Notes on Quotes
  • About

International Performer Eliotte Nicole Shares a Quote

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.


January 24, 2020

Welcome to Notes on Quotes, an interview series in which Stephen Harrison chats with interesting people about a quote that’s meaningful to them.

Eliotte Nicole is a singer, dancer, and choreographer who has performed for seven years as a vocalist in Taylor Swift’s band. She has also performed as part of the Grammy’s, the MTV Music Awards, The X-Factor, and with Cher on Ellen. Eliotte is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and Reagan High School in San Antonio. Her high school Dance and Drill Director Valeria Sisson described Eliotte as a “sweet, humble, down-to-earth, just brilliant person.” 

This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated. The podcast version is available below.

Get the Newest Notes on Quotes in Your Inbox!

Sign up now and join the hundreds of people who’ve subscribed to get my writing. You will also instantly receive a collection of my most popular articles and interviews.

Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?

Eliotte Nicole: The quote I have is from Martha Graham, the prolific American choreographer who is credited for the growth of modern dance, which a lot of people consider an American art form. Martha Graham said, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

You mentioned the lovely context of this quote when we were exchanging emails before this interview.

Yes! The context is that Martha Graham offered this quote to another amazing female choreographer, Agnes de Mille, who had just choreographed the famous musical Oklahoma!. Agnes de Mille was surprised that Oklahoma! was reviewed so highly—she was a little rattled at its success when she thought her earlier work was better, and that made her question her ability to judge the quality of her own work. That’s when Martha Graham responds to Agnes de Mille with the beautiful language of this quote: “It is not your business to determine how good it is” but to “keep the channel open.”

The quote has some beautiful language, but it also reads to me as rather intense. Can you tell us a little more about Martha Graham and your experience with her work?

I heard about Martha Graham as a teenager, but I didn’t really dive into her work until college where we performed her ballet “Steps in the Street” from the larger work Chronicle, which was in some ways her response to the devastation of the Spanish Civil War. Picasso’s painting Guernica came out a year after this piece. [Stephen Harrison note: Martha Graham has been described as the “Picasso of Dance.”] If you’re familiar with the painting, the ballet speaks to the same sense of exile and devastation. I was cast as the lead, and there was a moment in the choreography when the other dancers all rushed at me, and I felt this wave of emotion coming over. I don’t know if there’s been a moment since where I’ve been so affected during an actual performance. Bonnie Oda Homsey, who was a well known principal dancer in Martha Graham’s company, still in existence today, came to set the piece and worked with us individually to pull those feelings out of us. 

I’m not very knowledgeable about different dance styles, but I understand Martha Graham is associated with the style called modern dance.

Yes, modern dance, which is typically considered an American art form, similar to jazz music. She emphasized the idea of contraction—literally, the contraction of your core muscles, which typically looks like a C shape. Imagine contracting your body as if you were resisting someone’s punch to your gut. That’s what the position is, and it’s a real place of power. Having your center of gravity low and strong like that is very different than typical ballet where you are in a more pulled-up position. Modern dance has definitely influenced commercial dance, too, which you might see a lot on tour today or in music videos.

I thought we might go through the quote almost line-by-line. “There’s a vitality, a life force, a quickening . . .” Where does that force come from? 

Everyone has different beliefs. I think what it means is the expression of your soul. When you dance, you move—at its base, it’s your soul coming out for the world to see. And if you’re editing yourself to the point where you’re no longer being authentic, then you’re not going to succeed at the level that you probably could if you didn’t do that.

Any suggestions for turning off your internal editor?

It’s healthy to tap into your individual characteristics, movement-wise. You can take a few minutes a day or rent some studio space, and just kind of move. If you’re facing a personal issue, a lot of dancers have taught themselves how to “dance it out.” You get a sense of clarity in your life after you’ve done that. It’s like having a good cry.

I’ll have to try that! Martha Graham’s quote also has this sense of urgency, saying that your artistic expression is unique and if you block it, it will never exist in any other medium.

The language is really intense. It’s like life and death! And it might sound grandiose, but I take it as a call to action to artists to not sit back and let things happen to them, but rather to be proactive because the world needs their creativity.

We took some business school classes in college. At the same time, you were in the premedical program and also studying dance. What would you say to someone who’s considering the risks of pursuing an artistic career versus a safer choice?  

I was very academic growing up and was blessed to receive a great education at Washington University in St. Louis, where the pursuit of knowledge is valued so highly. And honestly, when I started thinking that maybe I’d pursue a career in the arts, I questioned myself a lot: Will people think I’m less smart? As an educated woman of color, was this the smartest way to use my voice?

First, I had to get comfortable with these feelings myself. Then I had to tell my parents and professors. My parents and the professors said the same thing: at the end of the day, it’s your decision. That was crazy—because I realized then it wasn’t my parents telling me what to do anymore.

I had to take risks to get established in this industry, and that included moving to the New York for the summer for the Broadway Dance Center internship. That program was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career. My idea of a perfect day in New York continues to be take a dance class all day, then go see a Broadway show.

But then I did come back and finish my degree at WashU, including my premed courses. I did that in case I decided to pursue medical school. (Plus, I love math and science.) 

You moved to L.A. shortly after college. Did it take some time to find success there?

It took some time. L.A. was never on my radar. I really wanted to be in New York, actually. But after graduating college, my agent was very candid, saying “This is the youngest you will ever be. L.A. has a lot of camera work, and it’s nice to enter that on the younger side.” That’s the reality of my business.

So I moved out to L.A. not knowing a single soul. It was an interesting time. I kept thinking about how I’d graduated from an amazing university with a great degree, but wasn’t sure how I’d make money. I took a two-week bartending course and that first year in L.A., I was an opener at Starbucks and bartended in the evenings. So I basically did not sleep.

But gradually I had these auditions and then I started to book jobs. At a certain point, it got to the point where the jobs I was booking were the kind that were able to support me. That was about a year to a year and a half then.

What if finding success in an artistic profession takes longer than a year? What if a singer or a dancer, for example, hasn’t found success after ten years?

Ooh, that’s a tough question. I’m fully aware that I’ve been very blessed within my career, and to actually say that I have a career. I know that’s not everyone’s journey.

Auditioning itself is a skill. A lot of times it’s 100 “noes” before you get a “yes” in this industry. I do think there’s something to be said for perseverance. Sometimes it’s a “last man standing” type of situation.

There have been several times that I haven’t gotten the job for something that I have no control over. I’m kind of tall, five-eight, and sometimes I’ve heard that I’m too tall for a job. Or they don’t like my hairstyle. Or that I’m black, but like, not black enough? Often they’re just trying to assemble a cast that looks a certain way.

There are so many unknowns in this industry, and sometimes I have wished that I chose something else. At the end of the day, it’s a job, you know. But I know in my heart that I feel most myself when I’m performing. When I get to perform, I’m at my most vulnerable but also in my truest form. And I think doing almost anything else would not be being honest with myself. So if you’re someone that’s similar to me, then you have to keep going.

Returning to the quote: Martha Graham says it is not your business to determine how good your art is or to compare it with others. Do you think social media encourages performers to make those kinds of comparisons?

Almost every business needs to have a social media presence. Social media has sort of taken over the world. But it’s also made comparison more easily accessible. You think: Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Why didn’t I book that job? You’re just always having these non-helpful thoughts going through your mind.

At the same time, Instagram is almost like your headshot and résumé in this industry. If you represent yourself well on social media, and post things that are relevant to the jobs you want to book, it’s possible that could help you book the job.  But there are times when a job wants to hire someone just because he or she has a lot of followers, and that seems crazy to me.

A lot of dance classes are now filmed for social media. My concern is that this can take away from the training. Classes are supposed to be a safe space to make mistakes. Because mess-ups actually make you better. If you’re not failing, you’re staying stagnant. So I appreciate the choreographers who don’t film each and every class.

While there is definitely plenty of opportunity to connect on social media, I’m learning for myself that there’s a healthy level of separation and boundaries that I need to have so that I don’t go down a spiral of self-hate. Because you’ve got to remember that everyone is using filters to make their very best moments look even better. And there are a lot of internet trolls who are very brave behind their keyboards, and who I choose not to engage with.

Martha Graham in this quote emphasizes the importance of keeping the channel open. What does that feel like?

She also says, “You do not even have to believe in yourself or in your work.” Just put it out there. The most honest and vulnerable thing you can do is to be like: This is me. Take it or leave it, but this is me. This is me.

Some self-checking is important so that you do grow. When I see my work played back, it seems like all I see or hear are mistakes.

There are times when you become your own worst critic and you doubt that your work is worth anyone’s time. But is that really true? Your work could affect a lot of people. It could be great. And if it’s not great, at least you gave it to the world. So many people don’t take the chance. The challenge is to push through despite the self-doubt.

Touring internationally as part of Taylor Swift’s band must be exhausting. How do you avoid burnout while on tour?

Touring can be its own beast, obviously. The 1989 World Tour, for example, was extremely massive and on top of the normal workload, we had a ton of guest artists come out and perform a guest song with us on stage. That was so exciting to work with all of these legends, but it was also a learning a lot of new songs in rehearsal.

Touring is amazing, but it of course requires a lot of work. In the moment, it helps to remember that you’re walking in your purpose. Remember also that you’re being true to a commitment. Let your yeses be your yeses and your noes be your noes. If I commit to something, I will give it 110%. And that’s how everyone else is in that environment. I work with superheroes.

Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille were good friends How does friendship help an artistic career?

Having a strong community is so important to anyone’s success. If you’re not able to let your façade down, and be real with someone, then how are you growing? The strong community around me allows me to pursue my dreams, even in those hard times. And an artist needs to understand that certain people’s opinions matter more than others because they are filled with wisdom. You definitely don’t want to crowdsource your decisions based on factors like the number of likes.

Martha Graham says at the end of the quote that artists are more alive than the others. Why do you think that is?

With art, and with dance especially, it’s like your soul is shining through. How much more yourself can you be when it’s literally your soul talking? I don’t think you can be. That is a moment of truly living.   

Now I don’t necessarily think you need to be a professional artist of any kind to experience those times. It’s simply a matter of being your most authentic self in every single moment.

When you are that beautiful light and honesty to the world, you’re probably also encouraging someone else to be the same. And there’s a powerful butterfly effect that goes with that. Because frankly, the person next to you probably wants to be honest and open, too.

***

See all articles & episodes in the Notes on Quotes interview series.

I’ve interviewed more than 50 notable people about a quote of their choosing. Here are 5 conversations that changed my perspective.


Audio version available here