Today was Labor Day. And I started my day by taking ballet class, bright and early, 10:00 AM. I still take class, and I try to do so as regularly as I can. Clearly, at my age, my performing career (save an occasional Drosselmeyer) is over, but the ritual of taking ballet class has stayed with me.
For hundreds of years, dancers have begun their day with ballet class; walking into the studio and placing their left hand on the barre. Every time I enter the studio, and grasp that barre I feel a connection; both to all the beautiful dancers that came before me and all the dancers that will help guide into the future of our art form. That simple gesture of taking the barre centers me, focuses me and brings me peace. Ballet class has been a constant throughout my life just as it has been a constant throughout the history of western dance. But it is not just the ritual that draws me to the studio. I take class to be a better teacher.
I often say that the study of ballet is the relentless pursuit of an unachievable perfection. And so every day I continue that pursuit. I want to continue to experience what my students are experiencing. I want to continue to work, to study, to improve (yes, some things still improve). And I want to use the improvements I make, the things that I find, to help my students. But with the passing decades there has also been a decline as my body ages. So I continue to work and to study with this aging, declining instrument, and that challenge has allowed me to make new discoveries…discoveries that enrich my work in the classroom every day.
I have written many times of my mentor, Luigi. When he taught his Jazz Technique, he demonstrated everything, full out, very slowly, while describing both what he was DOING, as well as what he was FEELING. He asked the students to perform the exercises with him, full out, during the demonstration, guiding them through the technique exercises and helping them to find those feelings. He oftentimes said “Feel first, then do”. He also said “if it doesn’t feel right, I don’t teach it”. I remember him making discoveries and how thrilling that was for him. He would say “I,wish you could feel what this feels like”. His method was not about “put your foot here” or “put your arm in this position” or “keep your shoulders down”. It was so much deeper than that. And the result that he got from his students was astounding. And so I strive to bring to my BALLET students what he brought to me. I want to pass on his concepts of how the body works; how to develop a beautiful quality of movement, a long beautiful line that goes on for ever, a deep sense of musicality, an expressive epaulment that is so much more than shoulder and head positions, a sense of connection both within the body and to the space around us. And since the structure of a ballet class makes it difficult to dance full out with the students, I need to do this deep and personal work and make these discoveries for myself, while I am studying.
I will never be a teacher who parrots back what I was taught. I have been fortunate that I have been taught by the very best ballet teachers in New York City. And so I have taken their teachings and made them part of my consciousness and part of my body. To this I have added the experiences that I have had on the stage. And all of that work and information is carried into the studio with me as I continue to study, to look for new feelings, new ways to achieve a line, or refine the execution of a step, or find a richer and deeper sense of musicality and phrasing, or reach out and touch my audience. I do not want to teach in a museum. I want my classroom to live, breathe, grow and vibrate with excitement. And this is the only way I know how to achieve that.
So this morning, at 10:00 AM I walked into the studio to take Michelle Cave’s beautiful open class at Steps on Broadway. I placed my hand on the barre. I felt the connection to the past and to the future. I felt focused and at peace. I was ready to dig deep and to work…looking for something new. And to my astonishment, standing with me at that barre was one of MY teachers, and one of my STUDENTS. And the chain continues.