What My Teacher Taught Me: Megan Williams on Peggy Baker
June 26, 2024

The first time Peggy Baker saw me dance was my senior year of high school in Toronto, Canada in 1979. I was starring in a play with a self-choreographed dance solo, and someone in the community recommended Peggy check it out. At the time, she was dancing in a company called Dancemakers. She was 10 years older than me, yet she came to support me from the darkness of the audience. I had no idea it was the beginning of a very important relationship.

The next time I connected with Peggy was when I moved to New York City to attend The Juilliard School. I did a work-study program at a studio called Dancerschool, and between cleaning toilets and working the front desk, I was able to take classes. Peggy was in The Lar Lubovitch Dance Company at the time, and my greatest pleasure was taking class near her and having her glow rub off on me. I would take Floor-Barre and lie on the floor near Peggy just to watch her feet work. She was an incredible physical model. When she started teaching open modern classes in New York City, I was amazed by the reciprocal teaching environment she created. She was generous and humble. I felt important and noticed in her room, but I wasn’t singled out. It was all about the open atmosphere. When I started teaching my own open classes as part of the Mark Morris Dance Group, I unabashedly used her class as a template for my own (giving her credit, of course). She taught with a sense of wonderment. She was influenced by many mid-20th-century modern dance choreographers, but her way of presenting it to you made it seem like she was making it up on the spot. Her class was spontaneous and challenging, but never defeating. 

Article featuring Peggy Baker. Photo courtesy Williams.

Peggy eventually moved back to Toronto and started her own company, Peggy Baker Dance Projects. In the early 2000s, I’d visit for a week once per year to attend Irene Dowd’s teachers seminars at the National Ballet School in Toronto, and I’d see how Peggy was navigating her next chapter of life. I’d take her modern class every morning, and by the time I returned to my teaching job at SUNY Purchase, I was totally set up for the rest of the year because her material was so rich and anatomy-informed. During those years, I watched her perform solos with her company that were personal, theatrical, and collaborative, and I’d leave invigorated. When I came back to performing after having kids myself, I was hugely influenced by those performances. I didn’t have the resources to hire dancers then, but I wanted to choreograph, so I did solos too. Peggy eventually did group work, and when I had more bandwidth as my kids got older, I started doing group work as well. In fact, every part of Peggy’s career has had a large impact on me, and her trajectory was inspiring me to continue on mine. 

In April of this year, I presented the biggest work I’ve ever made, Smile, though your heart is aching, at Mark Morris Dance Center’s James and Martha Duffy Performance Space. It was an evening-length performance that included three short solos. Peggy’s solo work felt profound in me while I performed them. I had borrowed two gestures from a classroom phrase of hers, and, for those six seconds, I was really embodying her. It was like an ode to her that set me up with confidence.

Megan Williams Dance in the premiere of "Smile though your heart is aching" at Mark Morris Dance Center. Photo by Julie Lemberger, courtesy Williams.

Peggy is now retired. In 2022, I went up to Toronto and had dinner with her around the time she was planning to close Peggy Baker Dance Projects. There was a certain solemnity to her as she finished a really long chapter. Decades before then, she had referred to herself as having a dance life, not a dance career. When I first heard her say that, I had a “bell moment.” This is a commitment. We are committed to this for life. Thank you, Peggy, for showing me that. Thank you for showing me that trust is the most important part of a teaching practice. Thank you for your generosity of spirit.

Peggy is one of many strong women in dance who I am grateful for, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to also thank Emily Devine, Laura Glenn, Karen Goodman, Peggy Gould, Kazuko Hirabayashi, Mari Kajiwara, Kathy Kaufman, Jocelyn Lorenz, Michele Manzella, Janet Panetta, Margo Perry, Sara Rudner, Bonnie Sandison, Ruby Shang, Risa Steinberg, Rose Ann Thom, Gwen Weliver, Kathy Westwater, Ethel Winter, and Christine Wright. Thank you, all, for pushing me forward and pulling me along.

Megan Williams is an independent dance artist, choreographer (Megan Williams Dance Projects), teacher, répétiteur, with a BFA from the Juilliard School, and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on 07.08.24 to note that Baker first saw Williams dance in 1979 and clarify that Dowd’s teaching seminars were held at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Canada in the early 2000s.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Sign up for any or all of these newsletters

You have Successfully Subscribed!