that contemporary dance was more than just a way to express herself; it was also a way help others let movement tell their stories, no matter their age, their experience, or their physical or mental limitations.
With Dance Exchange, Pearson created dances with children and senior citizens, with shipyard workers, nuns, politicians and the football team from California State University, Chico.
The power she can harness from dance to communicate and heal caught the attention of the state department in 2011, when the U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone requested an artist who could help promote healing in a culture dealing with difficult social issues and the aftermath of a brutal war. The war wasn’t something people in Sierra Leone talked much about, Pearson recalls. Slowly, as she worked with artists and citizens in the country, their stories came out.
“I realized in my cast (of performers), half of them had been child soldiers. And the other half had hidden in fear from child soldiers,” she said.
Closer to home, Pearson was invited in 2006 to be part of the William C. Friday Fellowship, a program that brings together the brightest leaders in a range of fields to work toward improving human relations in North Carolina. She thinks she was chosen because of her proven success at turning a challenging situation into a creative opportunity: “Being in the room when incredibly difficult conversations are being had, and creating with that. Not dispelling it, not trying to fix it or change someone else’s story, but just bringing it to a place where it can be heard or understood new.”
In two years of meetings and brainstorming sessions, Pearson participated alongside the other fellows. But when a particularly thorny issue arose at a weekend retreat and progress was grinding to a halt, she was called upon to lead. She headed up a 30-minute “movement experience” that resulted in clearer heads and forward progress, and dance since has become a regular part of the fellows’ intensive work.
Tall and lean, Pearson moves when she’s talking, and even when she’s not – a habit that earned her some good-natured teasing from the more staid lawyers and bankers at Friday fellowship events, she said. She speaks with intensity, in a voice that has retained a subtle Southern lilt amid all her travels. All the while, she locks eyes with a listener, not as a challenge, but as an invitation to engage fully, as she does, with the topic at hand.
Beyond the stage
So much of Pearson’s work these days makes dance reach far beyond the stage, past the seats of the theater, out of its doors, and into the wide world.
She has stayed connected with Dance Exchange as an artistic associate and leader of the MetLife Healthy Living Initiative, and she is the “artistic curator” for Black Box Dance Theater, a Raleigh group formerly known as Even Exchange. She travels the state and beyond as a guest artist for universities and elementary schools and for sessions with wounded warriors, the elderly – anyone for whom dance can provide healing.
But don’t call her a dance therapist.
“I’m a dancer,” she says. “It’s dance that’s therapeutic. It’s dance that builds community. It’s dance that’s educational. It’s dance that’s healing. I’m just a dancer. And I have this skill to invite participation and craft what is elicited into something that is recognized as powerful, beautiful.”
When she’s applying those skills at Arts Together, she works to cultivate the power of dance over the mind as well as the body.
“When I teach my class, I want the material to be hard and to be fun and to be challenging. I want people to sweat. I want them to hurt a little bit tomorrow,” she says. “But I also want them to feel like it mattered that they were here. It mattered that they felt like more than just their body was dancing. More than just their muscles and bones were moving.”
She adds: “There’s something uniquely human that is part of their dancing. And I think that’s my mission here at Arts Together. I feel like maybe that’s what I received as a child, that I mattered, and it’s the thing that I want to carry on.”