Ali Woerner is a woman we admire—she’s as beautiful on the inside as she is on the out, she radiates light and positivity and her wisdom runs deep. Her career is creative in the most exquisite way: Ali is a university professor of dance where she teaches and mentors the next generation. She is also the co-founder and co-artistic director of the non-profit professional modern dance company Take Root. Dance infuses every aspect of Ali’s life, most notably when it comes to her role as wife and mother to 4-year-old twins—kitchen dance parties happen daily.
We are thrilled to share Ali’s encouraging words here today, especially: “Finding a path to your gift, finding your mantra for living a good life is the ultimate. My tool to do this just happens to be dance.” We wholeheartedly agree.
Ali, you do what we can only dream—dance for a living! You have a bachelor’s degree in performing arts and a master’s degree in fine arts so tell us, what does dance mean to you?
Dance is connection. It is a visceral form of connecting to others and to myself. There is a “zone” I find when I move that doesn’t exist any other time. When I am in it, it is the clearest and most freeing space I know. I see it in children before they have discovered the fear of opinions and doubt. My four-year-old daughter dances in the kitchen every day—she loves how it makes her feel. “I just have to move, Mom.” She gets it; she’s in the zone.
Let’s chat career: we have to ask about your brush with fame—you were a Radio City Rockette for six seasons! What was it like to be front and center in one of our country's signature holiday pastimes?
That’s a layered question! It was exhilarating, humbling, terrifying and one of the best experiences of my professional life, mainly because I grew up during those years. I started at age twenty-one learning infinite lessons and making lifelong friends. Yet, it was a heavy label to shoulder. Every season I would meet children who looked at me with sparkling eyes as if I was a dream or women who would tell me of their dancing days as a child: “I danced when I was a kid and I always dreamed of being you.” That is crazy energy to hold—it can go to your head if you aren’t careful. I truly loved being on stage and knew it was, in a sense, my home. Once I figured that out, I realized I didn’t need to be on the “great stage” in order to find my connection and then I knew I could move on. And I did.
Dance is a subjective art and, as you told us, a form of self-expression to “connect humans with other humans.” That said, how do you teach dance and its creative process?
It is one of the questions I ask my choreography students on the second day of class: “Can you teach choreography?” Yes and no! I teach modern dance technique and just as any athlete learns from their coach the tools to be successful, I offer the tools and mechanics of how to move successfully.
However, the creative process is different. I can offer all the tools I know on how to create a dance but if the student isn't open and willing to jump into the abyss of chance and trial by error, they will never move forward. I offer a safe place to try new things and new forms of expression—it’s up to them if they embrace their spark or run from it. It’s a lot like life: you can run from challenges or you can tackle them head on—you need to be sincere and honest with yourself and your process.
Once I had a dancer in a piece I created who didn’t understand the feeling I was trying to pull from her. She was too harsh, leaping and bounding, and I needed the movement lighter. Finally, I asked her to dance as if she was the color aqua, and then she performed exactly how I had envisioned...better, actually. It is my job as an artist to help young movers find their voice and what triggers it.
You co-founded Take Root, a non-profit dance company, in 2013. It now has 6 members and travels internationally to teach and perform. Where did you find the time and energy to start a business?
Choreographers are storytellers and I will always create dance as long as I think there is a story to tell. When my co-founder and co-artistic director Thayer Jonutz and I began playing with the idea we asked one another if we thought Take Root could be as important to the community as it was to us as artists. Once we agreed it would be, it was a no brainer to move forward. Take Root is more than a dance company—we thrive on finding those who would normally never dance and showing them how they can forge a connection.
Finding time and energy is a different element. We are passionate about our work but agreed not to take on projects that weren’t meaningful or challenging so I never question if it is worth it. I want my children to see the work I do and recognize its importance, relevance and impact as a creative outlet and how I pay it forward—I believe it makes them better. Take Root also makes me a better partner, mom and human.
Helping others find their gift is one of your core principles—you recently started working with Dance for Parkinson’s, offering monthly movement classes for those afflicted with the disease. What an honorable way to help this community!
Dance for Parkinson’s is truly a gift…to me. I am as much of a student of theirs as they are of mine. For 75 minutes they are given the chance to feel free from their own worries and fears. In each class we talk about how it doesn’t matter if they remember the dance combinations, it matters that they showed up. Yes, they have Parkinson’s but there is so much more to every person in the class. They are beautiful and determined and human!
You’ve been married to your high school sweetheart for 14 years and are an amazing mom to twins, a 4-year-old boy and girl. What does the rhythm of your day look like balancing a creative career and motherhood?
When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer fifteen years ago our world shifted and everything came to the present. She has always been one of my most influential teachers and her diagnosis was no exception. If you’re always looking forward or backward you’re missing the point. It may be exhausting but worth the effort.
The rhythm of my day is a constant pulse. I suppose it could get frantic if I let it but nothing is worth that. I try to stay present so I can contribute honestly and be open to what is being offered. For instance, I was responding to an important email the other day and my daughter came in the room dancing to The Rolling Stones in her brother’s dinosaur slippers, her underwear, and a cow mask. There was no way the email I was writing was more important in that moment than the free spirit and love of life my child was expressing. I’m the keeper of my time and there is time for everything.
Read Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller; she talks about how your own personal paradise is here and now. Also what is extremely necessary for me is to wake up before my family so I can have my own quiet time and get into my own rhythm. (And I’m a big fan of plans, scheduling, lists, and post-it notes!)
Speaking of balance, you think we’re all "teetering—always in the act of balancing. There’s never a completion of achieving the perfect balance because in every second something changes. So I am always prepared to move, be open and jump." We love this outlook!
Time goes by so rapidly and I don’t want to wish any time away. My sister is a huge inspiration in my life and when I first had my twins she told me everything changes—for the good and the bad. She was right. With kids, as soon as you think things are running smoothly another phase begins and, I’ve learned, it is the same with so much else in life.
In order to achieve balance you must be engaged in every sense of the word. I am balancing a husband, twins, two dogs, work and my own self-preservation. Some need more of me on certain days than others. It is the recognition and awareness of this that allows for balance. It is also the release of tension and letting go—similar to dance. There will be days I fall flat on my face but the beauty of tomorrow is that it is a new day. We start over, we learn, we grow.
Where will dance take you in the years to come?
I never imagined I would have had this career or these experiences. I am humbled when I think of the countries I have performed in and the people I have worked and moved with. I hope dance will continue to allow me to reach others, inform and learn from others.
It is a goal of mine to continue to create with Take Root; we have played with the idea of starting a School for the Arts. The idea of housing dance, music, lighting, scenic design, video/media, painting, costume design, and Dance for Parkinson's all in one public building feels far off yet not impossible. In the present, dance will bring me many more dance parties in my kitchen with my husband, our twins and Mick Jagger. And who can beat that!
As you know, here at Clementine Daily we believe in the woman who is ever-growing, ever-changing and ever-learning. What would you say to the woman who is amidst her search?
Recognition is important in discovering your path. My grandmother always told us that the greatest gift is the ability to learn. The more willing and open we are to learn the more we will find our voice. I have a fabulous small circle of women I turn to and check in with regularly—there is nothing like hearing “I understand; me too.” You aren’t alone, but you are unique and one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. There is power in knowing that.
But you will fall. I fall a lot…literally and metaphorically. Remember, those bumps, as painful as they can be, are the best thing that may happen. Never in a million years did I think I’d be the mother of twins but lots of bumps later and I here I am with two of the most curious, clever, thoughtful little people I know—my little people. I’d take a bump any day if this is the result.Our reaction to those bumps is what puts us on the path we need—and maybe not the one we wanted but the one that will help us, eventually, find our voice.
p.s. Have you met The Astronaut?