In recent weeks I have been asked, numerous times, “How did you start dancing at 25 years of age and end up a faculty member at The Joffrey Ballet School and Ballet Academy East?”. I was even “assaulted” on social media by a very angry woman implying that I was lying; and if I wasn’t lying, any success that I achieved was due to the fact that “Men run the world”. I have retold the story of how I started dancing at the age of 25 many times, but I have never written specifically about my career path; so I thought that I would take some time and write an answer to this question.
I started dancing not because I aspired to dance on the stage, not because I searched for some way to make my mark, not because I sought a career, accolades or awards; I started dancing because I loved to dance. And I was very lucky because I never had a bad teacher; so there was never really anything to “un-do”. I was also very lucky in that I had the time and finances at my disposal to take approximately fifteen classes per week (and I was never placed on any kind of scholarship, I paid for every class myself, with money that I earned). So with absolutely no goal except to learn how to dance, I took my first steps down the road to becoming a dancer. I trained hard, relentlessly hard, harder than I knew I could. I lived in a very modest apartment, renting a bedroom from a woman who was a very accomplished dancer and teacher, and I became completely immersed in the New York dance world.
I never had any expectations of being “great” or being “the best in the class”. I was an adult beginner in New York, a city filled with professionals who had been dancing all their lives. But I absolutely loved what I was doing. So without ever being “great” or “the best” I would occasionally be asked to dance in a project that one of my teachers was producing. And although I was never the lead, never the star, never “front and center”, I worked as hard as I could to be the best that I could be, and I adored every minute of it. I started auditioning. And as most professionals in New York will tell you, that brutal process usually lands you in the alley with the rest of the rejects. But occasionally I would book a small company job, music video, commercial or an out of town musical. And I quickly learned that jobs were very often gotten NOT because of how well one danced but because of tenacity, work ethic and relationships fostered. And so I had my modest performing career: no major company, no Broadway, no national tour. And eventually I felt that I was “done”. I had some bad experiences in an “out of town” musical theater production and I decided to stop; not angry, not bitter, just “finished”.
And I didn’t dance a step for nine years.
But I couldn’t stay away, and eventually I found my way back to class. I started dancing again, a few classes a week, simply because I loved to dance. One day, one of the teachers with whom I was studying asked me to sub for him. I had never really thought much about teaching. I never really wanted to be a teacher, but I was incredibly flattered and thought it would be fun. He asked me to send my resume to the manager of the studio (one of the big open class studios in NYC). I emailed my resume. A few hours later I received an email from the studio with a big fat resounding “NO”. They would not be having me sub.
The studio instead engaged the legendary Lisa Gajda to sub that class. I believe she had danced in seventeen Broadway shows. Now, I’m not an idiot. If one is trying to promote a sub, who are you going to promote; someone with seventeen Broadway shows or some adult beginner with my modest resume? I was incredibly disappointed. But as disappointed as I was (and a little bit angry) I decided to swallow my pride and take Lisa’s class. I was the only dancer in the room over the age of forty. I was in the back of the room, doing a grand plié in second position, when Lisa Gajda asked me: “Who the F#@k are you?”.
“No one” I said.
“Because I’m looking at you and I thinking that YOU should probably be teaching ME” she responded.
After that class we exchanged a few very interesting messages on Facebook about navigating the dance industry. And I figured “Well, that’s that”.
But then I thought: I do not need to teach in a big prestigious studio in Manhattan. I can teach somewhere more modest and enjoy that process in very much the same way. I had a friend who owned a lovely neighborhood studio in Brooklyn. I gave her a call and she gave me a job. I had three ballet classes per week: two adult beginner classes and one class of ten year olds. And so began my teaching career. It was here that I was able to develop my personal take on training dancers. I was able to develop a teaching style rooted in the training that I had received from the legendary teachers with whom I studied, being able to trace my educational lineage directly to Vaganova and Cecchetti. Of course I spent decades under the tutelage of the brilliant Luigi, his philosophies deeply inform everything I do. I had a lot of knowledge from many great teachers. A lot. And my personal approach had the unique perspective of a teacher who was once and adult beginner.
One morning, about a year later, I opened my email. There was an message from someone named Austin Eyer. He wrote that he was the dance coordinator for a conservatory called CAP21. They were looking for a ballet teacher and he got my name from LISA GAJDA. A year later! Apparently this program was quite prestigious, producing a number of professionals. I didn’t realize at the time that being hired by this program would in some way validate me as a teacher. I got this job NOT because of a brilliant performing career, not because I was the BEST dancer or even the BEST teacher, but because of tenacity, work ethic and relationships fostered. And in obtaining this job I learned a very big lesson. If I can foster these relationships, both personally and through social media, and if I can present a teaching style that is MINE, bringing MY personal take on training that no one else can bring, I might be able to cultivate a career.
I never really set out to GET a job. I continued to dance in open class studios all over New York. I continued to meet people both in the studio and on line. And I stayed true to my relentless, diligent training and careful cultivation of professional relationships. And so followed many, many schools and guest teaching engagements, all through the building of relationships and bringing my unique take on training dancers. And slowly, over a decade or so, my path eventually lead to a career that included the Joffrey Ballet School, Ballet Academy East, Broadway Dance Center and guest teaching engagements across the country and overseas. This philosophy has also allowed me the luxury of leaving a studio or school when the “fit” was no longer right. But I have always honored my contracts and obligations and left on good terms (even when disappointed or angry) because my entire career is based on tenacity, work ethic and relationships fostered.
And with all the the places that I have taught and the experience that I have, there are still schools and studios in New York that are not interested in hiring me (including that studio that would not have me sub). And that’s fine, actually. It is because that studio said “NO” that I met Lisa Gajda. It is because that studio said “NO” that I learned how to very slowly and patiently allow my career to blossom. It is because that studio said “NO” that I now get to teach at schools that support and promote me.
As Luigi said: “Never Stop Moving”.
5 thoughts on “How I Did It”
Another truly inspiring post …
This, to me, is the essence of dance–not performance, dance. Love it, do it, become what it makes of you. Thank you so much for sharing your journey.
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Thanks so much!
This is really beautiful story Billy!
Congratulations on your tenacity and talent!
Thanks so much!