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Local Arts Index: Heather Cornell

LAI_Heather Cornell_portraitFor over a century, our region has been home to extraordinary artists. Local Arts Index highlights the work of individuals who continue our community’s rich creative legacy.

Meet dancer Heather Cornell.

How Did You Become an Artist?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing music or dancing. I remember when I was 4 my mom casually asking me if I wanted to take dance class and it all unfolded from there. But becoming an artist is a life long path that I keep tripping down. I was so lucky to have incredible mentors to help me keep my path focused and impulsive, Charles “Cookie” Cook, James “Buster” Brown, Eddie Brown, the lady of sand, Harriet Browne, Chuck Green, all masters of the vaudeville stage, and, of course, the definitive bassist, Ray Brown.

I guess, for me, the day that I truly became an artist is the day that the ideas started coming. I truly believe that every idea is new if it comes from that real place inside your heart. As long as the ideas continue to come and my heart continues to beat, I’m good to go.

What Kind of Art Do You Make?

LAI-Heather Cornell._TappingThese days it’s labeled as multi-discipline. One of my solo shows was called “Finding Synesthesia.” I live in a polyrhythmic world that doesn’t differentiate between music and dance. For the first 15 years of my career, when I had Manhattan Tap, my exploration was as a choreographer. But even then, I was carefully studying what form and structure did or didn’t exist in different types of music. I started with jazz and was making dances that struck a balance between choreography and improvisation.

In the last 15 years I cut the company loose to see what would happen if I focused on my own voice as a performer as the basis of my work. So now I put together different groups of collaborators to make music that is original and comes from a very real meeting of creative spirit. As a performer, I’ve become an improvisor and so I’m constantly searching for new ways to challenge myself in creating music that is visual, dance that is aural and all of it completely spontaneous.

What’s Your Muse?

Cornell and de la Paz Win New Music USA Grant

In 2012, Heather Cornell and Anna de la Paz founded Walk to the Beat, a performing arts organization that is committed to bringing live, world percussive music and dance to the community.

Last week, Walk to the Beat was awarded a grant from the New Music USA foundation. From an applicant pool of 1300, only 62 projects were funded.

Visit their “Walk to the Beat” Facebook group to learn more about workshops, performances and their summer music and dance festival scheduled for July 18th.

Music, groove, collaboration, performing, kindred spirits, crazy ideas, mentoring.  When I perform, I go to an intangibly magical place. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a place where my brain is no longer in control, my spirit and emotions take over and instinct and impulse thrive. Mentoring…the more I teach the better I become as a performer and creator. Sometimes, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing until I start to explain it to a group of students.

What’s Next?

Wow, what a question. I have Walk to the Beat with Anna de la Paz. This year will be our third annual music and dance festival in Nyack on July 18, 2015.  We’re also offering a day of percussive master classes on April 11th at the American Legion Hall with some of the best artists this county has to offer.  We have the national commission from New Music USA to collaborate on a piece for our festival with Thanos Daskalopoulos, body percussionist from Athens, Greece.  

And we play at Casa del Sol in Nyack the first friday of every month with different musicians each time. This keeps me fresh and creating. Oh, and we’re working on details for a summer arts camp in Nyack focusing on percussive dance.

But, what’s next? I continue to tour internationally, mentoring and performing. I’ll be in Bogota, Columbia in the spring mentoring a choreographer there in a project with the symphony. I have about 5 shows in my head wanting to get out, but that will take some major fundraising. And I have a great concept for a documentary series filming with a different long time collaborator for each installment. They’ll be a mix of history, a discussion about being a physical musician and a set of concepts to train with. Hmm….more fundraising.

And then the ultimate dream is to open a multi-cultural world music and dance space in Nyack. I’m working on it. It’s one of my favorite ideas. A place where the cultures feed and enrich each other and we get some real groove going in celebration of who we all are.

To learn more visit and

Photo credit: John Pastore

See also:

Local Arts Index: Anna de la Paz


Local Arts Index is sponsored by Maria Luisa, 77 South Broadway and ML Gifts & Accessories, 75 South Broadway, Nyack, NY

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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