Teaching Ballet and Demonstrating in the Studio

A discussion was started in a chat group on the internet about ballet teachers demonstrating steps and choreography “full-out” in class. Apparently there are teachers who have faced discrimination by employers if they are no longer able to demonstrate everything full-out. There are also teachers who have faced complaints from parents when they do not demonstrate full-out. And these teachers have become wracked with embarrassment, insecurities and self doubt when the time comes that they are no longer able to demonstrate everything full-out.

This actually comes as a shock to me. It never occurred to me that someone would expect a ballet teacher to dance full-out. I have been in this industry for over 30 years. I have studied with many ballet teachers, and at 57 I am still studying; still taking class regularly. I have studied with some very famous teachers, and some truly great but not so famous teachers. And in all of those 30 some-odd years and through all of those teachers, I have never, not once, taken a ballet class where the teacher demonstrated everything full-out. I would like to share a quote from The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet by Cyril W. Beaumont & Stanislas Idzikowski:

“Remember also that a distinguished dancer is not necessarily a good teacher, particularly if he still performs in public, because he may not possess the gift of imparting his knowledge in a clear and simple manner. Again, because he may have neither the time nor the desire to study seriously the good and bad points of his pupils. Lastly, because he may consider his class as a whole and, therefore, is indifferent to the fact that each pupil is constructed differently, both physically and temperamentally, so that each requires adaptations of the lesson in order to supply his own particular needs.”

Ballet can not really be TAUGHT by “showing”. If ballet could be taught by showing we would all be out of a job. If showing and demonstrating was the primary necessary skill and talent, then one could simply learn to dance by watching videos of dancers… and we all know that isn’t possible. Many newer and younger teachers (of course not all) tend to “show”. Clearly they explain while they show but they tend to rely on “this is how you do it” and then demonstrate the step or combination. Of course they will give some “how-to” information and offer some corrections, but in my experience with many newer teachers, they tend to rely on their technical prowess to make their point. I know that I did.

Then the years start creeping on (and it tends to happen when we aren’t looking). And one day, no matter how hard we work at the barre, no matter how many hours we put into the studio, our bodies start to betray us.

I have always believed that dancing is more about “what it feels like” than “what it looks like”. This idea has always informed my teaching, but as my body declined it became more and more apparent that I was going to need to become a more skillful explainer if I was going to have a career. Of course, when teaching beginners, a certain amount of demonstration is helpful; and perhaps even necessary. But one does not need to tendu like Baryshnikov to teach a student tendu.

I remember Luigi talking about what he “felt” in class. Although not a ballet teacher, Luigi was the finest, most brilliant dance teacher that I had the good fortune to study with. He continued to demonstrate in class, as best he could, as his body aged. Clearly in his advanced years he couldn’t dance like he did in his youth. No one can. But he could still, though his teaching, take an absolute beginner and guide a dancer into a career. He explained everything from the point of view of what it felt like to him. He explained these feelings in excruciating detail. He explained what he did and how he did it with brilliant clarity. It was a painstaking, time-consuming process. And it took a student who was very hungry and very patient to “get it”. But once the student “got it” they had a depth of knowledge and understanding of dance that was richer, more profound, more expressive and more interesting than the students of the other methods that I encountered. He so often said to me “I don’t teach chorus dancers, I make stars”. And to a certain degree he did. Every student that passed through his studio was brought up and nurtured, through his technique, to become profoundly unique artist with a solid technique that supported their artistic expression. He was 63 years old when I started studying with him. In many, many ways he was single-handedly responsible for my career. There certainly are young, fit, still performing dancers who are excellent teachers. But to think that a studio owner or parent would prefer a young teacher, still in “performing shape” to a seasoned and experienced professional simply because they can demonstrate “full-out” is disappointingly short sighted.

Building a ballet technique and cultivating an artist is not a quick process. It takes endless hours of maddening repetition under the guidance of a teacher who knows how to impart the information. I implore studio owners and parents to weigh their choices very carefully. Careers can be made by a teacher and careers can be destroyed by a teacher. Do not select a teacher based on what they can show, because these teachers will create dancers who can “do”. Rather, select a teacher based on what they can teach, because these teachers will create dancers who can soar.

Adult Beginners-My Class at Joffrey

So..this evening I taught Ballet “Beginner 1” at the Joffrey Ballet School. 30 dancers of various ages, abilities, body types and purposes gathered together for the ritual of Ballet Class. Thirty left hands were placed on the barre. Thirty right feet and legs stretched out to create a long, reaching, endless line for “tendu devant”. And methodically and systematically we worked our way through the exercises at the barre, in the centre and across the floor; breathing beauty, artistry, musicality and LIFE into every step. At the end of the class, a few students stayed behind to ask questions, or to chat. A shy young woman came up to me and said:

“Thank you so much. Tonight was the first time I have taken your class. You made us feel OK about being beginners…I’ve taken other classes where the teacher made me feel a embarrassed that I wasn’t any better”.

Well, that just about broke my heart. Who does that? I was once that adult beginner. I was once that 20-something who had never danced a step. I was once the person who “wasn’t any better”. And I had marvelous teachers who showed me the way to my career and my life through love, caring, patience and understanding.

It is the great joy in my life that the Joffrey trusts their beautiful adult beginner dancers to me, and hopefully I can bring them the same fulfillment that my teachers brought me.

When the student finds joy in the process, a dancer is born.

Dancing With Different Bodies

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.

Why Should Competition Dancers Be Studying Ballet?

I have been hearing from studio owners who seem to be having trouble explaining the need for ballet training to parents of competition dancers. It can be very hard for someone who is not a dancer to fully appreciate what ballet training – REAL ballet training – does to one’s body, one’s mind and one’s life. I’m hoping that my thoughts on this question might clarify the matter for both parents and students.

We have all heard that “Ballet is a foundational training technique” and that “Taking ballet makes everything better”. And these statements are true. But these statements do little to actually explain what ballet brings to a dancer and why.

Firstly, dancing is physical. We, as teachers, don’t just teach steps; we train dancers. Everyone has seen professional dancers; everyone knows what they look like and what they can do. People without TRAINING are not capable of doing what a trained dancer can do. Period. I can explain in 5 minutes the mechanics of a fouetté turn or a brise volle, but try as they may, without training, a student will never be able to perform these steps correctly. NEVER. Ballet training has been scientifically designed over the last 350 years to produce the physical strength, flexibility, placement, balance, agility and technical ability needed to dance at a high level. No other genre of dance has this history, wealth of information or breadth of knowledge. None. And no other genre can produce the same result. The modern techniques of Graham, Horton, Limon and Cunningham; and the jazz techniques of Mattox, Giordano and Luigi can all boast that they are comprehensive training methods…and they are. But the practitioners of these techniques, the experts in these techniques all agree that without a solid professional ballet foundation, the dancing will never be what it should: strong, secure, clean, clear, expressive, beautiful dancing.

I have a colleague who was quite a good jazz dancer. She taught at some good schools and believed she was dancing at a high professional level. But she almost never got hired for performing jobs. Once, when auditioning for a Broadway show, the choreographer pulled her aside and said “You are beautiful, but you need ballet. I can’t hire you for this show but you should train in ballet for two years and then come find me.” She never followed through with his suggestion, and she never worked professionally again. This is only one instance, but it makes my point.

There is also the ritual of ballet class; a ritual that connects us as dancers. There is the daily routine of walking into the studio, placing your left hand on the barre, clearing your mind of all the extraneous noise and focusing on the work. I know I am lucky in that I trained exclusively in New York, and because of that, I can trace my lineage, from teacher to student, directly to Cecchetti and Vaganova. But we are, ALL OF US, part of a distinguished line of teaching that has been lovingly passed down, from teacher to student for over 300 years. This chain of knowledge enriches us as artists in a way that no other technique does, and since most of the parents have not experienced this for themselves, they will simply have to trust us on this point.

Many parents will argue: “My child is not going to be a professional dancer.” Well most of the students we teach are not going to be professional dancers…including the ones who want it with all their hearts. This is a brutal business. That is a fact. There aren’t nearly enough jobs for the myriad of aspiring professional dancers. But the ballet training we are providing reaches far wider than the competition or the professional stages. We are teaching the value of tradition. We are teaching the value of art. We are teaching the value of education and hard work and study and discipline. And there are great life lessons to be learned from doing something (like training to be a dancer) to its fullest; the right way and without short cuts.

The day I walked into my first ballet class, the day I placed my hand on that barre for the first time, the day I struggled, at 26 years old to execute my first tendu and demi plié, my life changed forever. And every day we, as ballet teachers, are hoping to change lives: the lives of recreational dancers, competition dancers, adult beginners and preprofessional students are all enriched by SERIOUS ballet training. Why would anyone want to deny themselves or their child this opportunity?

Winning

Many of my colleagues and many schools are training their students to WIN. I think winning is fantastic. But the more time I spend online, the more time I spend interacting with readers and the more time I spend talking with my students the more I have come to realize that we are, as a society, obsessed with winning. We want to win awards. We want to win dance competitions. We want to win sporting events. We want trophies, plaques, medals, certificates and ribbons. And we want to display the spoils of our winning-focused efforts on the internet so that the world can envy us for our superior, award-winning accomplishments; or for those of our children; or for those of our students.

I would like to take this opportunity to come out: I have never won anything. And I’m sure winning is GREAT! It must be an amazing feeling to know that at a particular point in time and amongst a particular group of people you were the best. I was not a child who had a room full of ribbons and trophies. I have a vague recollection of an unimpressive “participation trophy” for bowling when I was about 11 (yes, there was the occasional trophy for just showing up back in the dark ages). I also seem to remember a second-place certificate for writing an essay about the American flag when I was in the sixth grade. Neither of these was a “win”. But I truly didn’t care.

Recently I heard a teacher complaining about her student dropping out of a competition at the last minute. The teacher approached the student’s parents and asked why they were pulling their child out of the competition. The parents’ response:

“We saw the dance at the recital and we know it isn’t good enough to win.”

This stunned me. These parents are teaching their child that there is no reason to follow through with a commitment; there is no reason to continue working toward a goal; that there is no reason to participate in a competition unless they are assured a win.

The legendary sports writer Henry Grantland Rice so famously said:

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

The great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov has been quoted as saying:

“I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to to dance better than myself.”

I can’t begin to tell you how often my parents echoed these sentiments; that doing my best and striving to improve, that working toward a goal, that being part of a group with a single-minded aim were valuable and important. And so I spent my childhood and my adolescence doing MY best. Really DOING MY BEST. But I never won a competition. I never was first in my class. I never took home the trophy. Never.

Did I want to win?…of course I wanted to win. And I am not criticizing teachers for wanting their students to win. Everyone would like to win. But I never was devastated when I didn’t.

And when I started dancing (in my 20’s) I found myself really at a serious disadvantage in that pretty much everyone around me had started training before the age of 9. Now the idea of “winning”; the idea of being the “Best” would have been the most preposterous example of wishful thinking EVER. But I loved to dance and I wanted to improve. So every day of my life I walked into that studio. Every day of my life I put my left hand on that barre…the same barre that supported the hands of brilliant dancers; dancers with trophies, dancers with careers, dancers who were winners. And I worked and I struggled and I improved. And I was never the best. And I never won…a prize or a trophy. But it isn’t as if I put in all those years of work, sweat, pain, and disappointment without ever receiving anything.

I received my career. I received my life; a life spent doing what I love more than anything else. And guess what? I’m still not the best. But every day I try to get better. There are ballet competitions giving awards for the “best teachers”. Really? Teachers need these awards too? Surviving the competitive nature of this industry and carving out a career as a teacher in the NYC dance industry is stressful enough without worrying about being the best. So in addition to teaching my students the technique and artistry of dance; in addition to guiding them in the “relentless pursuit of that unachievable perfection” I try to teach them the value in the DOING- the value in the WORK for the work’s sake. And I try to bring these ideas to my competition students when I guest teach at their studios (which I have been doing more and more lately). And I believe (as do their teachers) that it makes them better (shocking!). And maybe it helps them win. But now, it is so much more than a trophy that is being won. Now what they are winning in addition to that trophy is an approach to life that will serve them and stay with them long after the award is forgotten; an approach to life that will help ensure their future; an approach to life that will make them a richer, wiser, happier individual whether they win or loose.

This is how I am training my students to WIN.

Passing On The Work…Just a Thought

What we do as dancers is so very intimate and personal; our bodies are our instruments, our muscles contain our memories and our art is kept in a very deep place…on the inside. This art, this work, these traditions are lovingly and painstakingly passed down, from teacher to student; from generation to generation. My beautiful Joffrey trainees are part of this distinguished chain of teaching that stretches back through the generations. It was thrilling to watch as they brought this ravishing work to life through the brilliant teaching of Stacey Caddell. I am in constant awe of my colleagues and honored to be part of this program where I can bring my link in the chain: from Maestro Cecchetti to Madame Nijinska, to Luigi, to me to my students. Joffrey Ballet Trainees.

On My Mentor’s Birthday…Happy Birthday Luigi!

Today is the birthday of the Legendary Luigi. 31 years ago I walked into Luigi’s Jazz Centre, an adult absolute beginner, and began to study his revolutionary Jazz technique. Starting as an adult, it never occurred to me that dancing would ever be something more than a hobby. About a year later, one day in class, he whispered in my ear “It’s not too late for you”.

That day, that sentence, that whisper in my ear, forever changed my life. My career is now in dance as I endeavor to faithfully pass on the teachings of Luigi to the next generation of dancers. In every class I teach, including the ballet classes, it is Luigi who I bring into the studio with me. I strive every day, just as he did, to painstakingly pass down the teachings of the great teachers of the past: From Cecchetti, to Nijinska, to Luigi, to Me to my students. And I bring his glorious jazz technique to today’s dancers as accurately and faithfully as possible and try every day to fill the work with the joy and the love that he brought to the classroom.

The work that dancers do and the way that we pass it on from generation to generation is so intimate and personal; because we carry these ideas,these teachings inside our bodies. Our bodies are our instruments, our muscles contain our memories and our art is kept in a very deep place…on the “inside”.

So, as my mentor and teacher Luigi always said: “Dance from the Inside” and Never Stop Moving”