Heather McGinley fell in love with dance when she was 4.
“As soon as I understood it could be a career, I wanted it,” said the 2001 O’Fallon Township graduate. “Maybe I was 11.”
The lithe 5-foot-6 redhead with big blue eyes worked extremely hard to get what she wanted.
Heather is a member of the prestigious Paul Taylor Dance Company, known for its exploration of the world of modern dance. She is one of 16 dancers — eight men and eight women — who will take the stage at 8 p.m. Oct. 2 and 3 at Touhill Performing Arts Center in St. Louis. They will perform three dances from Paul Taylor’s repertoire of 180 to 200.
Her proud parents, Ed and Marcia, will be in the audience.
“We’ve waited nine years for her to perform in her home town,” said Marcia, who remembers signing up Heather for a preschool tap and ballet class because “everyone needs a little grace and poise ... She took to dance like a duck to water.”
Music inspires Heather to move.
“It was an instant love, my favorite activity,” she said. “I did swimming, Girl Scouts, soccer. Dance class was always my favorite. I wanted to perform. It was in my blood. I loved being on stage, moving on stage. I wanted to express myself through movement.”
The family relocated from St. Louis to O’Fallon when Heather was 8.
“It was definitely a top priority to find a new dance studio,” said Heather, 32, who found it in O’Fallon’s Dance Station. During high school, she trained in ballet five to seven days a week, working with a mentor on Sundays. During summers, the dedicated dancer traveled to other cities to audition and perform.
Liz Brown, dance teacher and former owner of Dance Station, watched Heather progress.
“She had a lot of quality of her own, and she is very determined,” said Liz. “It never occurred to her that she couldn’t do it. She just went till she got what she wanted. She auditoned and auditioned and auditioned and never gave up. She has a fire on stage. She heats up the stage. She’s wonderful to watch.”
The best moments are when the rest of the world has disappeared. It’s just you and the audience and that’s it.
Heather McGinley on being a professional dancer
Heather has a degree in dance performance from Butler University in Indianapolis. She began learning the Paul Taylor’s style of modern dance her senior year, then joined the prestigious Martha Graham Dance Company before being selected by Paul Taylor in 2011.
Her parents are her biggest supporters. Marcia noted that whatever Heather tries, she does well. “She’s a very good artist. She can draw like you won’t believe. Chemistry and physics were her favorite subjects. It was the homework she would do first because she thought it was fun. She is very focused, very motivated. When she performs at Lincoln Center, I have tears in my eyes and a smile you can’t wipe off my face. It’s overwhelming.”
“Our view above the maze is there’s no such thing as a dumb dancer,” said Ed McGinley. “It requires so much brain power to make your body do what it does and look so easy.”
We talked to Heather recently during a rehearsal break. She takes the subway daily from her Brooklyn apartment to Paul Taylor studios on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Q: What is an average day for you?
A: “Working for Mr. Taylor’s schedule, I’m either in New York in rehearsal or on the road. No matter how many years you have been dancing, you have to warm up and continually train your body.” Sometimes I will attend the 90 minute open Taylor class. Other days I work with a Pilates or Gyrotonic trainer and sometimes I go take a ballet class. Some days I do my own warm up, a mixture of yoga and ballet and Taylor. Then, we rehearse Taylor dances from noon to 5 p.m. That’s the life. Every night, you go home and try to rest and undo the stress on your body. Most professional dancers have people who help them — physical therapists, acupunturists.”
Q: Ever been hurt?
A: “I’ve had a few minor injuries. It wasn’t something that required surgery or months off. I’ve had a few tears in my calf muscle. It’s pretty typical. I do a lot of movement, quick change of directions. You might be running on a curved path. Your body has to bank. The way your feet touch floor can be stressful on your feet, legs and calves. ... It’s incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. That’s why I do it.”
Q: What is it like to be part of the dance company?
A: “As one of the early modern dance companies that toured the world, they set up a system for having dancers work together very well. Even if someone is not your best friend, you still want to be able to know each other, work well and trust each other. For several years in the company, you room with other dancers on tour. Senior dancers get their own rooms. (Heather, the fourth recent hire, is still considered a junior member. Dancers’ ages range from late 20s to early 40s.) You don’t get to pick a roommate, but you don’t stick with that roommate. It changes from city to city. It’s a forced way, but a wonderful way to get to know each other. It really works. I would trust any dancer in the company with my life.”
Q: What’s it like to perform?
A: “On my best days, I am completely absorbed in that moment. Nothing else exists in the world. Those are the best shows. Dance is so fleeting. It happens, then it’s gone. It never happens the same way twice. ... The best moments are when the rest of the world has disappeared. It’s just you and the audience and that’s it.”
Q: Do you have a favorite dance that you perform?
A: “I have several favorite Taylor dances, each for different reasons. ‘Syzygy’ for its ferocious energy and squiggly lines. ‘Eventide’ for its tender portrait of relationships. ‘Dust’ for its twisted, anguished, near impossible shapes. ‘Black Tuesday’ for its vivid Depression-era characters. ... just to name a few.”
Q: If you’re new at watching modern dance, what should you look for on stage?
A: “Paul Taylor creates this communication among dancers. It can be something simple. A dancer puts a hand on another dancer’s shoulder. The way he choreographs the movement, it’s as if the audience can feel their shoulder being touched.” One of the dances is “Mercuric Tidings,” built around the Greek god Mercury, messenger for all the gods, performed to music by Franz Schubert. “You will see the dancer moving full force across the stage. It looks like a dancer is coming right at (another). There are very exciting near misses. We definitely run into each other in rehearsal. Part of the excitement of dance is to be a little daring. You don’t want to play it safe. Dancers will be barefoot. That’s typical in modern dance, from the early roots of rebeling against the formality of ballet. In modern dance, the idea is you are a human being. Your feet touch the ground. ....” (The St. Louis program also includes “Three Dubious Memories,” about how protagonists in a love triangle remember their relationships and “Piazzolla Caldera” which captures the essense of tango culture.)
Q: How often do you get to see your family?
A: “I have an older brother, Edward, who lives in South Carolina whom I don’t see very often. I see my parents more on the road than in O’Fallon. Both are retired now. (Ed, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, had a home repair business for 10 years. Marcia is a former elementary school teacher and substitute teacher.) They love to travel. They will travel to interesting places. Or I have friends who will see shows that way. My parents took a vacation to Italy to see me. They came to Paris for 10 days. My first professional dance tour with Martha Graham was in China. The first day on the tour, I saw the Great Wall of China. With Paul Taylor, I first went to Turkey where we performed in a large opera house.”
Q: What city would you like to see again?
A: “I would go back to Paris any day. I was recently in South America for three weeks — four countries, five cities. It was an amazing experience. I love to travel. There aren’t a whole lot of places I wouldn’t want to go.”
Q: Any places you don’t miss?
A: “We once did a tour to Alaska. I would love to go back, but not in the winter.”
Q: What do you do when you’re not dancing?
A: “If I had a week off, I would book a trip anywhere in Europe. This fall, we’re going to Poland and Italy. I love to see art. I love to go to art museums.”
Q: Favorite TV show?
A: “I just started watching ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Q: Favorite treat?
A: “Ice cream is at the top of my list.”
A: “I wish I could see my family more. I love going to Cardinal games in the summer. It takes me back to being a little kid.”
If you go
Heather McGinley, of O’Fallon, is one of 16 dancers who will be performing with the legendary Paul Taylor Dance Company. It’s part of Dance St. Louis’s 2015-2016 season.
- When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2 and Saturday, Oct. 3
- Where: Touhill Performing Arts Center on University of Missouri-St. Louis campus
- Tickets: $30 to $50 (dancestlouis.org)