On Mentoring and Being Mentored, by Ana María Alvarez
Whenever I'm asked to speak on panels or at conferences, as a “mid-career” or “established” artist and an “expert” in the field, I always get a little tinge of "imposter syndrome'. My father always told me that curiosity about life and a hunger to grow were things that you should never lose as long as you live. I’ve taken that to heart, and so I always feel like there is so much more work to be done, so many more things to learn, so many more ways that I need to grow and expand as an artist and human being. In that way, I still very much feel like I’m at the beginning stages of my career as a choreographer.
That being said, I know there are things that I can share and contribute to help others in their journeys through life, and I know that many younger artists and activists consider me to be a mentor.
How I reconcile this feeling is that I never show up with an answer. I always show up and simply listen. I listen to what gets another person curious and interested; I focus on being really atuned to what it seems gets them excited. And then I ask questions and respond to what I’m hearing. This practice of listening before contributing has shown up in a lot of areas of my life—with my dancers (during company and individual check ins), in my classes (assessing prior knowledge and finding out what they are excited to get out of the experience), in my marriage (it's a great practice in partnership, though admittedly, some days I do better than others :-)...
The practice is rooted in and inspired by Liz Lerman's “Critical Response Process” (CRP). CRP is an inquiry-based feedback system that’s been in use for over twenty years, and has been embraced by people in the art field, in science, in education, and beyond. It’s hugely valuable in all kinds of creative endeavors and collaborative relationships for folks of all ages. It’s a critical communication skill. And Liz Lerman, who I consider to be a true “expert” and established artist has been a huge inspiration and guide for my creative and community engagement throughout my career, being a mentor without us ever having spoken or met (I even give her book Hiking the Horizontal as a gift to friends and colleagues at least a few times every year!!).
So, imagine my absolute excitement when I was reviewing the schedule for our upcoming tour to Tempe, AZ and heard that Liz Lerman was now teaching at Arizona State University at Tempe! I immediately called our presenter at ASU and asked if it might be possible to set up a time to have a meal or meeting with her. It was a bold move, but I figured it was now or never. I always believe life (the Universe) happens the way you create it and believe it to be, and I've been “creating” for years to meet Liz! Michael, our presenter, said it wouldn’t be a problem, and so on a warm November morning I found myself waiting at a diner to meet this incredible artist and mentor!
When she walked in I knew immediately we were going to be friends; she has such a warmth and light surrounding her. We talked and laughed for an hour that passed way too quickly, and at the end of the meeting, when Luca (my baby boy who was 2.5 months old) woke up, she even held and loved on him!
Liz came to our Agua Furiosa show and offered to connect again. She then gave me the gift of all gifts—she went through the Critical Response Process with me in talking about "Agua Furiosa”! It's been an amazing opportunity for me to see places where I am 'stuck' and get answers to burning questions that I wasn't sure who to ask or how to answer. This whole experience has made me so much more thankful for her Liz and her work, and also so clear that I am a better mentor because of the incredible mentors and powerful leaders (mostly women) that I've had in my life.