A Note to Boys Who Dance…and to Their Teachers and Their Parents

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.

 

Why I Still Take Class

Today was Labor Day. And I started my day by taking ballet class, bright and early, 10:00 AM. I still take class, and I try to do so as regularly as I can. 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.

A Note From A Parent

I would like to share a message I received from a mom tonight, after I taught her daughter in a summer intensive today:

“I have to tell you that my daughter (one of the students you taught today) came home tonight and told me a story about a famous jazz choreographer and dancer that she learned about today. She told me that he was injured in an accident and was paralyzed… told he would never dance again. She was so taken by his story and how he didn’t stop when other forms of therapy didn’t work. The fact that he (I’m sorry if I’m mis-quoting) created his own way to heal and grow stronger – that really stuck with her. Inner strength is what she took away from your story and your teachings today. Thank you. She needed that today. I mean… don’t we all?”

And my response:

“You got it right. Eugene Louis Facciuto, more famously known as Luigi, was paralyzed in a car accident. He spent nearly three months in a coma, and upon waking, had completely lost the use of one entire side of his body. He was given a prognosis of “no hope” by his doctors. He rehabilitated himself and went on to dance in many of the MGM musicals including “Singing in the Rain” and “White Christmas”. He took the exercises that he created for his rehabilitation and turned it into a totally new way to train dancers. He became one of the most famous and far-reaching dance teachers in the world. He taught many legendary dancers including Liza Minnelli, Ben Vereen, Alvin Ailey…the list is endless. I am so fortunate that he was my very first teacher and after more than twenty years of trading with him, he certified me to pass on his brilliant method. It is an honor and privilege to share this work and I’m thrilled that your daughter could be part of this chain…passing the work from teacher to student, from generation to generation. This is why I am doing this. You made my night.”

Teaching The Luigi Jazz Technique

Here’s an article I contributed to a new magazine… The Wonderful World of Dance. It’s based on two previous bog posts.

I’ve been traveling the country more frequently to guest teach. And as I meet more and more teachers, studio owners and competition directors, I’ve received some inquiries as to why I’m teaching the Luigi Jazz Technique. It seems as if there is a perception that this kind of traditional jazz is in some way not relevant/helpful in the training of today’s young dancers. I have also encountered some dance conventions and organizations that are not looking for teachers who teach “technique” but are instead looking for teachers who present “fun choreography”; especially if the dancers are “already warm”.

I teach both Classical Ballet and The Luigi Jazz Technique at numerous schools in New York City and I have made it my personal mission to keep the work of my mentor, Luigi, alive. There are two aspects to this work. Firstly, there is the “Style”. Luigi created an unmistakable and beautifully exquisite style of Jazz that seems to have all but disappeared. And here’s the thing: I AGREE that there isn’t a lot of usefulness to teaching the Style for its own sake. There has been very little work choreographed in his style, and there certainly are not many jobs waiting for dancers familiar with the style. BUT THERE IS MORE TO THIS WORK THAN THE STYLE. The Luigi Technique is also a codified training method. And this METHOD has been responsible for the creation of some of the most beautiful, unique and exciting dancers that the stage has ever seen. The technique teaches a beautiful QUALITY OF MOVEMENT; something that I see missing from today’s dancers. It teaches how to develop a deeply personal style, how the body works, how to use epaulment, how the torso is carried, how the rib cage is held, how the arms connect to the back, how to create a beautiful port de bras, or a long line that goes on forever, how to feel the music, how to phrase, how to “Dance from the inside”, how to “Feel first, then do”, and how to “Never Stop Moving”.

The Luigi method divides the class in half. The first 45 minutes is devoted to the technique exercises/warm up. The second 45 minutes is spent on a combination. With respect to the Luigi technique exercises and warm up: the warm up is so much more than just a means of warming up the body. I would never entertain the idea of skipping the warm-up simply because the dancers are already warm… Especially at a convention. Don’t dancers come to conventions to LEARN to dance? They can learn STEPS on YouTube. They do not need me to teach them steps. The majority of the teaching of Jazz occurs during the warm-up. If we are going to teach jazz as a technique, we have to TEACH Jazz. Real jazz has a look, a style, a feeling, a sense of musicality and rhythm, a deep connection to the ground that is also lifted and pulled up.

The truly great Jazz dancers: Cyd Charisse, Bob Fosse, Carol Haney, Gwen Verdon, Gene Kelly, Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera exemplified this “look” this “style”. It brings to mind the idea that “Ballet defies gravity, Modern Dance plays with gravity, and Jazz acknowledges gravity…BUT IT GOES DOWN FIGHTING”. That look of being lifted and pulled down into the ground simultaneously must be TAUGHT and STUDIED. When I teach at conventions, whether the dancers are warm or not, the warm up / technique exercises is the most important part of my class. And when taught right…the warm up can be incredibly exciting as dancers find a new way to work. They find things they never felt before. And by working this way, one day they will discover a REAL DANCER looking back at them in the mirror as their body acquires real Jazz technique. Yes…there will be a combination; the point of which is to work on the TECHNIQUE that makes JAZZ the great American art form that it is. Jazz is not about steps or choreography. It is about style, look, musicality and feeling. If we present kids with work that is of REAL QUALITY they will know it, they will embrace it and they will GROW. Isn’t that the point of a CLASS?

There are a few of us (former students of Luigi) left teaching this work. I, however, refuse to turn the technique into a museum piece. Although I do teach the technique and style the way as he did, I teach it in a manner that allows dancers to apply the training to ANY STYLE. I want the technique to be a living growing evolving and exciting way to train dancers. I want my students to pulse with the excitement that this technique brings, and to come away a more beautiful, more nuanced, more artistic, more unique, more exciting dancer in any and every style they approach be it contemporary, hip hop, lyrical, jazz, ballet….the list goes on…

Every time I visit a new school or studio as a guest teacher I am always thrilled as I watch dancers explore this way of working. It’s like opening a door for them; a door they never knew existed. And that is why I am teaching this work.

 

 

The Comparisons We Make

There seems to be an epidemic of dancers and young teachers comparing themselves to their colleagues; watching as these peers secure performing contracts and teaching assignments that they feel should be their’s; wondering what they might be missing. I recently read an Internet post where a young teacher simply posed the question: “What do they have that I don’t? Is it a confidence thing?”.

Well I made these comparisons for years: “If I had only started younger like “He” did… If I was only as tall as “He” is… If I could only choreograph the way “He”does… then I would get the part, the contract, the job.”

And I would try to dance like the dancers that got the contracts. I would try to teach like the teachers that got the jobs. I would try to choreograph like the choreographers who got the assignments. I would look in the mirror and hate my body: hate the fact that I’m only 5’5″, hate the fact that my body proportions are far from ideal, hate the fact that I wasn’t flexible…no mater how much I stretched. And I would watch my friends and colleagues get the jobs that I wanted, the contracts that I thought I deserved, the classes that I believed I should be teaching. But trying to be LIKE another dancer/teacher/choreographer is not productive, and the envy that grows out of these comparisons can be dangerous.

I always seem to be the last one to the party. I started dancing extremely late and I started teaching even later. And although I certainly never had the performing career of a Baryshnikov, the choreography career of a Robbins or the teaching career of a Vaganova, I seem to have been able to carve out a career for myself. And it all happened quite by chance and very unexpectedly. And, as it all unfolded, I gained a deeper insight into this industry.

Before I had ever considered a serious teaching career, I was a retired dancer with a respectable but modest resume, taking an occasional class at one of the major drop-in studios in NYC. The teacher who’s class I had been taking regularly had asked me to sub his class. I was honored and thrilled. But when the studio got my resume, they told me “no” and that they would find the sub. I looked this sub’s Bio on the website, and at that time, she had 15 Broadway credits to her name. I was INCREDIBLY DISAPPOINTED that the studio wouldn’t allow me to teach. I was also incredibly envious of the performing resume of this teacher and the fact that she would be teaching the class that I thought should have been mine. But I thought “15 Broadway shows…I gotta see what this gal’s got to give”. So I put on my “big boy pants” took the class, and it was fantastic. And we chatted after that class…and more than a year later that teacher recommended me for a teaching job at CAP21. And that recommendation changed my life forever.

Armed with this new job on my resume, I set out to get more teaching work. But I kept hitting the same roadblocks. I also started reading posts in some on-line groups, where dance teachers would discuss their careers/problems/opinions. I read these posts with a lot of interest but never really contributed aside from clicking “like”. But then I happened upon a thread that really caught my interest. I can’t remember what the topic was, but after months of reading posts, I finally felt compelled to write a response. Many, many teachers had responded on this thread, and I had a completely different opinion than everyone else in the discussion. So I wrote my response, MY opinion. And that response spurred a very long line of comments, which ended with a teacher writing: “Would you come guest teach at my studio?”. And the clouds parted and the sun came through.

I realized that comparing myself to the teachers who are working isn’t going to get me a career. Envying these teachers and wishing I was more like them is only going to lead to misery. I CAN’T BE THEM. I only have one thing that I can bring to the table…and that’s my unique perspective. So I started looking at what I had to offer that was unique: I had trained with legendary teachers; in fact I can trace my lineage directly to Cecchetti and Vaganova. I also studied jazz with Luigi for nearly 30 years. And since I started dancing so late, I had a completely unique perspective on how to “make a dancer”. I also have extensive music training. So I started changing the way I taught. I started being “ME” in the studio. I started teaching what I KNOW and what I BELIEVE, and I started teaching it the way I thought it should be taught. The students’ response was overwhelming! And I stopped comparing myself to those teachers who’s careers were skyrocketing past mine. And THEN things started to happen. I started this Blog and the guest teaching offers started pouring in from all over the country. In fact this past week, for the first time, I received inquiries from two schools from over seas. And the list of schools at which I regularly teach in NY started to grow to include Hunter College, New York Film Academy, Molloy College, Broadway Dance Center and the Joffrey Ballet School (which is like my home away from home).

So when I talk to struggling teachers, I encourage them to do some deep and personal work. I suggest that they look for the things that they have to give that are unique to them. I tell them to make what THEY ALONE can bring to the class room their focus, rather than useless comparisons. And every day when I walk into the studio, I try to pass my “Ah ha” moment on to my students. I try to teach them not to compare themselves to the dancer next to them who is taller, thinner and more flexible. I encourage them to stop wishing that they had more pirouettes, or a higher extension, or a more expressive arabesque. Luigi often said: “To dance, put your hand on your heart and listen to the sound of your soul”. So I hope I can teach my students MY way, and steer them away from useless comparisons and dangerous envy. And if students can start to tap into their souls, and bring their unique and authentic selves to the studio and stage (and that is probably the hardest, deepest and most personal work a dancer can do) perhaps we can grow a generation of beautiful communicative artists who celebrate THEIR gifts. And what would be more thrilling to,watch on the stage?

Working Slowly


A post that I made on Facebook recently resurfaced. I had completely forgotten about it…so I thought I’d share it here.

I can’t express how important I feel it is for students to work slowly. As You probably know, I did my initial training with Luigi. One of the most brilliant parts of the Luigi method was what he called the “style class”. He taught this class every day, Monday through Saturday at 11:00 AM. The first 45 minutes of the class was a painstakingly slow breakdown and explanation of the most important parts of the technique exercises. The students performed the exercises full out with Luigi during the explanation at this very slow tempo. Exploring not only what the exercises look like, but what they FEEL like. The second 45 minutes was devoted to a slow combination focusing on quality of movement, phrasing, musicality and line. What this class really was: A beginner class.

There seems to be, in our society, a stigma surrounding being in a beginner class or in a low level class. But by brilliantly calling it “style”, it was filled with professionals from Broadway, Ballet and the concert dance world, dancing along side amateurs (in the true sense of the word) and preprofessional students. Luigi’s ideas of ” dancing from the inside” ” feeling the space around you” “Feel first, then do” and “never stop moving ” all help students develop a beautiful quality of movement . The combination of these concepts with his beautiful technique exercises , helped create some of the most beautiful dancers the stage has ever seen .

This is, of course, how I teach the Luigi jazz technique. But I also use these concepts when teaching ballet. These ideas can be applied to any dance form, but I have always felt that they add polish, shimmer and nuance to ballet dancers. Indeed, many famous ballet dancers have studied with Luigi. In fact Paul Boos, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet once told me that Balanchine paid, out of his own pocket, for some NYCB dancers to take class with Luigi. Much of how I teach ballet (and I did have a full preprofessional ballet education under Madame Gabriella Taub-Darvash) is founded in the Luigi Technique.

The idea of working this slowly in a jazz class will often seem alien to a lot of today’s students. In fact, a Luigi Jazz technique class might not even look like “Jazz” to a lot of today’s students. But I always tell new students that I am not teaching them a dance, I am teaching them HOW to dance. And part of learning how to dance is developing a beautiful quality of movement. Some students get it, some students don’t. But I love watching students explore this way of working for the first time. I recently taught at Kellie Gwaltney ‘s Chesco Dance Center in Pennsylvania. The students were beautifully trained dancers and they really seemed to “get it” and love it. If you present the concept of working slowly and simply as a new and exciting way to work, as a way of exploring possibilities, as a way to become a more expressive and nuanced dancer, it can be like opening a door to a whole new approach. And nothing could be more exciting.

When Disability Sparks Creativity

As dancers, our bodies are our voices; our means of expression. And for much of the dance world, there is an expectation of physical perfection, beauty and ability that is central to the idea of what makes a dancer. Like dancers, singers also rely on their bodies as instruments of artistic expression and there is a long tradition of exquisite voices, in all genres of music, thrilling audiences through vocal prowess, musicality, phrasing and interpretation. But unlike the world of dance, there are also singers who are considered truly great artists, who’s voices are not “exquisite” in the traditional sense. Superb vocalists, who possess voices that lack traditional beauty, sonority and timbre; singers with vocal equipment that displays the ravages of time, have always been able to captivate audiences. Singers like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland and more recently Bonnie Raitt have the ability to transfix audiences. Their communicative approach to their music reaches deeply into the hearts of their listeners. Their artistry transcends their physical limitations. In fact, it is the imperfections that make them great. I have always been very much aware of this difference; believing that for a dancer to be great, they needed to possess a great body; a great facility.

And then I found this video

And here is a dancer who isn’t dancing despite his limitations, he is dancing BECAUSE of his limitations. And instead of allowing his disease to dictate what he can not do, he uses it to his advantage. And what is born, out of a physically debilitating disease, is a dancer of great artistic expression who reaches his audiences in a unique, beautiful and profound way. His “disability” was the seed of his great creativity.

When my teacher and mentor Luigi was paralyzed in a car accident, the doctors told him he would never walk again. Determined to dance, Luigi developed his own means of rehabilitation. The exercises he developed became part of his technique and what grew of a tragic accident was a brilliant and completely new way to train dancers. Luigi went on to a highly respected career as a dancer, followed by the creation of a legendary teaching method and school that has reached millions of dancers. One day a new student came up to Luigi before class and said “I wanted to tell you before class starts that I’m disabled.” Luigi looked at her, and without missing a beat said with a shrug “So am I.”

When the acclaimed Broadway dancer Ben Vereen was hit by an automobile, he feared he might never dance again. He reached out to the great Chita Rivera, his friend and colleague. She too had also been horribly injured in a car accident. He asked “Chita, will I ever dance again?” Her response: “You will dance again. But it will be different. And VIVA LA DIFFERENCE”.

So the next time we see that dancer in a wheel chair, or with a physical disability, or some other limitation I believe we should look; really look at what they have to give. And we should be open to what they bring to the stage; what they have to say. Because sometimes what can at first be perceived as a handicap can truly be an inspiration to create. There is nothing more exciting to watch than a completely vulnerable and fully concentrated artist. And what a thrill it can be when we are touched by that artist and moved in a way that we didn’t think possible when it is least expected. And what a gift it can be to an audience to be truly and deeply touched and moved by great inspiration and creativity, Why should we deny ourselves that gift?