A Meeting with Marlee

How Dance and Movement Became One Woman’s Commitment to Herself

My own commitment to movement is really what kept me alive.
Photo: Chase Wilmont

Photo: Chase Wilmont

Marlee Grace is an artist, dancer, and entrepreneur who lives in Point Reyes, CA. She has a distinguished Instagram feed, @personalpractice, where she documents herself dancing in different settings. For Marlee, dance is a vehicle to navigate her experiences, emotions, and humanness. The honesty and vulnerability of the movement on her feed is a refreshing taste of reality in today’s filtered and curated world. I sat down to talk with her about her journey with art and dance and the possible journey others can have with these things as well. 

Q: How/when did you start dancing? 

When I was born, I was in the womb upside-down backwards folded in half, and my legs were spread out. My mom had a c-section, and I came out butt-first, and in many ways – like the line from that T. Rex song – “I danced myself right out the womb.” 

My first memory of me dancing is this home video of me in the slip under my Easter dress. We got home, and I took the dress off and just had the slip on, and I’m dancing to Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” Janet Jackson was also my first concert in the fourth grade. She is one of the most incredible dancers and choreographers. 

I’ve really always been dancing, and I think that’s why I then continued as a classically trained ballet dancer and have a BFA in dance from the University of Michigan, which is a modern dance program. Now, I continue to study compositional improvisation with the Architects, which [is a group of women] who study improvisation as a performance technique in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I feel very qualified to be a dancer, but I also always joke that saying, “I’m a dancer,” has been one of the hardest labels to give myself. To me, dancing feels like walking, it feels like breathing. I’ve always been wanting to move my body. 

Q: How did @personalpractice develop? How long have you been doing it for? 

I started @personalpractice in July of 2015 when I was in Lancaster with the Architects. I was there for their yearly intensive MICI, which stands for Movement Intensive in Compositional Improvisation. I had been using social media to run my business in Michigan, which was a shop/workshop space and artists’ residency called Have Company. I graduated from college in 2010, opened Have Company by 2013, and by 2015, five years out of college, I felt like, “Oh, I’m not really dancing that much.” I was only dancing once a year when I would go to MICI. I was hit with this feeling where I kept saying “I wish I was dancing more,” and I heard myself say that out loud enough times, and I was like, “What does that even mean?” I can literally dance anywhere and whenever I want. I can decide when and how I want to dance – why am I not doing it? So I started posting some videos of me dancing in the store on the Have Company site. 

Photo: Chase Wilmont

Photo: Chase Wilmont

But I was noticing that it was a little disconnected from that project, and I decided to make a separate project. Personal practice came to me as the name for it. And I am not necessarily upset that that’s the name for it, but sometimes I feel bad because the words ‘personal’ and ‘practice’ are [universal] like, everyone has a personal practice. But that’s the point: this is my personal practice. 

Q: What does your personal practice look like when nobody’s watching? Is it much different from what is displayed on your instagram? Do you ever fall? 

Yes, yes and yes. I do fall, there are a couple good videos of me falling. There’s one where I’m in this really beautiful bathing suit I just bought myself in this lake in Maine. It’s so beautiful, it’s this very goddess moment, I’m really moving slowly, and I just trip on a rock, and fall. Then you hear my friends laughing. But I loved posting that. 

And that’s another good question or good part of it all; do I fall, or what do I curate that people see? Because at the end of the day, I am often practicing from anywhere between two minutes to a couple of hours, depending on what I’m doing and depending on how much I film of it. Obviously, I’m editing which part you see, if I film for three minutes and you see 15 seconds, I’m gonna pick what I think are the best looking fifteen seconds. 

My personal practice is also a lot of writing, a lot of organizing, a lot of hanging out with my friends, a lot of hosting people and being hosted, a lot of collage-y typewriter stuff – that’s what shows up in my zines. Not drinking is a large part of my personal practice, and being in recovery communities with other people who don’t drink, teaching, and creative advising. That’s a big part of my work and my practice: sitting in my office and with lot of books and tools to uncover my own blocks and help other people uncover theirs. 

Q: How has movement impacted your life? What role does it play for you? 

My partner and I were together for four years, and then after about four years we decided that either we needed to seperate or shift our partnership. It needed a radical change. Then I went to the dance intensive and started @personalpractice, and in some ways I feel surprised at the timing of that. Like, I can’t believe I started that and then went through this insane life change, but at the same time, of course that is when that happened. And I think in part I needed an anchor, something to come to every day if I can’t come to this partner anymore. I have to be able to come to myself. That was the year of literally dancing every single day, documenting it every single day, and sharing it every single day. 

But I think the question of how it impacted my life definitely [prevailed] while going through, in year five, ending that partnership through a legal divorce, splitting all of our belongings, and moving out of our house. I closed my business, sold everything I owned, and moved to California almost exactly a year ago. Having the commitment of movement everyday saved my life. I really think there were some moments in there, especially as someone who used to turn to drugs and alcohol, where I was like, “What is there left to turn to?” I feel like I have friends to thank and therapists to thank and lots of things to thank. But I think my own commitment to movement is really what kept me alive. 

Q: What advice or tips would you give to someone who wants to try to use dance as a therapeutic release? How would you suggest they begin to go about it? 

I definitely like the ‘begin anywhere’ mentality. Another one of the Architects, Pam Vale – one of her exercises is just crossing a room from one end to the other in a solo, and you just improvise across. One of the sort of phrases she gives is “begin before you are ready,” because there’s thirty people, and you’re sort of waiting for your moment and thinking, “How am I gonna start?” And I love the [the idea of] going in and starting, beginning before you are ready. 

When I have one on one sessions with folks about their own creative practice, there’s a lot of shame that we’re all holding about not having started yet. That is my biggest character defect, whether it’s dishes or telling someone sorry or doing a project. Even making the book ended up taking so much longer than I meant to, and that was really painful to be like, “Is it even worth it anymore?” Often I receive comments or emails like, “I am fifty-five and haven’t danced in thirty years and you made me want to start dancing.” And I feel like I’m going to cry. 

Q: Do you have any books, media, or resources you would recommend for someone wanting to explore some of these ideas of movement as self care and self expression? 

My friend just gifted me the most incredible book by Anna Helprin called Movement Ritual. She is 96 and lives here in Marin and still teaches two days a week. She’s another person who talks about movement as a daily practice. I am also a Twyla Tharp fan, and she has a book that is also about her creative process and practice which is really incredible. I love Grapefruit and Acorn by Yoko Ono, who would probably be another performer, mover, whose writing is really impactful and really inspiring to me – along with Marina Abramovic. 

Marlee is currently working on a new project called, Center, that is being defined as it goes. The main goal of Center is to create connections and collaboration between people, ideas, and experiences. Its current form is a beautiful creative space in Inverness, CA that will serve as a meeting point for all sorts of these things. One can follow the evolution of this special venture at www.centercenter.space or on instagram, @__center__. Additionally, Marlee holds dance classes, quilting workshops, and creative advising sessions in West Marin. Marlee’s book A Sacred Shift: A Book About Personal Practice can be bought on her website, along with zines and other art that she and her friends have made. 

Photo: Chase WIlmont

Photo: Chase WIlmont

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Chase Wilmont