Movement Matters: An Interview with Jacinda Ratcliffe

Movement Matters is a monthly column by Michael Workman that investigates performers whose work intersects politics, policy, and issues related to the body as the locus of socio-cultural dialogues on race, gender, ability and more.

For this installment, we sit down with dancer Jacinda Ratcliffe to discuss the rigors of dance training, whiteness in classical ballet, and the importance of psychological self-care. An edited transcript of the interview is presented here.

Jacinda Ratcliffe (center) | Justin Barbin Photography

Michael Workman: You’re originally from Virginia, correct?

Jacinda Ratcliffe: I came up here to double major in dance and psychology at Northwestern. Up to that point, I had just done ballet and tap and that was kind of my thing. I stopped tapping in college but continued in ballet. It was a modern-based program though, and so going from that extreme to the other opened myself up to the possibilities for this whole other side of dance, that being a ballerina isn’t particularly satisfying. You don’t know that as a 17-year-old. So, experienced that, did some summer intensives, and I remember I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance after my junior year in college and that was my first time doing contemporary. You start the day with ballet and then use the technique to do not ballet and it was like 9 to 6 or 10 to 6 every day and that was when I was like, “This is actually what I want to be doing.” So, post-grad, I remember it was February and I was like, “I have no plans!” But I wanted to stay in Chicago because in the Northwestern program, all the professors work in Chicago and it kind of feeds you into this scene. I started researching the audition program at Lou Conte, went in and got in.

That first summer I was still living in Evanston and just couldn’t find a job. I just wanted to find a service industry job, bartending, and just could not find it in the summer and so all I had to do every day that summer was just show up and take classes. It was hard, it’s all advanced pro-classes and in the summer time everybody’s off-contract and taking classes. Amazing professionals, they all worked so hard going in and taking classes in the evening and in that time I felt like I grew a lot. Then I stayed for the yearlong program and that’s when I started freelance working in Chicago, ended up getting a second scholarship and continued working and then in June decided the next step for me is moving to New York. So that’s happening.  

MW: Who were you dancing for in San Francisco?

JR: Alex Ketley’s work was something that we studied a lot, even though I didn’t get to actually study with him. We also learned a Robert Moses piece and got to work with Christian Burns piecing together different things. But one of the things, if I can relate my study of psychology to it: Summerly Ratigan runs the school and so she danced with [Alonzo King Lines Ballet] for a very long time and talked to us a lot about letting go. And letting go of the need-to-know. She was like, “Every day I’m going to show up from 9 to 6 and I’m going to be dancing. And that’s all I need to know.” 

MW: What compelled you to pair up these two different fields of study?

JR: Psychology’s always been something that interests me — knowing the stigma around it and feeling like we just don’t give enough credit to taking care of our minds. Even something as simple as, theoretically, once a year going in to get a physical checkup and twice a year you go to the dentist. We check in with everything else but the simple act of going in to see a psychologist just to chat about your own mental health. It’s so hard when it doesn’t have physical symptoms. I’ve had my own struggles with it and in high school it was something that interested me. I’ve always been good at talking to people.

MW: Do you think about it through the lens, for instance, of dance?

JR: I don’t think about it in terms of dance therapy specifically, but how taking care of your mental health allows for dance to be more…especially in the ballet world — it can be very taxing on the mind. We’re staring at ourselves in mirrors for hours on end every single day and night. It’s unhealthy. And it’s always like, “Oh, I need to improve, I can do better at this, I’m not strong enough here.”

MW: Right. This constant struggle to have the “right” sort of body shape, to stay below a certain perceived acceptable weight, that sort of thing.

JR: And always working on technique, “Oh my turn out isn’t where it should be,” or “I can’t get on my legs so I’m falling out of all my pirouettes today.” Sort of learning how to manage those thoughts and giving yourself tools to, in the moment, be like, “I fell out of a turn, but that doesn’t make me a bad dancer.”

MW: Right, that it’s just trial and error. Practice, and psychological elasticity.

JR: I feel like it’s a tool we all constantly have to work at. I very much think about psychology as a tool that can make us better dancers. It’s just not something I think we talk about enough.  

MW: Were your parents encouraging you to study these subjects? Is it something that they were doing for work?

JR: No, when we were little, my parents just put us in everything. I played soccer for a very long time, I played basketball, dance. I was into everything. It’s like a running joke in my family. My dad — no one knows what he does. He works the 9-5 in like risk management. His last job title was like 8 words long. I remember “take your kids to work day,” and every year he’d have the wipe board and sketch out like this happens, then this happens and then the banks. He used to work for like Freddie Mac in mortgages, back before the government took over. Then, my mom would do a lot of management-type stuff but then just a year ago graduated with her Bachelor’s. She immigrated from the Congo when she was 19, and went to high school not knowing English very well and graduated into the work force. She had gotten her Associate’s, but then while I was in college decided she needed to finish so graduated with a degree in HR. They were both athletes, though. My dad very much treats me like his athlete child, like, “Are you getting your protein? How are your injuries?” They’re really supportive. I feel lucky in that sense.

MW: It’s interesting too, how powerful that encouragement must have been, since when you started the representation of people of color in dance was a real problem.

JR: Yes, there have been real strides in recent years. Misty Copeland, and that sort of thing. When I was little, I remember being in the Nutcracker and they were like, “Your hair has to be curled for the party scene.” And I was like, “Oh, I have curly hair, I’m set.” Then my teacher literally said to me the words, “People didn’t have hair like you back then. You have to straighten it then curl it so you fit into what the aesthetic is.” At the time, I’m 12 or 13 years old and it didn’t even occur to me that that’s a thing. I remember my mom getting offended and me being like, “No, no, no, it’ll just be a few hours and I’ll have to deal with changing it,” but just truly not understanding why that’s problematic. You know, you’re doing a ballet, and ballet is so obviously not the representation of what was literally happening back then.

MW: Right, but as an art form, people see in it the expression of their own racial, sex and gender ideals and sometimes their own bigotries.

JR: Yes, and gender’s a whole other thing, but it’s definitely a thing that I’ve learned to embrace. You know, I used to then go and straighten my hair for every single performance, again, this was all happening so subconsciously that it wasn’t until recently, until the latter half of college, where I was like, “I’m okay. I’m okay just being who I am.” I do think throughout the history of dance, there have been pieces with people blending together and becoming more representative but it’s shocking that it took us until the 21st century to get Misty Copeland. It’s kind of like, “Oh, we had a black president, racism is done. Oh Misty Copeland’s a principal, so everything is fine now. And even with her, she gets the contemporary stuff and not the classical, that was from her early career. I read her book The Unlikely Ballerina, and she talks about doing Swan Lake putting on makeup and to make herself the White Swan.

MW: White-facing it.

JR: Right, so people are talking about it a lot more, and if you’re not actively fighting against it, you’re possibly letting it happen.      

Please send questions, comments or tips to Michael Workman at Each Spring and Fall, as a corollary to the Movement Matters column, we also present a series of symposia and performances at different locations throughout the city based on topics developed out of and indexed from both the columns and live discussions.


Author: Guest Contributors