Photo of Cynthia Oliver in colorful dress.Photo of Cynthia Oliver in colorful dress.


The Dance is Enough

Cynthia Oliver, professor of dance, answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Interviewed by Kim Schmidt

Top photograph by LaTosha Pointer

Cynthia Oliver
Professor of Dance and Special Advisor to the Chancellor for Arts Integration at Illinois
Born in Bronx, New York
BFA Adelphi University, MA and PhD New York University

For Cynthia Oliver, there has always been dancing. As a girl in the Bronx in the 1960s, she danced at home alongside her “joyous and infectious parents” and followed her older sister to dance classes.

After the family relocated to her father’s home in St. Croix, she danced in an after-school class taught by a Dutch dancer named Atti Van Den Berg, who brought artists from around the world to the island. Van den Berg exposed Oliver to many cultures and many styles of dance.

“We danced in the woods, on the beach, in the mountains,” she recalled. “We danced everywhere.”

Over her career, Oliver has performed in numerous companies and accrued myriad public accolades, including being named a United States Artist Fellow, a Doris Duke Artist, and a Guggenheim Fellow. After decades of weaving dance into the fabric of her life, Oliver’s connection to movement remains deeply personal.

“Dance is my prayer. It is how I process information. It is a channel for challenging emotions,” Oliver shared. “If I am sad or depressed, I go to class. My worldly concerns are left at the door because I must pay attention to the paces I am taking my body through,” she said.

Oliver credits dance as having saved her in many ways, including when she was diagnosed with cancer several years ago.

“My oncologist told me that because of the physical condition I was in, my chances for surviving what chemo would do to me were that much greater. Dance gave that to me.”

She describes her work as quirky, athletic, demanding, and steeped in culture.

“Sometimes people will say, ‘I don’t understand that dance.’ But often, there isn’t something for you to understand, just something for you to feel,” she said. “Dance is beyond language. You can’t interpret it into a linguistic form. It is its own form. We can create narratives around it or through it, but it exceeds language,” she said. “It speaks to people on a visceral level through choreography.”

In other words, the dance is enough.


Photo of Cynthia Oliver
Dr. M. Cynthia Oliver, professor in the Department of Dance, aims to take the vision of arts expanding understanding and amplify a collaborative effort as she becomes the Special Advisor to the Chancellor for Arts Integration at Illinois. Her role is to create actionable programs and initiatives that weave arts research and resources into the university culture and programs.
(Photo by Fred Zwicky / University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)


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We wanted to get to know Oliver a little better, so we’ve asked her to answer an abbreviated version of the Proust Questionnaire for STORIED. Once a popular Victorian parlor game made famous by Marcel Proust, the Proust Questionnaire has been used by reporters over the century and across the globe to reveal a side of leaders, artists, actors, and public figures we may not usually see. You might recognize the format from the back page of Vanity Fair, which has had celebrities answer the questions since 1993.


What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A warm day at my favorite beach in St. Croix with my family and friends.

What is your idea of misery?
The administrative red tape we all have to negotiate to get some of the simplest things done. Next are most customer service recordings that say, “Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed.” We all know they haven’t.

Which talent would you most like to have?
Singing. But if I could, I would be obnoxious.

What is the quality you admire most in a person?
A sense of humor. Then kindness or the other way around. And, of course, compassion.

Who are your heroes in real life?
My mother and father. I don’t know how they managed to do what they did in the racial and political environments in which they lived and still have so much joy and laughter in their lives. They were neither bitter nor discouraged. They pressed ON. I try to remember that always.

Who are your heroes throughout history?
Rebel black women who made the impossible happen. Crucian (of St. Croix) labor advocates, “Queen Mary” (Mary Thomas) and her crew —“Bottom Belly” (Susanna Abrahamson), “Queen Agnes” (Axeline Salomon), “Queen Mathilda” (Mathilda McBean,) and of course, Jamaican Nanny of the Maroons. Of course, there are also the Fannie Lou Hamers and everyday activist women who do the hard work daily, like my dear friend Rebecca Ginsburg right here and now offering education for the imprisoned.

What is your most treasured possession?
My health. I am a cancer survivor. Health is everything to me. There is no “thing” worth more.

What is your motto?
If it ain’t broke…but if it is, work like hell to change it.

What motivates you?
Creativity and a restless spirit.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Drive your cars, people!” (I am not patient with dawdling drivers), and “Do what you’ve always done. Get what you’ve always got.” (Got to change things up to make change).

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being a mother. Ushering a whole human–our son Elias–to adulthood with my husband, Jason.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?
Wind, to cool when hot, to be still when folks need to slow down, to whip when folks need to center, to blow when it’s time to turn shit inside out. And to do so powerfully and unseen. Or a black bird—a raven, or a crow. Big, elegant, and able to fly.

Who is your favorite musician? Writer? Artist?
This changes. Right now, I am digging everything by Brittany Howard. My favorite writer is Tiphanie Yanique. She is also from the Virgin Islands (her book “Land of Love and Drowning,” set in St. Thomas VI, is EVERYTHING!), and artist-painter Firelei Báez.

Where is your favorite spot in the world?
St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands, my home. Illinois is next. I do love this place. An island girl landlocked in the prairie–go figure.

This story was published .