“I Was Taught That…“, The WHY Behind the WHAT

As teachers, we often discuss what and how we teach. We have these discussions in faculty rooms, we have these discussions on the telephone and now, more than ever, we have these discussions on the internet. A question might be posed, or a topic is brought up, and we will very often begin our thoughts with “I was taught that…”.

I have always believed that there is something very special about the way our art form is passed down from teacher to student. The real truth of the work is not kept In a book or on a video, it is kept in our bodies and in our hearts. And we pass this work, from teacher to student, for generations. I believe that all dance teachers are part of a distinguished line of teaching and I have always felt extremely fortunate and honored that I was trained by Luigi and can trace my ballet lineage directly to Cecchetti and Vaganova.


Recently I found myself embroiled in a discussion on grand plié in fourth position. Each of the participants explained what they had been taught about grand plié in fourth. Many explained when, and under what circumstances they used grand plié in fourth. Many expressed concerns about injury risks related to grand plié in fourth. But almost nobody explained or discussed WHY they taught it. Few seemed to have a reason that went deeper than “I was taught that…”.
I have already written an article on the different paths to becoming a dance teacher (https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2017/02/27/pedagogy-the-art-science-or-profession-of-teaching/). Regardless of the path that we take to this career, I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to examine the “why”. Even with extensive pedagogical training, the exploration of the “why” will enrich what we bring to the classroom.


As I look back on the teaching I received from the great teachers under whom I studied, I realize that none of these teachers, even those with extensive pedagogical knowledge, relied solely on what they had been taught. Each of them deeply examined what they taught and why they taught it. And often what they taught was fluid, and changed over time, as that examination of the work grew deeper year by year. Even Gabriella Darvash told me recently that what she taught and how she taught drastically changed since the time when I was her student. And along with this ever changing approach comes a realization that what is “correct” also has some fluidity. I am constantly surprised by the number of teachers who are very quick to exclaim “that is wrong!” when faced with something they have never seen before; simply because it is not how they were taught. I think, in this respect, we have a responsibility to keep an open mind. I have had so many thrilling  “ah ha!” moments since my days with Madame Darvash, when teachers presented different ideas to which I was at first resistant. Deeper exploration of these ideas changed me as a teacher, helped me grow my knowledge and understanding and greatly benefitted my students. I realized that to have a deep understanding, and a real understanding of HOW technique works, one must explore and analyze the work of many great teachers. It is nearly impossible to learn it all from one source.


Recently, a colleague remarked to me that she felt that I was irresponsible. She believes that teaching ballet experientially was doing my students a great disservice. She believes that the only way to effectively train a dancer is to undergo some sort of codified teacher training and then, essentially, regurgitate this teaching method to the students. Codified methods work. They produce results. The Luigi technique is a codified Jazz method in which I was trained and I now teach. But if I simply parroted to my students, exactly what Luigi said, without examining how and why it worked, THAT would be, in my opinion, irresponsible. No great teacher has ever worked in that manner.


Every day I go into the studio. Every day I bring with me the work of the great teachers with whom I was fortunate to study: Gabriella Darvash, David Howard, Elena Kunikova, Lisa Lockwood, Zvi Gotheiner, Diane Bryan (the finest adult beginner ballet teacher I’ve ever encountered), David Storey, Richard Pierlon and of course the legendary Luigi. And every day I look at the work, I examine how it feels and I analyze what each step, exercise and component brings to the training. I try to see what enriches the work and above all, how I can bring both technique and artistry to to the student. I will never have the knowledge, insight or instincts of a Luigi or a Madame Darvash because that level of genius is very rare. But what I did learn from them is the importance of examining the work and the exploration of the “why”.


THAT is what I was taught.

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. 

Children Will Listen

I have written many articles which include bits of my personal history in dance; my very late start at 25 years of age and a family structure that did not encourage or support a career in the arts. I have previously recounted an incident that occurred during an argument with my mother, when she said: “But you never asked for dance lessons”. And she was right. I never did. And at the time that I wrote that article, I said that the reason why I never asked for dance lessons was because I felt that hearing “No” would have been too painful. And that is true.

But there was another reason.

Our memories and our minds work in mysterious ways, and recently a memory came flooding  back with a vengeance.

My sister, who is four years my junior WAS, as a small child, given dance classes. On a few occasions I was brought along and, through a glass window, I watched her classes. I studied her teacher, Mrs. Wright. She seemed to hold the key to a world that I so desperately wanted to be part of. I watched her teach class, and I hung on her every word. I was nine years old. I was the type of child that never wanted to make waves. I was the type of child that wanted to be “good”. I was the type of child who desperately wanted to fit in; although I never really did.

At the end of the class, the children came streaming out of the studio and Mrs. Wright stopped to chat with some parents. Again, I was hanging on her every word. And in one of these casual conversations I heard her say, with a roll of her eyes:

“Thank God I have no BOYS in this class this year”. As if boys in her dance class were a problem. As if boys didn’t belong or fit in.

Those words had power. Those words affected me.

I HEARD that remark. And I listened. And consequently, I never asked.

Perhaps if I hadn’t been brought a long that day I wouldn’t have heard that remark. Perhaps I might have asked for lessons. Perhaps I might have had a different life. But our lives take the path that they take, and I will never know what might have been if I had started training as a child. I have taken responsibility for my decisions and made my peace with them. However, I still wonder…
But I do know that we must be mindful of what we say and do around a child. Our words have power and their futures are so uncertain.

Children will listen.

Teaching Ballet to Musical Theater Students; A New Focus

My career path has been strange to say the least. For my new readers who may not be familiar with the story: I was an adult beginner dancer with a short but reasonably successful professional career. I “retired” just shy of my 35th birthday and didn’t dance at all for 9 years. I started taking class again at 43 and met the legendary Broadway dancer Lisa Gajda who recommended me for my first professional teaching job: teaching Ballet at the musical theater conservatory CAP21. That recommendation lead to a completely new career path that I could have never imagined.

Throughout my teaching career, teaching Ballet to musical theater students has been my “stock in trade”. In addition to the Joffrey Ballet School, I am a regular faculty member in the musical theater programs at Molloy College, New York Film Academy, New York Conservatory for Performing Arts and I have traveled as far as Dublin, Ireland to teach at the Phoenix Performing Arts College (a truly remarkable musical theater program). And with each passing semester, each passing year, each new student that places their trust and their futures in my teaching, I have examined and re-examined the ballet education for musical theater students.
When I was training, the concept of the Musical Theater Conservatory was a new idea. The only program that I was aware of at that time was AMDA, and most aspiring performers shied away from this program, rather opting to train in open dance classes, small independent acting schools and with private voice teachers and coaches. We would cobble together a training regimen that suited our talents, tastes and interests. It was understood by most of us that in order to be a technically secure dancer for the type of dancing that would be required on the musical theater stage, ballet training was essential; and most of us started our day with a ballet class. 

When the new musical theater conservatories started springing up, and programs were being developed, ballet classes were rarely scheduled more than three times per week. As time went on, and programs evolved, most programs decreased ballet classes to twice or sometimes once per week. This presents a problem for the teacher. We are now faced with teaching a discipline that, for it’s 300 year history required daily training, in one or two classes per week. For these performers, ballet training is being used to “build the instrument”; to turn the performers’ body into a machine that can, with technical security, execute a wide range of dance vocabulary. Not only must the performer have this technical security, but they must have style, artistry, musicality and presence as well. Ballet only works to achieve these goals if it is taught to these students the way it is taught to ballet dancers. 

Over time I have have been adjusting my syllabi; tweaking what I do in the classroom to best serve my students’ needs. Of primary importance is “placement” and what Vaganova referred to as aplomb. The alignment of the bones/body, the positioning of the hips/pelvis, and vertical steadiness must be of primary importance. Ballet teachers can spend hours dissecting this topic. The Jazz master Luigi’s concept of “pressing down against the space” has always worked for me to quickly find that placement, aplomb and steadiness and I have brought that concept into my ballet studio. A clean shift of the weight from one foot to another is also essential. I started striving to create barre exercises that will achieve this placement, aplomb and steadiness, and I EXPLAIN as clearly and efficiently as I can HOW the exercises should be executed to achieve these ends. The exercises alone are never going to be responsible for the result; it is HOW the exercises are done that achieves the end. Luigi was a master explainer and I am so grateful for my years under his tutelage because it is in the EXPLANATION that the knowledge is imparted. 

Musical theater dancers also need to develop a sense of musicality and phrasing. Most ballet “technique” classes are designed to teach just that; technique. The typical ballet student will develop the nuances of musicality and phrasing in their variations, character and pas de deux classes as well as in their coaching sessions. But musical theater dancers will rarely take such classes. I therefore have started constructing my exercises and combinations to have complex rhythms and have started insisting more and more on a deep attention to musicality and phrasing, even in a tendu exercise. I will tell my students to “feel the music from the inside” and to “dance the sound rather than the steps” right from the very first moment that their hand touches the barre. This attention to musicality and phrasing must become part of how the dancer works instinctively, and this seems to be the best way to get that job done. I will talk about the music for ballet class. I will touch on the differences between a Polonaise, a Waltz and a Mazurka; not because the students will be performing these dances but because a knowledge of the musical forms will increase their understanding of music general.
Musical theater dancers will need to develop epaument, line and presence. They will need a rich and exquisite port de bras and need to develop a way of communicating what they do to reach and move an audience. Again, I have started creating exercises focusing on these facets of the work and started explaining the combinations in a way that highlights and clarifies these aspects of ballet. 

What I have realized recently, is that what musical theater dancers do not need (in general) are a near perfect turn out, high legs in adagio and brilliant petite allegro (beats). Professional musical theater jobs that require this aspect of the ballet technique (dancing roles in shows with “dream ballets” or extensive ballet sequences such as Oklahoma!CarouselOn Your ToesPhantom…, and Brigadoon ) are going to ballet dancers. Broadway productions are boasting cast members from NYCB  and ABT in these parts. Well, since producers are mining big ballet companies to fill these technical demands, I am finding it less necessary to train my students for jobs that they aren’t going to get anyway. I am, of course, still teaching turn out, but I am teaching HOW to use turn out for stability and I am respecting their bodies’ limitations. I am, of course still teaching adagio, but the FOCUS of the adagio is on the line, phrasing, quality of movement and the vulnerability of the exercise, rather than the height of the leg. And of course I am still teaching jumps and beats, but the FOCUS of the allegro exercises is on power, exuberance and the quality of the jumping rather than the lightning quick beating and ever more complex petite allegro combinations.

My teaching is still a work in progress. There is so much that I still do not know. But as I am charged with preparing my students for an ever changing musical theater industry, at conservatories with ever changing programs, I am constantly reevaluating what I bring to the classroom. As I continue to craft my ballet classes for my musical theater students, I am changing the focus to suit their needs. I am still teaching ballet, the way it was taught to me by my master teachers. I am still presenting a ballet class in its entirety, the way it has been presented for generations. But I am changing the focus. And I hope that this change will help my students succeed in this industry. Only time will tell. 

Searching in this Pandemic as my Career Takes and Unexpected Turn

I have, for many years, considered The Joffrey Ballet School my “professional home”. Throughout my teaching career Joffrey has given me consistent employment, limitless support and a full understanding of my vision for what dance education can be. But I certainly didn’t start my teaching career at Joffrey. I started at Hamilton Dance. The brilliant Rita Hamilton who trained generations of dancers in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, took a chance on an aspiring ballet teacher with absolutely no experience, and in 1989 gave me my first teaching job. She was a consistent and loyal mentor, role model and dear friend from our first meeting and I could have never become the teacher that I am without her guidance, support and love. 

When we found ourself in the midst of a pandemic, and studios closed, Rita made her school accessible to me, and this little studio in Greenpoint became my new home. I could safely teach all of my Zoom classes for five different schools in this studio (my apartment is far too small), I could give myself daily class in this studio, I could work on choreography in this studio, and she never took a dime in rent. And as the pandemic raged on I had some online triumphs and I had some online disasters. I felt inspired to dance and I felt resigned to dance. I felt at home, and I felt imprisoned; and all in this tiny studio.

In the midst of this pandemic Rita became quite ill (not COVID-19 related) and required extensive surgery. Anyone who has ever met Rita Hamilton would describe her as a force of nature and a power to be reckoned with; I had no doubt that she would recover. But I was wrong. And Rita tragically left us much too soon. And the despair in that tiny studio engulfed me. But the studio was there. And I danced.

Well, it appears that this beautiful studio that Rita Hamilton built will be closing its doors forever. The countless children that have been touched by her brilliance will have to find a new place to dance, and I am losing my home. I have been helping with the clean-up/clean-out. I have been finding homes for dance wear, costumes and barres. I have been quietly saying goodbye to my professional home. And I never knew that it would be so hard.

So I am now, once again, looking into the future with uncertainty; a place that I have found myself so many times before. My online classes will have to be taught from somewhere, I’m just not sure where that will be. My grandmother, with whom I was very close, used to say: “When a door closes, a window opens”. Well this is a very big door and it is slamming shut very hard. And I keep looking. And I don’t see that window. At least not yet. 

One of the most important things that I have learned from my dance training is the importance of relentlessly looking and searching. I have spent decades searching for just the right line, just the right the right placement, just the right musicality, phrasing and quality. Some of things I have found and figured out. Some things I’m still working on. And it is this search that has been central to my growth as a dancer and educator. Now I’m facing a different kind of search and a different kind of challenge. Rita was limitlessly optimistic and always had confidence in me; much more than I had in myself. And so as I search for a new place to dance and to teach my virtual classes, I am searching for the confidence in me that Rita always saw. I hope that Rita’s limitless optimism and confidence will help me find, and open that window. Only time will tell.

The Reverse Engineering of Fame

I recently stumbled upon a social media post that contained the following question, posed for discussion:

“What makes an artist relevant?”

What followed was a discussion among aspiring artists in various fields, detailing the desire for relevance, what constituted relevance and what one should strive for to achieve relevance. As the importance of social media continues to grow and we become more and more reliant on this virtual digital world that we cave created for ourselves, artists who are at the beginning of their careers are feeling ever pressured to  make a lasting impact on the world and to be ever more relevant. This pressure seems to have shifted the focus of the very nature of the making of art for these young creatives; the impact, the relevance, the celebrity seems to come first, the creation of the art comes later.

I recently saw an ad for a choreography job. The ad made it quite clear that in addition to a resume and video submission, social media following would be a primary consideration in the selection process. 

This reverse engineering of fame worries me.

Artists are now attempting to cultivate  a social media reach that establishes their relevance and makes an impact, BEFORE they have done the actual WORK. And what is even more worrisome is that the industries in which they are working are placing such great importance on this “relevance” and “impact”. I have seen videos by students at the Vaganova Academy that aim to achieve reach. How can it be, that for a student coming out of the legendary Vaganova Academy, the dancing, the making of art, isn’t enough to secure a career?

I am aware that I trained in a very different world, and more and more, as I write these articles, I find myself pining for the past. There once was a time when artists longed to make art. They were consumed by their vision. They were consumed by the training required to bring that vision to fruition. They were consumed by exploration, innovation and experimentation. And they created. And the world was astonished; or not. But the ideas of relevance and impact was not part of the process; they were bestowed by the audiences and critics who experienced the work.

So many artists and teachers of my generation, in every field of the arts, are feeling a decline in the quality of what is being produced. And I do believe that this is more than simply longing for the days when we were young. The wonders of the internet and social media have changed the world and I believe that most of us would agree that this change is most definitely for the better. But as our artistic communities continue to place ever more importance on this fabricated relevance and impact, I worry for the future of the arts. I can only hope that the industry will once again see the importance in vision, innovation, work and integrity. And I can only implore young artists to search for their voice and commit to the tireless work and integrity required to bring that work to the world. For it is too late for me. I started dancing too old and I stopped too young and I could never have had the chance to be the relevant artist who could impact the world. But to the young artists who stand poised on the threshold of a career, consider carefully how you tread, because you are the future, and the survival of truly great art lies in your hands.

The Reverse Engineering of Fame

I recently stumbled upon a social media post that contained the following question, posed for discussion:

“What makes an artist relevant?”

What followed was a discussion among aspiring artists in various fields, detailing the desire for relevance, what constituted relevance and what one should strive for to achieve relevance. As the importance of social media continues to grow and we become more and more reliant on this virtual digital world that we cave created for ourselves, artists who are at the beginning of their careers are feeling ever pressured to  make a lasting impact on the world and to be ever more relevant. This pressure seems to have shifted the focus of the very nature of the making of art for these young creatives; the impact, the relevance, the celebrity seems to come first, the creation of the art comes later.

I recently saw an ad for a choreography job. The ad made it quite clear that in addition to a resume and video submission, social media following would be a primary consideration in the selection process. 

This reverse engineering of fame worries me.

Artists are now attempting to cultivate  a social media reach that establishes their relevance and makes an impact, BEFORE they have done the actual WORK. And what is even more worrisome is that the industries in which they are working are placing such great importance on this “relevance” and “impact”. I have seen videos by students at the Vaganova Academy that aim to achieve reach. How can it be, that for a student coming out of the legendary Vaganova Academy, the dancing, the making of art, isn’t enough to secure a career?

I am aware that I trained in a very different world, and more and more, as I write these articles, I find myself pining for the past. There once was a time when artists longed to make art. They were consumed by their vision. They were consumed by the training required to bring that vision to fruition. They were consumed by exploration, innovation and experimentation. And they created. And the world was astonished; or not. But the ideas of relevance and impact was not part of the process; they were bestowed by the audiences and critics who experienced the work. 

So many artists and teachers of my generation, in every field of the arts, are feeling a decline in the quality of what is being produced. And I do believe that this is more than simply longing for the days when we were young. The wonders of the internet and social media have changed the world and I believe that most of us would agree that this change is most definitely for the better. But as our artistic communities continue to place ever more importance on this fabricated relevance and impact, I worry for the future of the arts. I can only hope that the industry will once again see the importance in vision, innovation, work and integrity. And I can only implore young artists to search for their voice and commit to the tireless work and integrity required to bring that work to the world. For it is too late for me. I started dancing too old and I stopped too young and I could never have had the chance to be the relevant artist who could impact the world. But to the young artists who stand poised on the threshold of a career, consider carefully how you tread, because you are the future, and the survival of truly great art lies in your hands.

Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?

Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?

Since I started writing and participating in social media dance discussions, I have aggressively and consistently avoided this topic. Recently, this topic reared it’s head once again in the guise of an innocent post that was worded as follows:

“ à la seconde extensions: hip up/open or hip squared?”

The original author then went on to explain how she had been trained and what she occasionally sees in other dancers. The overwhelming consensus in the responses to this query was that the hips should be squared and level for both Retiré and for the extension of the leg to the side. Some of the responses included the atomic need to lift the working hip when the extension to the side is significantly above 90°. In nearly every response, the reason given for “squared” or level hips was: “This is how I was taught.”

Well this was NOT how I was taught. 

For most of my performing career my ballet teacher was Madame Gabriela Darvash and Mme Darvash had some very different ideas about many of ballet’s technical points. And every one of her ideas had a REASON behind it. Here is what she taught on this particular point:
If a dancer stands in “Retiré” with “square” hips, and you draw a line from the center of the head to the center of the standing hip to the center of the standing foot, that line will form (for most  dancers) a slightly obtuse angle. 

If that same dancer “pulls up” in that standing hip as much as possible, then the line from the head to the standing hip to the standing foot will be a straight line like a flag pole, with the leg in Retiré out to the side like that flag. 

How will the dancer balance better: with the body forming an angle or with the body lined up in a straight line? (In a straight line!) And if the balance is better, the turns will be better and the technique will be stronger and the dancer will be freer to be more expressive. This always made sense to me, this always worked for me and this is what I pass on to my students. Mme Darvash went on to explain that the idea of level hips is a misinterpretation of the word “square”. She told us that when Mme Vaganova said “square” she meant square FRONT rather than twisted and she never intended the hips in Retiré to be LEVEL. I can not attest to the veracity of this last statement. I wasn’t there. I’ve never trained in Russia. Mme Vaganova died ten years before I was born. Now methods and ideas change (this is why the Vaganova Academy has no published text book) but according to my teacher, this is what Vaganova taught; at least during the time that she trained in Russia.

Students (especially beginners) need ONE WAY to train. When they are acquiring their technique they must have one way to work and they must trust their teacher. I trusted Mme Darvash. She had produced many great dancers who were principals in some of the world’s great companies as well as many brilliant dancers on Broadway. And at the beginning of my career I believed that EVERYTHING she taught was RIGHT (and, consequently, if another teacher taught something differently, they were in my mind obviously WRONG). 

As I continued through my performing career, my nine year absence from the dance industry after my retirement from the stage, and began my teaching career I held firmly to the the belief that everything I learned from my teacher was CORRECT. But as I continued to study and train, even though I was now a teacher rather than a performer, I was frequently coming up against new ideas. For the most part I pushed back, KNOWING that what I was taught was right. But over time I came to realize that some of Mme Darvash’s ideas and teachings were being replaced in my mind, in my work and in my teaching by new ideas. Ideas that had a REASON behind them and ideas that were working in my body. But this particular concept of Retiré and Développé à la Seconde has never changed for me. I have never been able to dance better with square hips. I have never been presented with any reason why square or level hips work better. And “That is how I was taught” will never be a good enough reason for me.

I do not ask that my readers agree with my ideas on Retiré and Développé à la Seconde. I know that most of you never will. I am not out to change anybody’s mind and I am most definitely not looking for an argument. I only ask that you think about WHY you teach what you teach. The most exciting part of the work for me is the exploration. “That’s how I was taught” is not a good enough reason for me. The deep exploration of “why” has made me the teacher that I am and has given me a thrilling and continuous source of wonder. And I hope, that from my small and insignificant corner of the ballet world, I can share that source wonder with you.

Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?

Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?

Since I started writing and participating in social media dance discussions, I have aggressively and consistently avoided this topic. Recently, this topic reared it’s head once again in the guise of an innocent post that was worded as follows:

“ à la seconde extensions: hip up/open or hip squared?”

The original author then went on to explain how she had been trained and what she occasionally sees in other dancers. The overwhelming consensus in the responses to this query was that the hips should be squared and level for both Retiré and for the extension of the leg to the side. Some of the responses included the atomic need to lift the working hip when the extension to the side is significantly above 90°. In nearly every response, the reason given for “squared” or level hips was: “This is how I was taught.”

Well this was NOT how I was taught. 

For most of my performing career my ballet teacher was Madame Gabriela Darvash and Mme Darvash had some very different ideas about many of ballet’s technical points. And every one of her ideas had a REASON behind it. Here is what she taught on this particular point:
If a dancer stands in “Retiré” with “square” hips, and you draw a line from the center of the head to the center of the standing hip to the center of the standing foot, that line will form (for most  dancers) a slightly obtuse angle.

If that same dancer “pulls up” in that standing hip as much as possible, then the line from the head to the standing hip to the standing foot will be a straight line like a flag pole, with the leg in Retiré out to the side like that flag. 

How will the dancer balance better: with the body forming an angle or with the body lined up in a straight line? (In a straight line!) And if the balance is better, the turns will be better and the technique will be stronger and the dancer will be freer to be more expressive. This always made sense to me, this always worked for me and this is what I pass on to my students. Mme Darvash went on to explain that the idea of level hips is a misinterpretation of the word “square”. She told us that when Mme Vaganova said “square” she meant square FRONT rather than twisted and she never intended the hips in Retiré to be LEVEL. I can not attest to the veracity of this last statement. I wasn’t there. I’ve never trained in Russia. Mme Vaganova died ten years before I was born. Now methods and ideas change (this is why the Vaganova Academy has no published text book) but according to my teacher, this is what Vaganova taught; at least during the time that she trained in Russia.

Students (especially beginners) need ONE WAY to train. When they are acquiring their technique they must have one way to work and they must trust their teacher. I trusted Mme Darvash. She had produced many great dancers who were principals in some of the world’s great companies as well as many brilliant dancers on Broadway. And at the beginning of my career I believed that EVERYTHING she taught was RIGHT (and, consequently, if another teacher taught something differently, they were in my mind obviously WRONG). 

As I continued through my performing career, my nine year absence from the dance industry after my retirement from the stage, and began my teaching career I held firmly to the the belief that everything I learned from my teacher was CORRECT. But as I continued to study and train, even though I was now a teacher rather than a performer, I was frequently coming up against new ideas. For the most part I pushed back, KNOWING that what I was taught was right. But over time I came to realize that some of Mme Darvash’s ideas and teachings were being replaced in my mind, in my work and in my teaching by new ideas. Ideas that had a REASON behind them and ideas that were working in my body. But this particular concept of Retiré and Développé à la Seconde has never changed for me. I have never been able to dance better with square hips. I have never been presented with any reason why square or level hips work better. And “That is how I was taught” will never be a good enough reason for me.

I do not ask that my readers agree with my ideas on Retiré and Développé à la Seconde. I know that most of you never will. I am not out to change anybody’s mind and I am most definitely not looking for an argument. I only ask that you think about WHY you teach what you teach. The most exciting part of the work for me is the exploration. “That’s how I was taught” is not a good enough reason for me. The deep exploration of “why” has made me the teacher that I am and has given me a thrilling and continuous source of wonder. And I hope, that from my small and insignificant corner of the ballet world, I can share that source wonder with you.

The College Degree in Dance, Does it Make for a Better Teacher?

The discussion of this question has been raging on for generations and I became aware of this divide when I first discovered that there was an online community of dance educators. Most opinions seem to sit firmly in one camp or the other and it seems that the culture surrounding the internet in general has created a generation of teachers who have an overwhelming need to be both RIGHT and THE BEST.

The college educated dance instructor will have been schooled in Dance History, Music, Pedagogy, Anatomy, Kinesiology, Dance Notation and many other relevant subjects that the non-college educated dance instructor will, in all likelihood, never have encountered.  College educated teachers tend to have better skills in constructing syllabi, creating lesson plans and seeing the overall arc of a dance education.

The studio/conservatory trained dancer who embarked on a stage career and then settled into teaching has had a very different educational exposure. Many have been taught by varied notable instructors who teach “experientially”; mining their memories for information on how they were taught, what they did to solve their own problems and how they arrived at a professional level. They will bring to their students the experience of dancing professionally on the stage, being part of a company, navigating the difficulties of the professional dance world, and actually being a part of the fabric of the industry for which we are preparing our students.

Occasionally and rarely we will encounter teachers who bring both experiences, typically returning to college to pursue a degree after a successful stage career (or sometimes, perhaps, the other way around).

There has been a feeling of disdain and contempt between the two groups since I first entered the dance community. When I was performing professionally in the late 1980’s and 1990’s it was generally assumed by working dancers that the dance education one received in a college was inferior to the education available at a professional school or conservatory. However, judging by the dancers coming out of some of those dance programs, this was simply not true. It also seemed to me, when talking with and interacting with these college educated dancers, they had been taught that without a college education, a teacher would be categorically inferior. I have, in fact, been told that I am an irresponsible teacher because I am not teaching ballet from a codified syllabus such as RAD, Cecchetti or Vaganova.

Well our opinions are formed by our own experiences. I have quoted this song lyric before; and trite though it might be:

“It all began the day I found that from my window I could only see a piece of sky.”(Alan and Marilyn Bergman)

I recently watched an interview with the great ballerina Wendy Whelan in which she recalled her time at the School of American Ballet. She talked about how each teacher brought something different to the classroom; from one teacher she got strength, from another she learned musicality, from another she learned style and from yet another she learned repertory. At that time, the great and varied SAB teachers were bringing their individual experiences to the studio. She said that she understood that all of this teaching was going to feed the one thing and she understood how to put it all together.

I will never know (without an enormous amount of study) what a university trained dance educator knows. Never. And that knowledge is extremely valuable. But on the other hand, a university degree can not impart the knowledge and experience that I acquired on the stage and under the tutelage of great professional (dare I say Master) teachers like Luigi, David Howard and Gabriella Darvash. In addition, I have had the experience that Ms. Whelan had of having to “put it all together”; and I believe that trains the brain and body in yet another way, bringing yet another experience.

It is very rare to find a dancer who learned it all from one teacher. And regardless of how a teacher ACQUIRED their knowledge, what is even more important is how a teacher IMPARTS their knowledge. There is something magical that happens when the right teacher connects with the right student. We have all experienced it; and it can’t be predicted and it can’t be taught. Degrees and resumes are snapshots of a teacher; a static image of the complex and ever changing nature of a career. Nearly every job for which I have ever been hired required that I teach a sample class. There were many, many, many jobs for which I have applied that I did not get. Many. In fact, the list of “No’s” is far longer than my resume. But when the fit was right, when I was the RIGHT teacher, the job was mine. And it wasn’t because of my time on the stage or the degree that I had (or didn’t have) but because of how I IMPARTED the information and how that information was RECEIVED.

Perhaps if we could respect our colleagues for their individual journeys, and hire them based on their individual abilities rather than a piece of paper, our students would get a richer and more varied experience in the classroom. And just maybe, as a result, we could let go of the animosity and disdain that divides our industry and work together to build dancers for the next generation.