From Martial Arts to Meditation

Dana Tai Soon Burgess brings his background in martial arts and mindfulness to the art of dance.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess, 48, is a choreographer whose troupe, The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, has been a part of the Washington, DC, cultural landscape for almost 25 years. Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman describes him as a “national dance treasure.” Burgess serves as the Chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance at George Washington University and is the first choreographer-in- residence at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Growing up in
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Burgess was a competitive martial artist for eight years, an experience that cultivated in him a lifelong dedication to meditation and mindfulness.

Why were you drawn to martial arts?

Actually, I told my parents that I wanted to learn to play the piano. A week later, my dad and I were in the car, heading to what I thought would be my first piano lesson. Instead, he dropped me off at a martial arts studio. In retrospect, it’s hilarious. But it was perfect: He knew I was a kid who never stopped moving around, and he knew I was looking for something to connect me to my Asian heritage. He was trying to put the pieces together, to figure out what kind of artistic out- let I was actually asking for. When I was 15, he suggested that I try modern dance. It’s fascinating how he understood what my journey was going to be for me.

What drew you to meditation?

My martial arts instructor began every class with breathing and visualization exercises. As a kid, I didn’t recognize those practices as meditation: They were about developing concentration and a sense of calm. Later, when I went into contemporary dance, I began searching for a meditation practice I could do independently on a daily basis.

When do you practice?

I meditate every morning, lying on a yoga mat in my home office, for about 30 or 35 minutes.

If you don’t meditate for a day, can your husband detect any difference in you?

Oh, I’ll bet he can, because I get very agitated and frenetic about making sure everything is in its perfect place. It’s as if I’m struggling for order on a more superficial, physical level, which I guess is a reflection of my internal world being slightly at odds. I feel

a little more protected if I meditate each morning. If I don’t, I can feel the permeation of negative energy from others. I’m sensitive and don’t like conflict. So when I encounter someone who has a more aggressive personal- ity, meditation helps me fend off that energy. Meditation strengthens me.

How do you cope with stress?

Meditation allows me to put stress- ful moments into perspective, to feel connected to the larger world. I think, “Nothing has changed that much—the universe has not changed dramati- cally between yesterday and today.” What is happening to me is not some catastrophe; it’s just a ripple in time.

What’s the connection between your work and your meditation practice?

Because my choreography comes from the subconscious, I look for a bridge between my conscious and subcon- scious realms—a way to clear my mind and almost see choreographic images or maps. It’s like a place between sleeping and waking, where honest answers to questions I’ve been rumi- nating about will pop up.

What about during rehearsals?

In general the outcome of my practice is how I interact with the dancers. Mindfulness, for me, means under- standing that action creates ripples. I believe in being aware of my actions and their consequences.

Can you explain?

In a rehearsal, if I’m moving too quickly and a dancer doesn’t under- stand how he or she is affecting the stage, then mindfulness is not about being short-tempered or flippant:
It’s about taking the time to explain or illuminate the relationship that dancer has—in movement or in per- formance emotionality—to the whole scene. It’s being attentive to the needs of all my company members in order to get the group together in a piece of choreography that can, in turn, be transformative for the audience.