Does Encouraging Our Students Give Them False Hope?

A discussion was started on a website for dance teachers on the following topic:

“Should we be discouraging pre-professional students who obviously do not have a chance for success?  Does encouraging them to study seriously give them false hope for an impossible career?”

This is a topic that I have been thinking a lot about from the moment that I stepped into the studio to teach aspiring professionals. The first time I actually discussed the topic, I was speaking with Richard Pierlon, one of the most respected Jazz teachers in New York City, faculty member at Steps on Broadway, and the person who set me on the path to my teaching career. His response was simple, clear and concise: “It is not my job to crush their dreams; it is my job to TEACH them”. I have always held this philosophy close to my heart, because I was the aspiring professional who “obviously did not have a chance for a career”. I was nearly 27 when I took my first dance class, 5’5″, way too broad through the shoulders for my height (although rail-thin), and not particularly flexible.

Since My teaching career has placed me with one foot in the ballet world (teaching at The Joffrey Ballet School in the “ballet trainee program”) and one foot in the jazz/musical theater world (teaching at Broadway Dance Center and in musical theater conservatories such as New York Film Academy and CAP21), I work with aspiring professionals in different dance genres every day. And each genre, each corner of the dance world, has it’s own criteria or list of requirements that an aspiring professional SHOULD have; ballet, obviously, being the most stringent. The ballet community at large will talk endlessly about body proportions, height, weight, flexibility, turn-out, feet…the list goes on. And there is a ubiquitous idea of what a ballet dancer SHOULD have. Everyone knows what a ballet dancer looks like. EVERYONE. So, in my opinion, if a serious student without the “necessary equipment” decides to go down the path of pre-professional ballet training, I firmly believe that they are doing it with their eyes open. One of the things that I LOVE about the Joffrey Ballet School, is that body-type is NOT considered in the audition/acceptance process. If you can pass the audition, you will be accepted, regardless of your “equipment”. And they have been criticized for “giving false hope to those who don’t have a chance”. I disagree whole-heartedly. No school promises a career. And many many many beautifully trained dancers with beautiful “equipment” are unable to find jobs. I hear about the statistics of the graduates of the School of American Ballet. Large percentages of these students with “perfect equipment” coming out of a world-famous school are unable to find employment. But what a school like Joffrey does promise is TRAINING. And on that promise they deliver. So if a student with a less than ideal body wants to train, why should we discourage it? The training will only benefit them, wherever they ultimately land, be it in a ballet company, another genre of dance, in some sort of auxiliary dance career (administration, criticism, academia, etc.), or in an unrelated field. The rigors and discipline involved in pre-professional dance training translate to every endeavor. And careers DO happen, even for those with less than ideal bodies. Not everyone has to end up in New York City Ballet. I have a former student who just got a full-time contract with a “second tier” ballet company, providing her with full-time employment, a benefits package and a wage upon which she can support herself. And she has less than the ideal ballet body. In the arts, their are no absolutes.

From the moment I stepped into a dance studio at the age of 26 I was encouraged by my teachers. I was encouraged by Madame Gabriella Darvash, I was encouraged by numerous teachers at the Joffrey Ballet School and I was encouraged by the legendary Luigi. After my retirement from performing (my career was certainly short and certainly limited due to my late start…but I did have a career) I didn’t dance for nine years. And when I returned to class, in my forties, fat and out of shape, it was Richard Pierlon who encouraged me once again. I would like to share with you the note I sent to him upon securing a teaching job at Broadway Dance Center:

Dearest Richard,

I Want to take a moment and thank you. Twelve years ago I wandered into your class. I hadn’t danced for nearly ten years. I was out of shape, nearly 200 pounds and barely able to do anything. I was moving through my life and I was not happy. But your beautiful and inspiring class breathed new life into my existence. I had forgotten what it felt like to move and I had forgotten the joy that dance brought me. But your class turned on the light for me and showed me what I should be doing. About three years later, you asked me to sub for you…and although that didn’t come to pass, it made me think about teaching. And that opened a door…a door that I never considered. And so I started teaching at a little school in Brooklyn. Then came a modern company in Red Hook. Next was the Manhattan Ballet School, Hunter College, Marymount Manhattan College, CAP21, Molloy College, New York Film Academy and The Joffrey Ballet school. Tomorrow I start at Broadway Dance Center! where I will be passing on the work of my mentor Luigi…but it is you that I will be bringing into the studio with me. Your spirit, your generosity and your love. And I hope that one day I can reach and touch my students in the very special and profound way that you do. I am eternally grateful for everything you have given me.
Bill

Every serious student who walks into my classroom gets my full attention, support and encouragement. If teachers like Luigi and Madame Darvash can encourage a 26 year old absolute beginner and lead me into a dance career, perhaps I can do the same for some one else. And if Richard Pierlon can encourage and support a middle aged out of shape retired dancer and cultivate a second career in dance education then I know what I must do. And so I pass on MY philosophies of dance; as I teach my students about the love of the process, and the relentless pursuit of that unachievable perfection. And I hope that one day I can lead another hopeless case (like myself) into an impossible career like mine.

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