UMA People is a series of profiles of UMA 'regulars' though threre's nothing regular about any of them! We share their stories of how they found dance, found UMA, and what it all means. All photos: Adriana Imhof
At a very young age, Lu Donovan's (they/them) was plopped into a Ballet class by their parents. Not an uncommon occurrence in suburban Boston. However, for Lu though, “Unlike a lot of other people who have that experience, I just never quit. I never stopped doing it. It took me through the first 18 years of my life on a momentous path of training: 6 days a week, 4 hours a day.” Lu continued with Boston Ballet’s pre-professional training program until, when it was time to consider college, conservatory, or something else, it was made clear to them by mentors and teachers that “it wouldn't be possible for me to become a professional ballet dancer. Mostly because of body size and shape.” If you’re not familiar with ballet this might seem confusing. In the world of professional ballet, it’s not just about silhouette. It’s about 1 million other predetermined anatomical factors, such as one’s muscle development, metabolism, torso to leg proportions, and rotation available in the joints, especially the hips. Mix that up with Ballet’s embedded traditions of racism, sexism, and classism, and it starts to be clear that, despite an entire lifetime of training, the cards can be stacked against an aspiring ballet dancer despite years of training.
When Lu decided to leave Boston Ballet and attend a liberal arts college, they experienced a “beautiful awakening about what dance is and could be.” Lu explains to me that at Boston Ballet, they didn’t even have exposure to other ballet studios, let alone other styles of dance, the mindset was: “If you don’t go here you’re not a good dancer.” Moreover, the still-common belief that ballet is the one and only foundational technique for all other dance styles, was hammered home constantly in their early training. It wasn’t until they left Boston Ballet, did they find out about the Dance Complex, a dance hub just across the river in Cambridge, even existed. The Dance Complex is housed in a labyrinthian former Odd Fellows hall, that has been housing and celebrating a plurality of dance styles since the 90’s, and before that, in its former capacity as the Joy of Movement since the early seventies.
Lu laughs as they describe their first experiences of the contemporary and improvisation based styles they encountered at college, “I kinda got bullied out of being a bunhead when I showed up the first day in a leotard. Everyone was like ‘What are you doing?’” Lu got over the initial shock, and so did their peers, whose initial shade became a call to awareness, and eventually, a supportive community. Lu explains almost everything they made in university was collaborative; their growth was fueled by the acceptance and encouragement of their peers. “I was realizing I don’t have to point my feet and turn out my hips to be a dancer, it opened all the possibilities of style, movement, textures, that my body, and a body, could hold in dance. It showed me the infinite possibilities of what a dancing body could be.”
Lu graduated from Wesleyan University in 2018 with a dual degree in Dance and Critical American History. I asked Lu why Wesleyan. With the benefit of hindsight, they replied, “I think I liked that there was a lot of queer people.” Similarly, Lu moved to Philly in part because during early visits to the city, they felt at home around visible and inviting queer communities. Before COVID precautions kicked in, Lu was organized a gathering of Queer Dance Makers. Lu explains, “ I found a lot of queer people in my life in moving to Philly. And the community is very vast. But the places where my queer community and my dance community overlap are fewer. Is this a problem that other queer people are facing? Is there a gap?” Lu explains that the event they were planning, now indefinitely postponed, was intended to be “a space where people could come together and be seen as queer and want to collaborate. To talk about ideas or recommend other queer photographers, designers, spaces, choreographers. To really bulk up that community."
Lu first came to UMA at the urging of friends Julia Bryck and Kayla Bobalek. Lu was attending Headlong Performance Institute (HPI), and found themselves missing dancing. (HPI is an extension of Headlong Dance Theater, a boundary blurring dance and physical theater that's been an engine of Philly's dance/theater scene since the 90's). Short on funds, but desperate to move, Lu did an 'Intro Month' at UMA -- back when we had a physical studio space -- and came to class every day. “I tried everything”, they said. That was about a year ago. Pre-COVID Lu was no longer at UMA everyday, they took house regularly and often dropped in on UMA other classes, becoming a work study in early 2020. (Lu also shouted out Shannon Murphy's classes, as another local favorite.) Lu says they feel safe being queer at UMA but the space, overall, with its many purposes and sub-communities, hasn't put forth a sense of queer community or collective for them. Lu says "queer people are there, we dance together on a regular basis" but Lu is "craving something a step further."
For Lu, the multitude of styles they’re able to train and explore at UMA is part of the expansiveness of queerness. Lu is invested in “all of the possibilities of how a body can move.” They explained, “I’m excited about researching and investigating in a dance context with myself and other people about gender and queerness, how a body looks, walks, moves through space.”