For the vast majority of us, dancing is something we only feel comfortable doing in a few very specific situations.
In the shower, for example, or three tequilas deep at a club with very flattering lighting. I think it’s safe to say that the concept of moving your body to music in public, surrounded by strangers in daylight without a drop of alcohol is probably not at the top of that list. But that’s what separates us from people like Sarah Rodenhouse, a Los Angeles based dancer and choreographer who has now made it her life’s work to translate her passion to the untrained, the positively dance-phobic even.
Sarah is not a dance teacher. Rather, in addition to founding LA’s all-female MashUp Contemporary Dance Company, a few years ago she began MovedLA, a workshop where dancers and non-dancers alike can learn how to move creatively and organically in a shame-free space. The Annapolis native, who grew up in Upstate New York manages to make her pop-up classes accessible by letting attendees collaborate on a curated playlist (which may feature Drake one minute and Cat Power the next) and choosing exercises in which you might spell your name using your body or explore the space blindfolded. Forget the word dance, Rodenhouse just wants you to create something.
MovedLA — and MashUp for that matter — came about because Sarah, who had been working as a professional dancer for years, had become disenchanted with and uninspired by the industry. In founding these companies, she was revisiting a subject she loved, but on her own terms. We visited her studio in LA’s Frogtown neighborhood to learn more about her inspirational career path and what she loves about teaching strangers how to dance—er, strike that, how to move.
How did you first get into dance?
My parents put me in dance when I was 4, but then we moved shortly after. I picked it back up because a friend at school took dance there and suggested I try it. Then it just progressively got more serious, and I competed heavily from the end of elementary school through high school. By the time I was a senior and had to pick a major, the only thing I wanted to do was dance.
As you got older, how did you continue to pursue a career as a dancer?
After two years at Towson University Maryland, in their dance performance and education program, I moved to LA—I just wanted to go ‘do it.’ I was pursuing television, commercials, touring, that kind of stuff, and auditioned and worked as a dancer for eight years. Ultimately, I wasn’t booking jobs I really wanted to and I also was constantly told I wasn’t the right look. The jobs that I was booking weren’t fulfilling. Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of really cool things, like I was one of the ballet dancers in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and I opened for Lady Gaga at Webster Hall. It got to a point where I was like, I want to be an artist, not just be in a music video. I thought this was my dream, but then reality set in and it got to a point where I was like, maybe this isn’t what I want to be doing. Maybe I want to have more control than being a dancer on tour—as amazing as that sounds, for me it wasn’t necessarily.
And is that how MashUp came to be?
Around 2010, I was in a burlesque group and I met [MashUp co-founder] Victoria. I think we both realized we respected each other a lot and we both thought the other was a really good dancer. She asked me to be in a piece she was choreographing for a festival and then we started chatting about how there weren’t enough contemporary dance companies in LA. We started MashUp and we wanted it to be all female because we just know their bodies better, but now it’s become more of an empowering thing to focus on women. There are so many talented female dancers and they don’t always get the recognition they deserve or the jobs that they should. So it’s two-fold: they get jobs and we get to share their amazing gifts with the public.
When did MovedLA come into play?
When I was auditioning I was always trying to hard to fit into this world and realized it wasn’t for me. With MashUp, I was still in the industry, but I was also making all these friends who were not. There were so many women who had creative minds but don’t have anything to do with the dance world. At the same time, I was noticing a trend in workshops, like calligraphy or watercolor. I started participating and meeting all these cool people and I thought, these are the kind of people I want to hang out with every day. These are the people I want to be working with. So I was like, how can I combine my passion and love for dance with my passion and love for meeting people with totally different interests? That’s how it started.
Was it a challenge to make it accessible?
That’s why I try to take the word ‘dance’ out of it. I think that word is intimidating to people and I don’t want it to just be about that. I wanted it to be about the joy of movement itself. If people want to call it dance, that’s fine, but I feel like using the word ‘movement’ has helped people get over their fear of the concept of dancing. You can’t fuck it up that way.
You let the attendees make song selections. Why is that an important part of the process?
Letting them choose was a no brainer to me, because the class is all about feeling comfortable and getting in touch with whatever is inside of you that you need to get in touch with. Maybe it’s emotional or your inner child or connecting with someone else—there are so many things people can get out of it, so this lets them set the tone.
“Exposing people to what it feels like to move — whether it’s really joyous or a little deeper and more emotional — that’s so exciting for me.”
What is one exercise that always seems to produce an exciting response?
That’s really hard because I’ve had so many cool experiences and it depends on the group and the music. But I feel like everyone loves this drawing exercise, where we sit down and draws three shapes or patters and then interpret it through the body or a pathway space. And then you find another person’s drawing and interpret theirs. You’re using two different art forms and I think people have a lot of fun with that. Lately I’ve enjoyed this follow-the-leader exercise where you’re going through an imaginary obstacle course. The solo exercises, like moving blindfold, are great because they get people acclimated but it’s usually the exercises where people engage with one other that really get the positive energy going.
What’s been most rewarding about your work?
I’m genuinely doing this because I love the feeling of seeing people understand why moving is so powerful and why I’m so passionate about it. Exposing people to what it feels like to move — whether it’s really joyous or a little deeper and more emotional — that’s so exciting for me. I know how great that feeling has been for me and I want everyone else to feel it, too.