Point Park University dance instructor shares her life-long, dancing journey.
By: Candice McDermott
When she was six years old, the family of Pearlann Porter gave her a room where she could develop artistic expression, from painting the walls and creating music and dance, which would soon become the focus of her life.
As she grew older, she quickly learned that her body type which is not “ideal” in the dancing community could impede her from a growing interest in improvisational modern dance, but she pushed forward, earning a scholarship that brought her to the well-regarded Point Park University dance program, where she also excelled on stage and as a choreographer.
Thirty-eight years later, Porter’s life-long goal to build a career in modern dance has been fulfilled through The Space Upstairs, her own venue, where she teaches community members through improvisation classes and performances.
“I was always told that what I lack in talent I make up for with enthusiasm,” said Porter.
Born in California and raised in New Jersey, she has wanted to dance for as long as she can remember.
“In Kindergarten they had us draw what we wanted to be, and I drew a dancer. It has been that through my entire life,” she said.
For instance, when her family provided a creativity room to develop her senses she indulged in all kinds of artistic expression, but the self-proclaimed “odd ball,” matriculated quickly to dance.
She originally studied ballet, but her body type, 5’0″ and curvacious, caused her to explore other forms.
Soon, when her family gathered for holiday dinners, she would regale them with tap, jazz, and improvisation peformances where she wrote programs, built set changes, and developed music intertwined into her performances that took months to develop.
Her devotion to dance was heightened in her middle school years when she was accepted into the Dance World Academy in Passaic, New Jersey. During her sophomore year in high school, she beat out hundreds of others in winning yhe Performing Artist Scholarship in Tap awarded by Savion Glover, which she said stunned those around her because she did not look like one of the dancers in “The Nutcracker.”
“I did not fit their (or the classic) ideal of what a dancer was or looked like, and me winning the scholarship, in a way, proved to them that I had more to offer than just ability and that someone influential in the dance world was able to recognize it when they themselves couldn’t,” she said.
The constant struggle over her body-type shaped Porter’s experience and promoted a new sense of self awareness that followed into her career as a dancer because she never quite had the look of a modern dancer, but she forged on.
“There was a master class being taught my senior year, and the guest teacher came up to me and said, ‘you’ve got more enthusiasm than anyone else in this room and you just shine, but I wish I could put that enthusiasm into some of the other dancers’… pointing to all the girls in the room that were lack-luster to say the best, who didn’t have my enthusiasm but had the look… I remember thinking, ‘wow, he would rather strip me for parts and give my enthusiasm to someone else than to just recognize me.”
It was also at the Academy that Porter met a classmate who said she was enrolling in then Point Park College’s dance program.
“I was like, that’s an option? Oh, well then I’ll just do that. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I didn’t question it. I’m dancing. It is always a present thought.”
In the spring of 1995, Porter auditioned in both the ballet and jazz classes at Point Park College, and a short time later received an acceptance letter.
“I was essentially rejected by most of the people who were auditioning me, and by some fluke or grace of God, I got an acceptance letter. I went back and looked at all my audition sheets and I was rejected, soundly rejected,” she said.
Body image issues continued to follow her at Point Park. While no one challenged her skill set, she failed in several auditions, which forced her to look for alternatives.
That’s when she discovered it was much more satisfying to create artistic work, so she shifted her focus on choreography mid-way through college.
“If I couldn’t be in the things I wanted to be, I would make them. I started creating work. It turned out I was a pretty good choreographer.” Both of her student pieces for the Student Choreography Project were selected to represent the college at the American College Dance Festival (ACDFA).
Upon graduating from Point Park College in 1999, she auditioned for various roles, but ultimately came to the realization that she was critiquing how others were choreographing their works. She also began focusing on whether she could create something in Pittsburgh to keep some of Point Park’s graduates for fleeing the city for New York or Chicago dance scenes, choreographing for local art festivals and small dance companies.
It was a struggle in Pittsburgh’s relatively traditional dance world.
“[I was doing] anything and everything I could make work for. There was a local preschool that wanted to bring in some dancers to show the kids dance. I took it so seriously that we made a 45 minute production for those kids,” said Porter.
Then she got to take her enthusiasm and experiences back to her alma mater as an adjunct professor.
PPU invited Pearl to instruct jazz and tap night classes in the fall of 1999, and the following year she taught classes during the day. Students were seeing what she was doing in her classes, which was a little different. As more and more students interacted with her, she saw the need to form her own dance company, which became known as “The Pillow Project.” It began as a group of 22 dancers who embraced Porter’s notion of taking ideas “off the pillow and living them wide awake.”
“I had all these dancers with tons of energy and tons of enthusiasm that were so excited to be a part of something different, something off campus,” said Porter.
At that time Porter was self-funding, using “sweat equity” and personal credit cards. “No one was there for a paycheck; it was pure passion.”
Since its beginnings in 2004, the company has become fully funded and celebrated a ten year anniversary in 2014.
Using jazz, modern, hip-hop, and other various styles of dance, Porter has directed and choreographed 11 original full-length works. She directs the “where and the why,” but how the dancers get there is up to them using conceptual choreography. The Concept Album (2005), with over 800 tickets sold, was a full-length work for The Pillow Project performed at The Hunt Armory and inspired by the feel of a classic rock concert. Striped (2006), also performed at The Hunt Armory, was based on the music of The White Stripes.
In 2006, Porter acquired a space, now named The Space Upstairs, supported by Construction Junction in the city’s East End, which hosts “Second Saturdays” where musical guests and artists such as Good Dude Lojack and jazz artist and poet Moe Seager perform with the dancers. The Space Upstairs also features the “luminography” projection technique, which employs no computer or special effects but interacts with the dancer through projected time, and was originated in that space.
Mike Cooper, The Space Upstairs’ Technical Designer, has known Porter since the spring of 2006, and is in awe how she has helped folks develop talent.
“She took me as the most introverted, technical guy in the world and The Space Upstairs turned me into a performer. It took a while, but eventually she found a way that even I am performing.”
Performances such as A Pale Blue Jazz (2014), The Green Swan (2013), and The Fifth in Jazz (2011) have been directed and choreographed by Porter at The Space Upstairs. Wide forms of expression are used, ranging from haikus, antique lamps, books, donated couches, a swing, and a bar made from recycled materials.
After a dozen years as an adjunct at Point Park, Porter continues to teach jazz technique, improvisation, tap, and has served as a faculty mentor for students who are developing their senior projects.
John Lambert, artistic collaborator at The Space Upstairs, often observes the classes that Pearl teaches at PPU.
“I’ve witnessed in her the patience to permit others to focus on one lesson at a time and build it into a structure. The same way you can watch a structure or a picture drawing occur with individual lines, not knowing what it’s going to be, but they’re all essential,” said Lambert.
During one improvisation class, Porter instructed her students to find a partner and let the music inspire them. The dancers were asked to close their eyes and experience the music as “a third partner.” The students started moving and exploring movement with their partners.
One of them, Emily Hart Herbert, a sophomore at PPU studying dance with a jazz concentration said, “I feel like because of what she tells us, it’s easy to be free to do whatever I feel in the moment.”
“When we dance, it’s an extension of our lives. She explains that we dance better through real human emotion; if you’re honest with yourself, that comes out in your dancing,” said Mia Bingelli, sophomore at PPU studying dance with a jazz concentration.
Her skills are so respected, Porter has taught dance at Slippery Rock University, The Dance Alloy School, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Carnegie Mellon University, Father Ryan Arts Center, as well as her personal studio.
Looking toward the future, Porter hopes to share her philosophies of dance and life with as many as she can.
“I don’t have ‘goals’ per say, but I want to be honest with myself in the moment and keep exploring and investigating whatever makes me the most fulfilled and excited,” said Porter.
Looking back on the fight she had to overcome adversity, body type and naysayers about her devotion to a career in dance, Porter gazes delicately to a semi-colon tattooed on the outside of her hand. For her, it has significant meaning related to her dreams.
“I could have stopped, but I didn’t.”
View article in The Globe here.
Mike Cooper reflects upon the creation of Luminography technique.
Pearl Porter describes her desire to be a dancer.
Audio By: Candice McDermott