This past week I had a new student in one of my open classes. She was probably in her twenties. She had a nice clean technique at the barre and she clearly had excellent training. She was, however, a little more tentative and tense in the centre. After class she remarked that she has always felt embarrassed about trying to be expressive while dancing. She went on to say that her previous training had always made her feel somewhat constrained and closed off and that this was the first class she had taken where the dancers were encouraged to be artists, to have a voice, to bring something to the steps.
I take a lot of open classes in New York. A lot. There is endless discussion of technique in these classes and some of this information is brilliant and insightful. There are a few teachers (Heather Hawk and Antoinette Peloso come to mind first) that give a very “musical” class. But I have very rarely encountered teachers who are actively encouraging expression, artistry, individual style in open classes. I know that many disciples of Vaganova methodology believe that technique and artistry are one thing; that ballet IS art and so you can’t have ballet technique without artistry. But that is a topic for a whole other discussion.
I have always believed that pliés, tendus and frappes are tools. The exercises, the steps, the combinations that we do in our technique classes are not taught for their own sake. They are not studied to enable dancers to execute beautiful pirouettes, developes and jetes. These elements are tools that the dancer needs to be an expressive artist. The vast majority of our audience doesn’t understand tendu or rond de jamb. They don’t really understand what we do. They understand what we feel and what we can make them feel. And training dancers to FEEL is at the core of my teaching. The lineage of teachers and how we pass down our art form from teacher to student is very important to me, and I can trace my heritage directly back to the modern dance legend Doris Humphrey. Humphrey changed dance forever when she so famously implored dancers to “move from the inside out”. This emotional connection to the movement is what I am encouraging my students to find, and the studio must be a safe space that is free of constraint if they are going to grow in this way. Do I teach technique? Do I explain tendu? Of course I do; in excruciating detail. But in the same breath I encourage my students to find their own voice in every tendu. I ask them to breathe life into every port de bras and to “dance from the inside”. They need to learn how to let the music inside their bodies, they need to learn how to send their joy out into the audience and also how to draw each audience member in, as if to tell them the most personal of secrets. And this ability must be trained, just as a tendu and a pirouette must be trained.
Every day I walk into the studio. Every day dancers put their precious dancing futures in my hands. And every day I strive to make my classroom SAFE and free from constraint so that each student can train their bodies and their spirit. I want each student to become an artist. I want each student to bring something unique to my steps. I want each student to find their voice; that silent voice that great dancers use to speak to the world. And I want them to find that voice in my classroom.