Thanks for the Dance

Amy Elizabeth, founder of Aimed Dance company, sits across from me at a Starbucks and sips her hot chocolate. I’m nursing a deliciously frou-frou holiday coffee. Elizabeth has brought her intern, Sarah, to observe the interview. Sarah politely demurs to both coffee and chocolate. She’s a dancer and eschews such excesses for the sake of her art. Commendable, I tell her, as I drink cool whip from a plastic cup.

Elizabeth is here because I wanted to talk to her about her company for this story. I walked into the interview woefully uninformed, but thankfully Elizabeth has done her research.

She’s originally from the region; Fannett, to be specific. She learned dance at Bonita Jennings School for the Performing Arts there, and years later, through Aimed Dance, was able to aid her old stomping grounds after Hurricane Harvey by gathering donations of dance equipment from all over the United States and even Canada. Again, after Tropical Storm Imelda, Aimed Dance used its Helping Hand Initiative to reach out to young dancers and dance studios in the area.

After spending years away from home training as a professional dancer and running a company in Houston, Texas, Elizabeth returned to the region. As part of her homecoming she debated the merits of bringing her dance company with her; would she be filling a role here, or simply competing against established companies in a saturated market? As it turns out, there was a niche for a dance company that focuses on training and employing professionals beyond the college level.

“There are over 30 dance studios in Southeast Texas, all of which focus on youth 3 to 18, and there’s not another company I’m aware of that focuses on professionals 18 years and older,” says Elizabeth.

That’s surprising. I knew there were a lot of studios around here, but 30 is an eyebrow raising number.

Elizabeth continues describing the dance community in the area; “thriving,” she calls it. “Thirty studios survive in this demographic – six of them live on the same street – and all of them keep their doors open. We have a lot of dancers coming out of this area . . . but what if they don’t want to leave the area?”

Elizabeth felt that leaving was her only choice when she was 18. After high school, if a Southeast Texan wants to dance, they either enroll at Lamar University or hop on the first bus out of town. After the university, the bus is the only option. That’s the tragedy of dance in this region; we’re training whole generations of talented dancers and then immediately shipping them off, rarely to return.

“There’s space for Aimed Dance here,” she says confidently.

Aimed Dance has existed since Elizabeth’s undergrad days and was officially formed in Houston in 2006 as a 501c(3), but under a different name. “It was a complicated name,” she says. “. . . It was bad.”

When Elizabeth moved back to Southeast Texas, the company took a “break” during the transition, producing no shows but performing at various festivals and as guests at colleges and other companies. When she decided to move the company with her instead of leaving it in Houston, she also rebranded to its current moniker. The motto of the company has always been, “moving with purpose,” so Aimed Dance suits the overall philosophy.

Aimed’s first show in Southeast Texas was produced in January of 2019 and held at Lamar University in Beaumont, where she currently works as adjunct professor teaching Dance Appreciation, Modern Dance, and Modern Dance Technique. In her role as adjunct professor, Elizabeth must produce at least two shows a year, which she sees as merely the foundation upon which to build a more robust enterprise. As the company takes on more professional dancers she wants to begin producing even more shows and festivals. Recalling the lack of opportunities that originally drove her to leave Southeast Texas, Elizabeth wants to create as many chances as possible for professional dancers beyond the age of 18. Through programs like the Helping Hand Initiative and their scholarships, which have given thousands of dollars to local dancers to pursue their education, Aimed Dance is doing just that.

Since their performance in January 2019, Aimed Dance has also performed as guests at Tarrant County College in Dallas Texas.

Just as Impressionism was a reaction against the tightly regulated styles of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, modern dance was a reaction against traditional dance styles – notably classical ballet – with their standardized costumes and movements. Forswearing corsets and pointe shoes for less restrictive garments and a broader allowance for expressive motions, modern dance focuses less on grace and beauty (though it often exhibits both) and more on communication.

It’s that emphasis on non-verbal communication that draws Elizabeth to dance. ” I gravitate toward dance because words fail me,” she says. ” I’ll be describing something and I’ll say, ‘grow, shift, mold, change,’ and everyone will look at me crazy, but I just don’t have a word for it! It’s a heck of a lot easier to communicate with dance.”

That said, even dance is not perfectly articulate. One of Elizabeth’s recent dances at Lamar sent some mixed messages to its viewers. In the opening moments, thirteen dancers advance slowly out of darkness into the spotlights and have been variously described by audiences as, “hauntingly beautiful,” “they were all walking to their death,” and “they were all walking to the light.”

There’s a world of difference between those interpretations, and it only proves that, like other forms of art, audiences bring their own personal experiences into a dance performance. It’s the choreographers’ challenge to use universal symbolism to attempt to convey their message, but ultimately people will likely see what they want to see. Elizabeth has come to appreciate the widely disparate reactions she gets to her work, taking the opportunity to ask audience members with unusual perceptions what they felt and why rather than telling them they got the wrong idea. Though she considers herself an educator – it’s her “passion,” she says – art is a unique discipline in that the education is almost always two-way.