Get to know the dancers! Tatum Quiñónez reflects on her first full year with the company. Read on to learn about her relationship with the mirror, what it’s like working with Alonzo King, wisdom shared from the other dancers, and joy she finds in small, surprising places.
Want to see Tatum perform? Experience her artistry on stage during our upcoming Fall Season (October 12-16) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, featuring music by Grammy-awarded tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain: tickets.
Interview by Erin McKay | Videos by Jamie Lyons
This conversation has been edited for length, clarity, and readability.
Why did you start dancing?
I actually wanted to be a gymnast when I was young. But my dad is 6’4 and my mom’s 5’10”, so they had reservations. I remember them saying, “Baby, we think you’re going to be a little tall for gymnastics. How about dance?” My mom actually grew up dancing through college. So I said, “Okay, sure, I’ll give it a shot.” It took me a while to get decent at it, but I enjoyed the fact that dance was something that challenged me. School, and most other things I had tried, came easily to me. This was the first thing that I really had to work at, but it gave me a sense of pride and a glimmer of love for the art form.
I started with competition dance at around 8 years old. I really liked the social aspect of it, and I loved competing and learning choreography. I especially liked tap. Tap was my favorite. I actually didn’t like ballet until I was about 10. That’s when my French teacher put me on pre-pointe. Once the pointe shoes came out, ballet had my attention. Then, when I was 11 or 12, my Russian teacher told me that I should quit everything else and just focus on ballet, so I did. That was around the same time that I told my parents that I wanted to make dance my career.
Has the reason you dance changed or matured over the years?
The reason I dance has definitely changed over time. Initially, I was dancing because it was something that held my attention, an outlet for my very energetic, young self. I didn’t know I wanted to become a professional until I was in my preteens. I think this is when my “why” began to shift. Up until that point, I felt no pressure to excel or progress. I was just experiencing the pure joy of the art form.
By 11-12, my mental chatter really began to kick in. I started to realize just how much of a commitment dance was not only from myself, but for my parents and teachers as well. I think this is when I began to place value in “proving myself” and being “good enough/worthy”. My focus shifted outward. During this time, my love of dance wavered because my love was conditional. It took a lot of time for my love to grow and mature into what it is now. I am so grateful to dance because it is, and has been, an outlet for me to foster my relationship with myself. I’ve discovered so much about who I am through dance.
Before the lockdown, I was injured and in a bit of dejected headspace. I was asking myself, Do you really want to dance? Are you sure this is what you want to do? But I found my authentic reason for moving during the lockdown. Taking class alone really helped me. Dance became meditative, a deep practice instead of an outward one. Now I’m dancing for me and for connection. I move to connect with myself and my emotions as well as humanity.
In addition to changing the reason that you dance, what impact did the pandemic have on you?
For me, the pandemic was a time of self-reflection and becoming my own teacher, which I really needed to grow. I was coming back from a stress fracture in my fibula. But on the same day that I returned to take class again at Oregon Ballet Theater, when I was supposed to be getting back in shape, I was told we needed to leave. I asked why, and everyone said, “Haven’t you heard? There’s going to be a pandemic.”
I remember talking to my boyfriend, asking him, “Now what? I thought I was going to go back to dance. What am I going to do now?” His response was, “Well, this is perfect. This is your time to get strong and improve on what you need to improve on.” That conversation lit a fire under me. I said to myself, Okay, this is the year that I work my butt off, and I’m going to make it happen. Somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew that I was going to get hired within the year. I didn’t know where. I didn’t know when. I didn’t know how, but I was going to work.
What was one of your greatest areas of growth during that time?
I used to get the correction, “Use your stomach. Use your core.” I still get it now but not to the same degree. Because I’m so tall, and I grew so fast (hitting 6 feet when I was 13), it took me a while to grow into my body. When teachers told me to use my big muscle groups, I didn’t understand how to do that or what they were referring to. I was using my body in pieces instead connected as a whole unit. But the daily strength training I did during the pandemic really helped me. I also ran about 10 miles a week and went on hikes. I had never been so strong or experienced such a deep connection between my mind and body.
Why were you drawn to LINES Ballet, and how was the audition experience for the company?
In the audition, I remember being asked to condense a long phrase of choreography that we had learned into about 4-6 counts. I thought, how am I ever going to finish this phrase in that amount of time? But looking back I learned so much information from just this technique alone. It was an introduction to exploration and pushing my own physical and mental boundaries in a way I had never really experienced before.
Of course I was nervous, because I knew how big of a deal it was just to be invited to audition for LINES. But it was one of the only times in trying out for a company where I wasn’t upset if I messed up. There was a lot of freedom there. In other auditions, I was so tense. My breath was constricted, and oftentimes I’d get stuck in my head. But Alonzo and former LINES ballet master Kara Wilkes, made “messing up” okay. It was as if a whole new world had opened up to me; there was a lot to explore. I was excited and mystified, knowing a great adventure lay ahead. I realized then that LINES was where I wanted to be.
How is it working with Alonzo? What is his process like, and how has he impacted you?
Working with Alonzo is amazing! It’s like having a spiritual guide, a psychologist, and a director all in one. I feel like every day is a therapy session for me. Sometimes I don’t understand his question or point until a couple of days later. Sometimes I never do. He gives us so much freedom. You can tell he truly cares, and we care for him. He knows how to talk to each person to help them understand exactly what he’s trying to get across. And he pushes hard, because he knows there’s so much growth.
Has he said something in particular that impacted you?
When I got hired, he said something about me being a seed planted in this rich soil at LINES. Alonzo said, “You have so much room to grow. This place is going to ignite that growth in you.” And I knew that was true from the couple days that I visited LINES for a second in-person audition. I stayed across the street from the studios, and every night, I would go back to my hotel and fill my journal with my thoughts and Alonzo’s ideas.
Working with Alonzo is informative and transformative in very different ways now. The process isn’t always straightforward. “It’s your world,” Alonzo told me. “There is no right or wrong, just information.” That was huge for me. I feel like the other side of the ballet world’s philosophy says, “These are the steps. Do them as I give them.” But at LINES, it’s about getting into the questions and asking, “What is the essence of the work? What are you trying to convey? What are you saying? And how do we do that with clarity?”
Alonzo wants to see your interpretation of the work. Freedom came when he said we were after essence vs correctness. His words translated to me as, “Your heart knows. Speak through movement with your heart. Let your life force do the talking.”
What are rehearsals like at LINES?
There’s a saying in the company: “Do what you think it is.” When we’re learning new work, we usually all have different interpretations of what Alonzo demonstrated. The aim is to get the essence of the choreography.
This way of working was a little overwhelming to me at first. When Alonzo told me to, “make the movement personal,” I wondered what that meant. But as time went on, and I watched the other dancers, I began to better understanding it. At first, the goal is just to get the choreography into your body. Next, you find the areas that are “sticky”, either in execution or memory, and you smooth them out. Then, you work on finding the ebb and flow of the movement, playing with timing, textures, levels, initiation, surrender, drive, listening, speaking, etc… In essence, you’re creating. When you learn the choreography, it’s like you’re writing in print. Then you try and transform it into cursive, and from cursive, you turn it into your own form of calligraphy, adding in all of these little details to make the penmanship personal expression.
There’s something to our practice of dancing a piece over and over again as well. When you’re pushed really hard, you get to this point of exhaustion where you don’t have the space left in your head to judge what you’re doing anymore. It’s just happening. I think that is one of Alonzo’s tactics to help us let go and be free. I remember preparing for a performance with the San Francisco Symphony right after I was hired. Alonzo had us run the piece multiple times in a row. I felt so tired, but he exclaimed, “Good! Something’s happening.” I think Alonzo is onto something. Ideally I want to be able to release judgment before reaching exhaustion, but that’s a work in progress.
What has the company been talking about together recently?
As a company, we’ve been discussing letting go of the judgment of right and wrong, and being okay with everything as objective information. As soon as you let it go, and stop judging yourself, then you can stop judging others too. This allows for a more harmonious environment and provides room for the work to flow from a place of love, rather than getting constricted by mental barriers built up out of fear. Carving choreography into our bodies is also a point of discussion. Alonzo says, “You can’t etch it. If you’re just marking through it all the time, it’s not going to get into your body.”
Driving and surrendering has come up as well. What part of the body is driving? What part is surrendering? Alonzo says,“Dancing is similar to standing in the ocean. You feel the tides and their rhythm. The waves move you. Allow the movement to move you too. Decide when you want to interrupt it and when to give it punctuation.” His words remind me to relax and let the movement happen instead of always being in the driver’s seat and making it happen myself. There’s a balance that’s ever evolving.
Has a dancer in the company shared something with you that was helpful or that shifted your perspective?
I was filling in for James Gowan in AZOTH when he got injured. Alonzo told me to “get into it.” And it was simply walking on stage. I was stumped, but Shuaib Elhassan came over and gave me all of these examples of how I could “get into” walking. He explained why I would choose one way over another, as well as how to listen to my body. He suggested I ask questions like, “What is my body’s natural inclination? Am I going to go with it or against it? Does one way of moving express what I’m trying to communicate better than another?” I’m learning that something as simple as walking isn’t simple at all. There’s infinite possibilities of how to do it.
Shuaib also helped me see that even before you arrive on stage, you’re already saying things. You’re not waiting until you build and build and build in the middle of the piece to finally start sharing. No, from the moment that you’re in the wings, you’re present. You showed up to the show, so show up in the rest of your dancing.
James helped me understand how to workshop phrases of choreography. He told me to use imagery. This approach intrigued me. It took awhile to implement it consistently, but it’s slowly starting to click. In a phrase I learned last week, there was a section that gave me trouble. I was doing it, but I didn’t know why I was doing it. So I tried exploring the choreography with some of the tips that James shared with me. I figured, Okay, this movement reminds me of a bow and arrow. So if I continue out the idea, and let the arrow go, how does that action initiate into the next movement? Using imagery, the phrase started to flow better for me.
Maddie DeVries has also been helping me a lot lately with Rasa. The movement is very quirky and exciting, and the music can really sweep you off your feet if you aren’t grounded. So Maddie has been giving me tips to stay connected to the floor and release tension. She told me to pay particular attention to my jaw too and notice how relaxing it affects the rest of my body. I really appreciate all the help that I’ve received from Maddie, James, Shuaib, and the rest of my co-workers. It’s been instrumental in my development and growth.
How has touring been for you?
I’m going to separate my touring experiences into two stories. My first long tour, honestly, was pretty emotionally tough. I’m somebody that thrives in routine. Every morning, I do and eat the same thing. I wake up, have my coffee outside, journal, meditate, and read. I’m set for a better day when I follow my routine. But the first tour threw me for a loop. For some reason, I didn’t quite get how to be and function on the road. We’re in all these new places with new languages that I don’t speak, so that’s a bit isolating. I was also still processing all the good stuff that had happened: I’m in LINES. This is amazing! We’re on tour. We’re going to seven cities in France. What is this? It was kind of a dream, but I still wasn’t settled into it. Fears of, Is this real? Is this permanent? I am actually meant to be here? Did Alonzo make a mistake? kept creeping in. This all was mental chatter that was distracting me from staying present and grateful for my experiences.
Finding my place in the company was a transition too. Some of the dancers have known each other for the past eight or nine years. So coming in as a new person, you can’t expect to connect with them as well as they connect with each other. It’s a big family, so they welcome you with open arms, but at the same time, there’s such a learning curve. You’re still getting to know 11 other people, and now you’re living all together for 5 weeks.
I’m kind of a homebody. I love traveling, but I got a little antsy on the road and found myself wishing I could go back to my normalcy. But I’d also say the first tour was a period of important growth for me. I asked myself, Why are you wishing you were somewhere else, when you’re in such beautiful places, getting to live your dream? You’re doing exactly what you said you wanted to do: dance and travel the world.
The second tour I had a blast. Immediately after we landed in Austria (our first city), I made it my mission to get a candle. That was my first step in establishing a tour routine. Every morning, I’d light that candle and journal. I also continued cross training, because surprisingly I felt like I was losing fitness while on tour. We’re dancing hard, but not as much as we normally would during rehearsals in San Francisco. I found it difficult to feel grounded in my body. So I did things like yoga and strength training amidst the travel. This practice helped me feel my limbs in connection with my body. I also got comfortable with doing things in groups and alone. I felt less like I always had to be with other people, understanding better when I needed time by myself.
A really special experience for me on tour was on Reunion Island. I was improvising and being filmed for a LINES project at a church, and a child standing nearby started to mimic me. We were able to connect through the love and joy of movement; it was a really meaningful moment.
Can you share about your experience working with a mirror throughout your training?
I think my relationship with the mirror now is a lot better than it used to be. It took me so long to grow into my body. There were times where I wasn’t what ballet deemed “lean and fit”. I was always pretty thin, but not necessarily muscular, and was still developing. I think a lot of young dancers forget that they’re still growing into their bodies, so to expect to be so tiny around the waist and completely flat sideways, is ridiculous. It’s not healthy. Unfortunately, one of my teachers from a previous studio called me out in front of the whole class, telling me that I needed to lose weight. It was humiliating. I developed some body dysmorphia from that experience, and it’s taken a long time for it to get in check.
When I don’t worry about what I’m eating or how I’m exercising, the body dysmorphia goes away completely. It’s when I get into that negative spin in my mind, where I just go in circles round and round, that I know I need to take a deeper look at why I am getting caught up in the noise of something so externally focused. I try to look at it as a reminder to check in with myself and my headspace.
Today, I can use the mirror as a tool objectively and not see it as an enemy or something that’s against me. I worry less about whether a mirror makes me look slimmer now; it doesn’t matter. A mirror is a mirror, and it’s there to give you information. I actually think videoing myself every day during lockdown was really helpful in reshaping my outlook. It gave me a clear sense of where I was at, whether that was in how I was dancing or what I looked like. As I got comfortable with videoing myself, and watching it back, I became better equipped to return to the studio (and the mirror).
Adji Cissoko actually recommended that I look through the mirror. “Don’t really look at it,” she advised. “Look as if you were on stage peering out into the audience.” She had a point. Oftentimes during class or rehearsal, it’s very easy to get stuck looking in the mirror and go external. But there is no mirror on stage. You’re still projecting your presence when you’re performing. You’re still radiating, but your focus is really inside yourself.
I really admire your bravery in speaking about body dysmorphia.
Thank you, it has taken me a while to get comfortable talking about it, but my therapist really helped me with that. I think it’s hard because when you’re young, and you’re looking up to these ballerinas that are crazy fit, you don’t realize the rigor of their schedules. You don’t realize that from 11am to 6pm, at LINES for instance, we’re going, and we’re working hard. That is some intense exercise. I think you don’t always get the full picture presented to you as a kid, even in magazines. I remember looking up what a professional dancer eats, which is funny now because obviously everyone eats different things because we all have different bodies to fuel. But it does bring something to mind… things like health, cross training, and sewing pointe shoes are all likely foreign to a young person at the beginning stages of dance. I wish there was a holistic resource to bridge that gap of understanding. Maybe one day…
I actually want to do sport and performance psychology. I’m really interested in helping people optimize their minds and bodies. I think there’s so much that you can tap into and so many little adjustments that you can make. I started going to college when I was 17. I’m about 44 credits in right now, so I’ll get my degree eventually. Give me another 5 years.
How do you understand love? How do you feel it? What does love look like?
Love is everything. I think it’s in everyone, and vice versa everyone is love. I think love is in your core. If your core was the sun, it would be beaming out like light rays. You don’t always see the light rays, but you can feel them. You can feel the warmth of them. I think love is comforting, caring, and complicated. Definitely not always straightforward. Everybody deserves, wants, and seeks it. But I believe love is always around if you get quiet, relax, and listen. Generally, if you’re not feeling it, it may be because you’re blocking yourself off.
Does love come out in your dancing? Is that something that you tap into and communicate about when you move? And how do you know you’re experiencing love in dance?
Who was one of the most influential voices in your life?
LeeWei Chao. He was actually a former teacher for LINES Dance Center and LINES Education Programs. No matter what I felt like walking in to take class at Oregon Ballet Theater, whether there was mental chatter or little desire to dance, as soon as LeeWei’s music went on, he commanded the room. His presence said, “It’s time. You’re here. Be present. Be focused. Let’s do this.” I remember every time I stood at the barre in his class, all the distractions and doubts would wipe away. I told myself, Okay, it’s time to work.
He had me over at his house when I found out that I was leaving for LINES. He was really proud of me. Anytime I had any questions or doubts, LeeWei guided me. He just always knew exactly what to say and when to say it. He could tell if you were having a rough day or a good one, and he knew exactly how to push you within where you were at. He wasn’t discouraged or put off by my height. He celebrated it and challenged me to use it.
Early 20s are such a developmental part of your life. When I was at Oregon Ballet Theater, I was still trying to figure out more of who I was and how to think for myself. I am still trying to figure that out today. LeeWei knew how to get me to think, and think on my own, not in the ways I was conditioned to. He wasn’t only a teacher, he was a mentor. He was someone that helped me in my development. He made me feel like I had something special, and he knew when to tell me, “Don’t chicken out. You can do it. I know you can.” I am very grateful that he guided me to LINES.
In what places do you find joy?
I find joy in dancing, rock climbing, nature, and my friends. I notice it in little experiences on the street, like when I’m smiling at someone. I often forget how much that might mean to a person I pass. I don’t know what their day is like. When I first got to San Francisco, I remember smiling at everyone, because I’m generally a positive, happy person. People often looked at me oddly when I did that though. But you know what, I’m not going to stop smiling at strangers. Because maybe there’s that one person that receives a smile, and it makes their day or reminds them that everything will be okay. Maybe that was the one look they needed. I just don’t know.
Does joy surprise you?
I think joy, like love, is another thing that’s always there. It’s something that you can just tap into. Sometimes joy surprises you in the little things. I find sitting in nature very joyous. We have these feeders at my house, and every morning, when I’m outside drinking my coffee, I see this hummingbird. I smile at it, and say good morning.
What would you tell your younger self if you could speak to her now?
How would you describe the culture of LINES?
It’s a culture of acceptance. It nurtures creativity. It’s somewhere that everyone can be exactly who they are, where they’re encouraged to be their most authentic selves. Growth is celebrated and sought-after. Everyone is loved as they are and urged to be more of that. I’m grateful for LINES because it is a one-of-a-kind place to work, develop, and explore.
BIO: Tatum Quiñónez began her training at Master Ballet Academy in Phoenix, Arizona. She then continued her training at Ballet West Academy and the BWA trainee program. She spent her summers at Ballet Arizona, Ballet Austin, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet West, and Oregon Ballet Theatre. Quiñónez then joined Oregon Ballet Theatre’s second company, OBT2, in 2019. She has performed works by George Balanchine, August Bournonville, Willam Christensen, Gerald Arpino, Christopher Stowell, James Canfield, and LeeWei Chao. Quiñónez joined LINES Ballet in 2021.
Banner Photography: Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dancer: Tatum Quiñónez | © RJ Muna