Meet our superstar instructor Donna Carnow! A graduate of our Work-Study program, she started teaching last November, with just two permanent Flex classes on the schedule, and has since expanded her offering to a combination of Flex, Pole, and Invertable classes as a full-time instructor at Body & Pole. Donna is also choreographing our Showcase Series this fall, and was one of three core choreographers for our “Tell Tale Trick” Halloween Show last year (watch below for her piece!), a role she is reprising in this year’s “Exquisite Corpse” Halloween Show, working with a team of set designers to transform our studio into what emulates the feeling of being inside a moving body. Keep reading below for how Donna discovered dance, and how she became involved with Body & Pole.
Where are you from originally?
I am originally from Wilmette, Illinois – just outside of Chicago.
What is your dance background?
I come from a modern dance background that has been informed and influenced by a variety of forms along the way. I started taking commercial hip hop classes when I was 13 (I kept winning the dance offs at Bat Mitzvah’s, so I figured what the hell – I might as well give this a go). Shortly after that I was on competitive hip hop teams while taking modern dance classes at my high school and choreographing for the dance company I was in. My high school’s dance department helped me foster my passion and love for choreographing which still drives me in my dance and pole dance career to this day.
I studied dance in college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and graduated with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Dance as a James Scholar with Honors. I wanted a program that would challenge me technically but also artistically. During school I was supported by a variety of amazing faculty and mentors including Abby Zbikowski, Kendra Portier, Jess Pretty, Tere O’Connor, Renee Wadlee, Jessie Young, as well as many more fierce forces. I was encouraged by the faculty to integrate pole into my choreographic work at the University. They encouraged and supported me in movement experimentation, exploration, and in my work to further pole as an art form by exploring different choreographic structures and entry points. I received a variety of grants from the college of Fine and Applied Arts and the Dance Department to travel out to NYC to train at Body & Pole when I was in undergrad and deepened my ties with this community. For my BFA senior thesis I embarked on a 4 month movement research process integrating pole with modern dance. It culminated in a 17 minute, site-specific performance that was a group piece using the poles at Defy Gravity (see response below). This research was a launchpad for me choreographically and I am continuing to investigate these concepts still *two years later* out here in NYC.
How did you discover aerial dance?
I discovered pole dancing when I was 18 during my Freshman year of college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There was a student group at our school called Illini Pole Fitness (IPF) that consisted of students teaching other students how to pole dance. I was in school getting my BFA in Dance and thought pole would be a fun thing to try – turns out it completely changed the trajectory of my life and my dance career. IPF didn’t have a studio space when I started learning from them, so classes consisted of teaching each other out of apartments that had home poles and sometimes brought stage poles to gyms or other venues. As we grew, leading members of the club decided to open up a studio space called Defy Gravity Pole Fitness and Aerial Arts Studio in 2015. When preparing to open the studio, they invited me to teach and help pay for my ElevatED Pole 1 Certification. That was when I met Kyra Johannesen and discovered Body & Pole.
What are some of your accomplishments/favorite shows/performances that you’ve performed in?
My favorite choreographic projects was the Halloween show at Body & Pole in 2018 and my BFA Thesis Traversing the In-Between (which you can watch here) at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 2017. These two works were both group pieces that were durational that focused on rhythmic structures. I had so much fun creating these two pieces because they were both very experimental and collaborative. This is a big reason why I am so excited for the Halloween show this year – because we can really explore and play with different choreographic concepts and ideas!
What is something that you’re most proud of as an aerialist?
I am most proud of my experience winning the Central Pole Championships in Chicago this May. I have never won anything competitive in my life, but the best part was that I didn’t enter the process to win. I don’t pole dance to be comparatively better than others – I pole dance as a way to access a more amplified version of myself. I chose to compete as a means to challenge myself as a performer, as a practitioner, and as an artist. I committed to the challenging choreographic (and physical!) task of playing with repetition and durational tasks inside of rhythmic structures. Not only was it seen by the community and supported, but it also felt incredibly fulfilling and validating to work towards a clear end-goal and see what that kind of focus, rigorous work ethic, and commitment can help you access.
What is your favorite move/trick?
My favorite dynamic movement will forever and always be a kip up, but my favorite shape to perform is the the broken split (#pdbrokensplit)
How do you stay motivated?
I find a lot of inspiration and motivation in a bunch of things, but these three things seem the most important:
1) See a LOT of art. Whether it’s a modern dance concert or a museum exhibit or a burlesque show, seeing art generates art.
2) Train your body and your brain in a variety of ways. Take classes in different spaces, train with different kinds of people, dabble in a variety of styles and things.
3) Surround yourself with passionate humans and vibrant energies. Training with people that challenge me but also support me allows me to stretch and grow as both an artist and as a practitioner. It also makes it fun! Otherwise it’s all just too damn hard (lol).
What are some of your favorite songs/artists to play in class?
I love songs with strong or unique rhythmic structures that evolve over a track. Some of my favorite artists for these kinds of songs are Tommy Four Seven, Jiin, Zhu, Rezz, Kid-Simple, and many more. I am also currently obsessed with all that is Cardi B and Lizzo 🙂 different genre though.
What is your favorite thing about teaching?
I love seeing the transformation that my students find in my classes, whether its on their mats, in their bodies, or in their minds. I personally believe there is nothing more empowering than having a stronger understanding of your body and being able to access skills, techniques, or concepts your didn’t know you had access to. I love teaching because it unlocks my students’ potential to be amplified versions of themselves.
What is your teaching style or how you would you describe your classes?
My classes are physically rigorous and anatomically focused all delivered with a fun, light-hearted, upbeat energy! I personally enjoy challenge and invite it into the room in the way that I structure sequences, exercises, and various combinations in class.
My Pole’ography class is focused on cultivating a series of skillsets that help build up my students’ abilities as performers, as dance technicians, as creative thinkers, and as artists. As a community we work through a series of improvisational exercises and choreographic patterns that are meant to be challenging both for the body and in the mind. I believe when we openly invite challenge into our lives, we give ourselves the opportunity to stretch both our brains and our hearts, transcend, and transform. My students leave class not only with a routine to a piece of music, but also an arsenal of valuable strategies they can use in all circumstances, whether it’s in a leveled pole class, a performance, or in their own choreographic processes when building material.
If you had to pick a quote or motto to define your attitude, what would it be?
“I believe in the magic of movement and the people who conjure it”
Switching gears a bit to Halloween, how did you get involved in our annual Halloween shows?
When I was a work-study at Body & Pole was observing a B&P management operations meeting focused on creating an immersive experience for the 2018 Halloween party and wanted to get a variety of choreographers, instructors, and artists in our industry involved. Shortly after that meeting I sent an email to management expressing interest in choreographing for the upcoming Halloween show and they were here for it! It also aligned with my interest in producing and being on the work-study production track by choreographing for a larger production. The rest is history
What was your role in last year’s “Tell Tale Trick” Halloween Show?
In last years show I was one of three choreographers for the immersive show. For this show the audience went through the studio, from one space to the next, and followed a story line that loosely paralleled Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Tell Tale Heart.” My piece was inspired the last section of the poem, when the narrator hides the old man’s body underneath the floor boards, but starts to hear his heart beat to the point where the sound and the rhythms are overpowering. I collaborated with Roland Brown to create a false ceiling in the basement studio and with Brenna Bradbury to help me create very small hammocks above this false ceiling. In my piece I worked with the FIERCE pole dancers Samantha Star, Regina Armand, and Yana Edinovich. For the performance, the audience surrounded the basement studio space like a terrarium and the dancers descended out of the fake ceiling into the space and S L A Y E D.
What are you most excited for in this year’s “Exquisite Corpse” Halloween Show?
I am so excited to work with a large team of artists! I love collaborating and working with others. I feel the true magic happens when you get multiple people in a process, in a room, or on a stage. I am collaborating with Kyle McBeth for set design and am working with some fiercely talented performers that I am very excited to dive into this process with all of them.