Ai Fujii Nelson is carrying Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s educational mission forward through imagery and enthusiasm as the organization’s current education director. Her biggest priority? Providing dance opportunities to anyone, and everyone.
Nelson began dancing at 4 years old at a modern dance school in Japan called Hiromi Watanabe Dance Studio. She studied there for eight years, then trained with Hiroshi Shoji until she turned 19 and moved to the U.S. to attend college at the University of Utah. “I was lucky to have wonderful professors and received training in American modern dance,” she says. While in college, she took improvisations and composition classes from Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe, the cofounders of Ririe-Woodbury. “Joan was sharp-minded, direct, and had a very good sense of humor,” she says. “Shirley had a magical air about her and was wonderfully imaginative. They both held high standards for their students, and taught us how to be not only technical but creative and imaginative.”
After graduation, Nelson moved to New York City, where she apprenticed for Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company for one and a half years. “Toward the end of my second year there, I got a call from Joan in Salt Lake,” she says. “Someone was leaving Ririe-Woodbury, and she wanted me to come audition for the position.” Nelson quickly landed the job and spent the next eight years dancing near Utah’s towering mountains. After that, Nelson moved to New Zealand to earn her Master of Creative and Performing Arts in dance studies at The University of Auckland, before returning to Utah. There she freelanced for two years at local schools before returning home to Ririe-Woodbury in 2014 as the organization’s education director. In this role, Nelson now not only teaches students across all ages, she trains company members so they are prepared to teach dance in Utah public schools and private studios.
Prior to her time dancing with Ririe-Woodbury, Nelson had no interest in teaching, but that changed once her professional career took off. The company’s mission focuses, in large part, on education. According to its website, as part of its commitment to bring dance into everyone’s life, the company “trains its dancers as both performers and as educators, with special emphasis on kindergarten through high school dance education.” The artists spend 50 percent of their time performing, and the other 50 percent of their time teaching. “I was overwhelmed at first because teaching is an entirely new world, but with training, it became exciting,” Nelson says. “I’m inspired all the time while working with students.”
Nelson believes everyone should have access to dance in their everyday life. This perspective leads her to educate with curiosity and creativity as her predominant teaching tools. “It’s important to think about the tasks and skills you want your students to learn, but, more importantly, you should think about the ‘why’ behind it all,” she says. “Why do you dance? What moves you? You have to keep the sense of joy, passion and discoveries about yourself within the work. Most students won’t become professional dancers, but you want them to love to dance regardless.”
One way Nelson incorporates joy and passion into her teaching is through imagery. “For dancers to move larger than life, you need to give them larger-than-life images to play with,” she says. “For example, they could imagine standing parallel in a huge canyon and growing as tall as those gorgeous trees. They could imagine their wingspan is huge when widening their scapula, or that they are investigating outer space when they move their arms from fifth high to second position. These may sound like hippie prompts, but they are effective.”
Here, Nelson shares the teaching attire she can’t live without, how she keeps her energy up on long teaching days and the items she never leaves home without.
Her favorite teaching attire: “I typically wear New Balance sneakers or Sansha ballet slippers.”
Her secret to endless energy: “I used to tour a lot with Ririe-Woodbury, and on days where I was half sick or just exhausted from the workload, I discovered a trick to gaining energy that worked like magic: Lie down in front of a chair, raise your legs up and rest them on the chair so both your hips and knees create right angles, and stay there for about 10 minutes. It’s amazing, and really helps me feel energized—more than any food or drink.”
Her go-to breakfast: “My husband and I have been enjoying smoothies in the morning for the past three years. I make them with all kinds of fruits, chia seeds, spirulina and yogurt.”
Her beloved non-dance activities: “Playing music—I play percussion!”
Her favorite dance style: “I personally have been a big fan of Afro-Brazilian dance.”
Her ideal day off: “Hanging out with my kids, going to the gym and playing music with my husband and friends.”
Items she never leaves home without: “My cell phone and my optimism.”