A Response to Lara Spencer

Dear Ms. Spencer,

I am deeply saddened by your comments and tone of voice when discussing Prince George’s ballet classes. Boys who study ballet have long been the target of bullying and sadly, they are rarely protected by adults and society at large in the way that other “marked” children have been protected. I find it surprising that a respected member of the media who has the public’s ear in the way that you do, would participate in shaming a child because he is a boy who dances. I have, as an adult man, walked away from a very lucrative health-care career to refocus my life on my passion for ballet. I’m a faculty member at The Joffrey Ballet School in New York City where every day I am privileged to help guide tomorrow’s professional ballet dancers into their careers. I was wondering what your thoughts would be on some of the decisions that I have made in my life. Although I hardly have the reach that someone in your position does, I am widely respected in my field and teach at a school which is one of our country’s great artistic national treasures. Here is an article that I have written on boys and their struggles in society when they choose to study ballet. In the event that this email actually makes its way to you, I do hope you can find time in your schedule to read it. I would be very curious to hear your thoughts. https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2018/01/04/a-note-to-boys-who-dance-and-to-their-parents/

Selecting a Teacher

This is an article that I adapted from an earlier blog post. It was published in Danzin’ Magazine.

As we approach a new year of dance training, many parents and students in our industry will be looking for new teachers. Similarly, many schools, studios and conservatories will be looking to hire new faculty members. And finding the right teacher can be a very difficult process for both students and studios. It has come to my attention recently,  that many parents, students and studio owners are favoring young teachers who can still dance “full out” over older, perhaps more experienced teachers. Dance can not really be taught by simply “showing”. 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 (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 crept on and one day, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many hours I put into the studio, my body betrayed me.

I believe 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 tendu.

I remember the legendary Luigi talking about what he “felt” in class. He continued to demonstrate, 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. 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 dance 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.

Luigi teaching in the studio
Luigi, well past the age of 80, still teaching

Bullying in the Ballet Studio…By the Teacher

As of this week, I have a new student in my open classes. He is a working actor with an actual career (not one of the myriad of aspiring young hopefuls who call themselves actors). He is quite a good dancer, although perhaps not dancing a a first-rate professional level – not yet. He is what many would consider a “dream come true” student: dedicated, hard working, serious, open minded, willing to take corrections, and LOVES the process of learning to dance. When I thanked him and told him it was a pleasure to have him in class, he replied that he could no longer “take the abuse and humiliation” he was receiving from his previous teacher.

I know that these teachers exist. I, myself, am the product of one of these teachers. I know that there are students that are drawn to these teachers. What I do not understand is WHY.

When I began my training so late in life, there was nothing I wanted more than to dance. When I found a ballet teacher that was famous, respected, known for getting excellent results, and was willing to take an interest in ME, willing to work with ME, willing to guide this adult beginner into a career, I was willing to accept any sort of treatment just to be able to get that training. I, personally, was never the target of the bullying that was dealt out in that studio. I was never singled out and humiliated. I was never made to question my value as an artist, as a dancer, as a PERSON…but many of my classmates were. One of my colleagues, a stunning young ballet dancer, was told by this teacher in front of forty students that she would NEVER have a career. And this was not the only dance teacher in New York who was dealing out this form of abuse. And dancers simply “took it”. Many have told me that they believe that this sort of relentless targeting by the person they were trusting with their career left deep emotional scars. Some once very promising dancers that I know believe that their lack of confidence and subsequent lack of success was the direct result of this form of teaching.

I know a working professional dancer who currently takes his daily class with one of these teachers. This dancer has MAJOR companies on his resume. He has danced in some of the world’s great theaters. He has had the kind of career thus far that most students can only dream of. He tells me about these classes and how he LOVES this teacher. He LOVES when this teacher screams, humiliates and singles out students. He LOVES when this teacher treats the pianist with disdain simply because the pianist can’t read his mind. This dancer believes that he is in the presence of great teaching. He believes that this is great teaching because this teacher is famous. I have seen this dancer dance. Yes, he has a great resume. But as a dancer, as an artist…he is…well…”perfectly fine”.

I am not sure what these teachers are trying to achieve. Do they believe that this is the best way to get a result? Are they simply passing on the abuse that they received from their teachers to the next generation of dancers? Are they just mean and unhappy bullies?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record I would like to, once again, reference my time spent studying under Luigi. Many people in our industry cavalierly toss around the title “Master Teacher”. If these people had ever actually been in the presence of a TRUE Master Teacher we wouldn’t be hearing that term nearly as often. But Luigi was the real thing. He changed the way dance was taught all over the world. He created a completely new technique and created a virtually endless list of brilliant dancers and choreographers who credit him with their success (Liza Minnelli, Donna McKechnie, Ben Vereen, Charlotte D’Amboise, Susan Stroman, Twyla Tharp…). Never, not once, did I see Luigi berate or humiliate a student. He taught his classes from a place of love and he always believed that a dancer had to be nurtured. The results of his brilliant teaching are unquestionable.

There is much that I have taken from the Luigi Technique into the ballet studio. I learned musicality from Luigi. I learned port de bras from Luigi. I learned epaulment, phrasing and personal style from Luigi. And I have brought these lessons into my ballet classes and I am passing on the philosophy of this jazz technique to my ballet students. But the most two important things that I learned from this truly great Master Teacher are the love of the process and the need to nurture and cultivate students.

I have heard from young dancers that these bullying teachers “light a fire under them”. If a dancer needs to have a “fire lit under them” to get them to work, then they are, in my opinion, in the wrong business. Because if you don’t love the work; if the endless, repetitious, relentless training is not the most important thing in your life, then you probably will never be good enough anyway. So why would the abuse of a teacher have any positive impact at all?

And so my young friend with the great resume will continue to study with his famous teacher that he loves. He will continue to take the abuse. And he will continue to dance…and he will, I’m sure, continue to be “perfectly fine”. And I will continue to search for the artist in each of my students. I will continue to nurture the seeds of greatness that might or might not be lying dormant at the core of their being. I may never produce a truly great dancer; that sort of greatness is very rare. But I certainly don’t want my students to settle for “perfectly fine”. I will try to treat every student that walks into my room with love and respect and I will, to the best of my ability, nurture the gifts that they have deep inside. I will try to help them dance from the inside, to feel the work from a very deep place, to respond to the music and to love the process. And if I’ve done my job right, each of them, on their own terms, will soar.

Ballet is Boring

I recently read a Facebook post that focused on ballet teachers who teach in recreational or competition studios where the students tend to believe that “ballet is boring”. Many of these teachers find it very difficult to motivate these students to work to their fullest potential and these teachers are finding it more and more difficult to get a satisfactory result out of these dancers; dancers who think that “ballet is boring”. The post suggested that the problem lie in the teaching. The thrust of the argument is that if the teachers would simply bring ballet to these students with passion, with love, with enthusiasm and just make ballet as engaging and important to the students as it is to the teacher then the students would love it too. Problem solved.

I have had, during my career, similar opinions.

And then I was charged with teaching “required ballet classes” to students who thought “ballet was boring”.

Now I LOVE what I do. I have worked harder than I ever thought possible and I have made many sacrifices to have the career that I have. I have walked away from a very lucrative career to spend my life teaching ballet. I have been told that I am an inspiring teacher. I have packed open classes at Joffrey. I have had countless studios bring me at great cost to teach and inspire their students. But I was now facing five classes a week of students who, for the most part, thought “ballet was boring”. And I found myself at a loss. There was nothing I could do to get these kids onboard. Nothing.

I take my work very seriously and I never pretend to have all the answers. I am also not afraid to admit (both publicly and in print) when I am having trouble, when something isn’t going perfectly. So I started searching. I looked for new ways to construct exercises. I looked for new and interesting ways to approach the discussion of technique. I searched for music. I took as many classes as I could…and I watched other teachers teach. And I was at a loss because I was unable to motivate these students. The teacher who wrote the article professed that the problem lie in the teaching; that she was able to motivate her students who thought “ballet was boring” and get a beautiful result out of all of them. And maybe she was able. And maybe she wasn’t. And maybe these kids weren’t really all that bored by ballet. One of the things I’ve learned about social media is that most people present what they WANT THE WORLD TO SEE. It’s hard sometimes to remember that.

I was distraught because I was unable to do what this teacher did. I was unable to motivate these students. I had hit a dead end. I had this shortcoming that I couldn’t seem to fix. And I was very distressed.

Then one day I opened my email and there was a “friend request” from someone with whom I had gone to summer camp some 45 years ago. This was not an arts camp. This was your typical “sleep in a cabin, play baseball and go swim in a lake” summer camp. And I opened that friend request and I had a sort of epiphany.

Everything about that camp came flooding back. And one of the most vivid memories I had was how BORED I was by sports and how poorly I did athletically. I also remember a wonderful coach who loved baseball and worked so very hard to help me improve. I was bored. He worked harder…with even more enthusiasm. I was still bored. I hated baseball and I never improved. One day, by sheer luck, I had a game winning hit. Everyone cheered. And I was bored. I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about. And looking back on those years, all those years during my childhood when I was compelled to participate in athletics, I know in my heart of hearts that there is nothing anyone could have done to get me to love sports. I remember my mother saying: “People like to do what they are good at. If you would just work harder and get better then you would like baseball”. I’m sorry, mom, but I’ve loved ballet from the moment I placed my hand on the barre. No, actually, I’ve loved ballet since before I knew the barre existed.

At that moment I realized that we all love to do what we love to do. And there is no accounting for it. And I am now cutting myself a little slack. I am clearly never going to abandon my students who are bored by ballet, just like that wonderful coach in summer camp who never abandoned me. I will still do my best to inspire these kids (perhaps to no avail) and I will still look for new ideas to help reach them. These challenges are why I love what I do. But I will also be kind to myself when faced with roadblocks that I can’t seem to get around. And I will not go on social media and proclaim to have all the answers when I know that I don’t, because in the end that will only serve to undermine what I know I do have.

So twice a week I faced these students who were disinterested. Twice a week I did everything I could to bring them the joy that I get from ballet. And twice a week I watched these kids “take their required ballet class” (which we all know is not the same thing as studying ballet).

And then, one afternoon, “Julie’s” mother inquired about private lessons. It seems that Julie had decided to audition for some of the most competitive performing arts high schools in New York City. Julie doubled up her ballet classes at the studio, took a 90 minute private lesson with me every Saturday morning and her progress was staggering. After 9 months of this schedule she attended the auditions. In September, Julie will be attending a prestigious performing arts high school in a ballet focused program.

So to all of my colleagues facing these challenges; to all of my fellow teachers who have students that you can not seem to reach: please be kind to yourself. You may encounter these students that you can’t inspire but I would encourage you to keep searching for new ways, because it will only serve to make you a better teacher. And I implore you to not give up on these students, because there might be a “Julie” in your class for whom you unknowingly open a door.

THIS is why I do what I do.

The Joffrey Ballet School – A View From The Inside

This week one of my trainees at The Joffrey Ballet School asked me the following question:

“Mr. Bill, why does our school have such a bad reputation; why did my teacher at my home studio try to discourage me from joining the trainee program here?”

I have been aware of the perceptions that our industry has of my place of employment: my beloved Joffrey Ballet School. There was a scathing article some time ago that strongly criticized the Joffrey Ballet School. This article made the rounds of all the usual social media sites and due to my large social media presence, many people reached out to me for a comment. I chose to remain silent. I have always believed that the best way for one to respond to the “nay sayers” is simply by doing the excellent work that one does and letting the result speak for itself.

I have also, over the past few years, received messages from teachers that went something like this:

“One of my students who is not very advanced was accepted into the Joffrey Trainee program. This is really making me question as to whether I should be sending my talented and advanced students to audition for your program. It seems that Joffrey just accepts anybody.”

And again, I remained silent.

But now that the questions are coming from my STUDENTS, the young developing artists that have placed their careers in my hands, I can no longer remain silent.

The Joffrey Ballet School in New York City is unlike any other ballet school in the world. Our program has as its foundation solid Russian training based in the Vaganova Methodology. Our faculty members who teach these technique, pas de deux and variations classes are graduates of the Vaganova Academy and the Perm Academy, two of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world. But in addition to this foundational training, our program includes Balanchine style classes taught by a retired New York City Ballet soloist who worked and trained under Mr. Balanchine, Character Dance taught by a principal from the Moisseyev Company, Modern Dance taught by a choreographer with the Alvin Ailey Company, Flamenco taught by a former partner of Jose Greco, Jazz taught by a recognized expert and disciple of Luigi (😉), “American Style” ballet classes taught by former Joffrey Company members and many other faculty members who are simply brilliant teachers. We have a curriculum that will prepare BALLET dancers for ANYTHING that a professional company might ask of them. In addition, our dancers are trained in anatomy, health and wellness, nutrition, dance history, critical analysis and are offered choreographic opportunities. I do not know of any other BALLET trainee program that offers this broad of a curriculum.

With respect to the criteria for acceptance into the trainee program: the perception that “Joffrey accepts anyone” simply isn’t true.

WE HAVE A VERY DIFFERENT SET OF CRITERIA FOR ACCEPTANCE AND WE ARE RUNNING A VERY DIFFERENT TYPE OF SCHOOL, WITH DECIDEDLY DIFFERENT GOALS.

The typical preprofessional ballet programs are all looking for and competing for the same students. They are looking for the most accomplished young dancers with the best anatomical physiques. They are looking for the students that they will most likely be able to groom for high level ballet careers. I have a colleague who has taught at this kind of school (and we all know the schools to which I am referring). When I asked her what it was like teaching there her response was “it’s really not teaching…they are so good, and the level is so high. It is more like polishing and finishing”. And clearly these dancers need these programs to get them ready for their careers. One of our Joffrey students left our school to attend one of these schools…she confided in me, after one year, that the training she had received at Joffrey was better.

This is not the student that Joffrey is specifically looking for, nor is this the kind of training that Joffrey is doing (for the most part)…The Joffrey Ballet School has as its goal to simply TEACH ballet.

The Joffrey Ballet School does not accept students based on their body type. The Joffrey Ballet School does not accept students based on what they can DO at an audition. The Joffrey Ballet School accepts students based on the POTENTIAL that we see in them. And I believe that there is something very noble in that…because I was the student who would have NOT been accepted at one of those prestigious preprofessional programs. I was the student that was too old, too short, too broad, too inflexible to accept. I’m sorry that some studio director didn’t see in her “not very advanced student” what we saw. But the potential in a student, the discipline in a student, the desire, drive, the determination and the passion in a student is what we look for. And we take that student, whatever “level”, body type and age that they may be and we TEACH them. We teach them with care, with love, with passion and respect. And at the end of the four year program we put them through their paces at their final assessment (which, incidentally is open to the public). And it is at this assessment that the result of this training can be seen.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that “they are all brilliant” because clearly I’m biased. I’m simply going to tell you that somewhere in the range of 80% of our fourth year students secured professional contracts upon completing our program. Let the result speak for itself.

I will never forget the morning I opened my email to find a job offer from the Joffrey Ballet School. A Joffrey faculty member had taken an open class that I was teaching at a very small school and she made the recommendation. She saw something in me that no other preprofessional ballet school saw. She made that recommendation based on what I did in the classroom. She made that recommendation based in the quality of my teaching and not on a brilliant performing resume. And Joffrey listened. That day changed my life forever. And so I endeavor every day to change the lives of my students; to see the potential in them, to see the dancer that is somewhere at the core of that student. And every day I, and my brilliant colleagues, endeavor to reach and train that dancer. I am incredibly proud to be part of this school, the school that will accept a student based solely on their potential. A school that has as its goal to simply TEACH. And as I have said with respect to the “nay-sayers”:

If one simply keeps on doing the excellent work that one does, the result will speak for itself.

The Substitute Teacher

Having trained exclusively in open classes and having taught for the past several years in The Joffrey Ballet School’s open class program, I have had many opportunities to observe what happens when a teacher is absent and has been replaced by “the sub”. I have looked at this situation from all three vantage points:

1) As the student who shows up for class expecting a particular teacher and being faced with a teacher who is completely unknown to me.
2) As the teacher who must miss a day of work and is handing over his students to trusted colleague.
3) As “the sub” who must walk into a nearly empty room and face students who were expecting someone else altogether.

I remember when I was training, how most of my colleagues reacted to an unannounced sub for an open class; they simply didn’t take class. This was something that I never quite understood. I was there for class. I was there to train; and daily training is essential to the success of a dancer. I may have been disappointed that my teacher (the person to whom I was trusting my professional development) was not going to be teaching but I always felt that the sub’s class would certainly be better than no class at all. And, of course, YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU MIGHT LEARN; even from a teacher that you might know (and might not like).

Teachers (good teachers) care very much about their students’ training and take their work very seriously. Handing off my students to a sub can be very stressful; my students’ growth and success is extremely important to me and I can honestly say that since I started teaching open classes, I have been absent exactly once. Also, teachers who teach open classes have an enormous amount of pressure on them to fill their class rooms. Studio owners and program directors need full rooms for their studios and schools to function, and in many cases (not all) teachers are paid a percentage of the monies collected on their classes. I have always felt that providing consistency to students is part of being a successful and effective teacher in the open class setting… and students expect you to be there…and so except in very rare and extraordinary circumstances, I am there.

I have, on a few occasions, been the sub for an open class. I remember hearing the murmurs of disappointment at the front desk as students checking in are informed that their teacher is out and that I will be teaching them that day (that does a lot for the ego). I remember teaching three students one Easter Sunday at Broadway Dance Center in New York City. I went to work on a Holiday. I had three students. And it was my job to teach those three students with every ounce of energy and professionalism I had. It wasn’t easy; but it was my job.

But sometimes class with a sub can be pretty great, and in once case for me it was a life-changing experience. A good number of years ago I went to Steps on Broadway to take class. There was a sub. I knew there would be a sub. The regular teacher of that class had originally asked me to sub that class for him but Steps had another teacher in mind. I had been trying to get a teaching career off the ground, but kept hitting roadblocks. No one seemed to want to hire me and I was becoming more and more frustrated with the dance industry in New York. And so, here I was facing yet another disappointment in my career. But I always felt “the sub’s class would be better than no class at all” and “you never know what you might learn” so I took that class. When I got to the studio, I found out that the class was going to be taught by Lisa Gajda, a legendary Broadway dancer with a staggering list of credits. I took my place in the back of the room (being the only dancer over 40 in the studio) and allowed the younger professionals and aspiring professionals to take the prime spots in the front. During the plies Ms. Gajda came up to me and asked “Who are you?”. “Nobody.” I responded. She then said: “Because I’m looking at you and I’m thinking that YOU should probably be teaching ME a few things”. After that class we chatted a bit on Facebook and I figured I had met a pretty terrific new person. And then, as often happens with these sorts of things…we lost touch. More than a year later I received an email from CAP21, the musical theater conservatory. They were offering me a job as a ballet teacher. They had gotten my name from LISA GAJDA. That job at CAP21 lead to employment at New York Film Academy, Broadway Dance Center and my beloved Joffrey Ballet School which has become my professional home.

Life changing.

Dance and Sports

There was a post made in which the following question was posed: “Is dance a sport?” and a colleague suggested that I give this topic some thought. So my initial opinion was “NO, dance is most definitely not a sport”. And being the type of person that I am, I looked up the definition of sport and this is what I found:

Sport: an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.
“team sports such as baseball and soccer”

And then I looked up the definition of dance and this is what I found:

Dance: 1 : an act of stepping or moving through a series of movements usually in time to music. 2 : a social gathering for dancing. 3 : a set of movements or steps for dancing usually in time to special music. The samba is a popular dance of Brazil. 4 : the art of dancing “She is studying dance.”

In looking at these two definitions, it would appear that dance is not a sport. But I have come across this question many times in my life and so I figure that there must be something more to this comparison. There are certainly similarities between sports and dance: both require enormous skill and talent, both require extensive physical training, and both generate enormous excitement for its audiences. There is, however, one enormous difference: the ultimate goal. The goal of a sport is to win. This is why a sport is played. This is what the fans come to see. It is the thrill of the win that inspires the excitement. It is the suspense of the competition that keeps the fans enthralled. The goal of dance, however, is different. The goal of dance is, in most instances, to create a work of art that moves its audience. It is the need for this artistic expression that keeps dancers dancing and it is the art that they make that thrills its audience. The world of competitive dance does blur the line somewhat; but even when dancers compete, I believe that the goal is (or should be) artistic expression. The “win” is secondary.

So why the comparison? Why have I heard the phrase “Dancers are athletes”? And why have I heard that phrase come from the mouths of dancers? I have NEVER heard an athlete say “Athletes are dancers”.

I think that this stems from how our culture views sports, how our culture views the arts and how we in the dance industry feel about these viewpoints. Clearly, the average American is far more likely to be interested in sports than in the arts and is certainly more likely to know the name of a star athlete than a great ballerina. When I was a child, I actually thought there was something fundamentally wrong with me because I wasn’t interested in, and had no aptitude for sports. There is, for the most part, an importance and status placed upon the athlete that is not shared by the dancer. And in response to this inequity, some members of our industry have suggested that “dancers are athletes” or that what we do as dancers is “harder than sports”. I remember many years ago an episode of the television series Fame, in which football players took a dance class with dancers. The dancers sailed through the class with ease while the football players failed miserably, thereby proving that the dancers were superior to the athletes in their abilities. But if you think about it, the comparison is a bit ridiculous. Dance requires training; grueling, strenuous, repetitive, meticulous training. Training that athletes simply don’t have. Of course the football players failed. And should the dancers have been asked to engage in the training that experienced football players undergo, they would have failed just as miserably.

Those of us who are serious dancers, those of us who have made dance our lives probably have this one thing in common: We did not choose dance. Dance chose us. We simply have to do it. We have no choice. And if we try to stop (as I did…for 9 years) it simply pulls us back. The love and the passion that we have for this art can be all-consuming. And since dance is so very, very difficult to excel at and to make a living at, why on earth would anyone CHOOSE it?

One of the benefits that comes with age is that one no longer cares what others think. When I was younger my peers’ opinion of me, my family’s opinion of me, and society’s opinion of me were all very important. But with each passing year I cared less and less. And when I finally stopped caring how others viewed me, my life changed, my teaching career took off and I started to be truly happy (for the very first time in my life). I think that we, as an industry, need to stop caring how we are viewed. We are never going to convince the “average American” that we are athletes and that what we do is as hard or harder than sports. We are probably never going to gain the admiration that athletes enjoy. We are probably never going to make the money that athletes make. And I think that every time we try to make the claim that we are “athletes” or that what we do is “harder than sports” we are, in a way, telling society that we, ourselves, hold sports and athletes in higher regard. If we did not, we wouldn’t be making these claims. As I said earlier, you never hear an athlete say “athletes are dancers”.

I do think that there is one more very important similarity between athletes and dancers: we both love what we do in a very deep and profound way. I think that athletes have the same drive and passion that dancers do. And what a gift that passion is! I can’t imagine what a life would be like without that passion. Even when I was not dancing, the passion was still there; smoldering just below the surface. So rather than trying to convince the world at large of our value, importance and status, why not just celebrate the beauty and joy in what we do? I would like to believe that if we make art with real integrity it will find its audience. We can best show the world our importance by simply being who we are and doing what we do. And perhaps one day our society may view us with the same regard, respect and awe with which they view great athletes. And perhaps they will not. And as far as I am concerned it doesn’t really matter because I simply no longer care. I get to live my life as a dancer. I get to bring this art form to my students. I get to live a life that is filled with passion for what I do. Is there a greater gift than that?

Teaching Dance and Helping Millennials

I recently saw a video on YouTube which discussed many of the problems we are seeing with millennials and the difficulties that they are having in the workplace and in life. The video makes a point of stating that these problems are not the fault of this generation but rather places the responsibility on the hand they were dealt and the world in which they were raised.

The video touched on many of the topics that we as educators have discussed over and over again, among them: the endless praise that their parents have lavished on them making them difficult to teach and correct, their sense of entitlement, their impatience and their addiction to their devices. The video also discussed how dissatisfied and unhappy so many of them are and the difficulty they have in forming deep and meaningful relationships. And it saddened me; more than I could have ever expected.

I look at my students and I worry; I worry about their future success and I worry about their happiness.

When ever I teach the first class of the afternoon I see the same thing. I come into the studio 15 minutes before class. The students are scattered around the studio floor, finishing their lunch and looking at their phones. They aren’t really talking, interacting, bonding and forming relationships. They are engaging with a devise. This worries me. How can a young person who is more interested in a machine than their friends and colleagues grow and develop into a communicative artist? But the even more troubling question is: How can a young person who is more interested in a machine than their friends and colleagues grow and develop into a happy and fulfilled adult?

In addition to ballet and the Luigi technique, I teach dance history. I recently gave a lesson on Marius Petipa and the development of the classical pas de deux. (For my readers who are not dancers or dance teachers, suffice it to say that one would expect a full-time pre-professional ballet student to be fascinated by this topic.) After a short discussion I ran a video of the “Black Swan Pas de Deux” from Swan Lake, one of the most famous and beloved moments in all of the classical ballet repertoire. I, myself, was enthralled by this video (which I have seen countless times). About five minutes into the video, I turned to look at my students and noticed that several of them were looking at their phones.

I have mentioned this to many of my friends and colleagues and I have gotten the exact same response from everyone: “That is so incredibly disrespectful!”. And some have gone on to add “Did you take the phones away?.

Here’s the thing: I agree that this behavior is disrespectful. But to be honest, the disrespect doesn’t bother me that much. We can teach behavior. We can collect cell phones at the beginning of class and return them at the end. We can threaten to not give them credit for attending the class if we see a cell phone. We can fail them, punish them and create all sorts of penalties for this sort of behavior. And what will that do? It will teach BEHAVIOR. And, in this very particular situation, behavior is meaningless.

I want to know why a cell phone is more interesting and important to a full-time pre-professional ballet student than an exquisite performance of Swan Lake. This is unfathomable to me and this question has been haunting me since the day I ran that video. I remember, at 14 years old, setting an alarm clock at 3:00 AM in the middle of the week, so I could get up and watch Top Hat on television. We did not yet have a VCR. I had never seen it. I knew it was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I simply HAD TO SEE IT. This was the only means I had to educate myself about dance. It was far more important to me than sleep. There was no deterring me. Today, when I suggest to a student that they look at something on the internet, and check in with them a few days later, never…not once…in the last ten years…has the student followed my suggestion and made the effort. And the thing that troubles me so much is that for so many of them (not all) it is an EFFORT.

I see the lack of patience in so many of them. I see a reluctance to repeat an exercise over and over again, each time striving to find something more. I oftentimes feel “tolerated” by students as I painstakingly explain a fine point of technique. I feel them bristle if I ask them to repeat a phrase over and over again, trying to pull some artistry out of their steps. They want it fast. They want it now. They want the solo, the staring role, their moment in the spotlight and the accolades for their brilliance without putting in the work. I had no choice but to be patient. I waited until I was 26 to take my first dance class. The five year old inside of me, who saw that first mesmerizing Nutcracker on television, waited 21 years to take his first dance class. And when I finally started dancing it was the WORK that brought me joy. And from the time I took that first dance class, I waiting another 25 years to secure my dream job at the Joffrey Ballet School. But here’s the thing: no one had to tell me to be patient. I simply was. Apparently, I have students who can’t wait for a 12 minute video to be over to check their phone.

Clearly I don’t see these problems in all of my students. There are certainly those that are passionate, committed and hard-working. But I find myself worrying more and more about the others. These students are placed in my hands and I am charged with the task of making dancers out of them; I am charged with the task of nurturing artists. I can teach them to put their phones away. I can teach them to follow my suggestion and look at various performances on the internet. I can teach them dance history. I can teach them music. I can teach them steps. I can attempt to cultivate some artistry in them. But sadly, the way things are now, I am starting to feel that I will not really be successful.

Every time I step foot into the studio to take class I see it as an exploration. I am always looking for new feelings, new ideas, new discoveries that I can bring to my classroom and use to help my students grow. But now I am exploring new territory. I am looking for ways to inspire my students to see the work, the diligence, the patience, the richness of their art as far more important than anything else in their lives. When a 1978 performance of Swan Lake makes them forget about their phones, when they can endlessly examine their arabesque looking for ways to make it more beautiful, expressive and expansive, when they can work happily and tirelessly to EARN a solo or a starring role, then they will begin to have the goods to develop into an artist.

I am far from perfect and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. There is so much that I do not know and I am always looking for new ways to inspire and guide my students. There is one thing I do know: Until the art is of paramount importance to the student, until there is no room in their mind or their heart for anything else, they will never be able to reach and move an audience. Unfortunately, telling this to students will not help them. They must come to it on their own. They must find it for themselves. And when they do, they will soar.

I Love Being Proven Wrong

I have always subscribed to the belief that every student who walks into my studio deserves my full attention. I have always held fast to my desire to give every student enthusiastic encouragement. Now, I know that I have many colleagues that have told pre-professional students that they “don’t have a chance” and that they should perhaps be considering some other career goal. I know that they believe that they have the student’s best interest at heart and that they are trying to spare the students years of frustration and disappointment. But I was a “hopeless case” and I know only too well that the pain of failure and disappointment is nothing compared to the pain of wondering what “might have been”. And so if you come to me for training…regardless of body type, age, ability or talent, I will train you.

But I am human. And I make judgements. And naturally, I have looked at students and thought “Never in a million years…”.

As my dear friend and colleague Richard Pierlon has so often said “It is not my job to crush their dreams, it is my job to teach them”. And so regardless of what I may THINK about a student, I keep my big trap shut (something that can be very difficult for me) and I teach them.

The bulk of my day to day work is comprised of teaching ballet (and some jazz) in college and pre-professional dance and musical theater programs. And typically I am assigned classes in the later years of the programs, rarely teaching first year students with any regularity. I am, however, often called upon to sub first year classes. Some years ago I subbed such a class for a few weeks and encountered a student; a student who I judged. “Never in a million years will this student have a career on the stage”, I thought. This kid had nothing that anyone would consider to be the makings of a performer: a poor body type and lack of ability or talent all seemed to be pointing toward a life best lived in some other pursuit. But every student who comes to me for training…

A few years later this student’s group showed up on the roster of my regular classes. I would be the ballet teacher assigned to teach all their technique classes for a year. On the first day I was struck by this students’ body transformation that had taken place in the intervening years. I was struck by the razor sharp focus. I was struck by the ferocity with which this student worked, learned, absorbed, grew. And as I worked with this student throughout the year I thought: “Hm…well would you look at that…well maybe…”

Some time has passed since this student graced my studio. I try, as often as possible, to attend my former students’ performances and so I recently went to see this kid (who on first encounter I thought a hopeless case) perform. I took my seat in the last row, sitting next to a dear friend and colleague. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw that evening. This former “hopeless case” exploded onto that stage with a command and confidence that sent a ripple of energy through the audience. There was a new body, a new attitude, a new confidence and and a new radiance that glowed with an inner pulse of excitement. What now stood before me was a fully polished performer on the brink of what will hopefully be a long and satisfying professional career. And I sat in my seat, and I sobbed.

Through sheer determination and hard work this student made this metamorphosis happen and it was the faculty of our school that opened the door and showed the way. I am so pleased that I got to be part of that journey. My mentor Luigi often said “I don’t train dancers, I make stars.” On this point I have always disagreed. Stars are not made, they are born; all we can do as teachers is pull back the curtain and show them how it’s done. I’m proud to say that ALL of the schools at which I teach do NOT accept students based on their body type and they do NOT accept students based on what they can do at the audition. They accept students based in their POTENTIAL. I believe that if a school is only accepting students with perfect equipment and nearly finished techniques, the job of molding a professional is not that difficult and the schools’ graduates’ employment rate will certainly be high. But we are not concerned with employment rates and we are not concerned with with finding perfect students. We are concerned with identifying POTENTIAL and giving the students the opportunity to develop it. We aren’t always right with every student we select. And not every student with the potential is prepared, willing and able to do the required work. But when this potential is placed in the body of a relentless, hungry, unstoppable student, the results can be staggering. And so, as the “self proclaimed champion of the hopeless case” I look forward to many more years of sobbing in the dark as my students take the stage and astonish me.

I love to be proven wrong.

Taming the Diva

I read a post in a dance teachers’ chat group about handling students who have become a bit of a “Diva”. I, myself, am actually dealing with a student who is exhibiting this behavior. And as I read the various responses and the various strategies for dealing with this personality, this behavior; I came to a realization: We all, as artists, have an “Inner Diva”.

This “Diva” lives inside us. She thinks that she is there to protect us, support us, defend us and truly believes that she always acts in our best interest. Some of us keep her deep within ourselves while others allow her to reside closer to the surface. But as I read these posts, and I thought about my career journey over the last seven years, I realized that keeping my Diva under control literally paved the way to my career goals. When we allow her to come to the surface (and we all do, at times) it can be for any one of many reasons ranging from insecurity, fear and poor self image to entitlement arrogance, and an inflated sense of one’s own abilities and talents. But whatever the reason, be it positive or negative, our inner a Diva is not really there to help; she serves only to sabotage and destroy.

When I first returned to dancing after a nine year absence from the industry, I started taking class from a very well-known teacher at an extremely prestigious studio in New York City. One day this teacher asked me if I wanted to sub for him. I had never really thought about teaching, but to say I was thrilled would be an understatement. However, the studio had “other plans” for a sub that Tuesday afternoon. I was incredibly disappointed. And the my Inner Diva started whispering in my ear:

“Well you aren’t going to take that class are you? That is supposed to be YOUR class. YOU are supposed to be teaching that class. YOU were the choice of the regular teacher. If you had any self respect at all you would steer clear of that studio today.”

But I pushed her down, as deep as I could. Some other voice was telling me to go to the studio that day; to swallow my pride and take class with the sub who was teaching in my stead; the job that I should have had. And so I put on my “Big-Boy Pants”and I went and took that class. The teacher was Lisa Gajda; and if you don’t know her name, let’s start with the fact that she has 17 Broadway shows on her resume. 17. I stood in the back of the room, quietly doing my plies. She came up to me and asked, in a somewhat accusational but also humorous tone. “Who are you?”

“No one” I responded.

“Because I’m looking at you” she said, “and I’m thinking that there are some things that YOU should be teaching ME”.

After the class we chatted briefly. I told her what had transpired regarding the regular teacher asking me to sub. We exchanged email addresses; but didn’t really stay in touch.

One summer morning, two years later, I woke up, opened my email, and read the following message:

“Dear Bill,

I am the chair of the dance depart at the musical theater conservatory CAP21. We are in need of a ballet teacher on Monday and Wednesday mornings and we got your name and email address from Lisa Gajda…”

TWO YEARS LATER.

And my Inner Diva tried to sabotage that job.

One day I got a call from a colleague asking me the following question:

“Would you like to play Drosselmeyer in a student Nutcracker ? The pay isn’t very much but I thought I would ask”.

And there she was, my Inner Diva, getting ready to say:

“Are you out of your mind? I was a PROFESSIONAL! Why on earth would I play Drosselmeyer in a student production for almost no money? How insulting!”

But instead, I quickly put my hand over her mouth and said:

“I’m not sure I have time to do it, but I can certainly meet with the choreographer.”

So an appointment was set, and I arrived at the Manhattan Ballet School. It was a tiny little “Jewel Box” of a studio; completely lost in time…like something out of The Red Shoes. The owner of the studio had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She had to be close to 90 years old. There was a picture of her in the studio dancing with FRED ASTAIRE. She threw her arms around me and welcomed me to her school. And during our conversation about her Nutcracker she offered me a teaching job! Once again, I got a teaching job that my Inner Diva tried to prevent.

When I first returned to the dance industry after a nine year absence I was extremely overweight, middle aged and looked nothing like anyone’s idea of a dancer. One day I rolled into the Joffrey Ballet School to take an open class. I signed up for “Intermediate Ballet”, put on my sweat pants and bit T-shirt and took my spot at the barre. The teacher came into the room, took one look at me and assumed I belonged in the “Adult Beginner” class and had wandered into the wrong room. She asked:

“Have you ever danced before?”

“Yes” I responded.

“Ballet!?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes” I responded.

“OK” she said, with a tiny bit of a smirk and a bit of an eye roll.

And my Inner Diva, once again, started clawing to the surface. She was dying to say:

“Excuse me…but you do not know who you are talking to. I was a professional dancer with musical theater, concert dance, music video, television and commercial credits. Who do you think you are?”

But again…I stifled her. It wasn’t easy. I felt slighted, insulted, judged. But I made sure that my Diva said nothing. I saw the look of surprise on the teacher’s face when I did that first plié. And it was this teacher who became a cherished friend and helped me secure my position at my beloved Joffrey Ballet School; a position that literally changed my entire life and a position that my Inner Diva once again tried to prevent.

As I got older I began to look at things differently. As I got older my priorities changed. And one of those changes was that I really no longer cared that much about what other people thought. And that change certainly makes it easier to control my Inner Diva. I often tell my students:

“Every time you get hired to dance in New York, there are dozens of other dancers who are better than you, standing outside that studio door, waiting for your job. No one is THAT good.”

I have seen fine dancers lose jobs because of their Inner Diva. I have seen fine teachers lose jobs because of their Inner Diva. She is not there to protect you and she is not there to help you. The help that you need in this brutal industry can only be supplied by your authentic self: the REAL YOU. The YOU that has shortcomings, the YOU that has insecurities, the YOU that has kindness, compassion and humility. Those are the characteristics that will allow you to bring something rich, interesting and beautiful to the stage and to the classroom. Those are the characteristics that people want to hire and work with. Those are the characteristics that will pave the way to your career goals.