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Art Maker: Cat Wagner, dancer and choreographer

  • Cat Wagner, center, dance teacher at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, practices with eighth-grader Ruthie Spencer, 13, of Deerfield. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cat Wagner, center, dance teacher at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, practices with students. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cat Wagner, left, dance teacher at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, runs through a sequence with fellow dance teacher Christy Maerlender. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cat Wagner, right, dance teacher at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, practices with eighth-grader Ruthie Spencer, 13, of Deerfield. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cat Wagner, at center, dance teacher at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, works with students during a class. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY


Thursday, February 08, 2018

As a new dance teacher at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School
(SBS) in Greenfield, Cat Wagner says it’s her greatest hope “that my students find freedom and flight (literally and metaphorically) through movement.” She previously has taught dance at Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, and she also has been a teaching artist with a number of organizations in New York City.

All this leaves Wagner feeling very fortunate. “I have a lovely, lucky life,” she says. “I get to teach dance and make dances and talk about dance all day long.” And she has another, unrelated passion: “Peanut butter is my life force. I put it on everything.” 

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you’re currently doing. What does it involve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Cat Wagner: Right now my primary prerogatives are to attune myself to the needs of Stoneleigh-Burnham’s dance programs and stretch myself as an educator. Dance is often passed down via oral tradition; in a girls’ school like SBS, I perpetually investigate and attempt to reinvigorate these traditions from a feminist perspective. I have a lot to offer my students as a teacher, but I ultimately think their growth, strength and resilience have to emerge and be cultivated by their individual practices. 

H.L.: What do you draw inspiration from? Do you ever have any “Eureka!” moments?

C.W.: I have been heavily influenced by Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way,” which encourages readers to make creativity, such as free-form writing, a regular part of their lives. Through the book, I have come to appreciate creativity as a daily practice. Art-making centers on the ability to show up, do the work and remain receptive to potential “Eureka!” moments along the way.   

H.L.: How do you know when your work is finished?

C.W.: To me, work is never finished; there’s only a deadline. While I could continue to adjust or change a dance ad nauseam, I understand my collaborators or students may crave a sense of finality. I do try to consciously release dances from my clutches and bravely sit within the vulnerability of the sharing process.

H.L.: Have you ever had a “mistake” — a project that seemed to be going south — turn into a wonderful discovery instead?

C.W.: For my graduate thesis, I intentionally chose to work with a trio (I appreciate asymmetry). Two out of the three dancers were very facile contact improvisers. During rehearsal, the two of them would simply “dance-play,” and many of their seemingly offhanded partnering riffs made it into the piece’s final iteration. But for a time, I struggled to discern the third person’s place in the trio. On a lark, I bought a tea set from Goodwill and brought it to rehearsal. It not only solidified some much-needed character development for the third dancer; it became central to the piece.

H.L: Do you listen to music while you’re working? What kind?

C.W.: When teaching, I like to play lots of different types of music. Right now, I’m enjoying a return to songs from my childhood. When my two sisters and I were little, our mother worked weekend nights. So on Saturdays, we held informal dance parties with our dad, jamming to the likes of The Cars, Linda Ronstadt, and The Lovin’ Spoonful. I love teaching with these types of artists because they both lighten the mood and seem to evoke a collective sense of nostalgia (even when students are much younger than I am).  

H.L: What do you do when you’re stuck?

C.W.: I try a lot of different possibilities and try not to attach judgment to them. If the “stuck” feeling proves to be emotionally draining or upsetting, I do less. In these moments, I take time to be still and let my mind wander. When I feel burnout or woe from a creative challenge, it’s important for me to slow down and remember to enjoy the process.

 — Steve Pfarrer