Season 1
35 Minutes

Ep.4 | Janet Gerson | How Do You Run With Your Many Seemingly Divergent Passions?

Janet Gerson, Ed.D., 72, boldly explores her creative and intellectual passions through her work. After over two decades as a dancer, performance maker and community activist via her own dance company, Janet returned to Columbia University for a Doctorate in Education. She was the Co-Director of the Peace Education Center at Teachers College, Columbia University and currently serves as Education Director for the International Institute on Peace Education. Now, in her early 70s, Janet is emerging as an utterly exquisite painter.

Janet Gerson, Ed.D., 72, boldly explores her creative and intellectual passions through her work. After over two decades as a dancer, performance maker and community activist via her own dance company, Janet returned to Columbia University for a Doctorate in Education. She was the Co-Director of the Peace Education Center at Teachers College, Columbia University and currently serves as Education Director for the International Institute on Peace Education. Now, in her early 70s, Janet is emerging as an utterly exquisite painter.

How do you create a life where you run with all of your seemingly divergent passions? What does it take to notice our hidden inner seeds and nurture them into visibility and maturity?


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Janet Gerson  00:00

Well, one thing was we’re supposed to be skinny. So we really did need if we went out, we’d have like a bowl of soup and glass of water and save money like that. We used to have pasta. And because in York there’s so many Italians, you could pick a different shape pasta for every Sunday night, you could go like months like that.

Achim Nowak  00:24

Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the my fourth act podcast. If life is a five act play, how will you spend your four that I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected for that, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you’re listening on. Let’s get started. Hello, I am so happy to welcome Janet Gerson to the My fortec podcast. I think of Janet as a renaissance woman. She’s had a prolific career as a dancer, choreographer performance maker. Janet holds a doctorate in education from teachers college at Columbia Columbia University. She also was the core director of the Peace Education Center there for a while. She currently serves as the Education Director for the International Institute on peace education. And she’s also becoming a prolific painter. I invited Janet because I love all of these transitions, and evolutions in our personal story. So welcome Janet Gerson.

Janet Gerson  01:50

Thank you. It’s so nice to be here and to talk to you. I’m delighted.

Achim Nowak  01:57

This is gonna feel a little bit like this is your life Janet Gerson. So I hope you’re ready for that. Especially when we’re in our fourth act. I’m always curious about when you were a child or a teenager. What were the dreams you had for yourself? JANET? Like, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?

Janet Gerson  02:17

Well, I totally love dancing. I was completely impassioned and in love with dancing. When I was six years old are a woman in the neighborhood gave the little kids ballet lessons in her neighborhood and course feeling very grand. I tripped and fell and got a big swollen lift and learned the word you bangy.

Achim Nowak  02:42

And what was that an indication you should become a professional dancer? Is that how you took that?

Janet Gerson  02:46

Well, no, I thought I could transcend that. I was very ashamed. Because everyone already when I was six, I thought of me as the ballet, the future la dancer. When my father went over to this neighbor and said, Tell me when I was six. Tell me Is there any money in dancing? So Well, we could guess that my father and I were somewhat at cross purposes with this. But we live near ravinia, which is where the Chicago Symphony played in the summer. Some of the greatest moments, were seeing the New York City Ballet that came there in the summer. Then I saw Merce Cunningham. And between those two, I was completely in love. But for me, the main thing that happened was that my mother decided to send me to this very special arts camp Interlochen national music camp in Michigan. And so as a little 11 year old, I didn’t know that I would be for eight weeks having for about four dance classes a day, plus a concert at night, plus swimming lessons. And all the rest of the time was sleeping. But I loved it. I loved it. And so I learned to work really hard, and dance. And, you know, I learned so much about music. And I felt like I found my people.

Achim Nowak  04:17

And what strikes me about your story, because I don’t think it’s true for everybody. You said you found your people. And you decided to follow your people and pursue a career in dance. And you did that for over 20, almost 30 years. And I know as a former theatre maker, that a professional career in dance or theater can be all consuming. It becomes our identity. It runs our lives. And because you do different things now, when you think back, what are some moments that stand out where you go, this is why I was doing it or some moments where you maybe you went This is why I need to get the heck out of this.

Janet Gerson  05:03

I was somewhat bored growing up because I was, it was like a nice neighborhood. And I wasn’t challenged enough. So I really loved the hard work. And I’d say, you know, in any given day, at least 12 things were going wrong. When I had a dance company, you know, being a theater director, you never know what can go wrong. There’s so many challenges the people, one time I was performing with someone, we had the dress rehearsal, some people in my family were coming. And then there was a big rainstorm. And the ceiling of the church in Washington Square fell down and the woman could have been bankrupt. But fortunately, the whole community came together. And we ended up performing at the palm room in some hotel. So I think one of the things I loved about it was working with people. No, the dance only exists because of all the people who were there. So if somebody gets sick, the dance could fall apart. I remember this one time, this dancer was lying on the floor, she was completely sick to her stomach. And yet she got up, and she danced like crazy and, and I thought, Oh, yeah, we all bring our best selves to these moments of performance. We try to rise above whatever shenanigans are going on our life or whatever’s, you know, and we bring so much to it. We work so hard, and we, and we love we make something really transcendent.

Achim Nowak  06:42

As I just listened to you, I was wondering, Is this your perception of Janet looking back? Or did you have this consciousness while you were doing it at the time.

Janet Gerson  06:54

So there were always so many challenges. I remember this moment at the Cunningham studio, I was the choreographer and the producer and I had a solo or two, I was backstage, and I thought, Oh, my God, it’s eight o’clock. And the people running the house, are all working for this moment, the people in the audience are all bringing their best selves, here. And they all get quiet at the same time. There’s composers and musicians, and tech people, and you know, people who think in all different ways, and they’re the dancers, and my family. And there’s me and I’m just back here warming up. And I said, all this emotion. And now everyone is going to pull forward and make this evening splendid.

Achim Nowak  07:47

you’re describing a little bit of what I call the magic of performance, making the this consciousness of life being at this highly collaborative enterprise, right. And when you when you make performance, like you do in dance, you become very acutely aware of it. I’ve also heard as I’m listening to you, that sort of this sexy and sweet part. But there’s all the other stuff around the funding the money, the business part of dance, how did you bring reconcile both of those sides?

Janet Gerson  08:26

First of all, I basically gave up money I taught, you know, I decided early on to teach to make money. And that was, I think, when I look back, I see that everyone in my high school is basically tracked and sorted as this low professional level to be teachers, you know, and so, I was going to teach and so I did that and I ran all around, you know, I commuted to the Hartford ballet and taught I was full time job in two or two and a half days. I choreograph taught, taught choreography. I worked so hard. That was crazy. One time my back went out, and I still went to go teach and then I was, you know, I couldn’t lift my arms. I was teaching, but I couldn’t lift my arms. Sorry, I was moving my wrist to do the porter bra on. And at the end, I couldn’t put my shoes on and my students came over to me. They put on my shoes and he said, Jen, you have to stop. Oh, he’s to go to the doctor. Go home, go to the doctor. Okay, so with money, I don’t know. I just I don’t know how I lived. One. One thing was we’re supposed to be skinny. So we really did need if we went out, we’d have like a bowl of soup and a glass of water and save money like that. Or I remember thinking we used to have pasta. And because in New York, there’s so many Italians You could pick a different shape pasta for every Sunday night, you could go like months like that.

Achim Nowak  10:06

I know that folks like you and me was in the performing arts as a professional for a while. It’s a very seductive life. And that tends to take over everything in were in this creative bubble and cocoon was similar minded people.

Janet Gerson  10:26


Achim Nowak  10:28

And then you decided to move into what’s getting a doctorate in education, your work in peace education. Now, to me, that sounds like an incredible shift. And perhaps it wasn’t a shift. But in the spirit of this conversation of fourth acts, and new acts and moving from one world into a completely other, how did that emerge for you?

Janet Gerson  10:57

My husband was sick, something was wrong with him, he had this back pain. And it went on for three years. And finally we I was sitting in the hospital with him. Getting this for the first time a contrast, dye MRI, I was sitting there was watching all these medical students, and they look so fresh. And they look so alive and like they were so eager and learning things. And I was like, oh, maybe I’ll become a midwife. And my husband looked at me and said, Yes, that’s a really good idea. It’s like, what are you crazy? I can’t do that. I have to come home at night. You know, I can’t do that. What are you thinking? He said, No, dear, you’re having a midwife crisis.

Achim Nowak  11:47

How old? Were you at the time?

Janet Gerson  11:50

About 45 or something?

Achim Nowak  11:53

Where does that fire still live in you?

Janet Gerson  11:57

Well, well, let me say that the creativity, that in the process of making things, these concerts, we had terrible fights. I just thought it was kind of a waste because it took away from the beauty of making these dances and everything. I’m not answering your question yet.

Achim Nowak  12:20

But I’m, it’s okay. I am making a leap from terrible fights to peacemaking. So this is where my mind is going.

Janet Gerson  12:27

Exactly. We lost the funding. That was the thought I was trying not to follow. So my friend said, Janet, you need to get out of here. It’s just a terrible time your husband is sick, go to China. Did you expect that? Go to China as like, China? Yeah, you can get money for being a community activist. No, I’m not an activist. I’m a dancer. So I said, Okay, I go to China. What is this thing in China? It was the UN NGO, fourth women’s forum in Beijing and y row. And I got a scholarship. I got money funding to go I was there for three weeks. And there were 30,000 women. Wow, there were 50 buildings. There were 30 tents. And they were from all over the world. And they were all talking about peace. And I went I always love peace, but I just thought it was my inner world. Anything real? But look, these buildings are real. These people are real. And and oh my god, the stories are you would have loved it. You say, Okay, this morning, I’m going here, here and here. But you never get there because he met the most interesting people on the way. And you ended up sharing stories about oppressions. And you know, and then also, I’m Jewish I had at that time very long hair. People said Don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish. So I was like, so the all these Arab women were coming up to me and going see, see look at she’s not wearing a veil. It was like, Yeah, right. We’re basically sisters.

Achim Nowak  14:24

What I’m hearing is you kind of sort of stumbled into peace work, but you realize it had been in you all along. Is that a good way to characterize it?

Janet Gerson  14:33

Yes, absolutely. And I was taking my daughter to college. And I said, I’ll quit dancing, if I can get a PhD from Harvard, which seemed totally absurd. completely absurd. But that dream, you know that? Let’s sponeck

Achim Nowak  14:55

here’s a word from our sponsor. That’s me. I invited You too, check out my fourth act calm. There’s a whole other world of fourth act conversations going on beyond this podcast, my fourth Please take a look. I love that statement. Like I’m gonna get a PhD from Harvard. And I always think, because we all have those moments. And the hard thing to know is that is that is that actually My dream is that mommy and daddy’s dream for me, which they always wanted to how do we trust that dreamer? How did did you trust that voice?

Janet Gerson  15:39

You know what it was, I was taking my daughter around, and my daughter was the first woman in four generations to be raised with her talents, her real talents developed. so that she could be whatever she could best be said, Gee, I could do that for myself, too. So it was more like if I can send her to college, I can send me to college too. So it was often like that I would do things for other people first, and then see that I could do it. I couldn’t go to Harvard, I live at home, I have family. So I said, well, what’s next what Colombia is pretty close, I’ll try that. Well, maybe I’ll become a physical therapist, not too much science. And then somebody said, Janet, you’re so good at facilitation and conflict resolution, they have a program at Teachers College. So I went there. And then people recognized me, they said, you should meet this woman, Betty Reardon, you’ll love her and she’ll love you. And it was like that we loved each other. And because I was so accomplished already. Yes, people wanted me to work with them. And so Betty snapped me up. And I snapped her up, she made me the acting director of the Peace Education Center. And we continue, we continue to work together.

Achim Nowak  17:06

Describe to our listeners, if you will, the work you’re currently doing in peace education. But what I’m also really interested in is there’s a work we do but why do you do it? And what kind of satisfaction does Janet get out of doing the work? Because I have a hunch that like the dance work, there is the inner satisfaction, surrounded by some struggles and challenges, and we’re always reconciling those two. So what do you do now? And what what what is it inside of you that drives you that that satisfy that satisfies that in you,

Janet Gerson  17:46

I tell people looking at peace is like court being into dance together. It’s like choreography. In dancing, you see, everyone, everyone is important, and everyone brings their best self together. And that’s what peace requires. And we are right here in this room together to practice that. And each one of you is important. And I see you all, and I want to bring your talents forward and my talents. And I know, you know, some people, we talk about cooperation, but I talk about collaboration and not in a bad sense, like in the form of wars or, but the idea that when we work together we make something that neither of us could, or none of us could have made by ourselves

Achim Nowak  18:39

Is that the satisfaction that you can help people collaborate or normally might not?

Janet Gerson  18:48

Well, that’s one level. That’s one level, that’s something that I do that is particularly special. That’s they say oh, Janet’s going to weave her magic now. So example we have an International Institute on peace education. It has a Secretariat and we make a collaboration with another sponsorship. So the last time it was in Cyprus in the divided city of Nicosia, and next time it will be in Mexico if we Mexico City if we ever get over COVID we collaborate so we develop the theme together of the problematic what are the themes that like in in Cyprus, it’s easy to describe the divided city, the divided Island between Turkish and Greek. That was the topic. So the 60 people come everyone does something, a workshop or a panel describing their work, you know, that tells about what they do from different places in the world. And I we That together.

Achim Nowak  20:01

I totally understand what you’re doing. But I’m curious, so why is that satisfying to you?

Janet Gerson  20:08

Like, I love making things, but I love making things with people. I mean, it’s okay to make a cake or a paint. I like making paintings too. But I think, like weaving something rich with other people, oh, I just love it. And it’s but it’s rare, right? Like you when you get a theatre company together. It’s a special dynamic, you know, but for, it’s always falling apart.

Achim Nowak  20:37

Here’s what I love. As I’m listening to you. I hear the joy of making things together with people, which began in dance, it’s in the peace context. Now. It’s Janet, weaving her magic with a dirt a different space. And I happen to know that just recently, I believe you become pretty serious about painting. You have very generously shared some of your paintings in social media and, and your work is glorious. You’re a very good painter.

Janet Gerson  21:12

Thank you.

Achim Nowak  21:13

What I’m thinking, painting that’s a solitary activity. That’s not about weaving people together. It’s, it’s a different expression of you. Am I reading that correctly?

Janet Gerson  21:26

You’re getting at something that we didn’t talk about all this time. When I was a kid, my neighbor, she said, Oh, I can still see you. You were such a dreamy kid sitting on the doors to, you know, looking out at the club. And I said, Oh, yeah, I was so dreamy. Now I’ve turned it into a profession, and choreography, and making dances and making paintings and making peace. They all have that. You know, that dream, that vision in them, right? But what I didn’t talk about before was my need for solitude also. So I when I went back to school, I also, much to my surprise, since I have a BFA in dance. I that’s why it was such a joke. I’ll go to Harvard, right? So I went back to graduate school, and I did really well. And I ended up deciding to get a doctorate. And it was a very hard, grueling process with so much solitude so much. I’m so grateful to have developed this intellectual part of myself, because I’m a girl because I was a girl, still sort of an inside, I wasn’t really allowed to be smart, and I wasn’t recognized as smart. My father was the smart one, the men were the smart ones. Internally, like if you think what is it like to imagine the dance, and imagine performance and how much a choreographer does before even getting in the place with other people, you spend a lot of time in solitude, and you really develop a lot of mental capacities, which I didn’t realize that when I was doing my doctorate, I would, there would be times where you just hit the wall and you can’t go any farther. But you’re very wound up, you’ve had your coffee and chocolate, you can just you know, so I would paint and painting spin something. So I want to say that the seeds of all the things I’ve done, you could look back into my childhood. And, you know, we always drew and painted. My mother was very artistic, but also had to be a wife or not. And when my father died, both my sister and I started painting, that was 2009. But we both started painting seriously, my sister’s, a therapist, like think of a dig painting or think of being on the side of the stage, their costumes and colors and sparkles, and the light is sparkling on your eyelashes and your cheeks. Oh, can’t we put that in a painting? I want to express that beauty that I perceive and feel. And I have this painting teacher now David Smith, and he I think he must have been athletic. Because it’s the first time I’ve gotten the sense that somebody painting can use the training like training and dance repetition, training or training as an athlete.

Achim Nowak  24:42

You’re making me think of so many things, the frog keen, but also, I’m also thinking about our listeners are contemplating their fourth act. I was struck by the phrase Well, we weren’t allowed to do that. I’m hearing that part. part of your journey into your later acts has been to allow yourself to do and be and express what’s inside in a different way. Perhaps it was there all along, but you’re the Lauer who is allowing it. Am I hearing that correctly?

Janet Gerson  25:19

Yes. Well, you see, I was lucky because I discovered dancing. Because my father thought it was nothing. So he couldn’t keep me from doing it. Because I wasn’t doing anything. I was just becoming graceful. And I could be a nice wife. He didn’t notice that I was serious. And I was had all this drive. So to discover later that I could be a public intellectual, that I could articulate things. I have a scholarly book coming out the well, if you want to laugh, I can tell.

Achim Nowak  25:55

What’s the name of your book?

Janet Gerson  25:57

Reclaimative post conflict justice – democratizing justice in the world tribunal on Iraq,

Achim Nowak  26:05

that was so intellectual, you need to say one more time a little more slowly. Save one more time, please, Janet.

Janet Gerson  26:12

Okay. And tell me whether or not you want me to explain it. Reclaimative post-conflict. Justice – Democratizing justice, in the world tribunal on Iraq.

Achim Nowak  26:34

 Wow. It’s a very big theme applied to a very specific context. That’s what I hear, which is beautiful. I want to do make a little little leap for a moment, Janet, and you’re 72 years old right now. You’re in a period of, I’d say, fully allowing yourself to go with where you are going. With the things that were always there. This is Kim’s interpretation, I hope I’m not bastardizing it. So from that lens, if you had a chance to, to whisper into young Janet’s ear and give her some words of wisdom and advice, what would you say to her?

Janet Gerson  27:19

I’d say look for really good people. Give yourself over two people who see something in you and care about that. And who has something to offer and teach. So I had good teachers, and I also had good friends. Yeah. Find people to play with. And things I might say to other people that are no one had to say me, I somehow have it be curious. Be open. Because there are a lot of serendipitous things that could happen. So allow for adventures. Like with China, I was so terrified. I mean, I went from a sort of local person to an international person. And I was so scared. I had a friend who was a Holocaust survivor. And he was my one tours. He had been in the US Army though. So he gave me his dog tags to take. He said, I lived through the war with these yo and through China. Some of these little, you know, little tokens or something. Yeah. And help you feel like you have good luck.

Achim Nowak  28:37

I love the words a little poking things or having the right people around us. And some of us have those people but don’t listen to them, right. We’ve all met people and we go Gosh, they were pretty smart. I just wasn’t ready to hear it. Right. And some of it is about the I would say trusting what we hear. Trusting what not to listen to. But also being curious enough to follow through with what you just talked about.

Janet Gerson  29:13

You need people you can fight it out with

Achim Nowak  29:17


Janet Gerson  29:17

notch the people were nice but so Okay, so I was in of all places, Tirana, Albania, because we were supposed to be in Barcelona for this big Peace Education meeting the global campaign for peace education. But frederico my aura lost the election. And his party lost the election. So we ended up in Albania. And this guy was there. His name was Frank and he knew my daughter. In the airport. I was saying, Oh my god, I have to write my dissertation. Oh, I can’t do it. He said, Oh, I’m a writer. I’ll help you. So he’s the most stupid brilliant person I’ve ever met him utterly. Be grateful for, you know, we still meet every week to argue about politics and writing. And he really taught me to write, and he got a kick out of my crazy ideas and, and I couldn’t fly and you’re not understanding you don’t get it. It’s this this isn’t Janet, calm down, you know, and then he helped me develop my ideas and move past my limitations.

Achim Nowak  30:35

As you were telling me all this, Janet, and um, the question that was forming in my mind, and not for you, but for our listeners, which is well, how do we create a life where we suddenly end up in Albania, even though that’s not where we want it to go. And then find a way of enjoying being Albania for a moment. And we enough Albania as a metaphor for all those different places that we would never go to, and maybe never wanted to go to. But serendipity took us there anyway. Right? And then, and then we dance with that moment. I’d love to end with this. This is a question I ask everybody. As a woman, vibrant woman in her early 70s, who was allowing herself to do more and more stuff, as you look at the future, both for you personally, professionally, but also the world. What do you think of when you think of the future?

Janet Gerson  31:40

Say something more about that, I have something I want to tell you. It’s like very Buddhist in a way that you always are, wherever you are, you’re always you wherever you are the best, the worst, the darkest, the lightest, the space is the most penetrating. As the Han says peace in every step. And in that step is also breathing. So keep breathing, keep moving. And sometimes things together come together. And, as pemasaran says, and sometimes they just really fall apart. And you have a fallow period, and you have a rich period. But keep taking the steps because and keep your ears and your eyes and your senses open to find those things. I think the future of peace has to do with people coming together. And valuing our humanity, our relationships, appreciating how much it takes to coordinate socially and how easy it is to destroy that. And now we have to work together to have valuing of each other’s humanity prevail.

Achim Nowak  33:06

That’s a beautiful note to end on. I don’t want to label what you just said. But my thought went this. This could be Janet’s personal mission statement. But it could be the mission statement for many of us. Now, for any of our listeners who want to find out more about what you do and where you work, what’s the easiest way to check you out and get more get more information about Jana Gerson.

Janet Gerson  33:35

And there’s to say you can go to Facebook, because that sort of I couldn’t bring myself to have a blog. That’s one way. And I’m also Education Director of the International Institute on peace education. And you can contact me through that.

Achim Nowak  33:56

Well, we will have on the website, some some notes on this podcast, and we will put this information on there. But in the meantime, thank you for being such a generous guest. And for connecting some of the dots from the different stages of your life for us and helping us see that even when it looks very different. There’s a common thread that we follow. Thank you, Janet,

Janet Gerson  34:23

thank you so much. I came it was just delightful. Your questions were beautiful and incisive, and I appreciate them very much. Thank you.

Achim Nowak  34:32

You’re most welcome. Bye bye. Like what you heard, please go to my fourth act calm and subscribe to receive my updates on upcoming episodes. Please also subscribe to us on the platform of your choice. Rate us give us a review and let us all create some magical fourth acts together. Ciao


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