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Taking a Step Back

December 9, 2009

Elspeth Brown always knew she was destined to be a dancer. She took her first lesson at age three, trained at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater’s conservatory through high school, and performed with the company before moving to New York in 2001 to continue her career.

Then 9/11 happened.

A critical juncture
“I was in the World Trade Center at the time, “she recalls. “While I was able to get out safely, I thought, ‘This is a sign. I need to reassess my life and figure out what I really want to do.’”

And, just like that, she decided to stop dancing.

“All I’d ever known was ballet, and that was fine—but I knew there was something else lurking,” she says. “I’d always had a strong curiosity about science, philosophy and literature.” So, in 2002, she enrolled in BMCC.

Not surprisingly, while delving deeply into the school’s science and liberal arts offerings, she also took several speech and theater courses. “What struck me was how demanding and academically rigorous my professors—especially Kenneth Antrobus and Alkis Papoutsis—were. They never allowed any of their students to settle for accomplishing less than they were capable of. They were amazing.”

For Brown, college was a revelation.  “I found I was actually pretty good at school and had no regrets about giving up dancing,” she says. “My feeling is that even if there’s something you’re supposed to do, you sometimes need to let it go for a while to see it from another perspective and understand its value.”

After graduating in 2004, Brown went on to Hunter College.  “I had more confidence in myself now, and realized I did miss dancing,” she says. At Hunter she majored in theater and minored in dance, “and met some amazing people from diverse backgrounds, just as I had at BMCC. Meanwhile, the college and dance sides of my life began to coalesce—something that wouldn’t have happened if I’d just kept dancing.”

Easing back
When Brown graduated from Hunter magna cum laude in 2008, she knew it was time to get back to dancing. She started slowly, performing with small troupes and reaching out to other dancers. Last year, she founded Eyes of a Blue Dog—a “primarily modern” dance company that melds classical forms with jazz, hip-hop, African music and other genres. The name of the company comes from a short story by the Colombian writer Gabriel Maria Marquez. “His writing is about dreams and magical reality—how we all want to be somewhere but don’t always know where we’re going,” she says.  

Eyes of a Blue Dog made its debut last winter with a highly imaginative work called White Noise “that explored the dichotomy between movement structure and the sounds it created alongside the ambient noises of the room,” she says. The troupe has also created new works for arts festivals such as the Hatch Presenting Series and Steps on Broadway.

“I don’t think any of this would have happened if I hadn’t gone to BMCC first,” Brown says.  “That experience really prepared me for Hunter and life afterward. It taught me that I could go wherever my path led, and make whatever I wanted of it.”

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