Blount resident finds freedom, beauty and heart as part of Circle’s “Modern Dance, Primitive Light" celebration
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
When the Maryville Farmer’s Market opens next spring, watch Dr. Mary Alford closely.
She can usually be found in the master gardener tent, patiently assisting children with tree-plantings and pot-paintings or arranging her homegrown selection of flowers and assorted herbs. The diminutive lady moves from craft station to booth with a grace that belies her 63 years, floating among friendly faces and smiling neighbors filled with the lithe beauty of her dancing heart.
In the Rockford community, which she’s called home since 1999, Alford is known for her green thumb (a Blount County Master Gardener, she serves on the board of directors for the Maryville Farmers Market) and for her skill with critters (she’s a veterinarian who makes house calls). Across the county line, however, she’s known as an integral part of Circle Modern Dance, the collective of professionals and hobbyists who will stage the annual “Modern Dance, Primitive Light” celebration this weekend.
“I always loved dance, and I always loved music; I loved to watch it, and I always loved to move,” Alford told The Daily Times this week. “I kind of pictured myself as a little athlete, and I was physically involved in other things when I was growing up — but ballet was the hardest sport I ever tried to master. I love the structure, the grace, the beauty, and there’s something about putting yourself into your ballet body.
“You get to be somebody else. You’re not just another person walking down the street with your shoulders slumped over. I liked that and the physical aspect of it. To this very day, the first note of the ballet bar makes my heart sing and makes me feel alive, but it’s not just ballet — it’s all kinds of dance.”
A Chattanooga native who moved to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee, Alford discovered her love of dance while living in Texas. She moved there after obtaining her master’s degree; her husband at the time was often away from home, and the desolate Texas Panhandle offered few options for keeping busy, she said.
“I got bored, so I started taking a ballet class at Amarillo College,” she said. “It was one of the non-credit courses they offered in the evenings, so I could go after work. As a child, I remember that my mother had tried to get us to take dance, so maybe I was trying to fulfill that need to please; but really I was just bored and looking for something fun to do. But I happened upon a fantastic teacher, and that just sort of launched the whole thing.”
After working during the day at a virology lab at Texas A&M University, Alford threw herself into ballet by night, learning from a “fantastic teacher,” she said, who jump-started her latent interest. Shortly after turning 30, she divorced and returned to East Tennessee, but she brought her newfound love of dance with her, seeking out opportunities in Knoxville while obtaining her doctorate of veterinary medicine.
“I started taking every dance form I could find: ballroom, tap, modern, ballet, jazz,” she said. “I started seeking out places to take classes, and eventually I joined City Dancers, a Knoxville group that was sponsored by City of Knoxville Parks and Rec. We did 50 performances a year.”
Alford credits Cindy Robertson-Greene, the company’s founder, with furthering her abilities beyond that of a simple dance enthusiast.
“She’s still a huge inspiration to me today,” Alford said. “She gave me landmarks. I watched her work, and I’ve used her techniques ever since. I’ve been really, really blessed to have lots of great teachers. I’m 63, and this is my 33rd year in dance now. I’ve taken advantage of so many teachers in this area that learning dance has sort of been my night job.”
While a member of City Dancers, a flyer in the elevator of the Candy Factory on the World’s Fair site in downtown Knoxville caught her eye. It was a cattle call, of sorts, for anyone interested in choreography and dancing and heralded the creation of Circle Modern Dance. Uncertain of her talent back then, Alford didn’t go to those formative meetings, but that holiday season she attended Circle’s first “Modern Dance, Primitive Light” celebration at The Laurel Theater in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood. The year was 1991. She was enraptured by what she saw.
“It’s the intimacy of the theater and the closeness of the dancers to the audience — Circle makes everybody feel included,” Alford said. “The live music, the candlelight — for years we used real candles — it’s just the feel of being totally surrounded. Circle uses the whole space, with singers in the balcony and on stage, and the ambience of the Laurel — which is a beautiful space to start with — with the flickering candles and the live music and the intimacy, you just feel like you’re as much a part of the dance as you can be without being on the floor.
“It’s also about the choreography. It isn’t just another modern dance performance; we’ve had wheelchair dancers, handicapped people with mental disabilities on stage, we’ve used text and music. It’s just an innovative, creative, not-your-typical dance. It’s not about technique in piece after piece, although we still have some highly technical choreographers. It just has something extra: heart. I think that’s what we communicate to people, and it’s just a lovely thing.”
Over the past two-plus decades, “Modern Dance, Primitive Light” has become a holiday tradition for the East Tennessee community. In the church-turned-concert-venue Laurel Theater, the performances take on a spiritual bent, thriving on the fierceness of the human spirit and the wildness of artistic freedom, the warm wood and stained glass of the Laurel adding to the elegant ambiance and celebratory atmosphere. That first season, Alford fell in love, and as soon as her work schedule allowed, she signed up for Circle classes, learning from Kimberly Matibag and Mark Lamb. Lamb cast her in an original work for “Primitive Light” a few years later, and she’s been a part of Circle ever since. In a way, she said with a laugh, she almost regrets her decision to join, only because it meant she’s now on stage for “Primitive Light” instead of in the audience.
“It was my favorite dance show ever,” she said. “I tell people that this is a show for people who have never seen dance or think they don’t like dance, because this will turn their world around. Even if don’t like dance, they can’t help be taken in by the music alone. Basically, what I tell people that this is the show for people who don’t think they like dance, because it’s so different. It will open your heart, and it will leave you touched. It is a steadfast holiday tradition for me. Even before I started dancing in it, I would never have missed it. I would go to this before I would go to anything else, and I looked forward to it every year.”
Now, she looks forward to participating every year. She’s approaching two decades of involvement with “Modern Dance, Primitive Light,” and given the health benefits from dancing, she hopes to keep it up as long as she’s able.
“I hope that it’s forever,” she added. “It feeds my soul. Circle is the prime example of the dance company that cares nothing about your shape, your size or your color. We welcome everyone. We’re all pretty good examples of people who can dance and don’t look the stereotypical part of the dancer.
“I consider Circle my home. I’ve danced with other companies and in other shows — with the Knoxville Opera Company, at the MLK extravaganza at The Bijou Theatre — and I’ve had a tremendous career. If somebody says dance, I say yes.”