Juilliard’s dance history teacher since 2011, Rachel Straus started dancing at age 4 in Purchase, N.Y., and studied ballet, modern, and jazz dance as a teenager. After receiving her bachelor’s in English literature from N.Y.U., Rachel worked as a dancer, dance teacher, and choreographer and also obtained a master’s from SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance. In 2001, she shifted her focus to dance history and criticism and then received a master’s from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She also took Ph.D. coursework and lectured at the Roehampton University’s dance program in London. Rachel is the dance critic for Musical America, a scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and a freelance writer for numerous publications and organizations ranging from Dance Magazine and the Chicago Tribune to Amnesty International. She’s been a guest teacher at Bratislava Academy of Performing Arts (Slovakia) and Queens College.
How did you make the switch from dancing to writing about it?
I never had a eureka moment—dance was simply my favorite activity when I was growing up—but at some point during my early career I realized that being a performer was not my only aspiration and that the dance world had many other things to offer as an artistic and intellectual pursuit. At that time there was no such thing as an undergraduate dance history major—and even if there had been, I’m not sure I would have been practical and realistic enough to pursue it. I wanted to experience dance physically and I did. Following a back injury, which made rest and contemplation imperative, I honed my professional focus and began writing about dance and studying dance history. In retrospect, my zigzag journey has worked to my benefit. Experiencing dance—by performing, teaching, choreographing, and reviewing—is fundamental to the way I understand dance history. The dance world is complex and diverse. Working toward a broad-based understanding of the art form, both in history and the contemporary world, is my lifelong eureka dance moment.
Is there a performance you’ve attended that changed the way you think about dance?
There were two that made a big dent in my thinking. The first was a performance of Fokine’s Petrouchka by the Joffrey Ballet. The 1911 work can be read as a lighthearted homage to 19th-century Russian popular culture. It is also a précis on class brutality and a sharp criticism of moribund ballet traditions. The second performance of great significance for me was Brigid Baker’s Mountain (2005). In Miami, Baker assembled a group of performers formerly affiliated with Miami City Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, and some New York-based modern dance companies, and they danced Mountain with an elegiac spirit. The work had nothing of the postmodern skepticism that I was used to seeing. Inspired by Mountain, I became part of Baker’s pickup company.
How did you end up getting a journalism degree?
Francis Mason of Ballet Review recommended that I serve as the dance critic for The (Westchester County) Journal News, a job that required me to produce dance reviews overnight. Writing quickly and accurately was harrowing. Some of the critics that do it well, like former New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, have journalism degrees. I chose to study at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism because one of the faculty members, Diane Solway, is a dance specialist. She pulverized my prose and I’m forever grateful for her intensive editing of my work.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you?
I didn’t have a specific mentor growing up, though I admired most of my teachers. They gave me the chance to consider the world from their perspectives. Much later I found a mentor in Lynn Garafola, who teaches dance history at Barnard College and Columbia and who wrote the groundbreaking book Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which considers historical dance performance from an aesthetic perspective and from sociopolitical points of view. Professor Garafola taught me to read dance autobiographies critically, which means not always taking what an artist expresses as face value. She also advocates being a dance critic and a dance historian. Many professionals are either one or the other.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would it be?
My passion for dance as a source of physical, aesthetic, and intellectual enlightenment; as a crucial art form for cultures and societies in history; and as an expression of what we are now. I guess that’s not one thing. O.K., just say my passion.
Do you follow social media?
I spend time on Facebook where artists, friends, and colleagues post information and videos of their work.
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be?
A place that helps them understand something fundamental about their artistic predilections. That may mean returning to their ancestral homeland or going to the birthplace of a specific kind of art.
What are your nondance-related interests or hobbies?
My fiancé is Argentine and works part of the year in Spain. I love going with him to tapas bars in Madrid and Salamanca. In the typical old taverns of Castile, the best Ribera del Duero region wines are always on offer. I’ve found this vintage helps me speak Spanish.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
I can’t imagine doing anything else.