I recently had a chance to catch up with Jaema Joy Green of Jaema Joy Dance (based in New York City). Read below to find out how this engineering major found balance between her love of math and science and her gift for dance.
Can you give a brief background of how you first got into dance?
It’s family lore now! When I was five, I was a klutzy kid, and when I started kindergarten, I would come home and cry to my parents that I couldn’t “run like the other kids.” They figured they had to do SOMETHING to help me with my coordination, and I loved pink, so ballet class it was. I haven’t looked back.
Did you know early on that you wanted to continue dance beyond high school or how did that all come into play?
I honestly didn’t think I was talented enough to make dance a part of my life past high school – it didn’t feel like a viable path. I remember the specific day that changed, though: I was a member of Traverse City’s pre-professional dance company Company Dance Traverse, and we attended these big convention weekends, taking class, competing with our pieces, and meeting dancers from all over the region. In one of those giant ballroom classes — with lyrical dance goddess Suzi Taylor — she pointed at me out of the hundreds of kids in the room and invited me up to dance with the “really good dancers” on the stage. I was 16. When class ended I thanked her and she looked me in the eye and said I had danced beautifully that day. And that was it. That was the day I committed to making dance a part of my life for as long as I possibly could.
I know you studied engineering in college, what did you originally see yourself doing career-wise?
Yes! I was a double-major in dance and industrial engineering. I have always loved math and science, and when I went to school for dance my parents said I needed to have a backup. I guess engineering is an intense backup plan, but here we are!
I think I remember reading that you have found ways to incorporate engineering into your dancing. Can you talk about how the two work together?
Great memory, thank you! In college I was really part of two different worlds in my two different realms of study, and I always thought it would be interesting to bring them together, especially because I find the technical work of process improvement incredibly creative, and putting artificial constraints around my choreography has created interesting results in the past.
I took a statistics class on experimental design — essentially, how to set up an experiment to learn as much as possible about the factors that affect a process with as little resources as possible. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I wondered what might happen if I applied the same process to how audiences experience dance. What factors matter to you when you see a piece of choreography? Can we break down the alchemy of “oh, I like that?” It’s all a little tongue-in-cheek — what I love about dance is how personal and abstract it is, so boiling it down to what one responds to is reducing it too far — but it also opens up a dialogue for audiences to talk about dance and movement, and provides some new vocabulary for audiences.
The “experiment” became an evening of dance called DANCE STATS, which went up in 2016 in New York. Every night was different — the audience would come in, watch thirty-two one-minute dances, and use their phone to rate each one on a scale of 1-10. Then we’d analyze their responses, share results with the audience, and create a brand new dance “optimized” for that audience, that night. It was so fun and started some really interesting conversations.
We also put the whole shebang online, so you can see it for yourself: http://www.jaemajoydance.com/dancestats
Tell us about your company and how that came to be. (Did that happen before you moved to NY or once you were already living there)
It started in Chicago, but it really took shape in New York. When I was still in school, I started choreographing for student shows through the dance program, and I also found my way into a student tap dance company called TONIK Tap. I became the artistic director of the group and it was really an ah-ha experience – I loved every minute of it. Choreographing, curating shows and programming, even writing grants, hosting auditions, creating rapport among the dancers — it was all so fulfilling to me.
After school, I knew I wanted to keep making dance work, and I wanted to keep that director role as well, so I invited some of my fellow dance majors to perform in a show with me. One performance opportunity kind of led to another — and one idea led to another — and what started as a pickup group of my friends dancing together has slowly become Jaema Joy Dance, a group of dance artists in New York. We use social media and feedback, stories, and concepts from the public and our audiences to create dance theatre work.
NY is one of my favorite places and so I have to ask, as a dancer, how does living there inspire you in terms of dance. (I know your husband is involved heavily in the arts as well, so I’m guessing you see inspiration at every turn.) By the way, have you two ever collaborated on a piece?
You said it – New York really does have inspiration at every turn. I love the history of it — the old buildings tucked in with brand new construction, the famous streets I’ve seen in movies since I was a little girl, the American history woven into the streets, and the incredible cultural and artistic history everywhere. I was backstage at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway a couple times (my husband is a pianist and composer for musical theatre – it’s a great perk!) and I just kept thinking about how I was walking the same floorboards that Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse walked. You can feel it sometimes, you know?
The other thing that I didn’t really understand about New York until I lived here is that it is truly saturated with the arts. There’s something happening every day of the week, every week of the year. The world’s best dancers, choreographers, and composers come through NYC all the time – and also there’s some pretty impressive movement happening in the subways. The saturation creates a blanket of anonymity (there’s so much going on, how does one burst through and stand out?) which is both maddening at times and deeply inspiring.
My husband’s musical background has come in handy for my art too, yes — he’s written a few original compositions for my work. Most recently he wrote the opening for my dance theatre piece GHOST SHIPS that we performed in June in Soho. I also made him a dance for our anniversary, to a Gershwin piece he played in the pit for An American In Paris.
Any advice for younger dancers out there…whether that’s how to balance dance/school work (at any level) or about continuing beyond college?
I think what surprised me most about “growing up” into an artistic life is that there is no correct path. I had sort of internalized this idea that being a professional dancer was going to an audition, getting plucked from the masses, and getting a full-time contract with a big dance company. While that is a path — an exciting path — that’s not the only way to do it. There are so many more opportunities out there, and the dance world will only benefit from your unique background, training, education, and perspective. Diversity in the dance world is so important. There’s a place for you if you want it — it may not look how you imagined it might look, but it’s there and it’s waiting for you.
***Photo Credit to Travis Magee**