The Word in the Wings
Rooted with purpose: an interview with Melody Stanert (Part I)
By: KAYA PRASAD
This summer, The Word in the Wings will feature stories of how the work of Glorify Performing Arts addresses problems with the ways our culture often views the human body. In the 21st-century US, even at times within the church, it is common to discount, abuse, or idolize the body. But in GPA’s work of creating professional, empowering, Spirit-inspired dance productions, we aim to value the body’s God-given capacities for meaning-making and beauty. We aim to protect the body from exploitation by the art and industry of dance, and we orient the body’s efforts toward the glory of God.
To kick off this series, I interviewed Artistic and Executive Director Melody Stanert about her sense of purpose that drove her to found GPA and motivates her to create dance productions that inspire Christians in their faith. In Part I of our conversation, we discuss the power of relational storytelling and the difference between valuing and idolizing the body as dance artists. Part II will be posted next week.
Kaya: I’ve heard your story about how GPA came to be–it’s a compelling story and maybe we’ll tell that story here at another time–but I want to ask you a slightly different version of the origin question. Instead of “how,” can you share about why GPA came to be? What purpose drives you to do the many hours of work you do each day to make this company function?
Melody: I grew up doing worship dance in a church, and I also grew up doing classical ballet at a studio. It was either secular or Christian, so I saw a gap. There was this way that I knew how to praise God and dance to honor God, but then there was a storytelling aspect that I loved in classical ballet.
When I was looking at it professionally in the area of West Chester, I saw there was no company putting these two things together. Jesus uses parables, and storytelling is such a powerful medium of understanding, but it was missing in the Christian culture in this area–especially things that are more high quality. It’s easy for people to assume, “It’s Christian, therefore it’s going to be either cheesy or not well-done.” There was a negative connotation with it driving me to say, “No, if you look at Genesis, at God’s focus and intention in how he created the world, it was very specific. God didn’t just randomly throw something together and say, ‘That’ll do.'” So how as artists do we reflect the God that we’re trying to model our life after? How do we create with that same intention and specificity in what we do?
There was this hole, and I was like, “Okay, God, you’ve given me certain gifts and abilities. How do I take them to help add beauty to that hole in this spectrum of what the arts are doing?” That’s what drives me: wanting to create something that doesn’t feel like it exists in this area. There are companies throughout the rest of the US that have it, but this is the only one I’m aware of in West Chester or the tri-state area that’s really trying to do this.
Kaya: GPA is filling in the geographical gap, and also bridging the gap between storytelling and Christian dance. I also am drawn to parables and the way that Jesus uses metaphor, and I see that a lot in your work as well.
Melody: What’s ironic is most of the time when I’m looking at metaphors in the New Testament, my instinctive reaction is, “Just say what you mean! Why are you going through all this rigamarole?” But it’s the visual images–as humans we’re created to connect to one another, and when we understand these elements or scenes in Scripture, when we have that picture of how other people are living relationally, it can be so much more powerful than someone just saying, “Don’t touch the stove.” When you see someone touch the stove, you realize it burns you. It gives you a more vivid understanding.
Kaya: That is part of the literary design of the Bible, too. In Exodus, the Ten Commandments are written as a succinct list of imperatives, but those instructions are set in the middle of a narrative where a group of people act against them, and the consequences play out in the story. Narratives, just like daily, interactive experiences, help us see the complex, relational consequences of actions and events, and I see that in the stories you tell through dance.
How has your sense of GPA’s purpose developed over the last several years since you first received the vision for this company?
Melody: It’s more my sense of security that’s grown. My sense of purpose hasn’t wavered. From the get-go, God dumped this vision into my head and I said, “Okay, I’m gonna do this!” So that purpose, to create high-quality art that encourages and inspires Christians, that’s been there the whole time. As we go along, there have been times where I’ve thought, “Nope, this is too much! I’m done!” But there’s been this drive: this purpose can really have an impact, can really help people and give them hope.
When things don’t go right, or when there’s something frustrating, I have the feeling of being ready to give up, and I express it, but I don’t actually mean it because I feel that sense of purpose for this company. It keeps growing more and more rooted. That’s because as we keep going, we’ll do a show, or share a dance at a school, and it’s often just one conversation that I’ll have with somebody where I can tell what they saw really touched them. Something clicked in their head, something resonated in their heart, or they’re wrestling with something. And that’s what I want! I don’t want people to just come in and say, “That was so nice and pretty!” I mean, I do, because what I usually do when I see a show; I go and enjoy it. But often I find that when I don’t feel like I’m being preached at, that’s when things will resonate the most because it will just stick and I’ll find myself thinking about it later.
Conversations with people who you can tell enjoyed what they saw, and they didn’t intend it to be anything more than that, but they pulled something else out of it–those conversations help me see that the purpose of this company is legitimate. It is worth continuing to pursue. It’s not just an idea in my head but it’s becoming tangible, and it’s making ripples. What’s developed is this groundedness, so that even when everything else is going crazy all around, there’s this feeling that I should keep going.
Kaya: Those conversations are evidence that your purpose comes from a real need, and that the work you’re doing successfully fulfills that purpose. I can see how that helps to root your purpose more deeply.
Would you share about a response to a show that might have been especially surprising or encouraging in how it fit in with your sense of purpose?
Melody: Walk This Road is the ballet where I have the most conversations. The one that sticks out the most was when we first did it in 2021. I was talking with someone who had come to see the show, and she was saying that her family had been trying to move, and it was such a struggle and really stressful. She was asking, “Where’s God in this?” She was asking God for guidance and feeling God was distant in the process, while she and her family were trying to be very diligent and not just go with what they wanted but seek the Lord’s direction for where to root their family. She spoke to me after the show about how seeing Saturday move into Sunday was so powerful for her, showing that God is there throughout the journey. Even though she was feeling like it was a Saturday moment while they weren’t getting clear answers: they thought the Lord had opened the door for one house, then it fell through. Where’s God in that? It reminded her that God is always with us, even when we don’t understand what’s going on.
That story really stuck with me because I always feel like I’m living in Saturday. I’m like, “Hello, God? Would you like to show up?” Knowing that somebody else also has that kind of experience and that the piece that I created from what I feel also resonated with them and helped with their transition, that was a really cool scenario.
Kaya: That brings us around to thinking about how we as artists reflect God’s intention with creation. That reassurance of God’s proximity invites us even deeper into that project of using our bodies, which God created, to make art. Even though sometimes in these bodies we feel distant from God because God is so “other,” we can still use our bodies to tell stories that draw us closer to God. That’s so different from some of the over-spiritualizing that can happen in the church, when we discount the body and think that we need to totally distance ourselves from our embodied existence in order to be close to God. What you’re saying, and what is so evident in the work of GPA, is that there is also this way of leaning into our embodied existence as a way of drawing closer to God.
Melody. That’s so true. There is an element of denying self and not being vain; you can go the wrong direction with your physical body, and it feels so sad to me that some people latch onto that as the only option instead of seeing that God designed Adam and Eve and said it was good. So how can we take what God said was good, use it to honor and glorify God, and reach others with God’s love? Dance can be done in a provocative way–not how God designed it to be used–but that’s not the only way to dance. Being able to use movement in a way that draws people to God is good, and it may not be something that many people experience.
Kaya: When it comes to the temptation to idolize the body, that can be a temptation for dancers; we’re often surrounded by mirrors, and we’re trying to create something beautiful. Is that something you’ve thought about intentionally or worked on, whether in your own development as an artist or in creating company culture that’s about creating beauty but not being vain?
Melody: I love mirrors; my vanity comes out all the time. When I was three years old, my mom went out shopping, and I was so bored, but she put my stroller in front of a mirror and I entertained myself the whole time she was shopping!
However, I think there’s a fine line between using a mirror as a tool and using it to self-satisfy. When I teach I encourage people to use the mirror often, because we’re often our own hardest critic, or our most observant critic. So if I’m watching myself in the mirror, there’s a fair chance I’m going to notice something that I’m doing where the line doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to for a given move, and I’m the one who can take ownership and fix that. That, to me, is a healthy mirror relationship for a dancer.
Where it gets unhealthy is if you’re using the mirror and denigrating yourself. If you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, my leg doesn’t turn out,” or “My leg is not going to go as high as the person next to me,” or if you’re using the mirror to say, “Well, my leg is twice as high as hers, so I’m much better,” and using it to build yourself up pridefully instead of using it analytically. Oftentimes when I’m taking class and I see someone who’s leg is a lot higher, I can admire that and think, “I’m going to work harder because I want my legs to be able to do that,” or “I want to get that fourth pirouette, and I’m struggling to get the third.” It’s something I want to get better at verbalizing in company technique class because I don’t know the background all of our dancers have with dance class and the best way to use a mirror in that context.
In rehearsal, the mirror helps with things like timing. When we’re all working on a piece and there’s a weird phrase, you can use the mirror to be more unified, dancing with each other. However, a problem often comes as we get closer to a show and the mirror is still there and dancers aren’t going to get fully in character because they’re still analytically using the mirror to assess things instead of visualizing the whole set and the moment surrounding them. It pulls focus away from being present in the story. It’s not a negative thing that they’re using the mirror, but it’s not helpful for that purpose.
Kaya: That’s really interesting because in the earlier stages it helps them to be more “in it” with each other, but at a certain point that utility drops off. They need to be with each other in the real space.
It reminds me of how you can practice spiritual disciplines in order to form a habit, which is healthy, but if it becomes just going through the motions, it starts to feel a little bit more dry and less real. Then you’re waiting for the moment when the Spirit moves and you really feel the desire to engage in practice. Using the mirror and being analytical is like forming the habit, but your hold on that habit has to have enough freedom to still be moved by the Spirit–just like attention on the mirror has to be loose enough to let the analysis go and experience the story as you’re telling it.
Visit The Word in the Wings next week for Part II of my conversation with Melody!
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