“I want this festival to speak up for those who don’t get to speak up very often, especially in dance,” Rachel Miller, Regional Alternative Dance (RAD) Fest curator, recently told Pride Source.
Miller, who has been curating the Midwest RAD Fest for 10 years, highlights both marginalized and LGBTQ+ performers and artists. But, even before her current role as trailblazing curator, Miller was going against the grain. It started when she was 7 years old, when her mom decided to put her in dance — something unheard of in their Mennonite community in Goshen, Indiana.
“I did not grow up as a conservative Mennonite; I grew up as what they call an English Mennonite,” she explained. “[We are the] Mennonites who dress in jeans and T-shirts, that use electricity and drive cars — all of that. They’re not necessarily farmers. But it’s still a very conservative community, in that sense.”
She said while growing up, the community believed that if “you are a woman, you marry a man very young” and that “you have babies.”
“I was actually pretty lucky that my parents put me in dance because dance is not something Mennonites do,” she continued. “It’s a very sheltered life.”
Through dance, Miller was able to dismantle Mennonites’ “subjectification of women,” later coming out as a “lesbian or a pansexual, with a little bit of bisexual.”
Growing through dance
Though initially focused on ballet, Miller’s dance interests have evolved throughout the years for various reasons. Around 12 and 13, Miller says, she developed a “distaste” for ballet’s “roots in heteronormative” practices.
“I just didn’t fit into that category, I guess,” she explained. “I was like, ‘Why can’t I do jumps and leaps like the men? I don’t want to do this silly little forward.’”
Because she said ballet typically only allows women to take roles such as “mythical creatures, or the woman in distress that needs to be saved by the man” she focused more on modern, hip-hop and African dance styles.
These other dances “kind of swept me away,” she said.
While developing and studying modern dance, she was inspired by historic, pioneering women dancers. She looked up to the likes of Martha Graham, the creator of Graham technique — a modern dance movement developed in 1926 — and Katherine Dunham, noted for creating Dunham technique, a style that incorporates Black, Caribbean, African and South American movement styles into ballet.
Through these techniques, Miller said she learned about “the connection that dance gave [her] body.”
Miller’s connection to dance has allowed her to perform all over the country. Her choreographic and screendance works have been presented in South Bend, Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York and at festivals like the Midwest RAD Fest in Kalamazoo, the Detroit Dance City Festival, the Big River Dance Festival in Huntington, West Virginia, and Fringe Festival Praha in Prague, Czech Republic.
While developing her dance career and performing throughout the country, Miller was also able to come to terms with her own sexuality. Though she said she dated women in her early 20s, she said she didn’t come out to her family until her early 30s.
“I didn’t come out right away, either,” she said. “I came out by saying ‘I have an interest in women, and I think I’m bisexual.’ It was a soft coming out.”
In 2001, Miller began dancing for Wellspring/Cori Terry and Dancers. And after a 17-year career with the company, she retired and began to take on full-time curatorial duties for the RAD Fest.
“Well, I was dancing with [Wellspring] at the time RAD Fest started 13 years ago,” she explained. “And two years into it, they realized they needed to take a different direction with the curator. Before, it was kind of everywhere, and the executive director was handling it and they needed kind of a focus, so that’s when they asked me to take over. That’s how I got involved. And I’ve grown the festival quite a bit since [then].”
When Miller isn’t curating RAD Fest, she teaches as an adjunct dance professor at Grand Valley State University.
RAD Fest’s RADical mission
This year’s virtual and in-person RAD Fest, set for March 4-6, will highlight more than 200 artists. The festival will include a screendance film series, masterclasses, workshops, a mediated discussion group and several different networking opportunities for artists and patrons.
For the festival, Miller has made it her mission to offer equitable opportunities to RAD Fest performers. This year is no exception.
“When you see a lot of the big modern dance works or the big stage performance works, a lot of times it’s by either straight choreographers, male choreographers — those are the people who are in positions of power,” she said. “Dancers are not always those people.”
Miller’s approach to reaching her goal starts with choosing her panel of judges.
“The way I do that is by first recruiting an adjudication panel that is comprised mostly of LGBTQIA+ folks and people of color,” she said. “The adjudication panel helps me choose what works to put in the festival.”
This process, she says, has helped her broaden her understanding of biases she may overlook. In addition, while reviewing submissions for the RAD Fest, she said she leans on her panel to choose works that properly represent a community.
“If I don’t see appropriation in something, it’s important for me to have that voice [that does],” she explained.
This is especially helpful considering most of Miller’s selections “are queer works or exhibit non-heteronormativity or works that are sometimes political in nature.”
An example is RAD Fest’s 2020 showcase. “After the George Floyd protest and Black Lives Matter got such a great voice, there were a lot of works that were submitted along those lines or surrounding those issues,” she said. “That 2020 festival was comprised of pretty much all Black Lives Matter performances or had to do with that.”
Miller’s work to create a radical, inclusive platform fosters a safe space for its performers to explore as well. Helanius Wilkins, who is set to perform his ongoing community-based piece The Conversation Series: Stitching The Geopolitical Quilt To Re-Body Belonging, agrees with this notion.
In this year’s festival, Wilkins will work with Kalamazoo’s indigenous community to better understand their history and heritage. Then, after observing and facilitating workshops, he will gather his content and footage and share it through dance and screen projectors.
“[The dance performance] features an interracial male duet, dancing to become better ancestors,” he said. “Inherit in the work, due to it being a male duet, is a journey of reconsidering notions of masculinity and seeing it as being one about both strength and vulnerability.”
All this wouldn’t have been possible without help from Miller, Wilkins said.
“She has been really wonderful serving as a liaison and collaborator with creating linkages with certain members of the community to make this work possible,” he said. “As well as coordinating venues and spaces where the activities of my work take place.”
Another performer and dancer at RAD Fest, Nora Sharp, also praised Miller for her work.
This year, Sharp, who has worked with and presented at RAD Fest in the past, will be presenting the first episode of “The Real Dance,” a 20-minute reality TV show depicting the lives of primarily queer dancers. They said working with Miller has always been inspiring.
“I feel like Rachel is genuinely excited about dance making and about people’s experimentation in their work,” they said.
Miller said working with RAD Fest has been “really great so far” and that the group’s mission as an inclusive, LGBTQ-focused platform has been noticed far outside of Michigan.
“The word has spread even internationally about it in those terms,” she said. “So, while we don’t say this is a queer festival necessarily, it kind of is.”