by Emily Bufferd
I once saw a T-shirt that read, “Work until your idols become your rivals.” Something felt funny about that statement.
When I was growing up, I looked up to my dance idols and it never occurred to me to see them as my competition. I wanted to be just like them. If you want to be just like someone, what better way to do that than to learn from that person? I aspired to have these people as my teachers and mentors (and just to skip ahead a bit, I’m happy to say they are).
The most direct route to understanding whatever it is you hope to do—be it performance, teaching, or choreography—lies in learning from a master who has done that exact same thing a great deal. This speaks directly to the importance of mentorship. By dictionary definition, mentorship is “guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person in a company or educational institution,” and a mentor is “an experienced or trusted advisor.” Yet how these relationships are built and how they function depends very much on the individuals involved.
Sheila and I talk about dance a lot, and also about groceries, the weather, vitamins, and making sure I’m wearing enough layers in winter.
I’m in the middle of the mentorship spectrum. I have students who come to me for guidance—which I am always glad to offer—and I also actively seek advice from those who have “been there/done that” in regards to the type of work I am pursuing. One of the most beautiful parts of the mentor relationship is that no matter whether you are giving or receiving mentorship, you know you have someone who wants the best for you, and who wants to see you succeed. It is imperative in both the dance and the dance education industries to build relationships, and I firmly believe that a mentor–mentee dynamic is one of the best.
I approached two of my mentors to get their thoughts on this subject. My relationships with both of these incredible women are very different, and their answers rang true to who they are. Tracie Stanfield, artistic director of SynthesisDance and Brooklyn Dance Festival, said to me: “Over time, I have come to realize that being a mentor is mostly listening and reminding dancers who they truly are and what they value. It has less to do with knowing everything and more to do with holding space for honesty, reflection, and support. It’s an honor to share my experiences. I gain a great deal from these relationships.”
I also talked with Sheila Barker, who teaches at Broadway Dance Center, and she said, “The relationships I have with each of you are very different because you all need different things from me at different times.” Sheila and I talk about dance a lot, and also about groceries, the weather, vitamins, and making sure I’m wearing enough layers in winter. Tracie finds time for me whenever I need her—and sometimes when I haven’t even asked her.
Because of the generous, supportive relationships I have with these two women in dance, I am able to serve as a better mentor to my students when they approach me. Hopefully this will continue to trickle down through my students to their students, and so on.
Whether you call someone a mentor or not, it is imperative to seek out and nurture this relationship dynamic. It is important for all of us to find time for mentor relationships with both our students and our teachers so that we may all continue to flourish in dance.
Emily Bufferd is producer of The Young Choreographer’s Festival, a freelance choreographer, and a teacher at Joffrey Ballet School and Broadway Dance Center in New York City.