Teaching the Resistant Student

As most of my readers know, I started my dance training at Luigi’s Jazz Centre, studying this revolutionary technique under the master himself. And although my focus switched to ballet after my first two years of training, I continued taking regular Luigi technique classes throughout my entire career. Luigi, himself, certified me to teach his work and this certification has opened many doors. 

When I started my training with Luigi I had a deep love and admiration for the great movie musicals of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Studying with Luigi was, for me, a direct connection to the brilliant dancing of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Cyd Charisse  with whom he had worked. This also was the training method that was responsible for so many of the great Broadway legends such as Donna McKechnie, Ben Vereen and Liza Minnelli. This was the dancing that I loved and this was what I wanted to study. What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that this technique was unlike  the other Jazz classes in New York. This technique has an approach to style, musicality, line, epaulment and quality of movement that is unique and, consequently, it produces a result that is unique. My training under Luigi was responsible for my career, both as a performer and a teacher and the importance of this work in my life is immeasurable. 

Now, more than three decades later, I am charged with passing on this work to the next generation of dancers and often I am met with resistance. These classes are not like the Jazz classes to which today’s dancers  are accustomed. There is a detailed and painstaking breakdown of the technique exercises. There is a demand for a precise use of epaulment and nuanced quality of movement. There is a complex approach to musicality, rhythm and timing. And there is not a lot of flash. The work is hard, the music is complex and unfamiliar and the choreographic style is foreign. And this year I had one particularly challenging group. They found the work exceedingly difficult. And they did not like it. There was eye rolling, thinly veiled looks of disdain and a lot of frustration. I implored them to be patient, to work slowly (as I had done) and to search for the results. I tried to explain that this is not just a technique designed to produce good alignment, clean lines, high legs and dependable turns. This is a technique that builds style. This is a technique the nurtures artistry. This is a technique that brings LIFE to the steps and MAGIC to the stage. As Luigi often said to me “I don’t train chorus dancers, I make STARS. But class after class I was met with blank stares.

This week, as I soldiered on through this class, using every trick I could think of to engage these students, I referenced Fred Astaire. And their eyes were vacant. So I asked: “Who has never seen Fred Astaire dance?”. Every single hand went up. No one in this class had ever seen Fred Astaire dance. And at that moment I realized that I had completely forgotten something extremely important: their experience was nothing like mine. They had no reference for this work.  Not only had they never seen Fred Astaire, they never had even heard of a Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Donna McKechnie or Ben Vereen.

So, we spent the rest of that class watching videos. We watched Astaire partner a hat rack and bring it to life in Royal Wedding, we watched Gene Kelly partner the stunning Cyd Charrise in Singing in the Rain, and we watched Luigi tear up the floor in the ensemble of White Christmas. And much to my surprise they were mesmerized. These films are more than 60 years old and quite frankly I expected to receive the same dismissive attitude that I had been receiving all year. But it was as if the light was finally turned on. And much to my relief, they saw the greatness in this work. They saw the artistry In this  work and they saw the magic; a kind of magic that is all but gone from our industry.  

When I walked into the studio for our next class it was as if I was facing a completely different group of students. And after months of explaining, begging and cajoling, they finally started to work; the way I had worked and all of the great dancers that came before me.

I am not so naive as to think that the next time I’m facing challenging students, an old MGM video will solve all my problems. But I did learn a lesson here. This group’s problem stemmed from a lack of reference; and I failed to realize that. I learned that part of being an effective educator is searching for the solutions to just these kinds of problems. Sometimes I will find the answers (as I did this time) and sometimes I won’t. But I will never stop trying. 

Luigi once said to me: “You are not the best dancer I’ve ever taught, but you have a deeper understanding of this work than anyone that I’ve ever taught.”. That understanding and this work are gifts that have given me my life’s work. And bringing these gifts to the next generation of dancers is what I do. Now, in addition to teaching the “what” and the “how” of this work, I am having to teach the “why”. Making this work relevant to today’s artists is essential to its survival. And as far as I’m concerned it must survive for generations to come. 

2 thoughts on “Teaching the Resistant Student

  1. Marvellous stuff… as ever.
    I really hope that one day I get to experience your teaching & dancing first hand William … thanks for taking the time to reach out & to educate us all in this way. I hang on every word …


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