Dancing in the Freelance Lane: Talking with Penny Tschirhart

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Penny Tschirhart, Joe Modlin, and Jodee Engle

Penny Tschirhart received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. She has been dancing in and around Houston for the past 17 years with the likes of Sarah Irwin, Leslie Scates, Sandy Marcello, and Pricilla Nathan-Murphy. Penny has been teaching in the Houston Independent School District since she arrived in Houston and is presently the program director for dance at Mirabeau B. Lamar High School. Most recently, Ms. Tschirhart has been working with Jane Weiner/Hope Stone Dance. I had the great pleasure of dancing alongside Ms. Tschirhart during Ann Carlson’s White on the Wortham stage. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with her.

DH: What are some of the advantages of dancing in pick-up companies?
PT: You get to pick and choose what you want to do. It provides variety of dance styles, performance venues, and personalities.

DH: Have you ever been in a company for any extended period of time?
PT: I was affiliated with Sarah Irwin’s Physical Dance Theatre for the better part of the 90’s. For the last several years I’ve been a member of Hope Stone Dance Company.

DH: What is “the teaching all day/rehearsing all night” life like?
PT: Is there time for anything else? I prefer to stay very busy so I don’t mind a hectic schedule. School used to take up more of my “free time” because I was the acting artistic director of the performing company which required after school rehearsals. I’ve recently turned that task over to someone else and it has given me time to do other things. I’ve always wanted to volunteer at Texas Children’s hospital for a program called “baby holding”. I started doing that this past August.

DH: That’s great you find time to volunteer to “hold babies.” I will be thinking about that next time I see you dance. Speaking of dancing, you have danced with the most talented people that Houston has ever produced. I am thinking of Sarah Irwin, Jane Weiner, Leslie Scates, and Amy Ell? What is similar about their work? What’s different?
PT: Yes, I agree some of the most talented Houston has to offer. I think the thing they all share is bravery. It takes a brave soul to create something personal and then put it out there for people to see (and judge). I admire that so much. Amy Ell, Sandy Marcello, Priscilla Nathan-Murphy, and Sarah Irwin have all introduced me to large set pieces like swings, see-saws, and climbing walls. Weiner brings interesting prop choices like high-heels, oranges, and fresh meat. I think the difference between them might be in how they approach the process.

Leslie and I have danced together since college so our relationship has a bit more history. Because Leslie and I were “raised” together we love to improvise together and find great ease in that process. She often sets up a video camera, gives us a few ideas and/or guidelines and then goes away with the video to extract what she wants to develop. It’s fun!

DH: Each of these choreographers mines your talent in a different way. How do you see this happening?
PT: I know they do this but I’m not sure I am consciously aware of how it happens. I like to take risks with the material I’m given. I like that each of them gives movement that they want to stay intact but they are open to different interpretations and they all are very appreciative of mistakes…the human element.

DH: Does your role teaching young people influence your approach to dance?
Yes, and I think my professional life as a dancer influences how I teach. They influence each other.

DH: Ever get the urge to choreograph yourself?
PT: No, I arrange young people on stage very well and I’m satisfied with that.

DH: What are some advantages of being a short dancer? You seem to get places very quickly.
PT: I’m close to the ground and yes, fast.

DH: Do you have a favorite dance that you felt truly fit your style of dancing?
PT: I’m not sure if I have a style but I loved performing Mountain at Miller Outdoor Theater (The Irwin piece on the giant see-saw) That was an amazing experience! I also really enjoyed the meat pounding section in The Cooking Show. That was sassy. And I recently had a duet with Joe Modlin within the performance of ‘S, A Tale of Possession. It felt good, solid, and strong.

DH: How do you stay in shape?
PT:I swim laps as often as possible. I Like to go for leisure walks and I guess the work I do with the students helps keep me going. I try to watch what I eat but have learned not to be a fanatic about that. I think it’s important for the young girls I teach to see real bodies moving and understand that they don’t have to starve themselves. I try to model that strong and powerful can be beautiful too.

DH: Dancing is a social art. How do experience the social aspect of dancing?
PT: It is the human element that is the most important to me. I grew up taking classes as a little girl that produced very flat, 2-dimensional performances….fake smile and all. I remember a moment in college when I realized how amazing it was to look into the eyes of the people I was dancing with. That the dance was about us not just about what those watching. That was powerful.

I like when we get to the point when we are rehearsing on a daily basis before a show. These people are important. You see them every day. You touch them, talk to them, care for them every day. You get to know each other as human beings not just as dancers. In our society, I think we are quick to compartmentalize/label and sometimes forget that dance is something we do, not necessarily who we are. We are all more complicated than that. I admit, I go through a bit of withdrawal after a show ends. But then usually, hopefully, another project begins.

DH: What’s next dance-wise on the horizon for you?
PT: I’ll be dancing with Hope Stone on June 15-17th at the Big Range Festival at Barnvelder.

DH: Thanks for the update. I wish you continued success in the freelance lane.

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