It’s February, the month in which Valentine’s Day is celebrated, a holiday that many people participate in (or refuse to acknowledge) with some kind of odd determinism. I’ve never been very interested in it, not because I’ve never been in love or because I detest it. I think when it comes down to it, there’s something artificial about celebrating romantic love in this month, so I don’t. Instead, I’ve decide to celebrate my love for Eileen Cropley, a mentor for whom I feel great admiration. It’s my hope that others will choose to also celebrate their mentors too.
The word ‘mentor’ is Greek in Origin, dating back to roughly 1740 BCE. It’s etymology is rooted in The Odyssey, where Homer used ‘Mentor’ as the name for the person who advised Telemachus to stand up to Penelope’s suitors and go abroad to discover what happened to his father, Odysseus.
I’m lucky to have several mentors in this life. They’re all unbelievably generous and have offered me advice in ways that have been influential without being overpowering. Eileen Cropley is one of the most influential. I’ve dedicated my first book manuscript, Presto Agitato: A Dictionary of Modern Movement, two pieces of which were published in the summer issue of Michigan Quarterly Review. Without her influence on my life and art-making, I could have never written it. In fact without her, there’s a lot I wouldn’t have done.
I met Eileen when I was 15. My family was in possession of a fruit farm, which, mid high school, my family decided to move near. It just so happens that I was incredibly lucky: Eileen Cropley lived in the same town and was running a center for dance. It’s where I was first introduced to modern dance and I fell in love. And I’ve Eileen to thank.
If you’re not familiar with her, Eileen Cropley is from London and a former member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, where she danced for over a decade. She came to New York on scholarship to study with The Martha Graham School, and taught Graham technique in outreach programs throughout the city and abroad. Soon after, in 1966, she joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company with which she danced and toured worldwide for the next ten years.
Since retiring from performing, Eileen taught and directed Paul Taylor’s works for dance companies around the world including the Australian Ballet, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theater, Boston Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet among others. From 1984 to 1999, she was an Associate Professor at the Conservatory of Dance at Barat College in Lake Forest, IL and afterwards, ran the Citadel Dance Center, which is where we first met.
Though Eileen was my modern teacher and influenced me greatly with modern dance technique, I also deeply connected to the way she described movement. It was like nothing else I had heard in my 12 (at that time) years of training. And to date, it’s Eileen’s words, the way in which she approached movement, that have stuck with me.
One of my favorite things she repeatedly told her students was this: “You have to have the fire in the belly.” I do have the fire in the belly for movement, words, and art, and it’s Eileen that made me realize it. To have the fire in the belly means to have the drive and the desire. But it’s more than that. In terms of dance, it means the dancer must communicate the want and need to dance, embody it, and project it outward. It’s the essential thing that sets the professional apart from the amateur. And now that I’m older, I realize this applies to everything, not only dance.
Eileen is proof that having the fire in the belly is a life-long affair. This past March, she was asked to dance in New York City for Taylor’s 60th anniversary show. And she did, which to me only adds to her ability to inspire my commitment to the arts, that it not be a fleeting “hobby” but instead, something I’ll do for the rest of my life.
Whenever I am home for a visit, Eileen and I have tea. I’ll be going there this weekend. Though it won’t be on Valentine’s Day, I’ll bring something sweet over, maybe chocolate. Like always we’ll have nuts, fruit. And that is a form of love, spending time together. And that is the way I want to celebrate this month of love, celebrating Eileen, by continuing a relationship with her, by always asking myself if I have the fire in my belly, and by challenging myself to never let the fire go out.
*Black and white photography courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company archive; color photography taken by author.