Clare Croft had performed in “The Nutcracker” ballet for her small Alabama home town for years, playing several different parts since starting out at the age of 3.
As she grew older, one role became increasingly desirable: the Rat King.
She had noticed no girl had performed as the story’s prime antagonist, and around the age of 12, she started lobbying her ballet teacher to cast her.
“It wasn’t a part anybody wanted, and I thought it was kind of creepy and different and I was also figuring out at that point that I was not on the path to becoming a sugar plum fairy in life or on stage,” she said.
The teacher relented, and Croft performed as the Rat King for the next six years until the age of 18.
“I was drawn to the odd spaces. I was always interested in things where you had to take up a lot of space, which was not the way I was being taught as a young woman growing up in the South to deal with my body,” she said.
“I think the Rat King was the beginning of looking for that, which to me has obvious resonances with my focus on queerness in dance now in my scholarship and my curation.”
A dramaturg, dance historian and theorist, Croft is associate professor of American culture in LSA. She spent many years as a critic, combining her love of dance and writing for The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and Austin American-Statesman during a time when newspaper circulation was taking a beating.
She also has launched and curated projects to promote queer dance and open dialogue in that sphere.
She began EXPLODE, a queer dance project, in Ann Arbor in 2012. Three years later, EXPLODE traveled to New York and eventually toured to Chicago and the Los Angeles area, in the wake of Croft publishing the edited volume, “QUEER DANCE: meanings and makings” in 2017. Croft is also the author of “DANCERS AS DIPLOMATS: American Choreography in Cultural Exchange,” and working on a book about dance critic and lesbian feminist activist Jill Johnston.
Croft said EXPLODE is currently on a “COVID pause” that might turn permanent as other areas of the country have picked up on the idea and made it their own, as a curator in Houston did recently.
“I’m interested in moving toward curatorial necessities that then allow me to disappear,” she said. “My not being needed anymore is a good thing — a sign that I used resources to create a space others need and can then design themselves.”
Reflecting on why she began her work on queer dance, Croft said, “I would go to performances that self-described themselves as queer. But they were pretty white, usually only one form of dance, and tended to focus almost exclusively on men. This is around 2010, and as a queer woman and also a dance historian who knows how important Black, Asian and Latinx and Indigenous work is to American dance, this doesn’t seem so queer, it looks like everyone’s the same.
“EXPLODE grew out of something I think was needed.”
From EXPLODE, Croft founded Daring Dances, focusing her curatorial talents on dance in the Midwest four years ago. The goal was to encourage audience members and artists to embrace conversations about difficult, but necessary subject matter and to highlight the talented dancers and artists in the state and the Midwest.
“All of the years of Daring Dances have been working to focus on populations and questions that feel particularly important to southeastern Michigan,” she said.
The first Daring Dance focused on Black women and femme collectivity, while the second centered on the Arab American community. The pandemic left performance venues dark, so Croft moved her curating talents online by asking artists to put together short “dance-along” videos that would walk viewers through how to perform a certain dance.
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“I told them you have to make it and teach it in such a way that whoever is in your pandemic house can do it, from a child to a grandma,” she said.
“It was lovely. We put one of those out every month for about 14 months. There was this question of place and how can we not spend so much time lamenting the stages we can’t be on and figure out how to dance where we are, while also acknowledging that many dance forms have long unfolded beyond the concert stage.”
The next Daring Dance focuses on West African dancemaking, especially artists focused on women and femme experience, and is slated to take place in March 2022.
When she’s not curating, dancing or teaching, Croft said she enjoys swimming and recently began teaching herself to play the ukulele.
“I’m terrible, but it’s fun,” she said. “I wanted to start learning an instrument, and my girlfriend decided that the ukulele is an instrument that even if you’re playing it quite badly it doesn’t sound all that bad. Also, I travel a lot to see art and a ukulele is very portable. I really like it, I’m just bad, and I think that’s good.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
The first time I walked into the Rackham Building to fill out paperwork on my first day as a postdoc, and saw a gender-neutral bathroom almost immediately. I am a cis queer woman, but understand gender-neutral bathrooms as a way schools communicate that queer people in general are an essential part of a community.
What can’t you live without?
It’s a tie between my dog, a beagle-corgi mix named Harper, and Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The corner of the Arb that re-creates a prairie.
What inspires you?
What are you currently reading?
“The Sweetness of Water,” by Nathan Harris.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
John and Rozilyn Croft (aka my mom and dad), lifelong Alabama public school teachers.