There are a few people in the world who just seem to shine bright, they are a light bulb in a dark room, and Caroline Adams is one of those people. She's a world renowned dancer, a pioneer and a teacher. And she just seems to have this magical perspective on the world and how to approach it with such intense purpose. I had the chance to sit down and talk to her and I left completely inspired. This is a bit of optimism.
Carolyn, thanks so much for joining me. What was it like for you as you were trying to build a career in the arts, trying to be a dancer as a young black woman during the civil rights era during the 1950s and 60s?
Well, it was a pretty smooth ride. I actually didn't face too many obstacles in my early years or even later. And it's partly because I knew what I wanted to do. I didn't have low expectations, but I sort of had none. I just knew I wanted to dance. And then I was very fortunate. I went to an elementary school that had dance and I went to a high school that had dance. And then I started training. There really weren't a lot of barriers.
For African-Americans in terms of training now, early on, little bit before me, some of the classes were segregated and we tell this story about how the kind of teachers would let the Negro students take class in the hallway, couldn't go in the studio. I do tell my students that because I want them to know how different the world was even in my lifetime. But by the time I came along, you had two major institutions that were quite multiracial, multicultural.
One of them was Katherine Dunham School and company, and the other one was the new dance group. And they were international interracial dance collectives. And that came as early as the 20s where all of my consciousness about this kicked in was when I became a teenager and we were starting to work in the civil rights movement, gearing up for that. And my parents were involved in politics and journalism. My mother wrote a full account of the and the Till murder because Emmett Till and my sister and I were about the same age when this horrible thing happened.
And so my mother was really very moved. That's really when we started to get involved. It was feeling more from an activist point of view. We were not really subjected to a lot of discrimination.
And I think what's really interesting about it is that my father was born in 1991. My mom was born in 1912, the year the Titanic went down. And so you can imagine he was in Georgia and she was in Minnesota and they met in New York. But they had very, very different experiences and certainly suffered a lot of the especially my father being in the South, suffered a lot of discrimination. They just lived with that. But they really didn't have the victim mentality, even though they had been subjected to discrimination.
And they certainly saw horrible things. They weren't oblivious, but they were proactive and prepared.
How did their experience come out as parents?
Because clearly they had an experience they didn't want their children to have. Right.
And so how did they prepare you for what could happen?
Well, I think it's because they were so prepared. My mother was a very accomplished musician and composer and my father was a journalist. And so I think they had found themselves in some way. And I also think it's wonderful the way that they found each other. They were a team, so we felt very secure.
I think it's so interesting that intellectually you understand what's going on in the world. I mean, as you said, your father's a journalist. You were involved as young activists. You were very intellectually aware of the state of America at the time. And yet you say you didn't face much racism and had a smooth ride, but you had to be aware of, for example, that you were the first African-American in the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Well, I was the second best, but everyone says that I'm the first because the first African-American was fair skinned.
I guess people didn't know. So out of respect for her, I like to say that the people get embarrassed when I say that. What was her name? Elizabeth Wilson.
So you had to at least been aware that you were one of the first I'm sorry to be so resistant, but the thing is that when I joined the Taylor Company, there were six people didn't feel like such a minority situation. Yeah, it's a small company and we were just building the company. So I felt like a founder in a way.
Do you think with the arts ahead of the curve? Well, I think they're inherently more diverse and more function oriented. There's more collaboration. And we can't do this thing alone, especially in dance.
I'm very curious what your thoughts are about what's going on in the world right now, especially given your very different experience growing up.
I've had such a wide range of emotions. I started out with just a lot of fear of my own mortality. And then the way that overlap with all of this racial trauma and stuff really been sort of an existential crisis.
And I think that in terms of hearing all the different voices about Black Lives Matter, which of course they do, I think that that didn't really resonate with a lot of people. Until they witnessed a murder on TV, but then a lot of people said this thing going on for years and years, it does give you an entry point for a different kind of conversation. Typical conversations often happen somewhat circumstantially, sort of hard to schedule one. But I think there have been more serious conversations because you got to get a little bit beneath the surface where suddenly people think like this, this that's what it feels like to be a victim would be, you know, handcuffed and then murdered while you're begging for your mother.
That would be the initial thing. Just get people's feelings. You get where people live.
I appreciate this idea that something has to happen before somebody has the wherewithal to say, I need to talk to you about something bigger than this. There's always something underlying. Right. But it takes it takes a thing to force a conversation.
Yeah, I think so. And then you hope that you're open to it.
I think that becomes the difficult part. Right. And either side can start the difficult conversation.
Well, it's funny if you think about it within the context of a therapeutic situation, therapy sessions are often very difficult conversations, but it's what is the comfort level and what is the trust and what is the interaction? Anyway, I think those kinds of environments can be created.
Have you had any difficult conversations recently? Have you had to create that space? Yeah, I was talking to somebody about race and about some person who had said some racist thing to some other person. Then it was over her and it became a little scandal. And this white person who was telling you this story is talking about how furious he was with this other white person who had made this racial slur. And I was trying to say, well, she was probably brought up that way.
And he said to me, which was real lesson, he said, well, I was, too. They made a choice. He said, I grew up hearing the N-word and everything of my whole life, and he said she's responsible for making a choice not to do that. And that was kind of a revelation for me.
What was the revelation?
Well, just the idea that somebody is responsible for not only their behavior, but their willingness to look at things out of their own eyes and not those things that are still there.
Yeah, the idea that we're active participants in our own life, right? Yeah.
There's a poem by Philip Larkin of which the first stanza is they fuck you up your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra just for you. Oh, that's great. And it is that we carry this baggage.
And the question is will probably gain more baggage. But what bags do we leave behind as well? Right. And the fact that we're actively we should be hopefully actively examining the bags we're holding at all times, which is this idea of self-examination.
Right. And I guess that's also a bit of a luxury, because in a way, if you've got those patterns set up and there's nothing really to challenge it, it somehow means that you have to break away so that you become porous before you can even start to make those choices.
There has to be a mechanism that takes us from tension to safety.
Well, I think that's a very powerful idea. It also explains why it's so important, especially in art, but in teaching, in education in general. What you really want to do is teach the person before you can teach the subject. People say, what do you teach us that I teach people you want to build skills, but you also want to build self knowledge and the person is within the person so that they have their receptors. So you're trying to do both things at once, you find to give them the skills of reason and judgment and all that.
But you have to make them the author of their own thoughts and also their own movements. I love this.
This goes to a deep sense of purpose, right? Especially for a teacher like yourself, which is you're not there to teach a curriculum.
You're not there to teach a movement or a choreography. You're there to teach a human being. And every teacher, formally or informally is responsible for helping the human beings in their care become better versions of themselves.
And they use their discipline or their subject as a means to do it.
But at the end of the day, is that this person, child or adult, leave this conversation or leave this classroom slightly better than they went in, not slightly better informed, not just slightly more intelligent, not just slightly better at the choreography, but actually having learned that capacity for self-examination or to have an opinion on the path of life that they can choose.
Yeah, and part of that is getting them to recognise that they have to be in the driver's seat, that they have to be in charge of that. So you got to get to know what they don't know so that they can then go after it actively and not pass it.
One of the ways to really inhibit another person's life without putting them behind bars is to convince them that they have nothing to offer. This is the tragedy of discrimination. You tell a poor person they have nothing to live for. People are always giving to other poor people. The notion of empowerment has to do with one's ability to reach out and be of use. And of assistance, we are human animals, we connect you, isolate people and tell them they have nothing to give you, just your own.
The course to destroying is the most demoralizing, heartless thing you can do.
We spend so much time telling individuals or even populations that they have no value, which perpetuates the problem.
And what we need to do here is, is convince people who may have not been convinced of that in the past that they have great value.
The thing that I was struck by that you said before that I loved was that it requires partnership, that nobody can do this themselves, that in all these cases that we're talking about, there's at least two.
There's a student, there's a teacher, there's black and there's white. You know, there's me and you.
Well, we're communicator's the interplay in the interaction and the response. This is our oxygen, which is why this pandemic has been so difficult for most people.
If we have to define you, dancer, pioneer, teacher, which is the word that you like the most teacher, teacher. And so the question I have is, what does it mean to you to be a teacher?
Well, to me, I try to impart everything that I know to them and that they know that they have the power to bring about anything they want to bring. That takes a lot of courage to do most things. I also talk about the type of people in the circus that you can't just sort of do this step. You are the type of not only that, but that partner of yours. You better catch her. You have to raise the standard of what they're going for and what they're responsible for.
And I think now when everybody is going for, they want the job. So they're going to try to please other people all the time. And that's such a hard thing to balance because you do want to do that, too.
I had a teacher in high school, a chemistry teacher in high school, Mr. Vean, and he would say, we have a quiz today and we'd all grumble and he'd say, if you don't pass this quiz, you're going to fail chemistry. And if you fail chemistry, you're going to fail high school. And if you fail high school, you won't get a job. And if you don't get a job, are going to be homeless on the street.
So if you don't pass this quiz, you're going to be homeless on the street.
So how do you raise the stakes without scaring people?
Raising the stakes has to do with knowing that you're responsible for what you get out on stage. They can't see the choreographer. They're looking at you. So the responsibility and how soon do you need that information? When you first hear something, you have to hear as if you were going to teach. And the first things that go into your brain are the things you retain the most. So you try to get it right at the front end. Yeah.
So you want to get the engagement very early on. So you're building the stakes. You got to put the person in the driver's seat so they are already responsible.
And then you raise the standard of the actual performance of what they're doing, the importance of it, the immediacy of it, all of that. You want them to focus on something that is that important, that requires that amount of focus.
When I see people take over the process of their own learning to when I feel like I can step back and it's not like necessarily this big explosion, but you can just feel them moving away from your voice and away and their own voice kind of emerging, which could be the way that they move, the way they take over something that you've given them.
Is it like being a parent and watching your child leave and become somewhat independent? I'm not letting my children.
There's less anxiety. But yes, it's sort of like how did you learn to be a teacher?
I had a great teacher who was one of your great teachers. Her name is Fessey Schaumberg. She was German. She came to this country a dance with Martha Graham very briefly because she was very badly injured, but she became a choreography teacher. What did you learn from her? She was wise.
She taught composition. So the first thing she taught me was how to look at dance. I was never planning to be a choreographer. And good thing because if I had been, I would have been tragic if that had been what I wanted because I had no ability. But you taught us how to see, like a good painter. You know, you look at what's in front of your face that taught me how to learn and understand movement. I also have enough technical skills.
I can put a dance together. There's some craft, but to have an eye for movement is a huge thing that she taught me. But she also taught me something much more important than that, which is that she could be very, very blunt, but it was never disempowering and it was never personal. It was just clear. So if you did a little study and she would say it's simply not working, not you're not working, it's simply not working.
And then we would say try. They think upstage you try this, you always had the ability to make choices and to make changes.
I like that it's simply not working versus you're not working. And again, it goes to this idea that you said before, which is we want to tell people that they have capacity, capability that everybody has worth and telling people that they have no worth. They have no value. If you say you got it, you know you're wrong or you got it wrong versus it's not working. I love how it disconnects the human being from the result. Final question for you.
Can you share a poignant lesson that you have learned about life?
Well, when my my mother died, she was an incredible person. She was one hundred and three.
And I was asleep at home, got a phone call from her caregivers. Mommy's going to jump in a cab. I actually say goodbye to my mother on my cell phone in the cab and believe it when people criticize cell phones.
I said, oh, but anyway, she was ready to go. And my niece held the phone to her ear. And I said, what am I going to say to the last thing you'll hear? And like you said. Thank you for everything. Wow, I think gratitude is is one of my most valued things that I have in my life. I'm really grateful to all the people in. The life I have enormous time and gravity, and I guess if you have gratitude and a sense of appreciating what you have for yourself and what you have to give, it's kind of hard to be totally pessimist because that's a process.
It's a living process, that kind of indestructible every day to end with a gratitude to say, what am I grateful for?
Forces us to find something good about the day.
I think so.
And I think, you know, with this 24 hour news cycle where the news is incentivized to show us things that scare us because it is good for their ratings, which is good for their advertising, I think sometimes we we stop seeing the good in the world and start to believe the world is bad or humanity is bad.
And if we.
If we have this practice of ending every day to find something that we were grateful for, I think it's more than just a nice idea. It makes us all optimists.
I think this is what turns someone into an optimist, which as you start to recognize that there is something every day that is good. Right. And it could be something small.
I have four little things that sit on my desk, and each one of them came from an intelligence that I have from the person. One of them was a stranger. But they're all symbols of what we've been talking about. And I have them like a little alter. One of them was a healing stick that someone gave me one of those little prayer books that a woman on the bus gave to me because I helped us. And she said this may not seem like a big thing to you, but it just saved my life there.
Little objects that represent such pivotal moments, exchanges.
Have you ever heard of the chemical oxytocin? No. So we we're emotional beings, but we're also chemistry. Right. And so there are four primary chemicals in our body that are responsible for a lot of our emotions and a lot of our behavior. Endorphins, which you know about as a dancer, you push your body really, really hard.
You have an endorphin rush or you tell a good joke or you tell a good joke or you eat chocolate, dopamine, which is responsible for the feeling we get when we find something we're looking for.
We accomplish something like I did it or there it is. You know, that little bit of elation you get when you find your phone or your keys. Serotonin, which is it's pride and it's also accomplishment.
So, you know, when our kids are saying, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, watch me jump in the pool, watch me jump in the pool. They want the audience and they want us to say great job.
Right. That sort of recognition.
And then you have oxytocin and oxytocin is responsible for all the warm and fuzzy, all the unicorns and rainbows.
It's the thing that gives us feelings of love and connection and friendship. It's all of that mushy, mushy stuff. And oxytocin, there are many, many ways to get it. Human contact is one of them. This is why when someone is having a hard time, we put our hand on their back and say, it's OK. We don't just stand next to them and say it's all right. That's why I hug really matters in times of good and bad.
But one of the ways in which you get oxytocin is by performing an act of generosity so that when you do something for someone else with no expectation of anything in return, you feel good, right?
Oxytocin is responsible for that feeling.
And when somebody does something nice for us with no expectation of anything in return, you get a shot of oxytocin. It feels good when somebody does something nice for us and we feel sort of a nicer bond towards them.
And three of those gifts that were given to you were given to you because you did something nice for someone and they felt so warm toward you that they wanted to give you a symbol of their gratitude.
Yes, but perhaps one of my favorite things about oxytocin is that witnessing an act of generosity releases oxytocin.
And the more oxytocin we have in our bodies, the more generous we actually become. It's biology. It's Mother Nature's way of trying to get us to look after each other.
And so when we witness somebody do something nice, it actually makes us be nicer. And if we hear a story of somebody giving, it actually makes us want to go do good.
So are you telling the story of helping someone on the bus, which was a small act for you, insignificant?
You probably would have forgotten about it had you not been given this gift to memorialize that event.
And simply you and I talking about it releases oxytocin in somebody who's listening and might make them do something nice to somebody that might be innocuous today.
Right. Or the story you told of your final words to your mother. I mean, you choked me up when you said it because I immediately think of the people that I can say thank you to.
And you you are such a bright light.
I just love how you show up in the world. I think there is more struggle than you let on.
And I think there's been more difficulty that you but you are such a bright light and you are so forward focused about, as you talked about, where am I going now, what am I necessarily going through?
But where am I going? And that for some reason allows for you not to notice or be as affected by the darkness in the tunnel because you're so focused on the light at the end.
I think that, too. But I just I don't want you to think that I was withholding bad experiences. I think what you just said is more the case. And by the way, I don't think you withheld anything.
I really do think that you were just so focused on light. You're been such a delight to talk to you. Thank you so, so much for taking the time.
I really appreciate it. You I'll talk to you real soon.
Bye. I hope you enjoyed this bit of optimism, if you'd like more, please subscribe wherever you like to listen to podcasts. I hope you'll join me next time. Until then, take care of yourself and take care of each other.