J. Michael Winward is a man on the move, literally, an award-winning independent dance artist and choreographer with an active month ahead of him. When not creating new work for himself and others, he maintains a busy private teaching schedule, is Project Lead at The Dance Complex in Cambridge, and dances as a member of the Peter DiMuro / Public Displays of Motion company.
In addition to all that, on June 2 and 3, he’ll be one of three artists appearing in “A Queer Time and Place” at The Dance Complex in Cambridge. The evening will embody a unique blend of contemporary and modern dance, physical theater, and original monologues. Winward’s solo piece, exploring cultural orientation and gender expression, is entitled “You Heard The Man.”
Then on June 23, he’ll be part of an enormous flash mob called “25, 6, 7, 8” in marking the 25th anniversary of The Dance Complex. The 25-minute street dance, celebrating a diversity of dance styles, will involve more than 100 dancers, students, and members of the general public.
As if that’s not enough, he continues to expand “Steps in Time,” the innovative dance program he founded last year. “Steps” brings social dance workshops to senior-elder care facilities throughout Greater Boston. Aside from providing low-impact, cardiovascular exercise and significant benefits to its participants, the weekly program embodies the idea that people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities should have the opportunity to dance and connect socially.
Winward began shaping his craft in the dance program at Lowell High School. After receiving his B.A. from Bennington College, he studied with internationally known choreographer Susan Rethorst at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance in Austria. When he returned to the states, he became a staff member at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Plymouth.
While he was at Astaire, he worked to raise awareness of same-sex ballroom dancing, helping to pave the way for the creation of an “Open Gender” division at the New England regional competitions. Through diligent work, he was awarded multiple National and North American titles sanctioned by the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association.
Here’s an edited look at our conversation about his work:
Q. So can anybody be taught to dance?
A. Yeah, if they want to, absolutely. It’s all relative. Social dancing is not necessarily supposed to look like “Dancing with the Stars.” I think there’s a misconception when we say “Ballroom Dancing.” We think about the look of the competition. But it’s all based on something that was originally done in the streets or done at parties.
Q. Why was the dance program at Lowell High so special for you?
A. It wasn’t just, “Oh here, we’ll teach you a routine and then you’ll dance it.” The teacher, Gail Rhodes, was very good. She kind of ran it the way you would a college program where we had to do research papers about significant movement and create our own work. That’s how I got interested in choreographing my own things. The sense of ownership over making a dance, that started happening when I was in high school.
Q. You had an opportunity to study in Salzburg.
A. In my senior year at Bennington, a teacher came in by the name of Susan Rethorst . . . She was based in the Netherlands and she was telling me about this school in Salzburg where she was going to be teaching . . . So I decided I would try to do a study abroad there. I did and was able to work with her pretty closely for those three or four months. I ended up getting a residency and stayed for a couple of years.
Q. Did joining Fred Astaire present a challenging transition?
A. There was a lot of business training, a lot of customer service, and that’s when dancing became a career . . . I stayed there for seven years and managed the school for a couple of years . . . I wouldn’t be able to be an independent dance artist right now if it weren’t for all the skills – business and dancing – that that experience provided. And it’s translated now into “Steps in Time,” doing ballroom dancing in the assisted living and memory care and elder care services.
Q. Tell me about promoting Same-Sex Ballroom Dancing.
A. What’s important to me is to be able to stake a claim . . . I think that decision (to pursue same sex dancing exclusively as a professional) was really born out of the idea of, well, I’ve had this really progressive education and I believe that the gay experience is not really represented in mainstream ballroom dancing, so who I am is not (represented).
Q. The flash mob you’re working on at The Dance Complex is really ambitious.
A. [Peter DiMuro, executive director] takes a lot of pride in the fact that the Complex is like the UN of dance. You have African dance over here, Indian classic dance over in this corner, Ballet in this room, and then I’m teaching a Ballroom class down in the basement . . . We asked the different dance artists in the building to create some movement, and then we took little bits of all that movement and turned it into a dance that represents all the different styles . . . now we’re in the process of teaching that to the community members and crafting this flash mob.
Q. And there’s a big finish?
A. Following [the 25 minute dance at sunset], there’s going to be a large-scale illumination of the building. In January we took one of the studios, turned it into a giant green and we filmed dancers dancing against it . . . the whole thing is not just going to be projected onto the building, but interacting with the architecture . . . once you see all these people dancing in front of the building, then the building itself is going to start dancing . . . it’s been really inspiring to see everyone working together.
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
The Dance Complex is located at 536 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. Visit dancecomplex.org.