What I love the most about dancing is telling stories and creating worlds with my body and its movement. I love being on-stage and having the opportunity to give something of myself to an audience – to provide them with a new possibility, a new sensation, a question, a feeling that maybe they can’t explain.
My name is Hannah MacKenzie-Margulies. I’m a dancer, and I also work as a product manager for a multilingual text analytics software company. While I was studying in college, I started looking for work opportunities that would put my liberal arts degree skills to good use, while also providing me with financial stability. My father is an engineer, and he spent nearly 18 years with the company I work for now. After my first year of school, he helped me land an internship in their marketing department. I was invited to stay on and over the last seven years, I’ve worn a number of different hats – Competitive Intelligence Analyst, Content Writer, Community Manager, and now Product Manager. It’s not a job I ever imagined myself doing, but the software I work on is fascinating, and I am deeply grateful for the flexibility and financial security that this field provides.
I live in Oakland, California. I landed in Oakland about two years ago, drawn by the vibrant dance community and the opportunity to actually live in the same city as my partner after several years of dating long-distance. It has also been a great choice for my product management work – I work with a number of local clients and have been able to take advantage of many training and networking opportunities.
I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in dancing. I’m pretty sure my first exposure was seeing ballet dancers on Sesame Street as a toddler – after begging my mom for classes, she enrolled me in creative movement classes when I was three. I also have a very distinct memory of seeing the Mikhail Baryshnikov/Gelsey Kirkland Nutcracker on PBS as a little kid and being completely entranced. The connection between music and movement is a big part of what got me excited about dance as a little kid.
I trained at the Lexington School of Ballet and the Boston Ballet School. After graduating from high school, I spent two years in the pre-professional division of the Joffrey Ballet School. Later, I studied contemporary dance and composition (along with a lot of other things) at Reed College, and spent six months training with the Vertigo Dance Company in Jerusalem, Israel. I’ve also done summer workshops all over the United States and a few abroad. Ballet is an incredibly demanding form, but I love the challenge of making something so structured and formalized my own.
In my early twenties, I became interested in the Lindy Hop, an American swing dance created by black teenagers in Harlem in the early twentieth century. At the time, I was living in Philadelphia and got really involved in the local scene there, going out dancing several nights a week and taking all the classes I could find. I started traveling to festivals and workshops, and eventually, competing and teaching. Over the last decade, it has become a huge part of my life.
When I decided to go to college, I was really disillusioned with ballet and concert dance in general – I thought that chapter of my life was probably over. However, somewhat to my initial chagrin, I was paired with an advisor from the dance department who gently encouraged me to try a dance studies class (dance studies encompasses dance history, theory, and the cultural study of dance in an academic context) and later a composition class. Slowly, I opened myself up to these new experiences – moving in unfamiliar ways, shifting my thinking about what dance is or should be. I ended up graduating with what Reed calls an “Ad-hoc interdisciplinary” major in Dance and Music and performed a 25-minute one-woman show as a part of my senior thesis, which focused on the relationships between Jazz, Americanism, and diplomacy in the US State Department’s Cold War cultural tour program.
I have many inspirations when it comes to dancing. In terms of contemporary dance, choreography, and “theory”, I love William Forsythe’s work. I’m also immensely inspired by Crystal Pite, Meredith Monk, Hofesh Schecter, Noa Wertheim, and Ralph Lemon. The show Sleep No More had a huge impact on me, as have the works of PETE (Portland Experimental Theatre). These are all really big names, but I’m also readily inspired by people closer to home – my own creative collaborators, my lindy hop partners, my students, my friends. When I’m making a dance, I get inspiration from all kinds of places: strangers gesticulating as they talk on the phone, phrases from my journal, crows, etc. When it comes to lindy hop, my style and approach have been influenced by so many people – Bethany Powell and Stefan Durham, Mia Halloran, and Laura Glaess, just to name a few.
Currently, I’m the Education Coordinator for the 9:20 Special, San Francisco’s longest-running weekly lindy hop dance, and I teach lindy hop in a variety of contexts — group classes, private lessons, workshops — locally, nationally, and (occasionally) internationally. I’ve performed at festivals, corporate events, and on street corners. I also create dances on commission, for myself, and with various collaborators. I have three big choreographic projects in the works: two for a big Lindy Hop festival in Washington DC in November, and one for an emerging contemporary choreographers’ showcase here in the Bay in December.
I also co-founded sub.set dance, which was the brainchild of my friend Claire. She, along with our other two co-founders (Simone and Alanna), all went to Reed and became friends in the dance department. Claire wanted to develop a vehicle for creating and performing new work in a collaborative way and came to us with the initial proposal. One night we sat down in a bar, bought the domain name for the website, and cheers-ed to our new dance collective.
One of my favourite dancing experiences was when my sub.set group was invited to perform at the after-party for the TBA (Time Based Art) Festival in Portland, which is called The Works. This festival was a huge part of my education in what radical, transformative, avant-garde performance can be – getting to present our work as part of it was incredible.
Another memorable dance experience I’ve had was a competition I won with my friend David at a big lindy hop festival in Asheville, NC. We entered on a whim at the last minute and ended up battling against folks that, to this day, I admire so much. Our task was to honor the spirits of two foundational lindy hop/jazz dancers: Al Minns and Leon James. They were incredible dancers and improvisers – it was a huge privilege to, in whatever small way, continue their legacy through our dancing.
The first similarity between dancing and my work is that both dance and product management offer a never-ending challenge; the work is never done. The software I manage is very complex, but even in the case of a simpler product, there are always questions to be pondered about what the team should do next, how functionality could be improved, and how the product could better serve its customers. Product management requires extreme patience and attention to detail – so does dance! I think that both arenas are also well served by curiosity and a willingness to dive in and take risks – to try something (anything) rather than get stuck trying to figure out what the “best” thing is. For me, that’s especially true when I’m choreographing – it’s better to get something out there (even if I change it later) than to continue staring at the floor trying to pick the perfect movement.
Dancing has definitely been a benefit to my technological career. Dance has taught me discipline, fortitude, and the power of non-verbal communication. These skills help me every day in my work as a product manager.
Throughout my training, I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that our bodies are unbelievably knowing and wise — we just need to get out of their way. When we give ourselves permission to really feel, to experience the world somatically and sensorily, all kinds of possibilities open up.
I hear a lot of people say “oh, I could never be a dancer; I have two left feet” or, “I just don’t understand dance”, and that makes me sad. I firmly believe that everybody can dance, that everybody is already a dancer (remember jumping around as a baby? We’ve all still got it!). You just have to start moving. Society may try to convince you otherwise, but I firmly believe that regardless of your age, size, ability, gender, race, faith, financial background … you are a dancer, and you can develop your dance.
My advice to anyone interested in dancing is to sign up for a class or check out instructional videos on YouTube. Find a form that speaks to you, or move in whatever way feels instinctive. It can be a really vulnerable experience to start moving if you’ve never done it intentionally before – be patient with yourself!
For me, there is definitely always more than tech. However, I think it’s really important to recognize that tech is itself inherently creative – that helps us to see “creative pursuits” as being tech, not distinct.
Feature Photo by Gordon Wilson. If you’d like to see Hannah’s personal website, as well as the website for sub.set dance, be sure to check the following links: