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Finding Authenticity in Dance: An Interview with Jon Ole Olstad

Photo by Zachariah Eppererson
Photo by Erika Larsen

Authenticity. It’s a trait and a quality that we all seem to cherish, to strive for in our daily lives, regardless of profession, workplace, scenario or relationship. Jon Ole Olstad, a New York City-based dance teacher, choreographer and dancer seems to hold this quality at the heart of everything he does, which, in turn, makes him an esteemed role model, mentor and educator for not only dancers but someone from any walk of life.

From working with Ohad Naharin in a “Kamuyot,” a collaboration project, to dancing with the Nederlands Dans Theater 1, to working with incredible choreographers around the world, and to being recognized internationally for his own works, Olstad still finds that the most important thing for him as an artist is the connection, collaboration and partnerships he creates while working and mentoring.

Olstad teaches and choreographs out of NYC, but finds a lot of inspiration and work from traveling and teaching around the globe.

Currently in Stockholm for three weeks, Olstad is teaching at The Ballet Academy. While spending time in so many different locations, Olstad finds that he “really loves to be able to be at a place for longer than one class.” He says, “You know, when I’m at a studio for only one class, it’s in-and-out, and I don’t even get to learn people’s names, and I don’t really get to know them.”

“I’m a strong believer that to be a good teacher or a good mentor, you can’t only teach people how to dance, you have to dig a little deeper.”

There’s a lot that goes into “digging deeper,” but Olstad covers it perfectly in relating it to why he believes it’s so important, especially in a role as a mentor and educator:

“I think the biggest part of being a good teacher is being a person who enjoys seeing other people’s growth and someone who enjoys sharing of your own knowledge. I think to be able to share the knowledge and information that you have, you need to dive into yourself, so you can see the growth that you’ve done; you can see the errors that you’ve made, and you need to not be afraid of saying, oh I wasn’t that good either, or oh I lacked this, and not being like, I’m the teacher, and I know everything.

The other day in class, I told people that — I see that you get stressed when I as a teacher give you a lot of material really quickly. I see you get into your headspace and think, ‘this is too difficult…I won’t be able to pick up anything,’ and it’s just a negativity train that’s going high speed. And I tell people, instead of thinking that, just think, one move at a time, one step at a time, one second at a time, and I say these things, because I’ve experienced the exact same things that they’ve experienced.”

Photo by Amy Gardner

“When I go into a teacher role, I also know that those students paid good money. I want them to discover something new about themselves, I want them to learn something new, and then I need to be the person who has confidence in the room — with joy, with discipline. The mentors that I loved the most, when I was student, were not afraid of really, really giving themselves. For example, if we did choreography in class, they really danced the choreography, and I was then like woah, I see the potential, and I see how far it can get stretched. [Students] can learn so much from that and seeing how far [potential] can get stretched. You learn so much visually from watching.”

However, Olstad wasn’t always as self-aware and experienced of a dancer — he truly speaks from his heart and his genuine experience, when relaying his perspective on the ambiguity and nuances of dance as an art form.

Speaking about his personal inspiration and mentors, he recalled his greatest mentor to this day, Siv Gaustad, his Jazz teacher from college, where he attended the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo:

“I feel like the one mentor who really taught me everything I know about dance is my Jazz teacher back in college. She’s still my biggest inspiration today; I still look up to her. I remember taking her class for the first time and just thinking, oh my, I don’t know anything about dance. There was no chance in hell I was able to follow the warm-up, I didn’t know half of the steps, and after that class I felt so defeated, but at the same time, I thought that my goal was to be able to follow this class, to be able to learn every single thing in that hour-long warm-up, to be able to pick up every step in the choreography, and I just kept coming back.

“You know, I think people kind of give up fast. I see people after class that come to talk to me and say, oh that was such a great class, but it was so difficult, and I’m not sure if I can keep up with it, but they tried it once.

“You can’t give up after once — it needs to happen over a journey. To be a good dancer, you can’t think that it’s a sprint — it’s a marathon.”

“So, after taking that evening class [in college], I just thought that it’s a marathon and that I’ll be able to push through this; I’ll be able to learn. After a few years, I ended up assisting her in class settings and choreography; I ended up being in her shows. I just saw myself in that first class from being the person in the corner in the back, to being the person who went through with it, and I think it’s really important to have those kinds of mentors in your life.”

Backtracking, before Olstad found his passion for arts and dance, he was born in the tiny town of Otta, Norway — where the population was small, around 5,000 people, but dance was even scarcer. Growing up, Olstad did sports, horseback riding and even participated in a marching band, but didn’t find his spark and passion for dance until much later. Every year, his town arranged for amateur musical theater performances, but the minimum age to participate was 15-years-old. After a few years of watching his older sister perform, Olstad was finally old enough to audition for the production of Footloose. After starting to learn choreography and get into the production, he was settled — this is what he wanted to do.

Photo by Erika Larsen

Olstad’s first ballet class was an audition at a high school performing arts program three hours away from where his parents lived. Recalling it, he adds, “I had no idea what anything was. I just remember standing in the studio, and you know, the girls were wearing leggings and ballet shoes, and I was like, what is this? I didn’t know what first position was, what a tendu was, anything — so when the audition came, I just kind of mimicked everything. I was so out of my own comfort zone, and then I remember taking a jazz class as part of it. We were going to go across the floor and do step, step, chassé and grand jeté leap, and I couldn’t even manage to do a chassé. I thought that there was no way in hell I was going to get accepted into this high school.”

Olstad was accepted. If you’re wondering how, like he was during that audition, the teachers followed up by telling him, “You didn’t know anything, and you didn’t do a single step correctly, but we just saw that you tried so hard.” From that moment on, Olstad realized how far behind he was. But, he didn’t let it discourage him; instead, he “worked twice as hard as everybody else, was the first one in the studio and the last one to leave.” Regardless, he had to face the reality of moving away from home to pursue his passion. Questioned by his mom, she asked him, “What if it doesn’t work out; what if you’re not going to be able to be a dancer, and now you’re going to have a dance education?”

Olstad responded with, “Well, I want to be a dancer, I want to make this happen, and if I have a plan B, then I won’t have enough focus to make my plan A of becoming a professional dancer work. There’s not going to be a plan B — there’s going to be a plan A.”

Though Olstad started dancing later than most, he doesn’t regret any of it. He says that there’s something beneficial to starting dance so late:

“You need to figure it out on your own. I think when you start really young, you are always told what to do. When you’re 16, yes you get told what to do, but you’re so far behind that you have to figure it out on your own. I think it’s perfectly fine to start late, you just have to become so smart so fast. You have to be able to become your own teacher pretty fast and develop twice as fast as everyone else who already knows all of the steps. I think, because I started late, I realized dance was so personal — it wasn’t anyone else’s, it was my dancing. It wasn’t something that anyone could take away from me — I own my own dancing.”

Owning his dancing is apparent, as Olstad’s work is abundantly individual in its fluidity, explorative quality, emotion and pushing the boundaries of the human body and movement pathways that it may take.

Olstad finds much of his movement inspiration from things he was told not to do as a student and held onto those particular qualities of his movement. Regarding style and embracing uniqueness, Olstad remembers “a girl in college, a female student; she had these incredible, wavy arms, and she was constantly told, ‘don’t do those arms, don’t do those arms, follow the arms the teacher is giving,’ and it put her down so much, she stopped dancing.

You have to nurture your individuality, you just have to know where to put it in.

“I was always told, ‘oh, you dance in a weird way, you can’t follow everyone else,’ so I had to learn to dance with everyone in a group dance, but still be individual. I think you can become recognizable by not being afraid of who you are — not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. I’m a very emotional person, and I love to be vulnerable; I think when you do that, you find fuel for physicality. I have a sense of people thinking [my work] is on the verge of being cliché, but I honestly believe life is a cliché. We want to see love; we want to be loved. We all love those cheesy movies, and I love those movies, because I live for those moments. I’m not afraid of totally putting myself out there onstage or in class. I want to feel something so powerfully that the people who are watching feel the repercussions of what I am feeling.”

Photo by Erika Larsen

From owning your dancing, to not giving up, to taking each moment as it is, there are so many things that go into being authentic as a dancer, a person and someone who’s navigating their own way around so many influences and experiences, but Olstad touches upon something that we don’t often think about, when it comes to being authentic in our craft: social media.

“I see, especially now with Instagram, with social media, I see 10-year-olds thinking that they need to have a career already, because they see these young dancers on social media with millions of followers and contracts and this and that, and they think they need to have made it already as a teenager. I think they get pretty burnt out pretty fast. Growing up, who I saw dancing was the other students at my school, the teachers that I took class from, and if I wanted to see dance, I would have to go to the library and rent a video. Now, you can look at dance all day long.

“I think young students, and other professionals, we get constantly bombarded with dance and with what people do. It’s so easy to sit and watch what other people do for two hours, and we forget about ourselves — we stop focusing on ourselves, and it’s very easy to just become copycats of everyone else. I think we’ve ending up with a generation that’s losing out on originality and personality, and that’s something that I also see a lot, when I teach.

“I say a lot, do the steps you’re told to do, but don’t copy what I’m doing, don’t copy what your friend is doing — you can get inspired, but you need to do you. I was always told, ‘don’t hyperextend your elbows, don’t do this, don’t do that,’ and now that’s what people are telling me to do, that’s what I get paid to do. People are afraid of taking the risk of developing their own style and developing themselves as a true, individual artist, and I think that comes from the social media thing. Instead of looking at Instagram for two hours, why not spend two hours dancing in your own living room, figuring out, who am I as a dancer?

“If someone posts a video, we see a 30-second perfect video, and we think, wow that is incredible, and it’s easy to think, I suck, and I feel this, as well. Sometimes I look at things, and instead of getting inspired, I start judging myself. I think social media now has become a platform, where we only highlight the great stuff, so what I do is whenever I post something, I ask myself: would I get upset if I only get one like? It doesn’t matter if I get one like or 500 likes — what matters is that I share this video, because I’m happy with what I did in that video or picture, and I hope that it can inspire someone, and they can see that my dancing isn’t perfect, but it’s something that they can find nice to watch.

“So, post to share, but don’t post to impress. Unfortunately, Instagram, Facebook, social media [in general], is the way to [promote my work], but what I don’t like so much is people filming me doing my choreography in class and then posting that. For me, class is so holy, and it’s so fragile, and I want to keep it in the moment of the class, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to post my work, but post to share and not post to impress.”

With authenticity, vulnerability, and emotion comes taking risks. Olstad believes that the most important thing for students and upcoming dancers and artists to find within themselves and their work is “to be less afraid of who they are, and that takes time.”

“It’s perfectly fine if you’re a slower developer. Say if you go to college for dance, and by the time you’re done, you’re not ready to be a professional dancer — that’s perfectly fine. I definitely wasn’t ready to be a professional dancer, when I was out of college. Sometimes I can wake up one day and go take a class, and I’m like, oh now I understand what this teacher in college wanted me to do. It’s OK that it takes time, and I see people giving up way too fast — like people being in New York for three months and trying to get a job and saying, ‘oh I didn’t get one so I’m going back home.’ If you want to be a dancer, it’s not just about making it today, it’s about making it your whole life.”

Another person’s success does not mean your failure.

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Written by Jorgie Ingram

Jorgie is a New England based artist, activist, writer, and dancer. She has a passion for helping others through her own artistry and creative work, aiming to inspire others to pursue their own passions, as well as spark conversation, ideas, connection, and community. When Jorgie isn't writing, she's diving into activist work with NH for Humanity, where she organizes art and performance-based fundraising events for organizations that need funding, such as Americans for the Arts and HAVEN NH. Jorgie also spends a great deal of time volunteering, dancing, teaching dance, performing, and choreographing - where she aims to bring personal and social issues to light.