Energy. That’s what I think of when I consider the subject of this profile, dancer, choreographer, educator Josie Metal-Corbin. She advocates dance as a natural way of affirming life that is available to nearly all of us if we only choose to take advantage of it. Her life and work in dance have covered much territory and she isn’t slowing down after six decades dedicated to the art form that she also touts as a superb fitness regimen and social engagement tool. She’s done much work, and been widely recognized for it, in intergenerational dance. This story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from some years ago, and so she’s done much more work since the piece appeared. If I’m not mistaken I first met her when she called me to suggest a story. She’d become fast friends with a Bosnian family who had suffered through some of the horrors of the siege on Sarajevo and had resettled in Omaha. Josie was enamored with the spirit of these people and of the beauty of their culture, particularly their music and dance. She was working with a group of Bosnian refugees to stage a concert in music and dance that expressed forgiveness, mourning, and thanksgiving. I ended up doing a cover story about the Bosnian family and the celebratory program, and you can find that story here on this blog. It’s called, “War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horrors in Sing and Dance that Make Plea for Peace.” Josie’s quoted in the story.
Josie’s Dance of Life: Dancer/Choreographer/Educator Josie Metal-Corbin Affirms Life Through Dance
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“Dance is the affirmation of life through movement.”
– Martha Graham
For the longest time, University of Pittsburgh grad Josie Metal-Corbin could not concede the obvious: that she is a dancer. This, despite already being a noted performer, choreographer and teacher of modern dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she is a professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation and director of the college’s resident dance troupe, The Moving Company. In 2000 the 61-year-old artist and educator was honored by the state of Nebraska with one of its prestigious Governor’s Arts Awards for her wide-ranging contributions as an advocate, instructor, performer and choreographer of dance.
It was not until well into her career, while first doing pioneering work integrating elders in modern dance performance, that she fully acknowledged dance as her passion and, not coincidentally, evolved an inclusive dance philosophy unbound by tradition or form or stereotype. A philosophy embracing all ages and abilities.
“It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I could say the words, ‘I am a dancer.’ Before then, saying that always meant in my head that I’m not good enough, I haven’t had enough formal studies, I haven’t studied with the right people, I’m not a fabulous technical dancer. For years, I bought into that,” she said. “But now that I’m mature and have been through a lot of life experiences, I know I am a dancer, and I can never separate that out of myself. So, whether I’m teaching or performing or choreographing or going out on an errand, it’s all kind of a dance. It’s about the rhythm of what I’m doing. It’s who I am. It’s the heartbeat of my passion.”
When she began introducing modern dance to older adults in the ballroom of Omaha’s Paxton Manor in the early ‘80s she was already sold on the physical, emotional and social benefits of dance for seniors, but doubted how much that age group could contribute to the realm of performance. A defining moment came at a rehearsal for one of her first intergenerational works.
She was agonizing how to get an 83-year-old woman she’d recruited for the piece, Marie Waite, to move from one corner of the stage to the other, short of carrying her when, before her very eyes, “there was Marie quickly running across the stage beside two young dancers, and I said, ‘Ah, so that’s what can be done?’” The more she worked with older dancers, most of whom came from ballet or tap or folk roots, the more she discovered their potential as viable interpretive performers of much grace and nuance.
“I saw very touching, poignant, beautiful, exciting expression in people I never thought of as being expressive dancers,” she said. “I realized then I had to stop putting my biases and stereotypes of what people can and cannot do on others.”
For someone who became an activist railing against ageism and an advocate celebrating older adults’ gifts, Metal-Corbin was, strangely enough, afraid to work with seniors at the start. Why? “I never knew my grandparents, so I never really had much contact with elders,” she said. “When my husband David, whom I met at a dance workshop, first suggested I do dance with elders, I said, ‘Well, I could never do dance with THEM. I don’t know what THEY do.’ He encouraged me…but I wasn’t confident enough yet to do it alone, so I took my students along to the Paxton Manor. It became an intergenerational experience. And, I came to see this beautiful expression in their movement, on their faces and in the interaction that took place between the generations.” The benefits, she saw, were many.
“Beyond the physical benefits, there are the social benefits. The real magic is in the interaction. Being able to tell your story to another person. To move with another person. To express yourself in a non-verbal way. The psychological benefits include increasing your self-worth because you’re doing something meaningful. It becomes a real sharing,” she said.
As she saw the “wonderful movement” of older bodies unfurling in space before her, she began recruiting seniors and integrating them into her work. Along the way, she earned a graduate certificate in gerontology from UNO.
Typical of her high-energy crusading style, she made the medium a forum for overturning aging myths. She worked with videographers to create a series of dance videos demonstrating the capabilities of seniors. Excerpts were presented as evidence before a U.S. Senate Special Committee On Aging that opened up funding for elder dance programs. She co-authored with hubby David, a fellow UNO professor, a well-reviewed handbook, Reach for It (now in its 3rd edition) on exercise and dance activities for seniors. She presented tapes, papers and workshops on elder dancing at national and international conferences. She went into the schools as a Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Residence, bringing along older adults to dance with children. She made dozens of intergenerational dance works.
The more she has delved into dance and all its permutations, the more she has come to believe it is a deep, natural expression of life for any of us who can and do choose to heed its rhythmic call.
She said, “Dance is not this special subject in life. Dance is a part of life. It is what we are, and we are the instruments of our dance of life.”
The reticence the normally vivacious Metal-Corbin once felt about her own dance pedigree may have stemmed from the blue-collar work ethic instilled in her as a youth. Growing up in Pittsburgh she toed the line at home and school. Crazy about dance from age 3, her lower middle-class parents — her father was a watchmaker, her mother a homemaker — paid for ballet lessons she attended every weekend. She was serious about dance all right, even forming her own dance studio in the unfinished basement of her family’s home, but a life in the arts seemed unlikely given her background.
“I really didn’t know much about the art world because my family didn’t go to museums or concerts. My dad hunted and fished. We went camping together.”
Then, at about age 12, she was selected to participate in a free youth arts program at the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh (now known as the Carnegie Museums), an experience she describes as “life-changing.”
“I got this fabulous opportunity there in the Tam O’Shanters (after the Robert Burns poem) program. I attended drawing classes every Saturday through my senior year in high school. This was part of a life I had never seen before. I had no other link to this world. It was wonderful,” she said. “I would walk through the Greek columns of the Institute’s architectural hall and go past the dinosaur hall and then into the auditorium where we had our art lesson. I remember seeing my first Henry Moore (sculpture). I was really enriched by the whole atmosphere. It’s what really linked me to art.”
Years later, she choreographed several dances based on Moore sculptures.
After graduating high school in 1963, she attended Slippery Rock, earning a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education in 1967. She was so immersed in her studies the decade’s counterculture movement largely passed her by. “
This is almost a joke in my family, but in the ‘60s, when all the disturbances were going on, I was oblivious to it,” she said. “I was in a small rural town getting my teaching degree and dancing. I was doing my thing and not caught up in the times. I am an obsessive-compulsive person and am extremely focused on whatever I am involved in. So, I was not politically active, I never smoked, I never drank, I was not a feminist. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. Besides, my parents would have killed me. I’ve changed since then.”
Her mind expanded in other ways. College was the first time she was exposed to dance “other than through studio dance teachers,” and it was while at Slippery Rock and later while pursuing her master’s degree in choreography at the University of Pittsburgh, that she first saw world-class dancers.
“Slippery Rock was only an hour-an-a-half away from downtown Pittsburgh and our whole modern dance club would drive down to concerts there,” she said. “We were exposed to artists like Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey. I saw Martha Graham at the Pitt studio. Alvin Ailey’s company was the most influential on me because I loved the kind of music he used. I loved the earthiness of the dance. That was such a profound experience that when I first started teaching dance his was the first company I took my classes to see.”
She attended evening master classes at Pitt after teaching P.E. and dance all day in the schools, studying with artists from New York and Wales, choreographing musical productions at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and learning modern, jazz, tap and theater dance. Summers found her serving as a dance counselor at a camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I had a very eclectic background,” she said.
Of all the dance forms, modern most moved her. “When I found modern dance I knew this was really the idiom in which I would focus my choreography,” she said. “Why? I loved the expression of it. Barefooted and of the earth. There was something that just touched me deeply. It was a departure from the classical ballet I had had, which was a good foundation. But I loved that in modern dance you could move to poetry or move to people’s voices. You can do that in ballet now, but this was when the dance forms were somewhat isolated.”
After earning her master’s, she channeled her passion into education. Burned out after teaching three years in the public schools, she moved on to Robert Morris College in 1970, a small private business school, where she taught P.E., coached basketball and founded a dance company. “I really blossomed there and made dance more of a priority,” she said.
In 1980 she came to UNO, where modern dance had a rich history under the direction of Vera Lundahl. With UNO as her base the past 27 years, Metal-Corbin has reached out into the community to work with diverse groups, including Bosnian refugees and black gospel singers. She often works with the Omaha Modern Dance Collective and recently organized a collaborative of area dancers and choreographers to perform works by modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan.
“I love working with groups in the community that give me and the dancers in the Moving Company new knowledge and new experiences. I love the process. That’s why I enjoy teaching so much. It energizes me.”
Her multimedia works — often combining stills or video — accomodate a diversity of dancers, from kids to elders, in venues ranging from concert halls to such unconventional spaces as the zoo. “I try to make dances appropriate to the people and spaces I am working with. My joy is in seeing people discover dance.”
As ever, she is moving in “new directions” again by performing her own solo work and researching what she calls “vernacular dance.” Always pushing the envelope, she made her New York and international dance debuts — both after age 50 — just in the past decade. She finds choreographing for herself liberating. “I have found a new, natural movement vocabulary for myself. I don’t have to worry about framing the dance on other bodies. It’s been very freeing, because I’m making the dance just for me. When I’m dancing, I feed off the energy of the music and the movement. There’s no pain. It’s a definite natural high.” She said mature modern dancers like herself are finding more acceptance and opportunity as performers: “Those of us in our 50s and 60s still have something to say. We’re making a place for ourselves. We’re putting a different face on what it is to be older.”
One of her recent projects, Kitchen Dancing, is a video dance work capturing dance wherever it may be — in homes, in offices, in stores or on street corners. She views the project as the natural culmination of her efforts the past three decades and considers this “found” dance the new emphasis in her work.
“It is meant to capture the dance of life people do rhythmically, spontaneously in their every day living activities,” she said. “It’s in every dimension of life. Just look around, and you’ll see people dancing. It might just be someone swaying or just moving some body part. People want to move. It’s the joy of expression through dance.”
- PSU-Dance and Choreography Career Outlook (pluginin.com)
- Muses: Chicago Dancing Festival Gives Crash Course In Dance (thecontrapuntist.com)
- The Guardian interview choreographer Rafael Bonachela, Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company (dance.southbankcentre.co.uk)
- War and Peace (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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