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.

Controlling Our Inner 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.

Teaching Ballet and Demonstrating in the Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adult Beginners-My Class at Joffrey

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing With Different Bodies

Now, as I approach my 57th birthday, I have come to realize that I have trained as a dancer three distinct times in my life, with three distinctly different bodies.

I was a very late starter, and my initial training was in my 20’s with a reasonably young, reasonably fit body. I was able to take that “untrained/never danced” young-adult body and put it through the rigors of preprofessional ballet training, and come out the other end a professional dancer. I learned how that training, that process, that transformation felt…and having a bit of a crazy memory for details, I remember exactly what that process entailed.

I stopped performing in my 30’s and started taking class again, 9 years later in my 40’s. I now had to re-train. And now I had a completely different instrument with which to work. I was now firmly in middle age. I was now 50 pounds over-weight and completely out of shape as I had done absolutely no exercise at all for 9 years. And so I started training; dancing with this completely alien instrument. And found that I needed to work at a completely different pace, with a completely different focus and in a completely different way. But train I did. And over the course of a few years I was able to get almost everything back. And since it wasn’t all that long ago, I clearly remember exactly what that process entailed.

Now I’m closer to 60 than I am to 50. And now I find that I’m working with yet another completely different body. I still take class regularly, every day when my schedule permits. I’m lean and fit…for my age. I’m carrying no extra weight. I take class regularly. I work as hard as I can…yet my aging body has betrayed me. And no matter how hard I work; no matter how hard I focus; and no matter how often I train; my aging body is declining. I am now training a third body. And older body that no longer has a buoyant soaring jump, a reaching growing towering extension or a dizzying heart stopping turn. An older body who’s balance decreases daily. An older body that will never again dance the way it did when it was young. And so I am now looking for ways to work with this new instrument. I am searching for ways to do more with less. Im trying to be more expressive, more communicative, more artistic, nuanced and interesting with a body that still has a clean and solid technique but with far less technical pyrotechnics at its disposal. I am training a third body in a third way. And I am now learning what this process entails.

Over the past 30-odd years, training in and teaching open classes, I have always been very observant. I’ve watched teachers. I’ve watched dancers. I’ve watched accompanists. I’ve watched administrators and program directors. And I have learned. And through training three distinct times with three distinct bodies, I have learned even more. But there is a group of dance studio “regulars” who had always puzzled me: the self-confident, un-ashamed, weak and frail, very elderly dancer. There were never a lot of them, but they always seemed to be there, in small numbers. These octogenarians (or sometimes even older) would come to class regularly. They would often wear the dance clothes that one would expect on a much younger, fitter, attractive body. They would, with full confidence take their place in some very advanced classes. And they would do…what they could…which was usually “next to nothing”. I would think to myself: “What are they doing? Why are they in this class? Are they crazy? If I ever become one of them, will someone tell me?” And I was worried. My biggest fear was that I would one day turn into a “clueless old man, wasting my time in some dance class in which I had no business being.”

Today, as I often do on Saturday morning, I took class…a beautiful class with a stunning musician at the piano. And standing across the room I saw HER. She was very elderly…clearly well past 80. She was wearing a black leotard, pink tights, short chiffon skirt and slippers. Her hair was in a neat bun. She had on just a little too much makeup. She was very thin, very frail and appeared very weak. And then the class started. The pianist played the introduction to the first exercise and I now saw this very elderly dancer in a completely different way. I will NEVER forget the look of pure joy on her face as she started her first demi plié. She was one with the music. She was one with the studio. She was happy and she was home. And I realized at that moment that I was not looking at my biggest fear. I was looking at what would one day be my fourth body. The body that I would have to train once again to work in yet a new and different way.

Each time I have retrained I have LEARNED. Each time I have retrained I have become a better teacher. So now, without fear and with an open heart, I will one day welcome my fourth body. And my very elderly, frail and weak fourth body will confidently and unapologetically take its place in a studio. I will be one with the music. I will be happy. I will be home. And once again I will train it. And I will LEARN.