Thoughts on Grand Plié

While scrolling through social media, I recently stumbled upon some thoughts that George Balanchine had regarding plié. These quotations started me thinking about how I teach plié and how each teacher passes on the art form to their students, as one generation trains the next. 

I have never been a teacher who parrots back to my students what I had been taught. Rather I have always preferred to take the knowledge and training and experience that I have and look at it in a totally new way. I have allowed this information  to live in my body, grow in my consciousness, and develop in my heart. And with this as my “jumping off point”, I have always tried to bring some thing deep, rich, and personal to my teaching.

The mechanics of a grande plié in first position are known to, and understood by, every ballet teacher: starting in first position, the dancer bends their knees, with a neutral pelvis, knees tracking over the toes, until the knees can bend no further while maintaining the heels on the floor. The heels will then come off the floor, allowing the dancer to reach the depth of the grand plié. The dancer then begins to straighten their knees for the ascent, heels touching the ground as soon as possible, the knees then continuing to straighten until the dancer has reached the starting position with perfectly straight knees. This grand plié is typically coordinated with one of several standard, agreed-upon, port de bras.

But dancing is so much more than mechanics, and a grand plié is so much more than what I have outlined above.

Pliés must always be in motion. They must be timed out to the music and executed at the correct speed, so that the dancer never stops at any point during the descent or ascent. There is a tendency for dancers to stop at the depth of the grand plié and then again when the heels first touch the floor as the knees straighten. These pauses in the motion must be avoided at all costs. Ballet is so often taught as a series of positions. In my opinion, Ballet is not an art of positions but rather an art of movements; the movement from one position to the next, and the movement that occurs internally, within each position.

A beautiful quality of movement is often developed by finding resistance against the space and the dancer must find that resistance as the plié descends and ascends equally. I have often asked my students to imagine that their head is touching the ceiling. As they begin each plié, I ask them to “press their head up against the ceiling” maintaining a long straight spine, and developing that sense of resistance. When the heels begin to come off the floor, I ask them to keep “pressing them down“. The energy of the heels should be working down toward the ground as they lift, thereby maintaining the heels as close to the ground as possible and continuing that feeling of resistance. As the dancer begins the ascent, the heels continue to press into the ground, the dancer getting the heels down as soon as possible, and then, as if there were a balloon or a pillow between their knees, the dancer “squeezes” up from the bottom of the demi plié. Regardless of which  port the teacher prefers, it must be executed with that same feeling of resistance. I have always liked the image of “dancing inside a block of wet cement”; the arm connecting to the back and pressing through the “wet cement“ to create that resistance against the space.

Most ballet teachers will also ask students to have their eyes and head follow the hand that is moving. Classical ballet technique is filled with information regarding how the head should be held, positioned and moved and where the eyes should be looking. I have found that these simple directions will often cause students to develop a “blank ballerina stare“. Although I do believe that the eyes and the head need to follow the hand that is moving, I believe that the student needs to “see“ something much more interesting than their hand (whatever that may be for them), bringing something interesting and engaging to the work that they are doing with their eyes and their head.

Lastly there is the character associated with the grand plié. In my opinion, every step, every movement, every element of ballet has an associated character. I’ve always seen the grand plié as being simple, elegant yet majestic. I see so many dancers indulging in a “syrupy sweet“ overly emotional port de bras, head position, and quality of movement when executing grand plié. I ask my students to search for that elegance, search for that majesty and to use the music as a guide in finding that character. I usually prefer music for plies to be in a duple (4/4) meter rather than triple (3/4) meter. I find this helps convey a quality of simplicity and regal majesty that I prefer for a grand plié. I am so fortunate that I work with incredibly talented pianists who are very skilled at finding exactly the right piece of music for each exercise. When I do need to use recorded music, I always take the time to find the selection that conveys exactly the feeling for which I am searching.

Obviously, it would be impossible to explain all of this exhaustive, and probably ridiculously detailed, information in every class; the students would never have the patience to listen to it, and there would be no time for dancing. But I try to infuse each lesson with a little bit of this information; cultivating over time, a rich, nuanced, beautiful grand plié.

Dancers and Musicality; How We Count

A colleague started a discussion in a Dance Teacher social media group on how dancers count music. He suggested that we are doing a disservice to our students if we do not count the music as it is written in the score (i.e. dancers should count music written in 4/4 in “4’s” rather than “8’s”). Here are my musings on this subject.

The tradition of counting music for dance that is written in a duple meter (i.e. 2/4, 4/4, 8/4) in 8’s goes back many generations. Counting dancers in with the famous “a 5,6,7,8!” , as in the opening number of A Chorus Line, is a tradition that goes back to the work of the legendary jazz master (and my mentor) Luigi. This method of counting  in “8’s” was based on the fact that most popular music, at the time when these techniques were developing, was written in 4/4 but usually contained musical phrases or ideas that were two measures long. In this way choreographers were counting musical ideas or phrases, not than the literal measures in the written score.

But music very often doesn’t fit into these neat phrases. We can have meters that are somewhat less usual (5/4, 7/4), meters that are somewhat more complex (hemiola- a 6/8 where the accent alternates; the first measure has the accent on the 1 and the 4, the second measure has the accent on 1,3,5…think “America” from West Side Story), meters that are somewhat variable (changing throughout the piece). I have seen dancers and choreographers count “8” over all of these complicated rhythms and meters creating what I have always considered to be a confusing mess.

I firmly believe that there is no “one way“ or “best way” to teach musicality and phrasing. I think most of us agree that this is an extremely important facet of the dancers education. I think most of us also agree that it behooves us to train dancers who understand different ways of counting music because they will invariably run into various methods during their careers. 

Returning to the original poster’s premise: “…we are doing our students a great disservice by counting in ‘8s’ instead of ‘4s’…”. I think that there is a lot of validity in this statement, especially for tap dance. I need to preface this by saying that I am not a trained tap dancer but I worked very closely with a dear friend and colleague for many, many years who was a superb tap dancer and teacher. She always insisted that tap must be taught in “4s”. And this has always made sense to me. Tap dancers are creating music with their choreography. Since they are creating music, it makes sense that they should be thinking like musicians as well as a dancers.

I am a well trained musician. I play two instruments and I have played in Symphony Orchestras. One thing that I can say about a musical score, is that although a 4/4 score will have clearly delineated measures of four counts, there are often markings in the score that indicate where phrases begin and end. These markings are placed by the composer to give the performer a clearer idea of the composer’s intention. No composer expects a musician to put a “metaphorical period” at the end of each measure. These phrase markings indicate a bigger, more complex, more interesting and artistic picture of the work. I believe that tap dancers understand this intuitively because of how they are trained. Dancers of other disciplines might not have the same intuition.

It is my job to create musical dancers. I  teach the work of my mentor Luigi as well as classical ballet. I have always found that I get the best result if I count the music for my students in musical phrases. If that means that I count a 4/4 in “8’s” , then so be it. But I might also count it in “4’s”, depending on the musical phrasing. I have often choreographed to the music of Burt Bacharach. His music, like the music of Stravinsky, Bernstein and Prokofiev, employs frequent meter changes. Sometimes I count the music exactly as it is written in the score. Sometimes I count it in more logical musical phrases. For example, in one of the big dance breaks in his “Turkey Lurkey Time” from musical Promises Promises I found it logical to count some phrases in 12 and some in 8. This is clearly not how the score is written, but it created the musical phrasing that I wanted my dancers to exhibit. I did explain to the dancers why I was counting the music in this way, and this was not how it was written in the score. I think it is very important dancers understand why they do what they do.

I also find it important to explain to my dancers that although the music may sound like it is going in phrases of 8, sometimes a choreographic phrase might run past that 8, ending on the 1, for example.

Each teacher is unique and has a unique set of communication skills. I don’t think that there is any “one right way“ to teach musicality to dancers. I treat each piece of music uniquely and this has always worked for me. But building dancers with a rich knowledge and sense of musicality should be the ultimate goal, regardless of the method.

How I Did It

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”.

Dancing With Different Bodies-Time for a “Re-Post”

Now, in my 60’s, I am finding that i have to strive even harder to do more with even less. time to re-visit this article from a few years ago:

Now, as I approach my 57th birthday, I have come to realize that I have trained as a dancer three distinct times in my life, with three distinctly different bodies.

I was a very late starter, and my initial training was in my 20’s with a reasonably young, reasonably fit body. I was able to take that “untrained/never danced” young-adult body and put it through the rigors of preprofessional ballet training, and come out the other end a professional dancer. I learned how that training, that process, that transformation felt…and having a bit of a crazy memory for details, I remember exactly what that process entailed.

I stopped performing in my 30’s and started taking class again, 9 years later in my 40’s. I now had to re-train. And now I had a completely different instrument with which to work. I was now firmly in middle age. I was now 50 pounds over-weight and completely out of shape as I had done absolutely no exercise at all for 9 years. And so I started training; dancing with this completely alien instrument. And found that I needed to work at a completely different pace, with a completely different focus and in a completely different way. But train I did. And over the course of a few years I was able to get almost everything back. And since it wasn’t all that long ago, I clearly remember exactly what that process entailed.

Now I’m closer to 60 than I am to 50. And now I find that I’m working with yet another completely different body. I still take class regularly, every day when my schedule permits. I’m lean and fit…for my age. I’m carrying no extra weight. I take class regularly. I work as hard as I can…yet my aging body has betrayed me. And no matter how hard I work; no matter how hard I focus; and no matter how often I train; my aging body is declining. I am now training a third body. And older body that no longer has a buoyant soaring jump, a reaching growing towering extension or a dizzying heart stopping turn. An older body who’s balance decreases daily. An older body that will never again dance the way it did when it was young. And so I am now looking for ways to work with this new instrument. I am searching for ways to do more with less. Im trying to be more expressive, more communicative, more artistic, nuanced and interesting with a body that still has a clean and solid technique but with far less technical pyrotechnics at its disposal. I am training a third body in a third way. And I am now learning what this process entails.

Over the past 30-odd years, training in and teaching open classes, I have always been very observant. I’ve watched teachers. I’ve watched dancers. I’ve watched accompanists. I’ve watched administrators and program directors. And I have learned. And through training three distinct times with three distinct bodies, I have learned even more. But there is a group of dance studio “regulars” who had always puzzled me: the self-confident, un-ashamed, weak and frail, very elderly dancer. There were never a lot of them, but they always seemed to be there, in small numbers. These octogenarians (or sometimes even older) would come to class regularly. They would often wear the dance clothes that one would expect on a much younger, fitter, attractive body. They would, with full confidence take their place in some very advanced classes. And they would do…what they could…which was usually “next to nothing”. I would think to myself: “What are they doing? Why are they in this class? Are they crazy? If I ever become one of them, will someone tell me?” And I was worried. My biggest fear was that I would one day turn into a “clueless old man, wasting my time in some dance class in which I had no business being.”

Today, as I often do on Saturday morning, I took class…a beautiful class with a stunning musician at the piano. And standing across the room I saw HER. She was very elderly…clearly well past 80. She was wearing a black leotard, pink tights, short chiffon skirt and slippers. Her hair was in a neat bun. She had on just a little too much makeup. She was very thin, very frail and appeared very weak. And then the class started. The pianist played the introduction to the first exercise and I now saw this very elderly dancer in a completely different way. I will NEVER forget the look of pure joy on her face as she started her first demi plié. She was one with the music. She was one with the studio. She was happy and she was home. And I realized at that moment that I was not looking at my biggest fear. I was looking at what would one day be my fourth body. The body that I would have to train once again to work in yet a new and different way.

Each time I have retrained I have LEARNED. Each time I have retrained I have become a better teacher. So now, without fear and with an open heart, I will one day welcome my fourth body. And my very elderly, frail and weak fourth body will confidently and unapologetically take its place in a studio. I will be one with the music. I will be happy. I will be home. And once again I will train it. And I will LEARN.

Ballet is the foundation of…

There is a saying that has taken a very strong foothold in our industry; a saying that has been on the lips of many dance teachers and on the websites of many dance studios for years:

“Ballet is the foundation of all dance.”

Before I discuss this adage, I would like to explain (for those who are unfamiliar with my work and career) my place in the dance industry, which will clearly influence my point of view. I am most widely known as one of the “keepers of the flame” of the Luigi Jazz Technique. I studied with Luigi for decades, I was certified by him to teach his technique, and I have traveled the world passing on his beautiful method. The majority of my day to day work, however, is as a ballet teacher at The Joffrey Ballet School, Ballet Academy East, New York Film Academy and The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

So, as I see it, ballet is the foundation of ballet.

There are some genres of dance that clearly have ballet in their roots. This is nothing new. Since the beginning of time, art forms have influenced each other. Many modern dance techniques (but not all), many Jazz techniques (but not all), and some newer genres such as contemporary and lyrical dance, can trace part of their heritage to the traditions of classical ballet. Classical ballet training provides a very specific esthetic, alignment, elongation, placement, strength and form of control that is foundational to ballet and the aforementioned genres that claim ballet in their roots. A dancer of any genre that embraces the very specific esthetic that ballet training produces will benefit from ballet training. (One of my colleagues has stated that Pilates and Yoga can provide the same benefits, and on this point I will respectfully disagree, but this is a small point in this particular discussion.) If a dancer is focused on a career in western concert dance genres such as modern, contemporary, Broadway style theater dance, some forms of jazz, etc., ballet training will help produce the desired technique and esthetic for which most choreographers, directors and producers are looking. Many Broadway shows (not all, it depends on the style) require a ballet audition. I should add that more and more works are being created for very commercial venues that are employing dance forms that are not based in this esthetic; most certainly a positive change.

The esthetic that ballet produces, however, is in no way the foundation of ALL DANCE.

We live on a very big planet and the diversity of cultures that populate the globe is both incredibly rich and incredibly vast. It would be impossible to discuss ALL dance forms. It would be impossible to simply compile a list. I will, instead, discuss a few forms to make a point.

I live in New York City. I was born here and I have spent my entire life here. I must qualify this discussion by stating that I am not well educated in Hip-Hop and street styles but I do live in a major urban center and these styles are all around me. If there are any inaccuracies in this article, I do welcome comments and corrections from my colleagues who were brought up, live and work in the Hip-Hop culture and industry. After all, if I can’t listen, how can I learn?

A number of years ago I was asked to join the faculty of Cora Dance as a ballet teacher. Cora Dance makes it’s home in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. This is not a competition studio. It is a school dedicated to teaching dance to children as a means of passing on art and enriching lives. Period. Seeing the Hip-Hop being taught at this studio was a revelation. This was not the Hip-Hop that I saw in the social media videos coming out of neighborhood studios and dance competitions. This Hip-Hop was a completely different thing. It was thrilling, exciting, innovative, energized, incredibly musical and it literally took my breath away. It was here that I started learning what little I know about Hip-Hop culture, training and how the dance forms are taught and passed on. But the most import thing I realized watching these classes was that ballet was absolutely and in no way part of this art form. In fact, in my opinion, ballet could interfere with Hip-Hop training as the esthetic is so very different. Similarly, it appears to me (please correct me if I’m wrong) that ballet could interfere with certain styles of tap dance. I can’t imagine that ballet could be foundational, or even helpful in any way, to the work of Jason Samuels Smith (with whom I have worked when he was a child) or Savion Glover. The style of Jazz that I teach is clearly rooted in Ballet (as well as the Modern Dance techniques of Michio Ito and Doris Humphries). Luigi acknowledged the ballet foundation in his work and often credited his teacher, the great Bronislava Nijinska. But Luigi’s work (and much of the Jazz taught at dance studios across the country) is just a TINY PART of what Jazz dance actually is. The real beginnings of Jazz the real foundation at the base of the great tree that is Jazz is in African Dance and the dance forms of African Americans. It would be ludicrous to think that ballet is at the foundation of the work of Pepsi Bethel or the performances of the great star Josephine Baker. In my opinion, ballet training would have interfered with the magic that these luminaries brought to the stage. The subject of Jazz and its roots is beautifully discussed in the film Uprooted – The Journey of Jazz. It was indeed an honor and a privilege to have been part of this film.

There are countless dance forms that have been developed in every corner of the world; dance forms that have had no contact with the ballet technique that started developing centuries ago in France, later spreading and continuing its development throughout Europe. These forms are rich and beautiful and varied and have absolutely no basis in or connection to ballet technique.

Those of us who are seeing this article are living in a Eurocentric world. And this does sadden me. Because that world has placed an unfair importance on ballet’s place in the dance industry. It has caused ballet to eclipse the infinite, varied, and beautiful dance forms that populate the globe. And it is a lack of understanding, a lack of open mindedness, a lack of education that has lead to the proclamation that “ballet is the foundation of all dance”. Clearly there is much work to be done, clearly there are things to change. I wish I had more answers, but I do not. I am one ballet teacher in an enormous industry, trying to scratch out a living in the hyper-competitive New York City arena. In an attempt to do this work, to make these changes, ballet has been (in some discussions) vilified. Ballet is not the villain here. Ballet is an art form. It is my hope that the world will see all art forms, all dance forms for their inherent value and beauty. I hope that we can all work to make that happen.

Fundraiser for the Ukrainian Red Cross

Dancespiration Designs, a small ethical dance wear supply company, with 15 other brands on board including Lucky Leo Dancewear and A Ballet Education, has set up a fundraiser for the Ukrainian Red Cross. They are sponsoring prizes for a fundraising competition. 100% of the proceeds will be donated to the Ukrainian Red Cross. So far, they have managed to raise approximately $900 USD but are hoping to do much better! Check out the fantastic work they are doing here:

Raffle Tickets – Ukraine Crisis Appeal

When We Doubt Ourselves

I have been teaching for many years. I have been taught by some of the very best teachers in New York. I have taught at some of the very best schools in New York, including The Joffrey Ballet School and Ballet Academy East. And yet, at times, I have doubts. 

Over the years I have had professional dancers attend my open classes; working dancers with actual careers who I have confidently taught, guided and helped. But today was different. As the students filed into my intermediate ballet class at BAE, I noticed three young women who looked, acted and carried themselves like polished professional dancers. We have all seen this type of dancer in open NYC classes and it’s always great fun for me to have them in class. But then I noticed, in the back corner of the room, and older woman taking her place at the barre. And there was something very different about her. I explained the first exercise, the pianist played the introduction, and I saw, from that back corner, something that I rarely see these days; a dancer with real depth, richness and beauty. I saw it immediately, from the first port de bras and the first tendu. There was a quality, a fullness, a sense of internal artistry and control that I very rarely see today. She reminded me of the great dancers of my youth. 

And I started worrying.


Was I qualified to “teach” this dancer? What does she think of my class? What does she think of ME? I started too late. I never had a conservatory training. I never danced with a major company. She will see all of this and she will know.. And a little pesky voice kept whispering doubts in my ear as my meticulously prepared lesson started fading in my memory. I struggled to remember my combinations, and I worried more. But I am a teacher, and I pushed through. 
I watched the three young professionals dance their way through my combinations with clear technique, musicality and phrasing. They had beautiful high extensions, secure turns and buoyant jumps. But it was the older woman in the back of the room who kept pulling my eye. Her stunning quality of movement, her carefully sculpted epaulment, her musicality, phrasing and style were breathtaking. 


And I continued to worry.


At the end of the class the students filed out, each cheerfully thanking me. I am new at BAE so I am trying my best to connect with each student, learn names  (something with which I truly struggle) and become part of the BAE family. This older dancer was the last to leave. She thanked me with a smile. I said to her: “You are absolutely beautiful, where did you dance?” Her response: “American Ballet Theater, but to be honest, these days I feel like sh#t!” And then she gave me a warm chuckle, took my hand and said “Let’s chat”. 

Well as it turns out we had studied with many of the same teachers, had several mutual friends and she was an absolute delight. She spoke of her performing career, and her teaching career and her aches and pains (we all seem to have them) and before I knew it, forty five minutes had flown by. 


And as she got up for the bench on which we sat she took my hand again and said: “From the first exercise that you demonstrated I could see that you were beautifully trained. There is something very interesting and musical about the way you put the steps together. I’ll be back.” And she was gone. And so was my worry.


Now this is New York, and there are many beautiful dancers here. And chances are that sometime in the future another dancer like this will grace my studio. And I will see that dancer. And I will worry. Because after all, I am only human.

Live Music in the Studio

As many of you know, I was an adult beginner. I took my first ballet class at the age of 26, after completing one year of Jazz training with the legendary Luigi. My very first ballet class was a beginner class at the Joffrey Ballet School, my second class was a beginner class at Ballet Academy East. Having had no knowledge of, or experience with ballet training, I didn’t really know what to expect. I assumed there would be a barre, I assumed there would be a teacher, I assumed there would be a lot of confusing French terminology. But it never occurred to me that there would be live music. As I excitedly took my place at the barre, a musician took his place at the piano. The class started, the teacher explained the first exercise and the pianist played the first introduction. I was simply not prepared for the sensation of dancing to live music. Luigi’s Jazz classes used recorded music; legendary jazz recordings as well as music composed to specifically accompany his famous technique exercises. He had an excellent sound system, the quality was first rate and the music provided the necessary support and inspiration. But the experience of live music in these ballet classes was something altogether different.

I grew up in a musical home. My father had been a professional reed player, my mother a well trained amateur pianist and I was given many years of training, studying both clarinet and piano. It isn’t as though live music was a new experience for me. But dancing to live acoustic music was a completely new sensation. There is something about the way the sound of a piano fills the room that is strikingly different than music coming from a speaker. I’m sure a physicist could explain it but in this instance the science doesn’t interest me. It was as if the music penetrated my body. It was as if the music went right to the core of my being. It was as if the music was helping me dance from the inside.

The story of my unusual path to a performing career and now teaching career is known to most of my readers; but for those who are not familiar with my work, I now make my home at the Joffrey Ballet School and Ballet Academy East where I am passing on the great dance traditions that I was taught. And as a teacher I have really come to appreciate the value of our excellent musicians.

Live music gives me freedom. Our musicians easily adapt and adjust to any changes in tempo and meter that I need, allowing me to tailor my lesson to the specific needs of the students in front of me without having to stop and search through playlists. Live music allows me to more effectively teach my students without the stagnant dead space that occurs while I search for a track when I need to deviate from my prepared lesson.

Live music provides me with teaching moments. I have never been a teacher who teaches from a purely technical standpoint. The art of dance is so much more than technique. Each of our musicians brings a different and endlessly varied repertoire of music; often providing a jumping off point for a short commentary about the score of a great ballet, or a jazz standard, or a tune from the musical theater cannon, enriching the students’ education and experience in the room.

Live music allows me to inspire my students in a way that recorded music never will. Every time the sound of a piano fills the studio I relive the sensations that I experienced in my first classes. I implore my students to experience that sound; to allow the music to enter their bodies, their minds and their hearts and to feel the music coax the dance from the inside out. I ask them not to dance TO the music but to dance INSIDE the music. And as my teachers nurtured me, I am much better able to nurture the artist that lies deep inside each dancer.

More on Technique and Artistry

In a discussion on Baryshnikov I made a comment that lead to further discussions on technique and artistry. This blog post has been crafted from my comments in these discussions.

Martha Graham summed it up when she said “Great dancers aren’t great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion”. Near perfect technique will impress an audience, but the real magic that MOVES an audience comes from a very deep place within. Bringing THAT to the audience is what will move them, and what will stay with them; always. I am so fortunate that many of my teachers taught from this point of view (especially my beloved Luigi), and I strive to cultivate this quality in my students. Sadly, I feel like a dinosaur, as no one really seems to be teaching this way any more, and fewer and fewer people are valuing anything past a high leg, exciting jump or technically strong pirouettes.

One of my colleagues commented that artistry and technique were one and the same thing. I do not agree that technique and artistry the same thing; although I believe that for the final result to be what we all would recognize as a truly beautiful and artistic performance, technique and artistry must be taught simultaneously. A wonderful Vaganova trained pedagogue once explained to me how artistry is taught in the Vaganova method by gradually adding layers of nuance in epaulment, head positions, eye positions, etc. as the student progresses through the levels. This teacher is extremely gifted and knowledgeable, and the result that comes out of the Vaganova Academy is certainly impressive, but on this point I disagree.

Head positions, eye positions and epaulment are just more technique. I believe artistry is more about quality of movement, musicality and an inexplicable energy, emotion and life that comes from the deepest part of the dancer; and this must be cultivated right from the beginning. Luigi said: “To dance, put your hand in your heart and listen to the sound of your soul.”. Doris Humphrey so famously said “Dance from the inside.” and her teaching and philosophy resonate throughout Luigi’s work, and consequently throughout my teaching. I implore my students to feel everything BEFORE they do it. I encourage them to dance from a very deep place; to let the music inside their body and have it inform the movement. I encourage them to feel the space around them and resist against that space. I teach them to search for connections in the body. Every moment must be alive and the body must move on the inside, even when it is still on the outside, and even when executing something as simple as a tendu or a demi plié. Very few students will fully embrace this way of working, very few students will fully understand the need for this depth of work and consequently the truly great artists are slowly disappearing as more and more dancers and choreographers are searching for more impressive things to bring to the stage. Audiences may be impressed by these technical feats; but audiences don’t remember what you do, they remember how you make them feel.

Why I Tell the Story

On a stormy day in 1946 a 21 year old aspiring dancer, Eugene Louis Faccuito, was on his way to buy ballet slippers. A devastating car accident left him with a crushed skull, a paralyzed body and a broken dream. But after waking up from a coma and being told by his doctors that he would never walk again, he realized that conventional physical therapy was not going to work. He could feel that the movement had to come from the inside. He discovered that he could press down on the space, using the space for support like an imaginary barre, and slowly begin to regain the use of his paralyzed limbs and find his alignment and placement. He also realized that he could use epaulment to give his body balance and direction to move through space and gradually and methodically he built a masterful technique and a stunning personal style. He was hired by the legendary Gene Kelly to dance in his film On the Town and it was on the set of this film that Faccuito began teaching the other dancers in the ensemble. Gene Kelly renamed Eugene Louis Faccuito LUIGI, and so was born the technique that forever changed the way dance was taught.

Every time I teach Luigi’s technique to a new group of students I tell this story. And as the years roll by, fewer and fewer students know the name Luigi or have knowledge of the origins of this technique. And with each passing decade, fewer and fewer teachers and program directors are familiar with this story and the technique’s relevance and place in history. The retelling of the story has taken on, for me, ever more importance.

Now, as I relate this story to a new group of students (except at the highest level conservatory level) I am most often met with blank stares. I am met with impatience as the dancers want to learn new choreography and I am met with disengaged students who are practicing pirouettes and splits. But still, I tell the story.

Recently I faced a very large group of rather beginner level 12-14 year olds in a summer intensive. I asked, as I always do: “Has anyone ever heard of Luigi?” And a tentative hand went up. “Where did you hear about him?” I asked. “I read his name somewhere on the internet and so I decided to Google him” replied the student. I asked the student to share what she had learned and she began to tell the story of this tragic accident that gave rise to a legendary teacher. I filled in the missing details and this group of students was spellbound. They had so many questions and were so moved and touched by the discussion that I was almost unable to start class. Perhaps it was because one of their peers began the discussion, perhaps it was because they were in a particularly receptive mood or perhaps this was simply a group with interested open minds, but this story had a profound impact.

Luigi technique is not simple and it is not easy. Doing it well takes years of study. Teaching it well takes a lifetime of study. And it is a slow and painstaking way of working that few seem to have the patience for today. But these beginners, who were probably expecting their Jazz class to be fun and “sassy”, fully committed to the work at hand. For the remainder of this class these beginners studied like professionals; with full commitment to the work, probing and thoughtful questions and a spirit of exploration that made my heart sing. If only my beloved Luigi was alive to see them. He adored beginners. He was my first teacher and his commitment to the training of beginners gave me my life.

I have said so often that this technique has been responsible for some of the most beautiful, interesting and unique dancers the stage has ever seen. Luigi once told me “I don’t train chorus dancers, I make stars”. And so I will continue to tell this story, and teach this technique, because it is too important not to survive.

Luigi is famous for having said many things:

“Learn to feel your technique and your technique will become your feelings.”
“To dance, put your hand on your heart and listen to the sound of your soul.”

And of course:

“Never stop moving.”

But there is another phrase that all Jazz teachers seem to use, that Luigi used first. A phrase that is inextricable from Jazz. A phrase that forever impacted Jazz and dance as a whole:

“a 5, 6, 7, 8!”