Reflecting on the Real: A Chat with T. Lang

by Lanie Reene

Photo by Ralph Williams: T. Lang (right)
As I settle close to the New Year, I can’t help but reflect on the chain of events that have led me here and the people I’ve met along the way. One of these inspiring people is T. Lang whom I met this summer at American Dance Festival (ADF). And while I strive to combat the cold winds and the sensation of crunchy snow and occasional slick spots beneath my feet, I am propelled back to memories of my interview with her, the North Carolina heat, and the fatigue my body felt as we were rounding out the end of the 2013 American Dance Festival season.
We settled into an air-conditioned café close to Duke University’s campus and I began by asking Lang how she was feeling during this humid, mid-day meeting. She replied fatigued, amped, frustrated, but activated---fed by ADF. Our world has a tendency to do that…make you feel so many things at once. It doesn’t always feel nice and neatly packaged, but it fuels and ignites the seeds of our lives and creative process.

As we talked freely over vibrating phones and notepads, our conversation led us to topics of performance, teaching, dance, and respect. Respect was a big one. I posed a question about the respect and esteem given to dance teachers and how it compares to that given to performers and choreographers. This is not an easy question and one that continues to fluctuate depending on your audience and mood, but it remains at the forefront of my mind as I am a recent graduate of graduate school. Lang was very candid with me and offered valuable insight as I calculated my next move—performance or education. Regardless of what cultures or sub-cultures deem necessary to allocate, we were in agreement that there is value and respect in pursing one, the other, or both. We also spoke about emerging trends in dance, exciting events on the horizon, and ways to connect one’s artistic voice and pedagogy.

I had seen Lang around all summer, but I did not officially meet her until the end. Our paths crossed in hallways and the occasion social gathering, and she seemed polite, respectful, and pensive. As our conversation unfolded, I could see that the complexities ran much deeper. She radiated with a confidence and knowing about the trajectory of her ambitions and intentions, but it wasn’t so overly robust that she couldn’t balance it with reflective mindfulness. I don’t know what it would have been like to meet her earlier, but the way we did capped off my ADF experience with hopefulness and excitement about creative futures. I vibrated with anticipation for the next unplanned adventure, as ADF and all its complexities were completely unplanned for me.

I was intrigued by Lang’s recollection of time spent performing and producing work in New York. There was a fabulousness juxtaposed with the reality, and Lang skillfully called attention the intricate spaces that existed between. Like any big city, there were benefits and challenges. Lang currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and this was her first summer term working as faculty at ADF. As a person navigating the conditions of her life and career, Lang is a great example of a woman who continues to travel along her unique path to achieve what she desires.  She walks her path and no one else.

There was an intriguing curiosity emerging in dance for Lang during the time of our interview. She spoke of unexpected landscapes filled with theme and variation—“a heavy investigation of non linear, episodic layouts that are similar to viewing surrealistic art.” She was seeing an opening of expectations and interest in exhausting repetition. There was a fearlessness in sharing chaotic tendency. Lang spoke of “seeing more risks in evolving traditional theme and variation in choreographic forms as well as movement sequences and vocabulary that swiftly, and abruptly change.” 

Photo by Lee Blalock
As we journeyed to the topic of teaching, we recalled a number of people, including Lang, who were committed to dance academics and the conscious exploration of how we view dance. The days of ‘do as I do’ have become less interesting, and even I find that as a teacher and student I long for classes that cultivate curiosity rather than simply requiring the regurgitation of movement. “I like to set choreography to explore, while stressing the unleashing of imagination to prepare young dance artists to [become familiar with] their artistic intention,” Lang offered. I observed her class during the final week at ADF and she did just that. Students demonstrated a phrase that was very familiar to them, but with each repetition, I could tell they were getting more information about the possibilities of the phrase. It was exciting to witness them ‘figure it out’ and ‘discover’ through repetition. That knowledge left an impression in their bodies and became clearer with every rendition. For Lang, this method tapped into a somatic, holistic approach where learning becomes a reciprocal relationship that informs all those who participate. As the students were learning, Lang was too. She would use her insight and curiosity to propose new variations, spatial designs, and tempo variations to the students right there on the spot.

So where can we find these teachers and agents of change like Lang? In festivals and academic spaces across the globe. It is just a matter of finding the space that fits your needs.  ADF is such a place for thousands of dancers and thinkers every year. Lang and I reflected on the platform that ADF provides to allow teachers to cultivate young minds, as well as remain active in the conversations that affect our dance future. It brings together a diverse group of teachers and students to participate in complex and sometimes complicated conversations as it relates to expectations of body, performance, and career. And of course, no festival is perfect. Like most, ADF is molded to reflect a smaller microcosm of the larger culture. Similar issues of accessibility, privilege, race, and gender make their way into the fold, but if you are able to sift through it, you can discover a community that works for you.  Lang mentioned the supportive network she found from colleagues like Trebien Pollard, and Teena Marie Custer. They would have engaging conversations about the role of race, gender, and accessibility in dance. They also spent “many dinners brainstorming on new lessons for class the following day.” A simultaneous re-fueling of the mind, body, and soul. 

Upon the conclusion of ADF, Lang hit international skies because for her ‘the learning never stops’. She spent time in Tel Aviv to allow herself to be a student and absorb new information from that lens. “Tel Aviv fed me artistically and spiritually. It exposed me on new approaches to generate and expose movement due to the "movement" that never ceases to be at complete peace in Israel. I always knew urgency from my own life experience but traveling and studying in Israel, I now understand the importance of urgency…[an urgency of how and why we commit to movement].”

This tenacity for information is nothing new if you know Lang. She has a lot of experience cultivating information. Her parents have long, rich careers in education. “Mom was my high school principal after being an English teacher and my father was a professor in educational administration after being a principal for over 35 years too. They were outstanding educators and leaders of service in our community. Teaching is just in my DNA.”

When school is in session, you can find Lang stimulating minds at Spelman College.  She is also the artistic director of T. Lang Dance.  Her company has several repertory works and participates in a variety of classes and outreach opportunities. To learn more about the intricate and powerful work of Lang visit

I will never forget that as a young person, my family could not afford to send me to ADF, but I’ve been very fortunate to witness the festival as an adult. As challenging and stimulating conversations penetrated the conservative North Carolina air during the summer months, I got to share information and insight with artists and teachers like Lang. Now as I take time to reflect in December, I notice that we are close to the mid-way point and in 6 months time, T. Lang will be back in Durham—refueled, re-energized and ready to stimulate young minds.

Another summer awaits. I look forward to seeing what she has in store next.

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