The UNM Foundation: Our Stories of Impact

Dance as a Healing Art

UNM alumnus promotes social justice and equality through modern dance
By Michelle G. McRuiz

Dana Tai Soon Burgess (BUS ’90) has a long and impressive list of accomplishments. He is the artistic director and founder of Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company (DTSBDC) in Washington, D.C. Over the past 30 years, DTSBDC has become the preeminent modern dance company in the nation’s capital and has toured nationally and internationally.

Dana is also the author of a fascinating new memoir, Chino and the Dance of the Butterfly, and is the editor of Milestones in Dance History, a text that reconsiders dance evolution from a global perspective.

He is the Smithsonian Institution’s first-ever Choreographer-in-Residence at the National Portrait Gallery. Since 2016, Dana has created new dance works based on and inspired by museum exhibitions. “It’s my specialty,” he says. Creating dance works in a museum is a natural extension of his upbringing surrounded by visual art. “I’ve always looked at the stage as a canvas; the dancers are brushstrokes.”

Dana has received the 2018 Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize and two Fulbright dance scholarships. He has served as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department and has been honored for promoting understanding of different cultures through the universal language of dance.

Those are just some of his achievements. At his core, Dana is an artist who seeks to improve the world through his art. He is a person who is comfortable and confident in his skin after a childhood and adolescence of tension and insecurity about his identity. He is a social-justice advocate who wants to reframe old assumptions and start new conversations.

In his choreography, Dana seeks to illuminate stories from history and bring them to the forefront. He creates a dialogue between the dancers and the audience, and the choreographed work becomes like a jewel in the audience members’ hands – one they may have thought they knew, but with facets and depth they hadn’t noticed before.

We are all on an emotional journey throughout life, Dana says, and a large part of his artistic vision is to interweave personal experience with that of humanity.

During his journey, Dana often felt “other than.” Raised in Santa Fe by artist parents, he was singled out and bullied for his Korean heritage – there were few other Asians in town – his sometimes-flamboyant clothing and his soft voice. His classmates gave him the insulting nickname “Chino.” Nowadays, he has accepted the name as a symbol of what he’s been through, and many of his friends call him Chino.) As a high-school sophomore, he announced to a lesbian friend that he thought he was gay. She looked at him and said, “Of course you are. You always have been. And now you know it.”

But he also found spaces where he felt understood and appreciated, like in martial arts class – where he excelled – and among his parents’ friends. He enjoyed being surrounded by “art-making, amazing conversations, and artists who converged” in Santa Fe. Influenced by visual art and stirred by physical movement, Dana attended UNM and earned a degree in university studies with specializations in dance and Asian history.

“I had such important formative training at UNM,” he says. “I focused on modern dance but took ballet, jazz, tap, choreography, improv, everything.” A couple of years after graduating, Dana started his dance company.

It’s not surprising that, as an artist committed to exploring social and cultural issues, Dana wanted to give back. In 2018, he and his husband, Jameson Freeman, established the Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Jameson Freeman Endowed Fund for Dance at UNM. It supports student learning and helps cover the costs of bringing guest artists and speakers to the UNM Department of Theatre and Dance.

“I believe everyone should be giving back in any way they can,” Dana says. “Audience member, volunteer, donor. We can do one or all three of those things at different points in our lives.”

DTSBDC visited UNM on November 11 and 12 for a UNM Friends of Dance Scholarship benefit concert. The visit was an exciting homecoming, he says. “I always try to stay connected to UNM, but it was a wonderful experience because I was a guest artist. It’s a way to give back to and support dance teachers.”

The visit also allowed Dana to reflect on his journey from Santa Fe to UNM to Washington, D.C.

“I’m very thankful about my career,” he says, “but the company is also on a huge growth trajectory. It takes decades to establish an arts organization to where it will continue in perpetuity.”

The same slow-growth pattern applies to choreography. There’s a direct relationship between life experience and the ability to create profound work rather than superficial.

“Once you go through the whole rich cycle,” says Dana, “You have all this experience to call upon.”

Stories of ImpactDance as a Healing Art