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 have 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.

Responding to a Colleague on the “Crushing Of Dreams”

There was a post making the rounds on social media that began something like this:

“Teachers and studio owners need to stop misleading ‘mediocre’ students (and there’s nothing wrong with being ‘mediocre’ ) into believing they can become a ballerina…”. 

There were also, in this post, some triggering phrases such as:  

“One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.“.

And as one might expect at first glance, the dance teacher community was infuriated by this post. Now I, myself, have been discouraged by adults in positions of authority many times in my young life. There was the music teacher who said “If you even consider auditioning for Julliard I will break your clarinet in half; you are an average talent with no chance for a career.” There was the high school college advisor who said “Why are you wasting my time with an application to this program? You will NEVER be accepted”. There was the family member who said “Well maybe if you had a better singing voice we could support a career in musical theater”. And as the adult-beginner dance student, I had nearly the entire world shouting “It’s too late for you”. 

But I grew up in a different time and in a different world; a world where dreams always took a back seat to practicality.

I honestly believe that these adults in my young world were not trying to crush my dreams, or squash my spirit, or maliciously hurt me. I believe that they felt that they were acting in my best interest, being the responsible adult who was protecting me from inevitable disappointment. I believe that the thought process was: “well, if you don’t try then you won’t be rejected, hence there will be no disappointment”. Those of you who have read my articles or know me personally know that that is NOT how things played out. As I have said so often: “The pain of disappointment is NOTHING compared to the pain of wondering what might have been”.

But back to this social media post and the dance community’s response. After reading this post I was a bit shocked. So I re-read it, and I re-read it again. And I believe that the original author’s intent was lost in what was a very poorly crafted social media post. I believe that the post was meant to serve two purposes. Firstly, I believe that she was cautioning teachers not to seduce students and parents into taking more and more classes by promising them successful careers. This is clearly not the same thing as saying to a hopeful student “Don’t bother, you are a mediocre talent”. Secondly, she was alerting parents to this practice of teachers promising success in order to sell classes and thereby, promote a book she wrote as a guide to navigating the dance industry. Now, I don’t know any studio owners who literally promise stardom to sell classes, but I would suspect that it is possible that this practice exists somewhere. Unfortunately, I believe that the author chose her words poorly and did not make her point; but I at first, like many others disagreed with her, and linked an article I had previously written on the crushing of dreams. But I was somewhat dumbfounded by some of the other responses. 

I believe that social media can be a fantastic learning tool. I have truly had my eyes opened both by posts that I have read and even more by discussions that I have had when commenters did NOT agree with me. And some of the comments on this post could have lead to a discussion which might have illuminated the original author’s intention (which she did ultimately try to, somewhat unsuccessfully clarify). But many of the posts were made in anger (and I do understand why) and much of what was written could only be construed as bullying. This, I found shocking. This will NEVER be constructive. If we as an industry are going to move forward, both in helping educate our students as well as our colleagues, name calling will not get the job done. I read words like toxic, disgusting, shameful, appalling, garbage, ignorant and disturbing. I read phrases such as “I pity your students” and “you have no business being in the field of dance”. And I COMPLETELY understand where this is coming from. And I completely understand why those comments were made. But bullying a colleague with whom you disagree is not going to get to the true meaning of her post. And if indeed her post was meant to be as negative as it was perceived, hurling insults at her will never get her to see another viewpoint. And aren’t we, as an industry, taking a stance AGAINST bullying; even if we vehemently disagree?

I will ALWAYS encourage my students to follow their dreams because no one can ever know what the future will hold. And I hope that the true meaning of the aforementioned post was lost in some poorly chosen words and phrases. But even if the author did indeed intend to be as negative as she was perceived, I hope that we, as her colleagues can SHOW her another point of view and maybe we can all come out of this a little better off. 

And We Start to Move Back Into the Studio


I have, in four previous blog posts, chronicled my experiences with teaching dance during the COVID-19 Pandemic. I discussed how virtual teaching would change the way our students learn, I discussed my struggles with technology as I transitioned to a virtual platform, I discussed classes that were, in my opinion, epic failures as the technology failed to perform (and the subsequent love and support I received from my students) and I discussed the despair that I felt as, month after month, I walked into an empty studio.

Now, as things are starting to re-open in New York City, I thought I would discuss my experiences as I transition back to teaching in the studio. 

I am primarily known as a faculty member of the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. And although much of my work is for Joffrey, in order to carve out a living as a freelance teacher in New York, I also teach regularly at four other schools. Each of these schools has a different set of circumstances and a different set of problems with respect to reopening. As I chronicle the last several weeks for you, I will be omitting which situation is occurring at which school, as to protect the privacy of those involved.

At the beginning of this pandemic, all but one of my regular weekly classes transferred to a virtual platform; so for all intents and purposes my schedule, career and income remained in tact. As the summer approached, and semesters and school years came to an end, I found myself with very little work over the summer, as enrollment plummeted in the summer programs by which I am usually employed. But as September approached, there were whispers of programs opening, studios opening and work returning. 

First came the faculty meetings on Zoom. Multiple faculty meetings, each running approximately two hours; for FIVE SCHOOLS. Faculty meetings about continuing on Zoom, faculty meetings about when we could open, faculty meetings detailing plans for keeping students safe, meetings about new attendance apps, new grading apps, new health tracking apps, new communication apps, new registration apps, faculty meetings about hybrid models, distance learning and recorded learning, and meetings about enrollment statistics and consequently meetings about decreased class numbers and salary cuts. Between the five schools it felt as if the meetings were endless. Each of the schools is also requiring COVID testing, and each is requiring that test to be performed a specific number of days prior to the first class. I have, so far, taken four COVID tests, as the re-opening dates keep changing. 

One of my five schools has decided to cancel all dance classes until 2021, so I have not had any further meetings or communication with them since this announcement was made. And, consequently, I have lost these classes and the income for the rest of this year. Another of the schools is hoping to restart dance classes sometime in November, so the meetings and communication  for this school have been temporarily paused until final decisions are made.

The first school to reopen is operating on a hybrid model. The hybrid model that is being used requires teaching classes that sometimes occur in the studio, and sometimes on Zoom. The Zoom classes and the live classes alternate each week but the day and time of the Zoom classes are different than the day and time of the live in studio classes (requiring double the time commitment for half the work). This school has a new registration and attendance program/app that was very challenging for me to learn and is still not working correctly for any of the faculty members. The “in studio“ classes have a zoom broadcast running simultaneously, and although there was a computer and big screen TV set up for my use, the picture was constantly failing as I struggled to teach the students in the room along with those fuzzy images of students at home on the faltering, flickering screen.

The second school to reopen also has a new attendance and grading app, but once I learned the program (no small feat for me) it seems to be working fine. This school’s hybrid model has me teaching every class in the studio with a simultaneous zoom feed; half the students in the studio with me, half at home. Fifteen hours before my first class a student at the school tested positive for COVID-19 and the classes went immediately to Zoom until the state could determine the extent of the exposure and decide on a safe re-opening date. 

The third school to reopen, on a similar hybrid model, had to completely reorganize their schedule to allow for social distancing in the hallways. They sent me a schedule. They sent me a revised schedule. They sent me a third schedule. They sent me a fourth schedule (all in the space of nine days). And each of these revised schedules created problems and conflicts with other schools, especially with the proposed schedules of the two schools that are not yet open. When I finally got to teach my first class in the studio, the computer and big screen TV that was set up for my use had terrible issues with the sound, that took more than half of the class time for the technical assistant to resolve. 

And so I have been stressed, and frustrated, and angry, and nervous as I transition back to teaching in the studio. 

But at each and every one of these schools the administration, program directors and tech support staff have created, completely from scratch, a brand new way to run a school. They have remained supportive, helpful and confident. These people have done the impossible. Despite the problems (and there were so many that I can’t even mention them all) they saw to it that the students had training, that the faculty had jobs and that everyone was kept safe and healthy. And as everything seemed to be crumbling around me and as my stress and anxiety mounted, these people worked literally around the clock to be sure that I and my students received as much support as possible. And as I walked through the door of each of these schools I was greeted by a smiling and unflappable administration and staff that has done everything humanly possible, and MORE, to be sure that the magic that happens in these studios lives on. So I applaud the administration and staff of New York Film Academy, New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts and The Joffrey Ballet School. I hope I can learn by YOUR example: to single-mindedly, and with limitless determination and resourcefulness, solve an unsolvable problem with grace, style and most importantly, with kindness and with love. 

Thank you.

On Teaching Beginners

We are now living in a world where it is apparently shameful to be a beginner. Aspiring dancers are becoming more and more reluctant to take beginner classes; struggling through classes that are far beyond their ability and thereby accomplishing essentially nothing. I have already addressed this topic twice and it is very much a sign of our times. The work, discipline and dedication that is required to really study a complex art form such as dance, is something that is disappearing in our instant-gratification / Instafamous world. But it has recently come to my attention that more and more prominent TEACHERS are reluctant to TEACH beginner classes and this is something that I am finding both surprising and puzzling.

My regular readers know that I started my dance training by studying jazz with Luigi. The legendary Luigi was, in his time, one of the most famous and renowned dance teachers in the WORLD. And he taught beginners. I studied ballet for most of my performing career with Gabriella Darvash. Madame Darvash, who produced principal dancers for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater taught eleven advanced-beginner classes every week. In fact, the list of brilliant master teachers in New York in the 1980’s and 1990’s when I was training, who regularly taught beginner and advanced-beginner classes, is staggering.

Luigi had a faculty of assistant teachers at his school; it would be impossible for him to teach every class himself. But, at least for the years that I studied with him, the classes that he almost always taught himself were the “style” class and the “technique class”. These classes were not the “advanced” classes. These classes were not filled with the working professionals (usually). These were the classes where he passed on the rich details of his brilliant technique to both beginner dancers and to dancers who were unfamiliar with his work. He felt a RESPONSIBILITY to ensure that the work was taught from the beginning, BY HIM, to ensure that the students were properly trained and were given a strong foundation. This responsibility to the beginner dancer was something that I recognized in many of the great teachers that I encountered during my training.

When I was almost 35 years old I left the dance industry for nine years. When I returned  to class nearly a decade older and 60 pounds heavier I noticed many changes. One of the most obvious changes that I noticed at the big studios in New York City, was that most teachers were no longer teaching multiple levels. Now, the more famous, notable teachers were teaching only the advanced and professional classes. With only a few exceptions, teachers teaching professional and aspiring professional dancers were rarely seen also teaching beginners. One of those exceptions was my beloved Luigi.

When I returned to Luigi’s Jazz Centre after that nine year absence, I found Luigi still teaching those lower level classes himself; painstakingly explaining the endless nuances in his work. What did change at his school, were the students. Fewer and fewer young dancers were willing to work in the way that he taught. It seemed that only a very few, very focused and diligent students were able and willing to undergo the the painstakingly slow, endlessly repetitive teaching method that had a 40-plus year history of yielding superior results; building some of the most stunning dancers the stage had ever seen. And so, this great master teacher, never once shirking his responsibility to the beginner dancer, continued to teach his work to the beginners who came to be taught.

I learned many things from Luigi and Madame Darvash. Many, many things. But one of the greatest lessons I learned from these two brilliant master teachers is to hold fast to my responsibility to the beginners. To this day, in addition to teaching advanced dancers in the preprofessional trainee program at The Joffrey Ballet School and in addition to the guest teaching engagements that I have at conservatories and ballet companies, I am regularly teaching beginners. I teach children at neighborhood studios. I teach absolute beginner dancers in colleges and musical theater programs. And I teach adult beginners in Joffrey’s open class program. Teaching beginners teaches me patience. Teaching beginners makes me more analytical. Teaching beginners presents me with endless challenges. And maybe, someday, teaching beginners will afford me the opportunity to do for some beginner what Luigi did for me: change the course of my life by opening a door and showing me a world that I never knew existed.