Narrative and Interview by Sophia Sharma
Katie Brunson is from Atlanta, Georgia, and started dancing at the age of three. She began in ballet class, but when she was around five years old, she saw the Rockettes perform, and she said, “That was it for me; that is what I want to do.” After seeing the Rockettes perform, Katie got into musical theatre dance, focused on jazz, ballet, and tap. “I definitely bopped around different studios. I went to one studio for ballet, one studio for jazz, one studio for tap,” Katie said with great enthusiasm. Katie also said that at the time she was training, it was more acceptable to jump around different studios and that many studios specialized in one style, so she almost had to train at multiple studios. When it came time for secondary education and training, Katie knew she wanted to focus on musical theatre. She also knew that she wanted to train at a conservatory. After months of auditions and applying, Katie decided that her home for the next four years would be at The Boston Conservatory at Berkley, majoring in Musical Theatre with a concentration in Dance. “I received fantastic training at The Boston Conservatory. I really, really grew as an artist there, and we learned a lot of different styles. Because in musical theatre, you have to do it all.” When reflecting on her comprehensive training at The Boston Conservatory, Katie says that she was “stretched creatively,” constantly learning, and being pushed to the fullest of her abilities healthily.
Katie is also extremely grateful for the program’s intensity because she feels that ,without it, she would not be the open-minded, passionate dancer she is. One way she was pushed was through the exploration of different dance styles as well as various art forms that would aid her in her future dance endeavors. She explored voice acting, voiceover, physical therapy, voice and speech, and singing. One new element she found a surprising passion for was voiceover work. She loves vocally embodying different characters and exploring acting through her voice only.
Regarding choreography, Katie explained how The Boston Conservatory provided safe spaces for students to showcase new dance works. At these showings, she really learned her personal choreography style and process. After college, she moved to New York, and just one year later, Katie booked the national tour of Something Rotten. She said the national tour experience is one she will never forget and that it changed her life. When she looks back on the experience, she remembers explicitly the process of getting the tour to the stage.
Moreover, the process was something that she had never experienced before, and it taught her many career-related and general life skills. Specifically, during the tour, she learned the importance of taking care of her body. The tour experience almost made her have to get into a daily workout and stretching routine. Katie said that she would feel unenergized and burnt out if she weren’t consistent with her stretching and conditioning. After the National tour of Something Rotten, She did a few regional shows; some of her local credits include Singing In the Rain, Anything Goes, and 42nd Street.
When COVID hit, Katie decided it was best to move back home and start her teaching career. She taught at Dan and Company, her home studio. At Dan and Company, she taught mainly jazz and choreographed for some of the students who competed. In the classes she taught, she would teach the young dancers small combos, and it was due to these small combos Katie found her style. Katie didn’t just focus on choreography during the pandemic; she trained whenever she got the chance, but the pandemic also hit Katie with a foot injury. She was out for a couple of months but said she was “always working on PT or other cross-training styles.” A year and a half later, still injured, Katie moved back to the city where she currently resides. She said that moving back with an injury was brutal. “It was really hard for me not being able to dance; I felt as if something was missing.” She said that she is grateful for the time off now that she is past her injury because she has learned so much about herself. Katie felt that before she took time off, she never really took time for herself or self-care. Almost fully recovered, Katie has worked her way back into dancing full-time. She is carving her own path right now until things get a little easier, but she is constantly training. She has also taken up some side hustles. One of her bigger ones is voice overs. “Even though it’s not dance, it is fun to have hobbies and jobs outside of dance to give myself a mental break from focusing on it.”
Overall, Katie has left an incredible mark on the young dancers she taught. She inspires her students to be the best that they can be, not only in dance, but in life, too. And though she is still finding her personal choreography style, and her choreography mainly lives in the world of musical theatre jazz, her works are still impactful to the younger community. She is a big advocate for movement quality over “tricks.” She feels that tricks should only enhance dance and make the audience excited. She also said that when she sees a dance filled with tricks, she loses sight of the message and feels that it’s almost not dancing but just someone showing off the cool tricks they can do. Instead of filling young dancers’ dances with tricks, her style focuses on emoting and giving an actual performance while highlighting different dancers’ different abilities and movement quality. In the future, Katie hopes to continue dancing, teaching, and choreographing. She hopes that throughout her dance career, she will be presented with different opportunities to create and choreograph and perform as well. “It’s where my heart lies,” Katie said with a smile and hopeful eyes.
How has your choreography evolved from your first piece to now?
“It’s completely evolved. I feel like, as dancers, we pick up our style from our teachers, and it’s always changing.” She says that because of all the different teachers she has had, she had cultivated her on style. She credits this mainly to the fact that she trained at a variety of studios growing up. And because of the training variety, her style is one that is completely inspired by the assortment of teachers she had trained with. “The more exposure you have in learning from different teachers in different styles, that can definitely help grow your creativity.” She also feels that since being a part of professional productions, her style has changed. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with other professional choreographers, and I’m like a sponge. There was never a time during Something Rotten when I wasn’t learning new ways to move and initiate movement.” When Katie was asked to compare her beginning pieces to now, she said that it’s very hard to compare them. “I am a drastically different person now than when I started,” Katie said, almost giggling. “I feel like, when I started, there wasn’t much variety. The movement quality was similar, I did a lot of repetition. But that is how you learn and grow. Now, after growing as a whole person and knowing more about dance and life, my work has more dynamics and verity to it, which can be a credit to life.
How long have you been choreographing?
“I have been choreographing for fun since I was a student, and it started through creating with friends.” Now, though she is young, Katie has choreographed a couple of times professionally. The first time was when she returned home during COVID; Katie choreographed for her home studio. She choreographed in class, in private lessons, and even for the competition dancer of Dan and Company. “Tina (the studio owner) asked me to choreograph for the competition dancer, and that was the first time I felt I was really choreographing as a professional,” Katie exclaimed, beaming with joy. That year she also had the opportunity to choreograph pre-screen dances for future collegiate dancers and musical theatre performers. She explained how that process was a lot different than choreographing for competition dancers, “in comp dances, there’s a limit of what the dancers can and can’t have in their dances, but in college audition dances, it’s very open with little to no requirements. I was definitely stretched and pushed in the sense that I was choreographing shorter dances but still having to fit all the strengths of the dancer I was choreographing for. But the dance was only allowed to be two minutes, maximum.”
Where and how do you find inspiration for new choreography, and dance and general?
“When it’s late at night and I get an idea, I write it down,” she says. She also finds inspiration through observing dance. She likes to go watch different dance pieces or musicals, she like to watch her friends perform, and she takes as many classes as she can from many different teachers to experience as many styles as she can. Music is another key component for Katie’s dance inspiration. “I get really inspired listening to music in my room, and there’s nothing like dancing in your own room with no one watching.” Katie is even inspired through different events that have happened in her life. “Sometimes even a life event . . . Those emotions can inspire an idea, too.” Katie also finds inspiration form the lyrics of a song. “If the words are powerful enough and tell a story, I will choreograph dances that are motivated and inspired by one song. Katie also talked about how improvisation is a useful skill for creating new dance works. “A lot of the time my best stuff happens when I am letting my body move freely.
Then, if I like it, I keep it and build upon it.”
What are the steps you take in creating new dance works?
“When creating a new piece, the very first thing I do is find a song.” Since music inspires Katie, she likes to build her story off pieces of music. “I have to feel inspired by the music, and the backstory behind it. When it inspires me, I can developed an overarching story.” In terms of figuring out the style of her piece, Katie usually plays around with different styles and see which one fits best, “Is it going to be more poppy and more street jazz? Or really sharp and dynamic? Or it can be like a classic musical theatre moment. I just try to immerse myself in the world of whatever style I am playing around with.” Then from playing around with style, Katie goes back to the music and really breaks down and listens to each section of the song. This is how she figures out timing and dynamics and the specifics of the dance. “I listen to all the different parts of the piece of music, hitting what rhythms I want to play with.” Another reason Katie listens to each different section of the song multiple times is because that is another way she can find the story in the music. She will listen to the different dynamics the music offers, and the emotion she is feeling while listening to the song. “In the song, you can hear the story. You listen for key music moments. In the beginning, how does the song start? Does it build or come in fast? In the middle of the song, does it pick up? Slow down? Does the song get louder or softer, more rhythmic or less rhythmic? And lastly, how does the song end? Because that can be the most important part.” Katie is also inspired by the way other people move. She didn’t learn this about herself till late in her choreography journey. It wasn’t until she started choreographing for competition dancer at Dan and Company. She realized this when she would find herself choreographing for the specific dancer, and finding ways she could make the dancer look special, and incorporate said dancer into other pieces for the company.
What is your process for selecting other dancers to dance in your work?
“I feel like you’ve got to get know the dancer first, because I can kind of see which dancer is really strong at this, which dancer is super strong at that, I get to know what styles they look good doing, Then later I can go home and decide the spacing for my brain and where I want people, and then I can be rehearsal-ready.” Another important factor Katie looks at is the compassion and kindness dancers have. When dancers are kind, that is a person Katie knows she will want to work with again. “I’ve dealt with some disrespectful dancers, who are not kind, and I never want to work with them again.” Katie also likes to work with dancers who have a strong work ethic. “When I see a dancer who is pushing themselves to be better in class, going over the choreography on the sides, or someone who is not afraid to ask questions . . . that is someone I am always willing to work with.” Lastly, another main component Katie looks at is technique and storytelling. When she sees a dancer who has strong consistent technique and clear storytelling skills, it shows her that the dancer is versatile, easy to work with, and can carry a professional attitude.
What does success mean to you as a dancer and choreographer?
“Feeling proud of your work and not being so caught up in what other people think, and growing from the experience-for me, that’s success.” Another marker of success for Katie is when she feels she has touched other people with her work, especially other dancers or choreographers. Katie likes to stay away from making everything perfect. “As dancers, we are constantly caught up in perfection, but I think defining success that way is unhealthy.” She feels that trying to measure perfection is unattainable, and unrealistic. She believes that no artist walks away from their work feeling as if it is perfect, but that there will always be little details that we want to change, and focusing on the, can make you lose sight of the real progress you’ve made.
What has been your greatest challenges as a dancer choreographer and teacher?
“My biggest challenge is rejection. I am currently experiencing that all the time, more than ever.” Katie also brought up the self-recording situation in New York, and how that adds to the challenge of rejection. “Normally auditions used to be free but now they cost money because we have to rent a space to audition. Studio rentals in New York are outrageously expensive. Then there are the hours of editing. And your tape may be viewed, or it may not be viewed.” All these factors combined, make it emotionally taxing and challenging to see the benefits in self-recording. Injury is another challenge she faces. “Dancers are always being thrown curveballs and it’s a hard, tough life.” Katie divulges that she has scoliosis: “My spine is very crooked, and when I was in middle school and early high school I had to get a heavy duty black brace that went to right below my hip. I had to wear it for a year, and I remember trying to wear it to school one day and I called my mom to pick me up, because I couldn’t sit in my desk comfortably.”
With choreography specifically, Katie struggles with ideas not always generating immediately. “Sometimes I’m in the flow of things, and ideas are coming out of me. Then other times, I feel stuck and there are no ideas being generated.” To combat this, she follows Twyla Tharp’s ideology from her book, The Creative Habit; when she is feeling inspired and creative, she focuses on creating and spitting out every idea she can. That way, when ideas aren’t coming as quickly, she has a variety of previous ideas to play with and build off of. Katie views teaching as an “honor.” “I love it so much and I think one of the biggest challenges for me is that I just want to make an impact on every student I teach in a positive way, and I’m afraid that I’m not.” One of the most important parts of teaching for Katie is nurturing a safe environment. A place where people can openly fail and make mistakes. At the same time, she also wants to ensure that her students are being taught, that she never sugarcoats anything. “I think I do cultivate a positive experience, but I am not going to let certain things slide.” She says that as an adult dancer she is still seeing teachers-even just a year or so older than her-doing things that she sees as unsafe and saying things that are unacceptable.
How had scoliosis affected your dancing?
Katie says that though scoliosis makes dance harder, she has persevered. She has gone through intense physical therapy, Pilates, and other therapies to correct her spice. One challenge of this, though, is that Katie feels that she has a hard time keeping her back straight and aligned with the rest of her body when dancing. “There have been times when choreographers have been like, ‘Katie! Straighten your spine!’ I remember one time in a production of 42nd Street we were lying on the floor doing cute little leg movements, and I thought I was straight, but I wasn’t.” Katie says that she has had to teach her body what straight looks and feels like because her spine naturally curves. “You almost have to rewrite your brain and body, but you get used to it. And every dancer has their things that they need to work on; scoliosis just makes it so I have to extra work on it. Scoliosis is also hard for Katie because different specialists have different opinions on how it will affect her career in dance. “In 2019, I had a chiropractor tell me that I would never pursue dance if my scoliosis wouldn’t correct because it would start to push on my heart. Then I went to my physical therapist and sobbed my eyes out, and she told me that wouldn’t happen and it could be corrected.” She also feels a lot of defeat because of her scoliosis, she had a handful of doctors tell her she would not be able to dance professionally in her younger years. However, even though she is constantly working with it, she has gotten to a place where she feels confident in the ability to protect her spine and find straightness in it during dance.
How do you deal with self-doubt in dance?
“I definitely take breaks; that helps a lot with burnout and doubt. Burnout is very real and when dance is not fun anymore or it’s painful, emotionally, I take a break.” This works best for her because she feels that it clears her mind, and gives her a creative reset. Self-doubt and burnout is something that Katie has learned to take more seriously as an adult because it can take over her life very quickly. “In my adult life I have had to learn that it is ok to take breaks, because nothing good comes from burnout.” She feels that working through being uninspired is more hurtful then helpful, and in the past has caused her to view dance negatively. She also tries to surround herself with people who are reassuring and who build her up emotionally. She likes to choreograph for fun because there is no pressure to create anything good or impactful, and that it can be just for her, it truly keeps her going. Lastly, remembering her dream and why she started in the first place, is something that helps Katie during times of self-doubt. “I focus on what I’m working for and why.” She said that she likes to follow the “joyous feeling that dance brings” and leading with that as she is working hard when she feels herself slipping into doubt.
How did you know that dance was what you wanted to do?
“When I saw the Rockettes perform, I remember I stopped breathing in the audience.” Then, her passion was even more solidified when she saw 42nd Street when she was seven years old. “It was the revival, on Broadway and my parents took me to see it and I sat at the edge of the seat the entire time and I was like that, I have to do that.” Katie says that she calls her seeing 42nd Street and the Rockettes live her “aha moment” and she can’t really remember life before then-before wanting to dance.
Why is dance important to you and what are your future plans and aspirations?
“When I am dancing, a different light comes out. It’s just magic, I think dance is magic.” Katie feels that when she dances, she is a completely different person, she feels the safest to be her true self. She doesn’t feel bogged down by the stresses and pressures in her life. She feels free and complete. When asked to elaborate on the feeling she gets when dancing Katie says that the feeling she experiences when dancing is inexplicable. “People who don’t get to feel that makes me sad because it is one of the best feelings ever.” When looking to her future, Katie hopes to book a Broadway show and do more national tours. Her overall hope for her career in dance is to “live a joyous life following my dreams.” Though she is not stepping away from dance, due to the self-recording trend of auditions, she has started to focus on voiceover work and voice acting. “I am still pursuing musical theatre and dance, but life kind of opened up a path, and I’m going where life takes me.” Katie says that she is focused to saying “yes” to different creative opportunities, and she wants to follow what feels good creatively, whether it be in dance or any other creative outlet. Katie says that she will never fully step away from dance. “Though dance is not my whole identity, and I know that there are so many wonderful things that make me, me,” Katie says enthusiastically, “Dance is not something that I will ever be able to just step away from, I feel incomplete without it, like something is missing.
Takeaways: Katie Brunson’s Impact
Katie Brunson has made a significant impact. Katie has inspired young dancers to always push themselves to the fullest of their abilities. She does this by creating professional yet safe spaces for young dancer to learn. She teaches that it is ok to fail and when that happens, the best you can do is get back up and try again. She creates challenging pieces for her students, but she is constantly thinking of ways that she can feature the individual strengths of different dancers. With her focus on movement quality over tricks, Katie is not only helping dancers find themselves artistically, she is also bucking trends successfully, and innovating in choreography. She is actively teaching students that dance does not need to be full of tricks to be impressive, that dynamic movement that is motivated by a story is important. Finally, as a performer, Katie captivates audiences through authenticity and truthfulness as she performs. Not only does she carry this attitude on the stage, but she carries this attitude around in life. Because of this, she is setting an example for younger performers to always carry themselves with a positive attitude and to always be the most authentic, truthful performer and person they can be.