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Thoroughly Modern Micki

BU dance director is teacher, mentor, “mother”

| From BU Today | By Leslie Friday | Video by Robin Berghaus

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In the video above, dance director Micki Taylor-Pinney runs her students through a physically challenging low-intermediate modern dance class. Photos by Vernon Doucette

There’s something about the way Micki Taylor-Pinney moves on stage that makes people stop and stare. The petite modern dancer with cropped wavy hair and pendant earrings holds her head high, her manner anything but pretentious. She possesses an awareness of the body that comes from years of knowing its limits. And she dances with such exuberance and purpose that it’s hard not to smile.

Maybe that’s what caught her students in the Dance Theatre Group (DTG) off guard during a rehearsal on a recent afternoon at Boston University’s Dance Theater. Taylor-Pinney had just walked on stage with “a vision” for the dance she was choreographing. She modeled the movement for them, her head dipping and her body swirling into a position parallel to the stage. The women watched intently and then tried to duplicate the move. They couldn’t quite nail it. Could she do that again—this time a little slower, she was asked. “I don’t know,” she replied with a mischievous grin. “What did I do?” Then she spun her body again into an identical pose.

Taylor-Pinney uses her body to communicate the way others use language: each fluid motion conveys a story much the way words do.

Taylor-Pinney loves “to move in space with great exuberance.”

“Teaching is the highlight of my day,” says Taylor-Pinney, who has been the dance program director for the Department of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (PERD) since 1985. “Being an administrator is not really as rewarding as going into the studio or classroom and working with students.”

Largely because of her efforts, the program now offers a University-recognized minor in dance (currently with more than 40 students enrolled) and nearly double the number of credit classes and more than quadruple the number of noncredit classes than when she arrived. Taylor-Pinney also directs REACH! a BU summer dance outreach program for urban youth. And she is one of two faculty advisors for the nearly 100 DTG students, who recently performed a recital of student and faculty-choreographed dances called Visions 2012 at BU’s Dance Theater.

“Although I’ve been doing the same job for 26 years, it’s constantly changing,” Taylor-Pinney says. “If I ever get bored, I can always come up with a new project. And then curse myself for doing it.”

Dance is in Taylor-Pinney’s genes. Her parents, Conny (Cornell) and Marianne Taylor (SAR’51)—who posthumously received Sargent College’s Black and Gold Award last year—were the iconic international folk dance teachers who founded the Folk Arts Center of New England. “I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to be a teacher,” Taylor-Pinney says. “It was a hard life for them; they were freelancers. But I always knew that it was something that really fed their souls. It was the great community that they built. And I think that that was something I really aspired to do.”

She took her first modern dance class during her freshman year at the University of Massachusetts. She fell in love instantly. “What a delight to be dancing barefoot to, in this case, live music—being expressive and physical,” she recalls. “I thought of it as the perfect combination of body, mind, and spirit.” And while she describes herself as a secular person, she says, “I feel like this is my religion. This is what really inspires me.”

Much of her work now is to inspire a new generation of dancers. Taylor-Pinney teaches modern dance, dance history, composition, and aesthetics and is a guest lecturer on ideokinesis and pedagogy at the School of Education.

Taylor-Pinney guides Victoria Nguyen (SAR’14).

Teaching with charity and clarity

At a class early in the semester, Taylor-Pinney had her low-intermediate modern dance students warm up with a series of stretches and abdominal exercises, accompanied on the conga drums by Matt Raskopf (CFA’09), an accompanist at PERD. The day’s class delved deep into choreographer Lester Horton’s style. Taylor-Pinney flitted from one dancer to the next, helping align their bodies into good form, all the while offering words of encouragement.

“Beautiful!” she cried, as she touched one woman’s abs and felt them tighten. “Can you feel that?” The student exhaled a laugh as she maintained a plank position.

Taylor-Pinney’s pace is relentless and her classes physically challenging. Most of her dancers are half her age and a head taller, but no one can match her physique. A lifetime of dancing has given her enviable arms, perfect posture, and a preternatural comfort in her own skin. And while she pushes students throughout the two-hour session, she is careful not to overpush.

“No pain, no gain has no place in class,” Taylor-Pinney says playfully. “Sure, your muscles will quiver, but that’s different. And yes, you may be in pain tomorrow, but that’s okay.”

Kate Radoycis (CAS’12) can testify to the quivering muscles, but says her dance teacher “focuses on safety and doesn’t want you to do anything that will hurt yourself.”

PERD dance and Pilates instructor Ann Brown Allen performed with Taylor-Pinney for two decades while at the Boston-based company Dance Collective. She knew Taylor-Pinney’s parents and says her boss follows Marianne Taylor’s mantra: teach with charity and clarity. “If you’re willing to accept the correction,” Allen says, “she’s more than willing to heap it on. If you’re not, it’s not like she’s going to ignore you.”

Karesia Batan (COM’06), now a freelance dancer in New York City, remembers Taylor-Pinney’s critiques of her choreography in DTG. “It was never a discouraging process,” she says. “You rose to the occasion because it made you better.”

While Taylor-Pinney performs once a year in BU’s Dance Showcase, a fall semester mainstay in which dance faculty present their work, she says that what she most enjoys is creating dances.

Taylor-Pinney’s classes are physically demanding, but lighthearted.

On a recent Friday night, dressed in black dance pants and a red muscle shirt, she was choreographing a piece titled “Perfection.” “I’d like to work with the ground trimmers,” she said. “I realize your identity is a little cloudy.”

Four women then gathered on one side of the Dance Theater and practiced their “dainty shapes,” snipping imaginary blades of grass from the stage as Taylor-Pinney had instructed them. They were among at least a dozen dancers mowing, trimming, sweeping, and cavorting to a soundtrack of lawnmowers, followed by Franz Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major. Their performance was playful, physically strong, and fluid—much like that of their choreographer.

Taylor-Pinney divided the group into their respective roles and fine-tuned performances. She stopped the dancers occasionally as inspiration struck and she tested a move with her own body. Although she had tracked the music and mapped movements in a notebook beforehand, she was constantly improvising. “I can’t prepare too much,” she says. “The most important thing I have to do is to watch and see what is in front of me. From that viewing, I have to be ready to create in the moment. And toss things that aren’t working.” By the end of the session, she had woven together half a dozen segments like patches of a quilt, the end product greater than its individual pieces.

DTG members past and present look to Taylor-Pinney as a mentor, and sometimes a mother. (Her students nominated her for the Metcalf Cup and Prize in 2003, the University’s highest teaching honor. But as Dennis Berkey, then BU provost, wrote her in a letter—it is “a faculty award, for which you are not eligible as a staff employee.”) She supports, cajoles, listens, and even cooks for her students. She’s also been known to give out little gifts, like knitted scarves or earrings, at the end of the semester.

“She cares for our well-being as well as our personal, academic, and artistic success,” says Batan. “It’s part of her emotional investment in us to make sure we reach those goals.”

Taylor-Pinney knows that not all her students will be professional dancers. But she says the art form offers valuable lessons for how to live one’s life, regardless of profession. “The way you approach dance should really be the way you approach everything,” she says. “This is a place where you get to experiment and make mistakes and learn from them. And isn’t that what you should be doing in everything?”

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