He wasn’t supposed to dance

When Michael Foley graduated from college in 1989, he had no idea that what his parents accepted as a good college pastime would one day become his career.

“I was not supposed to dance,” said Foley, assistant professor of modern dance at USF.

In fact, Foley was an athlete at his Catholic high school, where he played football and ran track. Foley intended on pursuing sports at Bates College in Maine, but that changed when he took his first dance class.

“When I walked into the studio for the first time to take a dance class, it just felt like this was the place I needed to be,” Foley said. “Spiritually, mentally, philosophically — everything just seemed right. It was like coming home.”

After traveling around the world, living in New York City and following his dancing career, Foley came to USF to pass on his love and experience of dance to his students. Foley says dance is more than the music and its positions.

Foley said although many dance classes emphasize technique, this class was about what comes internally.

“In high school, everything was put on you. ‘Do this. Be like this,'” Foley said. “In college, everything was (decided) internally and it taught me so much about myself.”

Foley’s first lesson in his self studies came in his dance class. The teacher asked the students to do a plié (a bending of the knees) and his pants fell down. Although this would cause anyone embarrassment, Foley took it in a more metaphorical way.

“It was like, ‘yeah,'” Foley said. “I was so exposed and it was sort of a good exposure, I guess.”

Foley kept up with dance and balanced it with his academics, which pleased his parents and earned their support. Foley said they were happy with his hobby and it surrounded him with students who were good role models and kept him away from drugs and partying.

Yet Foley’s parents expected him to follow up his degree in English and Spanish literature with a stint in graduate school to work on a comparative literature degree. This was Foley’s plan, too, until he met a woman with a dance studio in New York City.

“She didn’t think I was super-talented, but she said she’d give me a work-study scholarship,” Foley said.

Foley packed up his 1982 champagne-gold Mercury Monarch and headed to “The Big Apple” for a stay he expected to last six months. Instead, it lasted 10 years.

“I cried and starved and did the whole starving artist thing,” Foley said. “I couldn’t leave because it was too expensive to leave.”

Foley was entwined in the downtown dance scene and focused mostly on modern and experimental dance. He eventually went from starving to getting some recognition.

“It was a matter of never being able to get out of the scene and of meeting better people and mentors,” Foley said. “I think the more and more I stuck around in New York, I knew that at some point it was going to be my turn.”

Foley’s turn did indeed occur.

In 1994, Foley formed his own company and shortly after began visiting Europe to perform and teach in places such as Stockholm, Amsterdam and Paris.

“The climate for dance in Europe is different than in the United States,” Foley said. “It has a much greater consciousness among its citizens, who are more tolerant of creative thinkers.”

One climate Foley found exceptionally fitting was that of Dublin, Ireland. Since his first visit in 1999, Dublin has become a second home to Foley, who grew up as a middle-class Irish Catholic child in Boston.

Foley’s company began collaborating with a company in Dublin and when Foley decided to go to graduate school at the University of Washington in 2000, this time for dance, his company merged with the company in Ireland instead of disbanding. Foley continued returning to Ireland to perform with the compounded company during his time at UW, which included one performance in particular that he will never forget.

After having a great run with a new show, the company was set for its final performance on Sept. 11, 2001. The day started off with excitement, but by 2 p.m. Dublin time, grief was the new emotion.

“We were all crying. We didn’t know where our friends were,” Foley said. “We kept running to the bar next door to the theater in our costumes to look at the television. We weren’t even sure if we were going to go on until half an hour before the show.”

The dancers all battled with questions. Were they being disrespectful performing or should they, in the name of art, creativity and the lives of the people lost, keep going? Foley and the other dancers decided that the show must go on and devised a signal in case someone was going to have a melt down.

Amazingly, Foley said, the dancers all held it together and the special signal was never used. But during the final bow, Foley noticed that the audience had stopped clapping. He turned to look at the other dancers and noticed that they had finally broken down. The Irish and American company then went into a discussion with the purely Irish audience about the events of that day as well as about the feeling that had internally divided the dancers before the show.

“It was one of those defining moments in your career when art and life came so painfully close together,” Foley said.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Foley returned to UW to finish his master’s degree and shortly after applied for a job at USF.

“I was looking to teach at a Research I institution with a really strong dance program,” Foley said.

Foley came to USF in the fall of 2002 as a visiting professor and has stayed on as an assistant professor.

“Michael brought a fresh, new style of dancing to the dance department at USF,” said Ila De Vuyst, a dance major who studied with Foley last year. “He makes dancing truly exciting.”

Foley said he wants people to perceive dance as exciting.

“My hope for my students is that they learn it’s not always going to be about tendú or plié,” Foley said. “Dance will never be about the steps, it’s about what you bring to the table and the whole experience of it.”

Foley himself is now in the midst of a relatively new dance experience. Since going to Havana, Cuba in December after receiving a commission to work with a modern dance company there, Foley said he feels it’s almost like a strange love affair.

“I got involved with a creative, naughty, outspoken group of Cubans and I loved it,” Foley said. “I was turned on by being around all these people.”

It inspired Foley so much that he has begun doing academic research on the post-modern dance scene, specifically in Cuba.

“People are still living a very expressive lifestyle under the curtain of a very difficult life,” Foley said. “Expression is something that no government of commercial property can kill. You can’t kill real honest expression.”

It’s this honest expression that fuels Foley, he said.

“Even though I’ve been in this career for 18 years, I feel like I’m still learning,” Foley said. “It’s such a great place to be.”

In his short time here he has been on WMNF and won the Weekly Planet’s Best of the Bay 2003 award for Best Choreographer.

“I was very flattered,” Foley said. “It’s amazing to already be so engrained in the community.”

His community involvement recently included a collaboration with Blake High School for the performing arts. In the performing arts, more than in any other profession, there is a constant battle to create and educate, Foley said.

“In dance, everything is changeable. You aren’t sitting in front of a microscope looking at cells dividing,” Foley said. “As important as that is, dance brings your head, your heart and your feet into what you are doing. I am so lucky that I get to do this.”