Dustin Loehr is a tap and spoken word soloist who created the one man shows UNCONDITIONAL and Footnotes of the Untellable Tale. He is currently raising funds for his project It’s Something About the Shoes; here is a link to his Facebook page:
Q: When did you know you wanted to dance professionally?
A: That’s an interesting question because I only sometimes consider myself a dancer. Most often I refer to myself as a Performing Artist or a Soloist. When I am tap dancing, I give more attention to the sounds or music I make with my feet. This is how the idea of calling myself a soloist came about, like a lone musician I dance my music. Dancers are typically more concerned with physical form – I am more concerned with sound, my physicality is a result of the sound.
I don’t remember a time where I was NOT dancing. I do remember the first time I watched another tap dancer perform and knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I wanted to spend the rest of my life trying to do that too. I was fortunate enough to see the late great Gregory Hines in one of his last touring solo performances. Mr. Hines was so generous with his audience. He told story after story with his feet and his words. After I saw Gregory Hines perform, I knew I was a tap dancer. I had at that point been tap dancing the majority of my life – I began studying when I was three years old – it wasn’t until after Gregory Hines that I became a tap dancer. Gregory introduced me to the orality of tap dancing; the history of the art form. It was this discovery that took my artistry to a new level. Before Gregory, I was busy trying to dance other people’s steps. I slowly began finding my own dance and style.
Q: What inspired you to create Footnotes of the Untellable Tale?
A: Necessity. After successfully touring and promoting my first full-length one-man-show, “UNCONDITIONAL” I was asked to return to one of the venues and present a new product. Well, I didn’t have a new product. So I began working with my wife, Caila Rochelle Loehr, to create a new piece. While I call myself a Soloist it’s not entirely true. Caila produces and acts as my Artistic Manager for all of my performances. I love working with her! With “Footnotes” we decided to tell the before and the after of “UNCONDITIONAL.” “UNCONDITIONAL” is the untellable tale and Footnotes is exactly that, the explanation of the previous show and my current existence as a Musical Theatre actor turned solo performance artist.
Q: What was the most challenging this about getting the show produced?
A: I have been very fortunate with my solo career. That’s not to say that I didn’t have to work hard! You never know who you are going to meet and where. That person might transition from one position into another. The art and theatre community in Arizona is quite small. It’s important to remember that as you conduct yourself as a professional artist. With “Footnotes” the opportunity to have the show produced was offered to me, the most difficult part was actually creating and choreographing the show. “Footnotes” uses much more tap than any of my previous work, and tap dancing to music, that was something new for my independent work! Most of my work as a solo artist is done with just me and my shoes. “Footnotes” was different, featuring popular music which I then accompany with my tap sounds.
“UNCONDITIONAL” was first produced by a small local non-profit theatre company. At the time, I had served as a stage manager for this company, stage managing several of their productions. Then an opportunity occurred where the theatre company was in need of a show. I pitched them “UNCONDITIONAL”. Next thing I know, a community college and another small theater had booked the show.
“UNCONDITIONAL” and “Footnotes” are intended to go together. They feature different aspects of my life as a tap dancer and artist, as well as personal stories from past relationships and becoming a young father. I juxtapose myth, fairytale, poetry and of course tap dancing as metaphorical motifs that allow me to discuss issues of social justice and illuminate the universality of my experiences, the mythologies, and the lives of my audience. There will be one more installment in this series that’s intended to premier in 2016 in which case I will have a full evening length production, and/or three smaller pieces that I can tour separately.
Q: How does your teaching job affect your pursuit of your independent work?
A: As a Teaching Artist, I mostly work on a contract basis. While these can be immensely rewarding, it can be challenging as well. I provide the bulk of the income for a family of five. Some months are great! When I land a big contract we’ll be able to live a bit more comfortably, but at a cost. Big contracts means dad is spending a lot of time at the theatre. During the leaner months, I supplement by waiting tables but can spend more time with my family. My life is not particularly glamorous. I am working seven days a week in one aspect or another, and when I am not working, I’m not making money; it is a beautiful life!
At times teaching does adversely affect my independent art-making. I have to be careful which contracts I take, balancing longer contracts with shorter ones. Some places are difficult to find substitutes should I need an evening off for one of my own shows, while still most contracts offer little if any paid planning time. If I take several smaller jobs I have to be careful how much time I take preparing lessons, writing scripts ext.
Mostly, teaching allows me to invest artistically into my community and the future of the arts! I consider the shows I direct or facilitate with my students as important as any work I do on my own and I give myself fully to each project. Often times the work done with students shows up in my own work as an artist! Teaching allows me to test out new ideas, approaches, workshops and theories.
Q: Why Phoenix and not New York?
A: I get asked that a lot. The romantic answer is actually a scene straight from “Footnotes.” I went to an audition for a tap show in New York City. I was greeted by a Choreographer/Director who couldn’t tap! His assistant was over worked and sloppy, and the people he began casting were intermediate tappers at best. I survived the first two cuts, and by the third I was so discouraged! This was New York! I had flown from Arizona for this single audition and the Choreographer couldn’t even dance! I was asked to perform the routine alone for this man. I executed the steps perfectly. He asked me to do it again, but “smile”. I was so pissed off at this point. My idealist dream of New York and Broadway was being ruined and I couldn’t bring myself to smile! I did the routine again, smile-less and was promptly sent home…
The unromantic story is, (well maybe this is romantic too?) my first wife and I went through a divorce in 2011. Arizona is our son’s home, and in order for custody agreements to stay in affect, it is my home too. For now, Arizona is where I stay which is probably a good thing. There is SO much work that needs to occur in the artistic, educational, and social climate of the state. Perhaps I’m here to make those changes… Arizona’s political leaders have voted to cut art funding by 1 million dollars in 2016, and funding for community colleges will be reduced to 0. I think I’m here for a reason. I want to help change the arts and education landscape of this state and someday retire to the East Coast. I’m thinking Main… and by retire, I mean start a theatre company there too…
Speaking of companies, my wife and I are in the process of co-founding a non-profit dedicated to creative place-making for Arizona communities. Our partner Cirien Saadeh is a political organizer and policy maker, and together we hope to launch our company, Transformative Arts Productions or T.A.P. in 2016. Our dream is to create a state of the art interdisciplinary arts laboratory where all communities of Arizona can experience and explore all the artistic genres. We hope to be able to actively use artistic ways of knowing to solve community problems and engage in independent and group growth.
Q: What kind of themes do you like to explore in your choreography?
A: I like to communicate tap in non-traditional ways. I am constantly pushing my own understanding of the art form and looking to show audiences how something old (tap dancing) can be used in new ways! Often times, tap will be used to communicate emotional undertones of my characters, or it provides a rhythmic signature for different characters that occurs each time that person emerges. One example of pushing myself in new artistic directions is also from “Footnotes”. There is a scene where I am discussing issues of marital stress, new-parent stress, just STRESS in general, and I am interrupted by sounds of tap dancing. As I continue the scene, the “tapping” continues to interrupt my dialogue and concentration until I can’t ignore it any longer and I have a full on competition or duel with these sounds. The tap sounds I am battling are pre-recorded sounds of myself dancing. In essence, I am battling myself!
I try to tell a story with my feet. When I tap and talk, I am interested in the rhythm and sounds of my words as much as the rhythm and sounds of my feet. Tap dancing should be like talking, the sounds must be articulated clearly and fully or the audience will lose what it is you are trying to say. Tap dancing should also be like walking, it should appear easy and natural.
Q: What is It’s Something About the Shoes about?
A: Oh gosh, well it is my Creative Master’s Thesis for Prescott College where I am studying Humanities with an emphasis on Expressive Arts and Education. A tap dancer in graduate school! I am interested in how art-making, and artistic expression/knowing can be used to cultivate growth and transformation for individuals within their educational systems or community environment. “It’s Something About the Shoes” began eight years ago when I saw a traditional group of dancers evangelizing down the streets of Phoenix celebrating the Catholic St. the Lady of Guadeloupe (a Hispanic version of Mary Jesus’ mother). What struck me about these dancers, and there were hundreds of different dancers doing this same thing, but this one troupe had special shoes with metal plates. They tapped in ways and rhythms that I recognized as a tap dancer. I thought that maybe tap dancing and this new, possibly indigenous dance form, might be related in a way. You see, tap dancing is a blend of different cultures and traditions, most of which are generally known by tap historians. What if this culture was a missing link in the developmental history of tap dancing?
Finding this group of dancers became my first major challenge. In December, 2014, I located Martha Morales, the Director of this group. I learned that they are called the Danza CAAS and that their dance form is called Sonajera or “rattle/sacred noise dance”. Martha agreed to work with me, and explore, through the creation of a co-created performance and space, any relationships that might exist between our different cultures and art forms.
“It’s Something About the Shoes” utilizes multimedia, storytelling, live installation, theatre, documentary, and of course dance to explore how artistic practice can be used to contribute to a greater body of knowledge: going beyond cultural and aesthetic differences, together the Danza CAAS and myself will perform side-by-side and have a rhythmic dialogue expressing truths that words cannot. We will preserve their story, elevate the art of percussive dance, and add evidence to show how the dance styles might be related.
Pushing the boundaries of what tap dancing can do.
Readers can find more information about this show and our fundraising efforts on our Indiegogo page: http://igg.me/at/itstheshoes.
Q: What is your strangest backstage story?
A: The first thing that came to mind was when I was working in Musical Theatre. I was a dancer in the show “Footloose” and had come down with the stomach flu, literally right before the show started! I would dance my scenes and run off stage to be sick, only to run back on and smile and dance some more. This lasted for the entire performance! The show must go on right?
Q: Do you think hard work or natural athletic ability are more important in the world of dance?
A: I don’t consider myself very athletic, although my way of learning is very Kinesthetically motivated which could be compared to athleticism. There is certainly a level of endurance that is present in dance, and amazing feats of strength. Hard work can build both of these things. I believe dancers carry with them an elevated dedication and sense of perfectionism. Since I often cross between theatre and dance worlds, I have noticed a difference between dancers and actors. Dancers tend to have a “no-nonsense” attitude about them, especially while they are learning a new routine. A dancer is more likely to play when the routine is learned and they can execute it correctly. Whereas an actor plays much more throughout the entirety of the creation process. It has been useful for me as an artist to do both of these things, but I tend to rehearse and run my rehearsals more closely to how a dancer would. I think the hard work dancers put into their craft translates to athletic ability.
Q: If you could dance a routine with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly who would you pick and why?
A: Gene Kelly. “Singing in the Rain” is probably one of my favorite movie musicals. Kelly ALWAYS tells a story with his dancing and he is ALWAYS pushing himself and the boundaries of the entire dance genre. His ballet in “An American in Paris” was the longest dance sequence EVER filmed up to that point! I am continuously experimenting with non-verbal forms of communication, Gene Kelly is a master of this! Besides, he’s simply amazing! Constantly amazes me. Gene is a strong dancer, much stronger than myself, but he knows how to tell a story. For me, art must communicate. If it doesn’t communicate it’s not art. It might entertain, or fill some other purpose, but unless there is a story, no matter how episodic or avant-garde, there is no art. Art is story- and Gene Kelly tells his stories masterfully.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)