CityDance Ensemble's Paul Emerson went from politics to performance

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010

It's the standard Washington story: Hill staffer leverages his Rolodex and federal know-how into a fabulous new job in the private sector.

Paul Emerson's story, however, has a twist. Some leaps and turns, too.

Emerson, former legislative director to the late Rep. Thomas M. Foglietta (D-Pa.), liaison to the House Armed Services Committee, veteran of two dozen political campaigns and a published author on defense and foreign policy, is lying belly-down in a dance studio at Strathmore. Inches from his nose, slamming themselves to the ground and staggering up again, are the members of the dance company he directs, CityDance Ensemble -- one of the area's most interesting and successful troupes, as well as an active U.S. cultural ambassador abroad. (That's what happens when you're run by someone who knows his way around the State Department.)

They're rehearsing for this weekend's Lansburgh Theatre performances of a singularly violent, apocalyptic piece called "Last Look," by the revered choreographer Paul Taylor.

With the practiced discretion of a man who has whispered counsel into the ears of the powerful on the House floor, Emerson is conferring on the dance floor with his rehearsal director, Christopher K. Morgan, who is also one of the cast members and happens to be lying prone, awaiting his cue to start thrashing again.

The scene is the culmination of years of dreams for Emerson, 50, who took his first dance class when he was 26, on a girlfriend's dare. He stumbled into a studio at Joy of Motion Dance Center in Dupont Circle wearing pinstripe pants and a button-down shirt.

"I barely knew enough to take my jacket off," says Emerson, slightly built and with an affable air that doesn't quite hide a measured but firm intensity. "Their logo is 'anyone can dance,' and I almost disproved them." But what started as a whim became his passion.

"When you dance," says the native New Yorker, "you access things in yourself that you didn't even know you had, a level of richness and honesty and health and vigor."

A new path

It also led to a new career. Emerson left the Hill in the late 1980s, went to graduate school in security policy studies -- can you get any wonkier? -- while dancing nights and weekends. In 1996, he joined a troupe newly launched by an ex-girlfriend, Tara Pierson Dunning. Emerson signed on as executive director -- the budget was a hundred bucks -- and a few years later, when Dunning left, he found himself running the whole thing.

CityDance, now in its 15th year, has but eight salaried dancers. But as one of Strathmore's "resident partners," along with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a few other organizations, CityDance has what any troupe triple its size would covet: dedicated rehearsal space plus three large, sunlit studios in which to teach hundreds of tuition-paying kids. That means a steady stream of revenue, which means CityDance can afford to do what a lot of other dance companies can't.

For starters: international tours, which feel quite glamorous to a troupe that, as far as domestic gigs go, has rarely ventured farther south than E Street. In a week, CityDance heads to Bahrain; in April, Jerusalem and Ramallah.

"The Palestinian-Israeli question looms largest in almost any foreign policy question in America," says Emerson, slipping seamlessly into pencil-pusher mode, "and to be going to both those places is amazing."

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