Lecturer, artist Aleta Hayes expresses what matters to her—in music and motion

Anne Marie Sconberg Aleta Hayes

Aleta Hayes talked, sang and danced on April 9 for the “What Matters to Me and Why” speaker series.

When Aleta Hayes was young, she dreamed of being able to speak all the languages in the world. That way, she could communicate with anyone.

"I kind of gave up on that dream," Hayes admitted with a laugh, speaking before a crowd last week at the CIRCLE (Center for Inter-Religious Community, Learning and Experiences) in Old Union. It wouldn't be much of a leap to say that Hayes took the realization in stride—given that she went on to become a contemporary dancer, choreographer and performer.

Hayes, also a lecturer at Stanford, was the featured guest April 9 at the popular speaker series "What Matters to Me and Why," sponsored by the Office for Religious Life. Naturally, words and gestures flowed back and forth during her talk.

Dance, Hayes said, "is a language that can go anywhere."

To illustrate the point, Hayes recalled a time when she was traveling in India a few years ago on a dance tour. Walking along the streets of a small town, Hayes crossed paths with a little schoolgirl and—spontaneously—started to dance with her. They danced for several minutes. "There was no language. She did stuff, I did stuff, we turned," Hayes said, gesturing the moves. Then a military officer approached, and the two separated silently. "We just went like this," Hayes said with a whirl. "We didn't even look at each other; we didn't even say goodbye."

Incorporating music and movement, Hayes pulsed with energy and originality during the event. Rather than beginning her talk with speech, she sang. And instead of standing behind the podium, she moved freely in front of it, emphasizing her points with motion and grace.

Hayes said she has always loved dancing. At a young age, she became the first African American student at the Fresno Ballet School. Her instructors encouraged her to pursue her passion, and yet Hayes entered Stanford as a pre-med student—determined to follow in her father's footsteps and become a doctor.

Four years later, she graduated with honors in drama, dance and the visual arts. After Stanford, Hayes earned a master's degree in fine arts from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She lived and worked in New York City for 15 years, and for eight of them, also taught dance and African American studies at Princeton.

Hayes said living in the city greatly influenced her. When she wasn't producing art herself, she was consuming it. She recalled being awestruck by the people she encountered, and how well versed and engaged they were in artistic endeavors. Hayes viewed her exposure to all of this as an integral part of her development. She remembered overhearing old women at the opera discussing even minor details. "I had never met people like that," Hayes said, "people who were not artists who knew everything about an artist."

She also met dancers who blew her away, who were so good they could "become other people's bodies." She started to realize that her way of seeing the world—what she later came to call the "choreographic mind"—went "beyond steps." Walking down the streets of New York on the first day of spring, she began to notice rhythm and movement all around her. In a way, everyone was dancing. "I once did a duet with a guy on a skateboard," she laughed, describing the sound of him flying past her.

For Hayes, dance is the underlying "central metaphor" in her life. "Even when I'm singing, even when I'm acting, even when I'm teaching, it comes to me through dance," she said.

Dance also informs Hayes's understanding of beauty, something she learned as a child at ballet camp. During a class, her instructor called to one of the girls in back. "He gestured through this sea of girls that this girl must come up." Hayes was perplexed at first. "She didn't have this beautiful face or necessarily this beautiful body," Hayes remembered. "But when she danced, she was the most exquisite."

It was an epiphany for her. After that, Hayes said she no longer felt constrained by the expectations imposed by the archetypal ballerina. It wasn't about her body or her face—it was about her movement. "I realized that dance can make you transcend that. That you could have a beauty that was from your doing," she recalled.

Another concept Hayes learned from dance was the control humans have over their bodies and, by extension, their lives. Much like athletes work to build their bodies to suit their sport, Hayes said, "Every [dance] technique, you create a body that can answer that technique." She listed various genres of dance that required different physical strengths and noted how dancers sculpt their bodies to fit that type of dance. "If you realize you can create your body, in a way you can create your way in life. You have more control over it than you think."

Hayes said her primary motivation with dance is to move others, "to listen to the energy in the room and to govern myself accordingly."

"What I've learned about performing is that it's actually not about me!" she laughed. "The only chance you have [to move people] is if it's never about you."

Hayes acknowledged the teachers who have moved and shaped her. Remembering a special mentor who died the previous year, Hayes teared up. "Her generosity and beauty … I want to get there. That level of generosity. That's my goal."

True to her philosophy, Hayes concluded by asking audience members to share in a conversation about what matters to them. "This is not just about watching me talk," she said. "I want to build community here."

Arielle Lasky is an intern at the Stanford News Service.