Mary Callahan

Marry Callahan started ballet class when she was 3 years old and eventually started taking tap and jazz, too. She always loved performing! Mary kept taking classes at her local studio until her freshman year of high school when she injured her back playing soccer. After it healed, Mary kept dancing on the cheerleading team and in the spring musicals even though she didn’t go back to training in a formal studio. Dance has always been Mary's passion, but her and her family sort of always felt it was a wonderful hobby rather than a real career path that she'd pursue.

Dance has always been a part of Mary's life in that she was always the happiest when she was dancing. Pursuing this as a career is what has definitely transformed her life. Mary's not following any “traditional” path, she feels like she's forging her own—and that’s exciting! Mary thinks the skills and values you learn in dance are valuable and translatable to any career path…

 

To have respect, discipline, self-care, attention to detail, teamwork, collaboration, getting back up when you fall down, applying corrections, being punctual, etc.

After high school, Mary attended Scripps College, a very small all-women's liberal arts school in Southern California. While majoring in writing, she took ballet, modern, and jazz classes and participated in all the student dance teams and concerts. When her peers were applying to go abroad in their junior year, on a whim Mary applied to Broadway Dance Center’s Professional Semester in New York City—a 4-month intensive program of training, workshops, and audition prep. After Mary was accepted, she convinced her parents that 1) spending the fall in NYC would get dance out of her system, 2) She would still graduate on time, and 3) it was cheaper than spending the semester studying in London.

 

The BDC program was intense and amazing. Mary took 12 technique classes each week plus acting, singing, master classes, and mock auditions. It was challenging coming from the college dance world where you’re encouraged to challenge the status quo and to ask questions. In “showbiz,” dancers don’t have much of a voice since there are a hundred other girls who can step in and do your part. During those four months, Mary really started to learn about the industry and about how she could fit into it without losing her integrity. At her final mock audition, a dance agent came and sat on the panel. After it ended, she handed Mary her card and wanted to sign her! Mary had already been feeling like she wanted to stay in New York and give auditioning a try. Getting signed to an agency was extra validation—both to herself and her family—that this “dance thing” was much more than a hobby. 

Mary's two years at Scripps were incredibly transformative. Being in such small, intimate, all-female classes (maybe 12 max) really encouraged students to ask questions, debate, and have deep conversations. Mary transferred and graduated with a self-designed degree in Writing Dance from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. One of the first workshops she had at BDC was about crafting your resume. The program leader handed her a mockup of what a resume should include. Mary's hand shot into the air—“Why do you need to put your weight on your resume? If you’re at an audition, the casting team can see what you look like…” The director was speechless for a moment and finally said, “I’ll get back to you.”

 

Later on, Mary had a meeting in her office and was essentially told to “follow the rules” if she wanted to succeed both in the program and in this business. Throughout the program, Mary did very well in the mock auditions and master classes but was repeatedly reprimanded for being outspoken. One of the first auditions her agent submitted her for was a burlesque performance (yes, topless). Mary reached out to the program director for help because she didn’t know what to do. She responded saying if Mary didn't accept the opportunity, she was ungrateful and didn’t deserve to be with the agency. Well, that was the last time Mary asked her for any advice! Instead, Mary called her agent on the phone and expressed that she wasn’t comfortable auditioning for a burlesque project.

 

She was more than understanding. Mary has had many similar experiences where she's personally had to negotiate how she felt about being in this business, that is years behind the times in so many ways. Historically and literally, dancers were meant to be seen and not heard. But that’s changing. Mary truly believes that being a strong dancer in terms of your integrity, values, and vision will take you further in the direction you want to go than simply following the leader. Yes, of course, you should always be respectful but you need to have just as much respect for yourself in this business as you do for those “above you.”

Some of Mary's experiences that have been the most memorable were funny for her to think about because your resume really doesn’t tell you about the experiences themselves. Some “big” gigs can be miserable but great learning experiences while some “smaller” ones are the most memorable.

 

Touring the country with “Bullets over Broadway” was a life-changing experience. Every dancer should tour at least once. It was hard as hell traveling on a bus, performing in new venues, sharing a hotel room with 3 other girls, etc. but Mary got to see the country. To perform incredible Susan Stroman choreography for 9 months, and to make lifelong friends who Mary now considers family. Dance has afforded her a lot of cool experiences. Traveling to Japan, dancing in an MTV music video, performing in an Emmy-winning TV series, participating in a pre-Broadway workshop (that never made it), even joining a synchronized swim team! 

Mary gets inspired by old-school, classic dancers from Broadway and Hollywood movies: Gene Kelly, Vera Ellen, Gwen Verdon, Cyd Charisse, Bob Fosse, Debbie Reynolds, etc. She's inspired by many of her dance teachers and mentors who have worked in this industry for many years. Mary is incredibly grateful whenever she gets to take a Fosse Master Class and learn authentic Bob Fosse choreography from the dancers who actually worked with him and originated the roles. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of things on hold and Mary is understanding that she needs to accept that she can’t control everything. Mary misses performing and scared to not know when she might get to again but misses dancing more. That longing/grief has invigorated Mary's writing even more by digging deep into tough questions rather than just pretending like the dance industry is somehow indestructible. We need to have those serious conversations if we want the performing arts to survive. 


Mary is now a professional dancer and freelance writer based in New York City. Mary is taking daily ballet barre and yoga classes via Zoom to keep her grounded in and connected to her body. Most of Mar's paying writing gigs are on hold, which is tough financially. Yet, writing for her own blog, The Dance  Journalist,  allows her to focus on topics that really interest and inspire her.  She is currently finishing up her master’s in Performing Arts Administration at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She has had her work published in/for The Kennedy Center, Dance Spirit Magazine, Broadway Dance Center, The Verdon Fosse Legacy LLC, The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, Dance Informa Magazine, and Dance.com to name a few. 

 

Mary's graduate thesis, on dance copyright, is also keeping her quite busy but Mary's realizing that, for her, being busy can be a distraction from sitting with how she's really feeling. Mary is trying to embrace the downtime and not push herself to be productive and positive all the time. She's sort of giving myself permission to slow down and listen to herself rather than the expectations that often feel placed upon us.

Mary has been setting up many virtual dance classes for arts organizations. Virtual training is very different from in-studio classes. There are challenges for the teachers and for the students. She loves the idea that dancers from all over the country and the world can take live classes together. That’s really magical.

Mary has had several dance teachers who have served as mentors. She appreciates their honesty – even when it is hard to hear. To Mary, true mentors don’t just praise you all the time. They tell you the truth, challenge you to push yourself as an artist, and support you when you stumble.

Pursuing her master in Performing Arts Administration at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human, Mary hopes her writing provides encouragement and inspiration for dancers to have a voice, for choreographers to explore new ideas, for audiences to engage in performance, and for the world at large to have greater respect and understanding of dance. 

Mary describes dance in 3 words as: Vulnerability, Strength, Connection

Mary describes writing about dance as: Understanding, Hope, Wonder

She thinks the arts in general have the capacity to effect great social change. Art transcends language and difference. It connects people on a deeper, human level. Mary hopes for her reach to grow organically as she continues to write about different projects and people in the dance industry. 

The more Mary explores, the more others will find interest or inspiration in what she has to share – at least, that’s her hope. Mary is starting to work on a brand-new online dance training platform. Nothing beats in-person in-studio dance training. But right now, that’s not an option. With this new platform, she's working on how to get the most personalized, effective, and intimate training experience.

 

Nothing can compare to being in the dance studio, but she believes this platform is going to make a huge impact in terms of access, mentorship, teaching philosophies, and more. This health crisis in our world has made Mary really miss dancing. Of course, she wants to perform again, but she misses dancing more. In terms of a writer, Mary wants to keep learning, seeing dance, asking questions, and sharing stories.

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