Judging

I have always subscribed to the philosophy that every student who comes to me for training, regardless of their ability, talent or body type, will receive my full attention. I have always believed that my talents and abilities lie in identifying the unique potential that lives deep within every student and cultivating that potential to its fullest. I have always endeavored to look at every student without judgement and to see the artist that hides somewhere deep below the surface.

But I am flawed. I have judged. And sometimes I need a reminder.

I have, as of late, been charged with teaching some students who, by most of the usual standards, do not have the makings of a dancer. I walked into that classroom, I looked around, I started (as I always do) by explaining my approach to tendu, plié and releve and I watched them struggle; really struggle. And I thought to myself “Never in a million years…”. And so I have done a fair amount of complaining to my colleagues, friends and family about teaching these kids. I have also resigned myself to the fact that I will probably never get a result out of them.

This morning I woke up very early. I signed on to Facebook. The first two posts in my feed were about remarkable teachers; teachers who changed lives. The first story was about a teacher’s letter home to an autistic student who had performed poorly on the SAT exam. Although the student had scored rather low on the exam, the letter focused on the student’s positive achievements and abilities. The second story focused on a fifth grade teacher who had judged a student based on his unkept appearance, poor performance and inability to make friends. She later found out that these problems manifested a couple of years prior when this child’s mother passed away. When this information came to light, and horrified that she had judged this child so harshly, she poured her energy into this child. This child, under her guidance and care, turned himself around; succeeding in the fifth grade and ultimately graduating from medical school while always maintaining that his fifth grade teacher was the finest teacher he ever had.

THIS was GREAT teaching. Here was my reminder.

I recalled, and went back and re-read, an old article that I had written on this topic:

https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2018/11/01/i-love-being-proven-wrong/

And I was disappointed in myself. I had done exactly what I have always prided myself on never doing; I judged my students. And these internet reminders that showed up in my feed this morning, these stories of the impact that truly great teachers can make, flooded me with the memories of the brilliant teachers that never judged me. Because I was the 26 year old beginner who had never danced a step. I was too short, too broad, too inflexible to be a ballet dancer. I was, by many standards, hopeless. But Luigi saw something in me, some spark of potential that made him whisper in my ear “it’s not too late”. No trumpet, no fanfare, no applause; just a whisper. And my life changed.

Sometimes I think the biggest moments, can be as tiny as a whisper.

So this week I will be re-examining these students. This week I will strive to look at them through different eyes. I will be looking at each student and searching for the artist that is lying dormant below the surface. I will try, with care, respect and love to TEACH them.

I have often written about my endless quest to improve (even at my age) my dancing. Similarly I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching (another relentless pursuit). I will never be a truly great dancer in the usual sense (at my age, that ship has sailed). And I may never be a truly great teacher (but I’m still trying). But these reminders this morning set me back on the right path. And these students are MY classroom. This is where I am learning the be a better teacher. And each day I hope to get just a little bit better. And my improvements, like those of these students will probably not come with trumpets, fanfares and applause because the biggest moments can be as tiny as a whisper.

The Rant

Dancers are, by nature, emotional and passionate beings. I believe that this emotion, this passion that lives so close to the surface, is the source of the art that we bring to the stage. But our’s is a tough industry, and the world in which we carve out our careers can present many challenges and injustices. Navigating these challenges, given our emotional passionate nature, is one of the most difficult parts of a dancer’s life.

Disappointment is a frequent visitor. Even the most successful dancers must endure many grueling auditions and face many rejections before securing a contract. When it comes to booking a job it can be an endless barrage of “NO’s” for every single “yes”. And even after we have signed a contract things do not always go well. Dancers are often mistreated, underpaid, overworked and disrespected. Shows fold, contracts are broken and performances are cancelled. And yet we persist, because we simply have no choice, because DANCE has chosen US.

When faced with these situations, my highly emotional, highly passionate self has always found great comfort in…well..complaining. I would complain to any friend or family member who would listen. Sometimes I would get support: “You are so much better than that, you’ll book a better gig in no time.”. Sometimes I would get a dose of reality (especially from my mother): “Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.”. But just the act of complaining seemed, on some level to help.

I left the dance industry at 34 and returned 9 years later at 43 and when I returned there was this brand new tool that dancers used to grow their career: Social Media. It took me a while to get on board, but if you are reading this, you know that I joined the bandwagon. And as I scroll through feeds, and I read posts, I’m constantly surprised by what I read. I discovered this phenomenon called “The Rant”.

Artists are now putting into print the complaints that I had made (and still make) privately to my friends and family. And they post these complaints in a public forum for their entire industry to read. And they wait for the tidal wave of support. In the past few years I have had classes cancelled, programs close, and jobs disappear. I have had contracts ignored, promises broken and students quit. That is life. That is our industry (as my mother so wisely taught me). But what I see from my colleagues and students now, the long, angry, blistering rant, constantly surprises me. There seems to be this need to explain every detail of the disappointment and a careful analysis as to why the writer was in no way at fault. There are often disparaging remarks made about employers, choreographers, directors, producers, colleagues and students. And then all the supportive posts roll in, most of which are probably from people that they don’t actually know. I guess on some level, it makes them feel better.

There is a beautiful young dancer that I met some time ago in an open class. I recently read one of these rants that she made about being fired from a dance job. I read the post and I thought to myself “I would never hire this girl now, never”. I’m sure she felt better because all of her “friends” told her that she was right, told her that she was brilliant, told her she would be a star. But all I could think after reading her post was “There are always three sides to every story: her’s, their’s, and the truth…which is probably somewhere in the middle. This dancer sounds like a problem.” I hope that those supportive posts were valuable to her, because should I be faced with hiring or recommending a dancer, she is now off my list.

So once again I am offering unsolicited advice to all the aspiring professionals I know, to all the students I have taught and to all my colleagues who are struggling (as do I) to build a career in this challenging industry. Channel your anger, your frustration, your disappointment back into your work. Let it fuel the fire that makes you the artist you are. Because employers, producers, choreographers, directors and studio owners will read your social media feeds. They want to see who they are hiring. Don’t give them a reason to reject you simply because you have a need to complain. The support that you get from your “friends” might make you FEEL better but it will not put a contract in your hands or dollars in you pocket.

 

“Life isn’t fair. Get used to it” … My Mom

Finding a Voice

This past week I had a new student in one of my open classes. She was probably in her twenties. She had a nice clean technique at the barre and she clearly had excellent training. She was, however, a little more tentative and tense in the centre. After class she remarked that she has always felt embarrassed about trying to be expressive while dancing. She went on to say that her previous training had always made her feel somewhat constrained and closed off and that this was the first class she had taken where the dancers were encouraged to be artists, to have a voice, to bring something to the steps. 


I take a lot of open classes in New York. A lot. There is endless discussion of technique in these classes and some of this information is brilliant and insightful. There are a few teachers (Heather Hawk and Antoinette Peloso come to mind first) that give a very “musical” class. But I have very rarely encountered teachers who are actively encouraging expression, artistry, individual style in open classes. I know that many disciples of Vaganova methodology believe that technique and artistry are one thing; that ballet IS art and so you can’t have ballet technique without artistry. But that is a topic for a whole other discussion.


I have always believed that pliés, tendus and frappes are tools. The exercises, the steps, the combinations that we do in our technique classes are not taught for their own sake. They are not studied to enable dancers to execute beautiful pirouettes, developes and jetes. These elements are tools that the dancer needs to be an expressive artist. The vast majority of our audience doesn’t understand tendu or rond de jamb. They don’t really understand what we do. They understand what we feel and what we can make them feel. And training dancers to FEEL is at the core of my teaching. The lineage of teachers and how we pass down our art form from teacher to student is very important to me, and I can trace my heritage directly back to the modern dance legend Doris Humphrey. Humphrey changed dance forever when she  so famously implored dancers to “move from the inside out”. This emotional connection to the movement is what I am encouraging my students to find, and the studio must be a safe space that is free of constraint if they are going to grow in this way. Do I teach technique? Do I explain tendu? Of course I do; in excruciating detail. But in the same breath I encourage my students to find their own voice in every tendu. I ask them to breathe life into every port de bras and to “dance from the inside”. They need to learn how to let the music inside their bodies, they need to learn how to send their joy out into the audience and also how to draw each audience member in, as if to tell them the most personal of secrets. And this ability must be trained, just as a tendu and a pirouette must be trained.


Every day I walk into the studio. Every day dancers put their precious dancing futures in my hands. And every day I strive to make my classroom SAFE and free from constraint so that each student can train their bodies and their spirit. I want each student to become an artist. I want each student to bring something unique to my steps. I want each student to find their voice; that silent voice that great dancers use to speak to the world. And I want them to find that voice in my classroom.

When Teachers Learn to Teach

In the State of New York, some schools are now requiring teachers to have a particular New York state issued teachers’ license. One of the requirements is a certain amount of teacher training. This is not ballet teacher training in particular, but methods and theories of education. The courses are designed for trade school teachers.

So for this first phase I was required to take a 30 hour course in teaching methods. In addition to myself there were some theater teachers and music teachers. The rest of the students were not the arts. There was an engineer, two gemologists, A jewelry designer, A group of nurses, A film editor, A hairdresser, and two make up artists. I actually have been dreading this course but it’s been quite interesting. As one of the exercises we had to present a seven minute lesson, in our subject, based on a particular format for a lesson plan that the teacher had designed. So for my demonstration I decided to teach a short and simple barre exercise. I asked for one of my classmates to volunteer to be the student , and one of the make up artists raised her hand. There was a shelf that was just the right height to serve as a barre. So in the way that I would teach an absolute beginner adult class , I explained the short combination consisting of: 2 tendus from first position en croix, followed by three demi pliés and a releve. It was completely apparent from the moment that this gal placed her hand on that shelf that she had danced before. Although she had not danced for many years it was clear that she had been beautifully trained. I put on the music. I gave my usual speech about “dancing inside the music” and “finding the power in the simplicity”. She executed the exercise quite beautifully, and then burst into tears. Ballet had been a passion all her life, but for numerous reasons her training stopped in her teens. That short exercise reminded her of the joy that dancing brought her, a feeling she had forgotten years ago. I turned to the class, poised to say ” only someone who has loved the ballet would understand what this feels like “. When I looked at this room full of engineers , hairdressers, make up artists, nurses, etc. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

We never know who we will touch. And this is why I am a ballet teacher.

Not My Son…Boys Don’t Dance

In the last few weeks I have read several social media posts made by dance teachers; posts that I have found increasingly more troubling. The subject of these posts: parents preventing their sons from dancing because “BOYS DON’T DANCE”.

The bullying of boys who dance has been addressed in great detail in recent weeks, thrust into the limelight by Lara Spencer and her coverage of Prince George studying ballet. I almost feel like I’m beating the “proverbial dead horse” here but I find it far more disturbing when it comes from a parent. In one of these posts, a teacher tells of an enthusiastic boy who asked to join his sister’s dance class and his mother’s response was: “Don’t be daft, boys don’t dance”.

My hat goes off to this little boy who had the courage to ask; courage that sadly, I did not have. When I turned 50, I confronted my mother about how I felt manipulated into a career in which I had no interest. My mother’s response: “You should have been stronger.” And she was right. And she was also wrong…because in my heart of hearts I felt that if I had spoken up at a young age and said that I wanted to be a dancer I would have faced the same response as that little boy. And that was something that I don’t think I could have faced.

I fully believe that this little boy’s mother is acting in what she thinks is her child’s best interest. I fully believe that every parent works extremely hard to be the very best parent that they can be.

But these parents simply do not know what they do not know.

The mind, the heart and the soul of an artist is different. Artists aren’t “better” or “special”; we are simply DIFFERENT. And this difference is nearly impossible to understand when looking at it from the outside. I did not choose to be a dancer. I simply AM a dancer. I’ve always known it. I often tell my adult beginners that “There are two kinds of dancers: those who are and those who are not.” My career as a dancer and teacher consumes my entire being and is literally THE source of my happiness. Dance is not what I do. Dance is at the very core of who I am. And for someone who is not a dancer, this is something that is nearly impossible to comprehend in a meaningful way.

So, to the parents of boys who want to dance:

“Careful the things you say, children will listen” * . And perhaps there is much to be gained by YOU listening to your sons. Think on the bravery it takes for a boy living in our culture to even ASK to dance. Perhaps that bravery should be celebrated, not ridiculed and squashed. We know that celebrating that bravery comes with risks; the risk of injury, the risk of bullying, the risk of disappointment when careers fail and dreams are dashed. But what would our world be without the risk takers?

Children only get to be children once. If your son is a dancer you can not change that. Whether you support it or not, your son IS an dancer. Do not set him down my path; a path of wondering “what might have been”. I have carved out a teaching career that I love and is the source of my happiness. But I still gaze back into my past at a performing career that never was fully realized because I simply started too late. And that is a source of pain that will never go away.

I recently met an extraordinary boy. A boy with a beautiful facility, an enormous talent and an unstoppable drive. And I took a risk. I recommended this boy for a full scholarship position at a prestigious ballet school. And he was accepted. And I hope he works as hard as I think he will and I hope he grows as much as I know he can, because in making this recommendation I put my reputation on the line. Maybe in some tiny way a little piece of me will be inside of him when he dances, and maybe in some tiny way I will, through him, share the thrill of the world’s great stages. Of course there is no way to know for sure; that is the very nature of taking a risk.

Listen to your son. Celebrate his bravery. Take a risk.

 

(*Quote by Stephen Sondheim from his musical Into the Woods”)

“Dance Is Not A Real Job”…My Response To The Nay-Sayers

“Dance is not a real job”
“The arts…no way to make a living”
“Dance is not a lucrative line of work “


A discussion was started on social media centered on how professionals in the dance industry respond to these sorts of statements. The discussion also asked the participants to share their experiences in the dance industry.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with me, and my somewhat strange path, I’d like to share my experiences once again. I was raised in a world where I heard “You can never make a living in the arts” on a regular basis. The thought of following this sort of a career path was so completely ludicrous to everyone in my world, that I believed it myself. I remember hearing “Well…if you were a girl, you could marry a man who would take care of you.”.  I also remember hearing “Well…if you could sing better…”. And the ever popular “YOU don’t want a career on the stage. DO YOU? 


Looking back on my childhood now, I felt as if I didn’t have a choice. I was to go to college, get a high paying job, and be happy. This seemed to be of such great importance to everyone around me, I believed that if I didn’t follow this path, my family would simply stop loving me. I know now that wasn’t true…but that’s what I believed. As the brilliant Stephen Sondheim said: “Careful the things you say, children will listen”.


I listened.


I took my first dance class just shy of 26 years old. I had my first professional performing contract at 28. I worked steadily until I was 34, and when I realized I was now too old to secure a contract in a major company, I simply stopped dancing; and I will never know how my life would have turned out if I had the opportunity to start training when I was young. And that notion has haunted me for the rest of my life. At 43 I started dancing again, at 50 I started teaching, and now at 58 I have an extremely busy teaching career. Lucrative? Not bad, but not like the first career for which I was educated. Happier? Most definitely. Recently, while taking an open class, a current soloist with ABT who was in class with me remarked: “Its my goal to dance like you”. As flattering as the compliment was, it sent me right to that place of despair, glaring backward into the past, wondering what might have been if I had only the strength of character to stand up to my family when I was a child.


I believe that families who discourage their children from careers in the arts do it with the best of intentions. I think they believe that a capable earner with a good income will be happy. I think they believe they are saving their children from a life of disappointment. I think they believe that they are doing their job as parents. 


But these people are not dancers. And they simply do not understand.

I did not choose to be a dancer. I simply AM. There was no choice involved. I knew it from the first Nutcracker I saw on television when I was five. I think I knew it earlier…but I can’t remember much before then. And so I HAVE TO make it work. Every semester I cobble together a teaching schedule; dividing my time between Joffrey, NY Film Academy, Molloy College, subbing at Broadway Dance Center and guest teaching around the country. Sometimes I have a full schedule…sometimes not. Sometimes I doing very well financially…sometimes not. 


Perhaps it is because I was not able to start dancing until I was an adult, but to me, every moment that I get to live my life in this industry is a gift.  I am grateful for every work opportunity I am offered and I am thankful for every day that I do not have to return to that office that was the source of my misery for so many years.


So when I am asked why I have changed careers so late in life; why I have chosen a career in something as risky as dance, I answer thusly: I get to live as a dancer lives. I get to bring this magnificent art form to my students. I get to have a life that is filled with passion for what I do. I get to be happy. Is there a greater gift than that? 


So in addition to teaching my students to dance, I am teaching the nay-sayers in my life what it means to work tirelessly to achieve unachievable goals. I am teaching them about the joy that comes from following one’s destiny, no mater how ridiculous it might seem. I’m teaching them that to an ARTIST, the only path to happiness is a life lived in the pursuit of art. And I am teaching them this by example.

Helping Our Students Find Their Voice

There was a very interesting article in Dance Magazine, in which the author Nancy Wozny queries: “Has the quest for versatility erased dancers’ movement signatures?”. I’ve never heard this question posed in quite this way. I have been bemoaning what I have called a “loss of artistry”. Dancers no longer seem to have a unique voice and I have written numerous articles on cultivating this unique voice; this artistry while training technique. But this concept of “erasing a dancer’s movement signature” very eloquently expresses exactly what I’ve been talking about. Ms. Wozny hypothesizes that the quest for versatility is the culprit; and that may be true. But I believe that this is only a very small part of problem.


Mikhail Baryshnikov famously said: “I don’t try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” And I believe that this is the source of his unique artistic vision.

 
Young dancers today spend an enormous amount of time on social media, watching the “stars” that they follow on Facebook and Instagram. They long to be like their idols and they copy what they see; putting their energy into dancing exactly like these “stars”… or perhaps even BETTER. But what they are looking at, what they are aspiring to, is the quantifiable: the length of the balance, the height of the leg, the number of pirouettes. And these quantifiables are often the basis of competition judging. 


Although I work primarily in the preprofessional/conservatory facet of the dance industry, I am a frequent guest teacher at competition studios and I believe that competitions have much to offer dancers (and I’ve already discussed this in previous articles). But when it comes to developing artistry, a unique voice, a “movement signature”, I believe that competitions could be part of the problem. When I watch group competition pieces I am always stunned by the miraculous unison; the incredible uniformity in the dancing. And this “sameness” is rewarded in the judging. Similarly, when one watches videos of examinations and classes at the great academies we see that same uniformity. All the bodies are pretty much identical. Every movement, nuance, gesture, tilt of the head  is meticulously sculpted and studied and honed. This uniformity; this “copying” of detail is not at all the same thing as the development of  artistry or a “movement signature”. There was a recent interview with an ABT principal in which she stated that (and I’m paraphrasing) contemporary styles allow her to express what she has inside her…but when she dances classical ballet she is trying to “replicate what the great ballerinas before her have done.”


And right here is our problem. Students are copying their insta-celebrities. Competition dancers are striving for staggering unison. Great academies are selecting for extreme body uniformity and maddeningly and meticulously training finely honed details. And sadly, and shockingly, ABT principals are attempting to replicate the great ballerinas of the past. And we wonder why there seems to be no great ARTISTS any more. Well, I believe that our industry is training the artistry right out of the dancer.
I have always taught my students that our bodies are our instruments and our technique allows us to use these instruments. An audience will never be truly moved by watching technique. As we train we must each search for a way to make the work personal. There should always be a quest to say something new with each step; to use our bodies and our technique to breathe life into the choreography and to make the choreography, the music and the artistry a unified whole. As most of you know, I still take class regularly and I am always looking for something new. When I was about 45 years old I found a way to pull up just a bit more in my standing hip that gave a unique look to my retire. When I was about 55 I discovered a little nuance in the epaulment when executing tendu croise derrière that added an extra richness to the position. And now my retire and my tendu croise derrière don’t look like quite any one else’s. Using the music as a guide, I recently discovered a way to phrase a mazurka that gives it a little “something extra”. And every day I continue this search. I was taught by my teachers to “Feel the space”, Dance from the inside”, “Let the feeling cover the technique”, “Dance the sound…not the steps”. I pass these lessons onto my students. But I also teach them things that I have found on my own. I teach them to “dare to be still”, “find power in the simplicity”, “make the work YOURS”, “draw the audience in rather than shout the choreography out”. And as I continue to take class and I watch my colleagues I feel more and more that I am alone in my approach. 


The uniqueness of Pliesetskaya, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Gregory, Kirkland, Makarova, Farrell and (as recent as) Wendy Whelan could never been created by copying. Copying creates…well…a copy. What will thrill an audience is an ORIGINAL. And every day I am striving to create one; the only way I know how.