Secret Dancers

Some time back I was interviewed by Edwin Olvera of Edwin Olvera Creative Services. If you haven’t heard the interview, and if you’re interested, the link is provided at the bottom of this post.

We discussed pretty much my entire career, and when we touched on the subject of teaching open adult beginner classes, Edwin used the term “Secret Dancers” to describe the adult beginner dance student. This term, this idea of a “Secret Dancer” has haunted me since that day, last August, when I first heard him say it.

I was a secret dancer. I grew up in Staten Island, the one part of New York City that leans somewhat conservative. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a family that most definitely did not encourage or support careers in the arts. This was clearly a place and a time where “boys did not dance”. And so I became a secret dancer. There was one picture book in my elementary school library on ballet. I checked this book out of that library as often as I could, I tucked it into my brief case (yes, I carried a brief case in the third grade), I took it home, and safely behind my bedroom door, I copied the poses and positions that I saw within its pages. I watched everything on television about dance and copied what I saw. I asked girls in the neighborhood who took dance classes to teach me what they learned. I participated in school plays and musicals mostly to learn  little bits of choreography. And when I got to high school I met one boy who attended the School of American Ballet. I knew that this was not something that my parents would ever consider. In fact I was afraid to ask for ballet lessons because I didn’t want to actually hear the answer; that would have been too painful. But I would listen to the stories that this boy would tell me about attending classes at SAB, all the time secretly yearning to study seriously, to dance seriously. But that was not my path. That was not the road that my family, my world, laid out at my feet. I was terrified of being labeled “Different” I was terrified of being judged: by my family, by society, by the world. I had to be a Secret Dancer.

My journey into the world of professional dance and then into dance education was certainly unusual. It is all laid out in the interview below and not really the main subject of this post. But I came to realize that the person who was my harshest judge was ME. And so I gathered the STRENGTH and the COURAGE to walk into a professional studio like Luigi’s Jazz Centre at the age of 26. And from that first class I was fearless, and I sacrificed, and I dedicated every fiber of my being to study, to train, to keep my eye on the target. There was no longer any secret. Luigi unlocked my Secret Dancer.

Now as a dance educator, one of my great joys is to teach “Adult” open classes for the Joffrey Ballet School and the Alden Moves Dance Theater. And every once in a while I am thrilled when I meet another Secret Dancer. Some time ago I was required to take a 30 hour course in teaching methods. Most of the teachers taking this class with me were not in the arts. There was an engineer, two gemologists, a jewelry designer, a group of nurses, a film editor, A hairdresser, and two make up artists. During the training, we were required to present a seven minute lesson, in our subject, using the teaching methods that we were learning. So for my presentation I decided to teach a short and simple barre exercise. I asked for one of my classmates to volunteer to be the student. One of the make up artists raised her hand. There was a shelf that was just the right height to serve as a barre. So in the way that I would teach an absolute beginner adult class , I explained the short combination consisting of: 2 tendus from first position en croix, followed by three demi pliés and a releve. It was completely apparent from the moment that this gal placed her hand on that shelf that she had danced before. Although she had not danced for many years it was clear that she had been beautifully trained. I put on the music. I gave a speech about “dancing inside the music” and “finding the power in the simplicity”. She executed the exercise quite beautifully, and then burst into tears. Ballet had been a passion all her life, but for numerous reasons her training stopped in her early teens. That short exercise reminded her of the joy that dancing brought her, a feeling she had forgotten years ago. I turned to the class, poised to say “only someone who has studied and loved ballet would understand what this feels like”. When I looked at this room full of engineers , hairdressers, make up artists, nurses, etc. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. This gal has since contacted me and told me that she has gone back to taking dance classes near her home in eastern Long Island. I had unlocked a Secret Dancer. The power of that moment touched everyone in the room.

If you are a dancer who’s family, who’s world, supports you in your dream, I hope you appreciate how truly fortunate you are. For not everyone is given that opportunity. I know that I was not. But I do know how lucky I am to be having the career I am now having. I look at every opportunity to step into a studio as a precious gift. I have had many opportunities to unlock “Secret Dancers” and every time it happens, the feeling is just as thrilling as the first time.

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