There was an unusual sight that day in November 2019 inside The Ailey School’s fifth-floor dance studio. Beyond a group of rehearsing students, toward the back of the room, a pale-skinned, red-haired woman sat on a chair flapping her arms.
Edie Dunn was dancing while sitting because of a torn ligament in her right ankle, an injury picked up just a day earlier, during the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade — which, despite the pain, she finished.
Dunn’s ankle injury piled onto a list of wounds. She bears the psychic scars of a two-year battle with anorexia, a toxic fight to be better than her classmates, and from her move to New York City alone from London when she was only 16. The main lesson she learned from these experiences was not to focus solely on her success.
“If I carried on to be the best, I would’ve eventually tired myself out,” says Dunn, now 21. “I definitely want people to feel something too. I love when people connect. I always want to bring a light to the stage. I want people to go, ‘Oh, my gosh, who is that?’”
During her five years in the U.S., Dunn has grasped different dance techniques, but being familiar with them is just a shadow of her top asset. “When I watch dance I think of the feelings I get,” says Bianca Melidor, a former student at Manhattan’s Ailey School. “That’s what’s most important, and I feel like Edie does an amazing job at that. It’s not about how hard your legs go, it’s about ‘Can you tell the story?’ And Edie can.”
Raised in Crouch End, a neighborhood in London, Dunn started dancing at 14 after suffering an ankle injury during a netball game, a sport similar to basketball. She was fascinated with how much fun her schoolmates at the Sylvia Young Theatre School were having while dancing. So, during her time away from netball, Dunn decided to try dancing.
Initially, it didn’t seem like the best move, judging from what Dunn says about her first rehearsal. She recalls that she was a step behind the other dancers — her legs couldn’t go up as high, she couldn’t perform the turns and other moves. It looked messy, she says, and her second day of dancing wasn’t any better. “But I enjoyed it,” she says. “I loved being the worst so I could just become the best.”
Dunn took extra classes and practiced outside school. About a year into it, she found her rhythm and quickly transitioned to dance captain. After proving herself in a couple of class performances, Dunn was asked to lead a group for an American musical, “Mack and Mabel,” on stage.
Despite overthinking potentially bad scenarios the night before, Dunn performed well on stage. It felt good to not only be talented at something she worked hard for but to be one of the best, she says. Her parents used to tell her, “If you’re not the best at doing it, don’t do it.”
But the most satisfying part to Dunn about being on stage was that nothing else existed but her having fun. “When I perform I kind of just black out,” she says. “I can’t remember what happens, but it feels so good. It helps me escape from everything going on in the world. I can just listen to the music, zone into it and out of the world and just dance like no one else. From that point, I told myself this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Dunn was accepted at The Ailey School in 2016 after submitting a video, becoming the youngest student ever admitted, at 16. Until then, the school had only accepted students between 17 and 25. It was all moving too fast, but she felt she couldn’t let go of the opportunity.
Stepping inside The Ailey School was like an American dream come true, though now she was one of the worst dancers all over again. But despite being the youngest student, Dunn, who dancemates describe as a class clown, wasn’t afraid to be the most vocal in class, or to be the first to dance. And she made it a habit to ask her classmates for help. “At 16, people are extremely malleable,” says Hollie Wright, a dance teacher at the school. “She was just soaking everything up like a sponge.”
However, Dunn wasn’t chosen to be in the first performance she auditioned for. Although she had been accepted at the school, she still had to audition to be in performances. She says she cried after not making the cut, but realized that she hadn’t picked up the contemporary fusion style yet. In England, she had danced jazz and musical theatre.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, Dunn was trapped in the New York lifestyle as a 16-year-old hanging out with 25-year-olds. “I definitely got into the wrong crowd and had a lot of stuff I had to work on, tried some stuff a bit early,” she says. “The dancing world is pretty toxic.” Dunn was going clubbing at 16, among other activities.
After couch-hopping and financial turmoil, Dunn learned how to be shrewd in New York. She also grew more comfortable dancing New York’s contemporary style after hours of practice and asking schoolmates for help.
She was successful after her second audition. That spotlight, though, came with trouble. For instance, The Ailey School’s students are predominantly Black, and another Caucasian student told Dunn that she, not Dunn, was going to be the school’s most acclaimed Caucasian dancer. Dunn started to become overly competitive again.
She also gained weight in New York. As a dancer in the spotlight, she knew she had to look in shape in her costumes, so in 2017 she started skipping meals. She danced and went to the gym on an empty stomach, to the point that she weighed under 100 pounds. Dunn’s eating disorder lasted two years and almost cost her the spot at The Ailey School when her teachers discovered her issue. “I had to know my talent without my body,” says Dunn, about overcoming anorexia. “I had to focus on what I do have, rather than what was bad about my body. I look how I am for a reason.”
As Dunn matured in New York, she says, it also clicked to her that dancing wasn’t a tool to prove to the world that she’s the best, but rather to send a message to her audience. “Every artist’s goal is to make any dance a moment for them, but Edie has a special way of making dancing for her but also doing it for others,” says Lindsey Treadwell, a Dallas Black Dance Theatre: Encore! dancer. “What Edie has not many people have, the power to make dancing generous and selfish.”
After graduating from The Ailey School, Dunn had joined DBDT: Encore! as a performer and dance teacher. She says one of her most memorable performances with them is “Shedding Skin,” choreographed to tell the story of a girl who dances while having cancer.
The performance starts with the dancers seated in chairs and slowly standing up. Then, as in all her work, Dunn blacks out. ❖