What we do as dancers is so very intimate and personal; our bodies are our instruments, our muscles contain our memories and our art is kept in a very deep place…on the inside. This art, this work, these traditions are lovingly and painstakingly passed down, from teacher to student; from generation to generation. My beautiful Joffrey trainees are part of this distinguished chain of teaching that stretches back through the generations. It was thrilling to watch as they brought this ravishing work to life through the brilliant teaching of Stacey Caddell. I am in constant awe of my colleagues and honored to be part of this program where I can bring my link in the chain: from Maestro Cecchetti to Madame Nijinska, to Luigi, to me to my students. Joffrey Ballet Trainees.
Today is the birthday of the Legendary Luigi. 31 years ago I walked into Luigi’s Jazz Centre, an adult absolute beginner, and began to study his revolutionary Jazz technique. Starting as an adult, it never occurred to me that dancing would ever be something more than a hobby. About a year later, one day in class, he whispered in my ear “It’s not too late for you”.
That day, that sentence, that whisper in my ear, forever changed my life. My career is now in dance as I endeavor to faithfully pass on the teachings of Luigi to the next generation of dancers. In every class I teach, including the ballet classes, it is Luigi who I bring into the studio with me. I strive every day, just as he did, to painstakingly pass down the teachings of the great teachers of the past: From Cecchetti, to Nijinska, to Luigi, to Me to my students. And I bring his glorious jazz technique to today’s dancers as accurately and faithfully as possible and try every day to fill the work with the joy and the love that he brought to the classroom.
The work that dancers do and the way that we pass it on from generation to generation is so intimate and personal; because we carry these ideas,these teachings inside our bodies. Our bodies are our instruments, our muscles contain our memories and our art is kept in a very deep place…on the “inside”.
So, as my mentor and teacher Luigi always said: “Dance from the Inside” and Never Stop Moving”
This past Friday I was listening to WNYC as I was frantically commuting from one job to another (the life of a free-lance dance instructor in New York). That afternoon there was an interview with a young American writer named Zak Dychtwald. Mr. Dychtwald learned Chinese, moved to China and now writes extensively on the “Restless Generation” of “Young China”. The interviewer asked: “When you are here in the United States, what do you miss the most about China?” The writer’s response: “Talking to my friends about their dreams”. He went on to explain that the youth in China today freely talk about their hopes and dreams while their American counterparts view talking about their dreams as “lame” (his word).
I immediately flashed back to 1966 when I saw my first Nutcracker on a rabbit-eared black and white portable television. I was transfixed and I was hooked…for life. I longed to dance like the fuzzy images on that tiny screen. I knew that I was meant to live a life in dance. But I believed that it would never come to pass. This was not the world in which I lived. I lived in a world where people didn’t dream on a grand scale. I lived in a world of practicality. And I lived in a world where boys most certainly did not dance.
A few years later I discovered The Royal Book of Ballet by Shirley Goulden / illustrated by Maraja on the shelf of my elementary school library. I checked the book out of the library week after week, hiding it from my family for fear of being discovered, pouring over its pages of extravagantly beautiful illustrations behind my bedroom door.
But I never spoke of my dream. I buried that dream as deeply as I could, locking it away for safe keeping it at the very core of my being. And those readers who are familiar with my story, know that I didn’t take my first dance class until I was well into adulthood. And it was the brilliance of Luigi who unlocked that dream and introduced me to a world in which I thought I would never live.
Years later I confronted my mother. I was certain that the world of convention in which I was raised, my preposterously late start in ballet training had all but ruined my life. Her response: “But you never asked for dance classes”. And she was right. And the light was finally turned on.
So from that moment on I spoke of my dreams; I shouted my dreams to anyone who would listen. I was approaching 50 and clearly my performing days were over. But I could teach. I could pass on the knowledge, the training, the passion that was instilled in me by great teachers. And so was born my new career; my new life. I am now poised to take a very big step. I am making some very big changes in my life and taking some very big risks as my dreams for my life in dance get bigger and bigger. And I speak to my students of my dreams for THEM as I help mold the next generation of artists.
I have read a lot recently on pirouette preparations with respect to competition dance. Since I mainly teach at professional schools (Broadway Dance Center), preprofessional programs (Joffrey Ballet School), conservatory programs (NY Film Academy) and colleges (Molloy/CAP21) my experience with dance competitions is very limited. I am, however, a frequent guest teacher at numerous competition schools across the country; bringing my take on classical ballet technique and the technique of my mentor, Luigi to the fantastic work being done at these studios. Since I do work so often with competition dancers, I am always trying to learn more about what is expected from these dancers in the competitive arena.
There was a thread that I came across in a teachers’ chat group, discussing pirouette preparations. There seemed to be a consensus that “turned out” pirouettes must be preceded by a “turned out” preparation and a “parallel” pirouette must be preceded by a “parallel” preparation.
This thread started me thinking back to my training. Madame Gabriella Darvash, who was a student of the legendary Vaganova and my ballet teacher for my entire performing career, often said: A dancer must be able to turn in ANY position from ANY position. The academic preparations in fourth position and fifth position used in ballet technique class are used to TEACH dancers to turn. These preparations are also typical in 19th century classical ballet choreography, but as our art grew in the 20th and 21st centuries, so did the vocabulary of possible preparations when turns started to grow out of the dance without that moment of “tendu a la seconde, plié in fourth position” which stops the energy and flow of the movement.
Luigi, my mentor and Jazz teacher, spoke of his teacher Bronislava Nijinska. She said that her brother (the incomparable Vaslav Nijinsky) could do 10 pirouettes with no visible preparation. Luigi, in his choreography, endeavored to choreograph pirouettes from positions that wouldn’t be recognized as “preparations” as we typically know them.
So here is my question (after a very long-winded prologue): Since competition studios invite me to guest teach – bringing this work to their dancers – adding yet another layer to their work – should I not be bringing this take on pirouettes? I often teach classes on “Principles of the Luigi Technique for Teachers” and these concepts of pirouette preparation are typically part of those classes. My goal is to keep the great traditions of the past alive…to bring the work from Cecchettit, through Nijinska, through Luigi to my students and from Vaganova through Madame Darvash to my students. But I never want to teach in a museum…all of the work looks forward to the future. And as I teach students and teachers alike, I would never want to interfere with their ability to succeed at competitions.
After exhaustive discussion with many teachers there seems to be a new consensus: Academic preparations should be used by less advanced dancers to ensure that they are working toward excellent turning technique while more advanced dancers should be turning with out a “visible preparation” that stops the flow of the movement. And through these discussions we can all learn, and all grow as teachers; I know that I do.
Tonight I attended a showcase in which several of my former CAP21 students were performing. When I entered the lobby of the theater, a group of former students ran up to me excitedly and threw their arms around me. I couldn’t have felt more welcome and more loved. This showcase will be performed later this week for agents, casting directors and other industry professionals and it started me thinking about how we define success.
Most artists spend their entire life, their entire career, striving for success. Success; that elusive goal, that intangible finish line that we all are longing to cross, means something very different to each of us. And how we define success can mean the difference between a life in dance that is rich and satisfying and one that is marked by repeated disappointment.
When I was training, auditioning and performing, my idea of success was a Broadway Show or a first rate company; and on that point there would be no compromising. If I couldn’t dance on Broadway, in NYCB or in ABT everything else would be a compromise. So I spent my 20’s and 30’s working toward that goal. And every job I got along the way (and there were many, many jobs) was viewed merely as a stepping stone toward that ultimate dream. Every regional theater gig, every off-Broadway show, children’s theater, music video, T.V. show, commercial and small dance company was simply another step along that road to “success”. When I reached my mid-30’s and still had not achieved what I set out to achieve, I simply retired. I figured: “What was the point of continuing?” I was getting near the age when dancers become less employable. I was competing with younger and younger dancers with the kinds of credits on their resumes that I longed for. I was, in my mind, a failure. And so I left the industry and turned my energies elsewhere. I didn’t feel angry; and surprisingly, I didn’t feel disappointed. I just simply felt like I was done.
After nine years (during which I didn’t dance a single step) I was brought by a friend to take an open class at one of the big and famous studios in N.Y.C.. And I was “home”. I had forgotten what it was like to move. I had forgotten what it was like to feel the music, sense the excitement and explode across the studio. The sounds, the smells, the feelings were intoxicating. It was amazing. It was also heart breaking because I realized that my narrow-minded definition of success and my need to ACHIEVE kept me from doing the one thing that I truly loved for all those years. It was also heart breaking because I knew that now, well into my forties, I would never again dance the way I did when I was young. I thought I had experienced pain before, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotional roller coaster of despair that was brought upon by that single class. And so, after much soul searching, I decided to start taking that class; just twice a week. I struck up a friendship with the instructor and I was dancing again. After some time, this instructor asked me to sub the class for him. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me to teach, and this studio was literally world-famous. But when this world-famous studio got a look at my resume, they said “NO”. And there I was…once again a failure. I decided to take that class with the sub…the class that I believed should have been mine. And one year later that substitute teacher recommended me for my first teaching job at CAP21. And after that came The Manhattan Ballet School, and Hunter College, and New York Film Academy, and Broadway Dance Center, and my beloved Joffrey Ballet School (and all of the fantastic opportunities to guest teach across the country- and soon in Europe). And yet, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, was that little voice reminding me of that “world-famous” school that wouldn’t hire me because I was a FAILURE.
I started talking to colleagues about their careers; their definitions of success. And I learned something very interesting: almost everyone I spoke to felt the same way. In fact, a dancer with more than 10 Broadway shows to her credit confessed to me that she was miserable her entire career because she was terrified that the dance world would realize that she wasn’t any good. Another dancer with many prestigious credits, including having danced for Balanchine, Robbins and Feld told me that she felt like a failure because she couldn’t get into ABT. Yet a studio owner that I know, who has been running a lovely neighborhood dance school for more than 30 years feels fulfilled and content because, as she put it: “I have enriched the lives of children for my entire working life. And my former students bring THEIR children to be trained by me…and what could be a bigger compliment?”.
So I am re-adjusting how I look at success. A few weeks ago, a head hunter emailed me about a position at a very prestigious school. And whether I get this job or not- someone thought enough of my work, my reputation, my level of SUCCESS to submit me for this position. And as I look back on my career I am seeing my past through different eyes. I am seeing an adult beginner who had a busy dancing career and a gainfully employed teacher who’s students are appreciative and have gone on to careers of their own. But I think my biggest success was the most personal and the quietest: the day I set foot in that open class, in my mid-forties, 50 pounds over weight, completely out of shape and danced. That day I danced into my new life.
So to all of my students who performed tonight…to all of the artists that read this article: be wary of how you define success. We can not define success in the arts by dollars and cents. We all know of GREAT artists who were unable to carve out a living. George Seurat never sold a painting in his lifetime. We may think that we can define success by a Broadway show, or a major dance company…but I can point you toward many artists who have had those jobs that still feel like failures. Success in the arts is best defined (in my opinion) by the joy that you get from the doing of the work and the impact that you have on others. And with a full heart I am looking toward what I hope will be my next 30 years of teaching, because every moment in the studio is a gift and every class that I teach will touch my students and help guide them toward the success they so richly deserve.
I have been reading a lot lately about boys abandoning their dance training because of social pressures. Their teachers are desperately trying to keep them in the studio…but to no avail. This note is meant for those boys, wherever and whoever they may be.
I was a child who was bullied. I was relentlessly teased and picked on for most of my childhood; and that became a way of life for me. When I was growing up we were told “grow a thicker skin”, “don’t listen to them”, “stop being such a baby”. This was not a time where schools tried to stop bullying. This was not a time when parents or teachers intervened. Those of us who were marked as victims simply dealt with it. And it wasn’t easy.
I was also a child who loved dance. From the first Nutcracker that I saw on television at the age of 5, I was obsessed. I KNEW that this was what I was meant to do. There was no question. My sister was given dance classes. The neighbor girls were given dance classes. I was not. As far as my parents were concerned “boys didn’t dance”. And being that I was always an excellent student, they felt that any career in the arts would simply be a waste. I was in school plays where I would sing and dance. I was in summer camp productions where I would sing and dance. But that was purely recreational and there was no actual training involved.
There was a very careful and deep manipulation that occurred in my family. I was programmed to get good grades, go to college, find a career and make money. And for some reason, as ridiculous as this sounds, I believed that if I didn’t follow this path, if I disappointed them by not following this path, my family would stop loving me. Looking back at it now, I’m sure that wasn’t true; but that’s what I believed.
So I took my first dance class as an adult, when I could finally afford to pay for it myself. And I was “home”. And I would venture to guess that there was never a more serious adult beginner. I arranged my life and my work schedule so that I could study. I found the best teachers in New York…and they were willing to take me on, and take me seriously. I rented a bedroom in someone’s apartment rather than pay actual rent, so that I could afford to pay for all my classes. And I worked harder than I ever thought possible. And I started getting work; not major dance companies, not Broadway, but actual work- off Broadway, regional musical theater, smaller dance companies, music videos, television commercials, etc.. And setting my sights on the Broadway stage or a major dance company I trained even harder and I auditioned for everything. And when I couldn’t achieve those goals, I “retired”. And I will never know what might have been if I had been given the opportunity to train when I was young. And it has haunted me for the rest of my life.
I am now a dance teacher. I started this new career much later than most teachers . And I have worked very hard to make this new career my life. And I now teach in New York City at the Joffrey Ballet School and Broadway Dance Center among other schools. And I travel the world as a guest teacher. And I couldn’t be happier. I do believe that I am the teacher that I am because I started so late. I believe I have a unique perspective on how to make a dancer because I fully remember what it was like to know nothing. But I still look back at my past with regrets, and I wonder…
One of the most wonderful things about children and adolescents is that they live “in the moment”. One of the most tragic things about children and adolescents is that they live “in the moment”. If your passion is dance, if your calling is dance, if your life is dance then some very important decisions need to be made at a very young age. Everyone wants to fit in. Everyone wants to belong. And no one wants to be picked on, bullied or teased because he dances. But I would have happily endured the bullying and teasing if it meant that I had the opportunity to study and to train to be a dancer (I was already enduring it anyway). It is so hard at a young age to look into the future. But please, I implore you, do not go down my path. When I started teaching, I confronted my mother. I told her that I felt that I was manipulated into a career path that I wanted no part of. My mother’s response: “Well you should have been stronger”. And she was right.
So to my “brothers” and “sons”; to all boys who dance. Please learn from my mistakes. Please be strong. You only get one lifetime. You only get one chance to be young. You only get one chance to train for a life as a dancer; and if your parents support your dream you are very lucky. But even if your family is not fully behind you; be tough, be strong and follow YOUR path. Because the pain of the teasing and bulling; the pain of parental disapproval is nothing compared to the pain of wondering what might have been. And I know that first hand. So DANCE.
As often as I can, I start my day by taking ballet class, bright and early, 10:00 AM. I still take class whenever possible. Clearly, at my age, my performing career (save an occasional Drosselmeyer) is over, but the ritual of taking ballet class has stayed with me.
For hundreds of years, dancers have begun their day with ballet class; walking into the studio and placing their left hand on the barre. Every time I enter the studio, and grasp that barre I feel a connection; both to all the beautiful dancers that came before me and all the dancers that will help guide into the future of our art form. That simple gesture of taking the barre centers me, focuses me and brings me peace. Ballet class has been a constant throughout my life just as it has been a constant throughout the history of western dance. But it is not just the ritual that draws me to the studio. I take class to be a better teacher.
I often say that the study of ballet is the relentless pursuit of an unachievable perfection. And so every day I continue that pursuit. I want to continue to experience what my students are experiencing. I want to continue to work, to study, to improve (yes, some things still improve). And I want to use the improvements I make, the things that I find, to help my students. But with the passing decades there has also been a decline as my body ages. So I continue to work and to study with this aging, declining instrument, and that challenge has allowed me to make new discoveries…discoveries that enrich my work in the classroom every day.
I have written many times of my mentor, Luigi. When he taught his Jazz Technique, he demonstrated everything, full out, very slowly, while describing both what he was DOING, as well as what he was FEELING. He asked the students to perform the exercises with him, full out, during the demonstration, guiding them through the technique exercises and helping them to find those feelings. He oftentimes said “Feel first, then do”. He also said “if it doesn’t feel right, I don’t teach it”. I remember him making discoveries and how thrilling that was for him. He would say “I,wish you could feel what this feels like”. His method was not about “put your foot here” or “put your arm in this position” or “keep your shoulders down”. It was so much deeper than that. And the result that he got from his students was astounding. And so I strive to bring to my BALLET students what he brought to me. I want to pass on his concepts of how the body works; how to develop a beautiful quality of movement, a long beautiful line that goes on for ever, a deep sense of musicality, an expressive epaulment that is so much more than shoulder and head positions, a sense of connection both within the body and to the space around us. And since the structure of a ballet class makes it difficult to dance full out with the students, I need to do this deep and personal work and make these discoveries for myself, while I am studying.
I will never be a teacher who parrots back what I was taught. I have been fortunate that I have been taught by the very best ballet teachers in New York City. And so I have taken their teachings and made them part of my consciousness and part of my body. To this I have added the experiences that I have had on the stage. And all of that work and information is carried into the studio with me as I continue to study, to look for new feelings, new ways to achieve a line, or refine the execution of a step, or find a richer and deeper sense of musicality and phrasing, or reach out and touch my audience. I do not want to teach in a museum. I want my classroom to live, breathe, grow and vibrate with excitement. And this is the only way I know how to achieve that.
So this morning, at 10:00 AM I walked into the studio to take Michelle Cave’s beautiful open class at Steps on Broadway. I placed my hand on the barre. I felt the connection to the past and to the future. I felt focused and at peace. I was ready to dig deep and to work…looking for something new. And to my astonishment, standing with me at that barre was one of MY teachers, and one of my STUDENTS. And the chain continues.