I am very fortunate, in that I get to teach in just about every aspect of dance education. And one of the things that I truly love is guest teaching. I always welcome the opportunity to travel to a different part of the country, work at a New school, meet new colleagues and teach new students. I would like to share with you an experience that I had during a recent guest teaching engagement.
I was engaged by a ballet based studio as a guest artist, teaching ballet for a week-long intensive. I taught many classes (4-5 classes per day) at various levels to various groups of students. For the most part they were beautifully trained, attentive and hard-working. And for the most part, looked the way “preprofessional ballet students” are expected to “look”. The classes were leveled pretty much by age; but there were a few “more advanced” younger dancers dancing with older students. There was also one “less advanced” older dancer dancing with the younger students. And it was this dancer (we will call her “Susan”) that caught my eye. Susan was not blessed with what one might consider “ideal equipment” for ballet. She was stocky, long in the torso-short in the leg, neither particularly flexible nor turned out. I commend this beautiful little school for encouraging students with less than ideal bodies to train. Like my beloved Joffrey Ballet School, they believe that every “body” has the right to train, and if you can pass the audition you will be accepted, encouraged and nurtured, regardless of physique. But it wasn’t Susan’s body that caught my attention; it was her attitude and her demeanor.
To start with, Susan lacked the teenage exuberance that her classmates exhibited. And although all of the dancers at the school were serious and hard-working, Susan exhibited a ferocious drive. But even more than that, there was something troubling about her. I noticed, right from the beginning of class, her relationship with the mirror. I find that many serious teenage dance students love the mirror; they love watching themselves dance. But it almost appeared as if Susan was going to battle with the mirror. I watched her judge, evaluate, scrutinize and criticize every line that wasn’t perfect, every extension that wasn’t soaringly high, every body part that was too short, or too curvy, or too inflexible. I could see the exasperation in her face as we progressed through the barre and into the centre. I also saw a darkness; a sadness; almost a sense of despair in her carriage and in her work.
When we progressed to the adagio, however, I saw something very different. I taught the combination, we all marked the choreography and we divided into groups. When Susan’s group took their spots on the floor, she hid in the back of this large classroom, taking a spot toward the side of the last row. The music started and as the melancholy chords of “Scheherazade” filled the room, I saw Susan transform into an artist. Now I don’t mean to say that this “less advanced” dancer miraculously transformed her technique into that of a world-class professional. Her technical limitations were obviously still there. But what was also there was a stunning quality of movement, a very professional sense of phrasing and what seemed to be a deep connection to the music. And there was that sadness, and that sense of despair that brought something to the work that was both troubling and beautiful and transcended her obvious technical limitations.
As the class continued, through centre combinations, turns, jumps, petite allegro, grand allegro, I saw a dancer, struggling with the mirror, judging every moment. But I also saw flashes of great beauty and artistry. Buried at the core of this flawed body and judgmental eye was a mature artist of enormous depth and an aching sense of melancholy.
At the end of class, all of the dancers lined up to shake my hand, curtesy, and offer their thanks. Susan was one of the last. I offered her the following suggestion: “Try to use the mirror for INFORMATION rather than JUDGEMENT”. I also suggested that, sometimes, she try working in the front of the room. She smiled, thanked me, and left the studio.
At the end of the first, grueling teaching day, I asked the studio owner about Susan. She told me that Susan has a very difficult home-life and is dealing with some very trying situations (I can’t divulge the details, but trust me…its heart-breaking). She told me that the school is doing everything they can to keep her in class.
Over the next couple of days I had a few chats with Susan after class. I certainly didn’t tell her that the studio owner explained her situation…but she did confide to me that she was dealing with some personal problems. I asked her, although we didn’t know each other all that well, to make me two promises. I asked her: 1. To promise to try to find some happiness in the process of training (as I ask of all my students). And 2. If she TRULY wanted to dance, to the best of her ability not to let anything get in the way of her training. I explained that I was a dancer who had a family and a situation and a life that prevented me from dancing until I was an adult…and I just “let it be”. I allowed all of it to get in the way of my training. And when, as an adult, I discussed this with my mother, her response was: “Well, you should have been stronger”. So I implored her to be diligent, relentless and strong. I implored her to take advantage of every opportunity and to try to find her joy in the studio, in class, in the process. She burst into tears, she thanked me, she composed herself, she went home.
Now, I wish that I could say that by the end of the week Susan was front in center with a big smile and an even bigger sense of confidence. But that would be a lie. By the end of the week Susan was still dancing in the back row, off to the side…and battling that mirror. And of course there was that stocky and poorly proportioned body. But there were still those flashes of great depth of feeling, nuance, musicality and beauty. And she seemed to be a bit happier and a bit kinder to herself. And maybe that will last…and maybe it won’t. And maybe she’ll dance for the rest of her life…and maybe she won’t. But what ever her path will be, and whether the school will invite me back or not, it is this kind of student, this kind of connection that makes what I get to do every day a great privilege. Why do I teach? I teach for many reasons. And one of the most important reasons for me is a student like Susan.