“Everything Is Raw Material…But Without Proper Preparation, I Cannot See It”

Portrait of Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp is a dancer, director, and choreographer who is famous for her innovative and often humorous work. She has choreographed more than one hundred thirty-five dances, five Hollywood movies, directed and choreographed three Broadway shows, received a Tony Award, two Emmy Awards, nineteen honorary doctorates, the National Medal of the Arts, and many grants including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “Genius Grant”). She’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

I’m a huge fan of her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. It’s a brilliant, thought-provoking look at cultivating creativity. Of course I love anything related to habits!

One idea that I think about often:

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.

The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet.

It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work.

Now she has a new book called Keep it Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life. From insights to actions, Tharp shares her secrets for harnessing vitality and finding purpose while facing aging. The book is a guidebook for expanding our possibilities over the course of a lifetime.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Twyla about happiness, habits, and creativity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Twyla: Regularity of practice is a good friend.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

The reality is that I didn’t think about happiness then, just as I don’t think about happiness now. When I am doing what I think is important, I am content.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

The name of my trade is making healthy habits. As a dancer and choreographer, that’s always the goal. And it means you’ve touched on something that’s comprehensible to the performer.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Life. Nothing goes as planned. The distractions, misfortunes, and upsets all have to be factored and weighed in.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

No. The way I conduct my life is a progression from point A to point B. And if there’s a digression between A and B, I will shift B over and call it C so that everything connects. I don’t consider anything to be irrelevant.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” – Twyla Tharp

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

Book cover of Keep it moving by Twyla Tharp



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