Susan Jordan’s childhood dilemma of pursuing either the arts or religion is sadly all too common. But what she ultimately made of her life is anything but.
Susan, now 70, could be forgiven for speaking with regret about a story that hints of pain, and twists and turns that weren’t always to her benefit. But she doesn’t. In spite of obstacles, whether the post-war years, or a father who expected her to be the boy of the family, or even dyslexia that remained undiagnosed for most of her adult life, Susan has followed her passion for dance. More than that, she talks about how those obstacles have moulded her professional and artistic career for the better.
‘I started dancing because my big sister was six and a half years older than me and wanted to dance, so I started dancing too. She didn’t have the body for it and I did, but she became a really good dance teacher, a ballet teacher, and she looked after my career—which I’m forever grateful for.’
Because dyslexia wasn’t known in those days, Susan was put in the ‘dumb kids’ class. It had the unintended effect of heightening her love of dance, and the realisation she was naturally gifted. Even so, not everyone was so appreciative of her talent.
‘I failed school, so this is a story of success around the back door. I left school, wouldn’t go back, and the only thing I was good at was ballet—well, that’s what I thought was the only thing I was good at.
‘My father had made me give up all my classes except one a week because he thought it was distracting. In a way I was quite glad I failed School Cert because I proved to him it was the ballet that was holding me up. But he had taken away the one good thing I thought I had achieved in.’
Susan was sent to business school to learn ‘typing and shorthand’, which she says is just about the worst thing a dyslexic can try to learn. But since the age of 10 she’d been on the stage as an extra in several performances, learning her stage craft with professionals, and at 17 found herself in the NZ Ballet Company.
Her sights were set even higher though—she made what she now says was a bad call, and left the company with the intention of studying ballet in England. She also had an audition set up with the Australian Ballet Company, but there were other tensions at play.
‘At that stage I was with a Christian Brethren assembly. I got the message very strongly from them that I couldn’t continue as a professional dancer and remain a Christian—that the two were in conflict. I’d been converted at 13—it was a real conversion from nothing. But there were these two conflicts within me.’
Her wrestle was around the idea of sacrifice—that a Christian was someone who had sacrificed something. The only thing she had to sacrifice was her ballet. So she gave it up and pursued theological studies, with the aim of being a missionary in Japan.
Things didn’t work out that way though. Dance was waiting in the wings, and she was all too willing to let it back in, as both a teacher and a choreographer. Her long career involved teaching at several tertiary institutions, forming dance companies, and arts management, as well as doing a masters in choreography at a university in Washington DC. Her masters concert was hosted at the NZ embassy there.
One chance visit with friends who had a dyslexic son was a moment of revelation for Susan. Reading their literature on the condition, Susan realised she had been dyslexic all those years, and that she hadn’t been ‘dumb’ at all. It made sense of something else too—her peculiar choreographic abilities.
‘The dyslexia is a gift,’ she says now. ‘I’m no longer ashamed of it. This is no spiritual thing, but I see visions from above. I see patterns. So, when I’m choreographing, I often see it as if I am standing above. It’s just that my brain is differently wired.’
Susan is almost 71, and says that she can’t keep working at her current pace forever. It’s hard to believe though. She is heavily involved in ‘creative ageing’, initiatives that promote creativity among seniors. Susan’s forte is, of course, dance, and she runs her Seniors DANCE classes weekly at St Luke’s Church in Mt Albert, and a friend, Sue MacRae, holds classes in Remuera and New Lynn.
Creative ageing is a huge area of opportunity for dancers and all artists, she says, to be employed working with seniors, whether healthy or disabled. She’s hoping that other dancers join her so that she can pass on the mantle to younger artists.
‘We don’t tell older people to aspire,’ Susan says. ‘That’s something we tend to tell the younger people. But there’s a whole world out there of seniors, and we need to tell them as well—aspire to be.’