Why I Teach the Luigi Jazz Technique

Luigi was my first teacher, and for my first blog post, I would like to explain why I am teaching his technique; why I am finding such enormous value in a technique that was developed in the 1950’s; a technique that many dance educators feel is no longer relevant.

As I’ve been traveling the country to guest teach and meet more and more people, I’ve received some inquiries from some studio owners/teaching colleagues 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. So…I thought I’d take a moment and post some my thoughts on training dancers in traditional Jazz and why/how I teach what I teach.
I teach both Classical Ballet and The Luigi Jazz Technique and I am based at the Joffrey Ballet School, Ballet Academy East, New York Film Academy and The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts in NYC. 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 this 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, exciting and unique dancers that the stage has ever seen. The technique teaches a beautiful QUALITY OF MOVEMENT; something that I see disappearing 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”.

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 exactly as he did, I teach it in a way 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.

How We View Our Careers; The Disappointments and the Successes

I recently landed on a social media post in which the writer was examining her dance career. She felt that both her performing and her teaching careers were at a dead end and were a huge disappointment. Things weren’t going the way she had hoped they would, and she was contemplating giving it all up and moving on to something new.

One of the best things about social media is the contacts that we make with colleagues in our field. One of the worst things about social media is the contacts that we make with colleagues in our field. The support, encouragement and sympathy that we may get when making a post such as I’ve described can be immeasurably helpful. It allows us to feel that we are not alone, that others are struggling too and that they are “there” (electronically, at least) to help, support and understand us. On the other hand, social media provide an endless stream of information about , images of, and videos from of our colleagues’ careers that inevitably lead to comparisons, frustrations and envy.

I know a lot of dance industry professionals. A lot. And I don’t know one person who has told me that they are truly and completely satisfied with their career; not one. Everyone seems to be disappointed in some way. I know a dancer with many Broadway credits who is still disappointed that he never could get into ABT. I know a former principal dancer with NYCB who is terribly disappointed in how her career unfolded once she retired from the company. I know a teacher who has taught at every major school in NYC including Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center who actually left the industry because she couldn’t handle the envy she experienced when her students went on to better performing careers than she had herself (the very goal of teaching, in my opinion). NO ONE THAT I HAVE EVER MÉT SEEMS TO BE COMPLETELY SATISFIED. Obviously some people will be more “successful” than others. That is life. And life isn’t fair. But regardless of the level of “success”, it seems that the disappointment hurts just as much.

I would also like to remind the reader that social media feeds are, for the most part, not real, accurate or honest. They are merely a representation of a career and life that the poster WANTS US TO SEE. Whether it is the omission of problems and the things that go wrong, exaggerating the high points and the things that go right, or blatant lies, social media posts are designed to illicit a reaction. Sometimes the reaction is envy; sometimes the reaction is sympathy. But never, in my experience, has a social media feed been completely accurate, truthful, honest and unbiased. That is the nature of the media. That is human nature.

So, as I sit in my apartment on this January 1, I am reflecting back on my career this past year. And what keeps rushing to the forefront of my recollections are the disappointments; the jobs I didn’t get, the classes that I lost, the students that quit, the faculty position that I felt compelled to leave. And social media keeps streaming the glittering successes of my colleagues in a never ending parade of joy in accomplishment. This is life. And life isn’t fair.

I sacrificed a lot to have a career in dance. A lot. And I can’t imagine going back to my former life, despite the disappointments that professionals in the arts experience on a daily basis. So as long as I have a studio, and a student, I will teach. I will do what I have to do to make it work. I will offer my eternal gratitude to the schools that give me my work (Ballet Academy East, New York Film Academy, New York Conservatory for Performing Arts and my beloved Joffrey Ballet School). I will miss the numerous jobs that I have lost over the years. I will continue to mourn the closing of Hamilton Dance and the tragic passing of my dear friend and teaching mentor Rita Hamilton. And I will hold fast to the teaching that I so fiercely love; regardless of the disappointments thrown in my path.

Although my performing career did not go at all the way I had hoped, and my teaching career has come with its share of disappointments, my life is still better than a life without dance. The joy that I experience from the teaching that I get to do, far outshines the disappointment that I experience from the teaching that I don’t get to do. So I will try to look at my career in 2023 with hope and optimism and I will try to look at my colleagues’ careers without jealousy or envy. And maybe I can do that. And maybe I can’t. After all, I am human. But the one thing that I know I can do, is teach.

A Return to Teaching After an Injury – Passing on the Work

I have written in the past about dancing and training in various stages in my life with completely “different bodies” ( https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2018/07/29/dancing-with-different-bodies/ ) but life has thrown up yet another roadblock and I am once again examining this subject.

Five and one half months ago I sustained a spiral fracture of my left humerus (a really bad broken arm). I was walking from the studio to the subway, and for no clear reason I lost my footing and took a fall. It was clear from the moment I hit the ground that my arm was broken. And as I lay in the street awaiting the ambulance I thought to myself “Well this will put me out of commission for the next six weeks”. Well that turned out to NOT be the case at all. My arm was immobilized for six weeks during which time the pain never really let up. I had weekly x-rays and the doctors said all was well. But after six weeks there was no healing at all (which accounts for the pain, I guess). I was then scheduled for surgery (bone plate and screws) which was followed by months of grueling therapy.

Now, five and a half months after the original injury I am finally ready to start dancing again. I still do not have full range of motion. I have gained 25 pounds. I am weak; really weak. And with limited range of motion in my left arm, 25 extra pounds, and an astonishing weakness due to months of inactivity, I will attempt, once again, to train.

I started worrying; worrying that I’ll never get it all back. The training that I received from my mentor, Luigi, focuses so strongly on the upper body: the carriage of the torso, the epaulment, the port de bras and quality of movement. This focus is what made my classes MY classes. This is what I brought to my ballet students as well as my Jazz students. This training brings something unique and special to a dancer (if they are patient enough to do the work required). This is what I have to offer. This is what I bring to the table. But it has been so many months. What if the arm never gets any better?

Two and a half weeks after the injury I returned to teaching. A former student and recent graduate of the Joffrey Ballet Trainee program, Josefina Rojas, stepped up to the plate and offered to demonstrate for me. So I couldn’t dance, but I was back to work. I explained and my former student demonstrated. And the students learned. And I became a more skillful explainer.

I made a few videos of my Joffrey Trainee classes for reference when it came time for grading. I just re-watched these videos and I came to a realization. There are many ways to pass on the work and I am committed to keeping this work alive. My demonstrator, a 20 year old recent graduate of Joffrey’s full time program was now a beautifully trained professional. The the first year students that I was teaching were clearly acquiring the work. What made Luigi’s classes so special was not his beautiful dancing; it was how he explained what he did and what he felt. This was the core of his brilliant teaching. And as I stared at the screen I welled up with emotion. I saw a stunning dancer that I and my colleagues at my beloved Joffrey Ballet School produced, helping me pass on this work to yet another generation of dancers. Luigi once told me that although I wasn’t the best dancer he ever taught (thanks?) I understood his technique more deeply than anyone he ever taught (WOW, THANKS!). And I could see his work shining in the body if this beautiful dancer demonstrating for me. And I could see glimmers of this work starting to show in the first year students.

I will go back to taking class because taking class is what I do. I will slowly, methodically and patiently work, just as I have in the past, to regain what I have lost. There is a deep joy in this process for me. And I will train without fear because even if I can’t “get it all back” I have learned that through careful and thoughtful explaining and correcting I can still pass on the work. My days on the stage are long past gone. This is no longer about MY dancing. It is about the unbroken chain of passing on this work; a chain that I can trace directly back to Cecchetti and Vaganova. And I will forever be grateful to Joffrey for allowing me privilege of being part of a team of teachers that train and nurture all of our students with care, patience and love.

Yesterday I received this text from the dancer who so generously offered to demonstrate for me:

“I just thought I should let you know, that I just got a call back for a Broadway show. So I wanted to take a moment, to thank you for everything you’ve taught me so far, and for being so supportive these past 4 years ❤️”

My heart is full and the work lives on.

Thoughts on Grand Plié

While scrolling through social media, I recently stumbled upon some thoughts that George Balanchine had regarding plié. These quotations started me thinking about how I teach plié and how each teacher passes on the art form to their students, as one generation trains the next. 

I have never been a teacher who parrots back to my students what I had been taught. Rather I have always preferred to take the knowledge and training and experience that I have and look at it in a totally new way. I have allowed this information  to live in my body, grow in my consciousness, and develop in my heart. And with this as my “jumping off point”, I have always tried to bring some thing deep, rich, and personal to my teaching.

The mechanics of a grande plié in first position are known to, and understood by, every ballet teacher: starting in first position, the dancer bends their knees, with a neutral pelvis, knees tracking over the toes, until the knees can bend no further while maintaining the heels on the floor. The heels will then come off the floor, allowing the dancer to reach the depth of the grand plié. The dancer then begins to straighten their knees for the ascent, heels touching the ground as soon as possible, the knees then continuing to straighten until the dancer has reached the starting position with perfectly straight knees. This grand plié is typically coordinated with one of several standard, agreed-upon, port de bras.

But dancing is so much more than mechanics, and a grand plié is so much more than what I have outlined above.

Pliés must always be in motion. They must be timed out to the music and executed at the correct speed, so that the dancer never stops at any point during the descent or ascent. There is a tendency for dancers to stop at the depth of the grand plié and then again when the heels first touch the floor as the knees straighten. These pauses in the motion must be avoided at all costs. Ballet is so often taught as a series of positions. In my opinion, Ballet is not an art of positions but rather an art of movements; the movement from one position to the next, and the movement that occurs internally, within each position.

A beautiful quality of movement is often developed by finding resistance against the space and the dancer must find that resistance as the plié descends and ascends equally. I have often asked my students to imagine that their head is touching the ceiling. As they begin each plié, I ask them to “press their head up against the ceiling” maintaining a long straight spine, and developing that sense of resistance. When the heels begin to come off the floor, I ask them to keep “pressing them down“. The energy of the heels should be working down toward the ground as they lift, thereby maintaining the heels as close to the ground as possible and continuing that feeling of resistance. As the dancer begins the ascent, the heels continue to press into the ground, the dancer getting the heels down as soon as possible, and then, as if there were a balloon or a pillow between their knees, the dancer “squeezes” up from the bottom of the demi plié. Regardless of which  port the teacher prefers, it must be executed with that same feeling of resistance. I have always liked the image of “dancing inside a block of wet cement”; the arm connecting to the back and pressing through the “wet cement“ to create that resistance against the space.

Most ballet teachers will also ask students to have their eyes and head follow the hand that is moving. Classical ballet technique is filled with information regarding how the head should be held, positioned and moved and where the eyes should be looking. I have found that these simple directions will often cause students to develop a “blank ballerina stare“. Although I do believe that the eyes and the head need to follow the hand that is moving, I believe that the student needs to “see“ something much more interesting than their hand (whatever that may be for them), bringing something interesting and engaging to the work that they are doing with their eyes and their head.

Lastly there is the character associated with the grand plié. In my opinion, every step, every movement, every element of ballet has an associated character. I’ve always seen the grand plié as being simple, elegant yet majestic. I see so many dancers indulging in a “syrupy sweet“ overly emotional port de bras, head position, and quality of movement when executing grand plié. I ask my students to search for that elegance, search for that majesty and to use the music as a guide in finding that character. I usually prefer music for plies to be in a duple (4/4) meter rather than triple (3/4) meter. I find this helps convey a quality of simplicity and regal majesty that I prefer for a grand plié. I am so fortunate that I work with incredibly talented pianists who are very skilled at finding exactly the right piece of music for each exercise. When I do need to use recorded music, I always take the time to find the selection that conveys exactly the feeling for which I am searching.

Obviously, it would be impossible to explain all of this exhaustive, and probably ridiculously detailed, information in every class; the students would never have the patience to listen to it, and there would be no time for dancing. But I try to infuse each lesson with a little bit of this information; cultivating over time, a rich, nuanced, beautiful grand plié.

Dancers and Musicality; How We Count

A colleague started a discussion in a Dance Teacher social media group on how dancers count music. He suggested that we are doing a disservice to our students if we do not count the music as it is written in the score (i.e. dancers should count music written in 4/4 in “4’s” rather than “8’s”). Here are my musings on this subject.

The tradition of counting music for dance that is written in a duple meter (i.e. 2/4, 4/4, 8/4) in 8’s goes back many generations. Counting dancers in with the famous “a 5,6,7,8!” , as in the opening number of A Chorus Line, is a tradition that goes back to the work of the legendary jazz master (and my mentor) Luigi. This method of counting  in “8’s” was based on the fact that most popular music, at the time when these techniques were developing, was written in 4/4 but usually contained musical phrases or ideas that were two measures long. In this way choreographers were counting musical ideas or phrases, not than the literal measures in the written score.

But music very often doesn’t fit into these neat phrases. We can have meters that are somewhat less usual (5/4, 7/4), meters that are somewhat more complex (hemiola- a 6/8 where the accent alternates; the first measure has the accent on the 1 and the 4, the second measure has the accent on 1,3,5…think “America” from West Side Story), meters that are somewhat variable (changing throughout the piece). I have seen dancers and choreographers count “8” over all of these complicated rhythms and meters creating what I have always considered to be a confusing mess.

I firmly believe that there is no “one way“ or “best way” to teach musicality and phrasing. I think most of us agree that this is an extremely important facet of the dancers education. I think most of us also agree that it behooves us to train dancers who understand different ways of counting music because they will invariably run into various methods during their careers. 

Returning to the original poster’s premise: “…we are doing our students a great disservice by counting in ‘8s’ instead of ‘4s’…”. I think that there is a lot of validity in this statement, especially for tap dance. I need to preface this by saying that I am not a trained tap dancer but I worked very closely with a dear friend and colleague for many, many years who was a superb tap dancer and teacher. She always insisted that tap must be taught in “4s”. And this has always made sense to me. Tap dancers are creating music with their choreography. Since they are creating music, it makes sense that they should be thinking like musicians as well as a dancers.

I am a well trained musician. I play two instruments and I have played in Symphony Orchestras. One thing that I can say about a musical score, is that although a 4/4 score will have clearly delineated measures of four counts, there are often markings in the score that indicate where phrases begin and end. These markings are placed by the composer to give the performer a clearer idea of the composer’s intention. No composer expects a musician to put a “metaphorical period” at the end of each measure. These phrase markings indicate a bigger, more complex, more interesting and artistic picture of the work. I believe that tap dancers understand this intuitively because of how they are trained. Dancers of other disciplines might not have the same intuition.

It is my job to create musical dancers. I  teach the work of my mentor Luigi as well as classical ballet. I have always found that I get the best result if I count the music for my students in musical phrases. If that means that I count a 4/4 in “8’s” , then so be it. But I might also count it in “4’s”, depending on the musical phrasing. I have often choreographed to the music of Burt Bacharach. His music, like the music of Stravinsky, Bernstein and Prokofiev, employs frequent meter changes. Sometimes I count the music exactly as it is written in the score. Sometimes I count it in more logical musical phrases. For example, in one of the big dance breaks in his “Turkey Lurkey Time” from musical Promises Promises I found it logical to count some phrases in 12 and some in 8. This is clearly not how the score is written, but it created the musical phrasing that I wanted my dancers to exhibit. I did explain to the dancers why I was counting the music in this way, and this was not how it was written in the score. I think it is very important dancers understand why they do what they do.

I also find it important to explain to my dancers that although the music may sound like it is going in phrases of 8, sometimes a choreographic phrase might run past that 8, ending on the 1, for example.

Each teacher is unique and has a unique set of communication skills. I don’t think that there is any “one right way“ to teach musicality to dancers. I treat each piece of music uniquely and this has always worked for me. But building dancers with a rich knowledge and sense of musicality should be the ultimate goal, regardless of the method.

How I Did It

In recent weeks I have been asked, numerous times, “How did you start dancing at 25 years of age and end up a faculty member at The Joffrey Ballet School and Ballet Academy East?”. I was even “assaulted” on social media by a very angry woman implying that I was lying; and if I wasn’t lying, any success that I achieved was due to the fact that “Men run the world”. I have retold the story of how I started dancing at the age of 25 many times, but I have never written specifically about my career path; so I thought that I would take some time and write an answer to this question.

I started dancing not because I aspired to dance on the stage, not because I searched for some way to make my mark, not because I sought a career, accolades or awards; I started dancing because I loved to dance. And I was very lucky because I never had a bad teacher; so there was never really anything to “un-do”. I was also very lucky in that I had the time and finances at my disposal to take approximately fifteen classes per week (and I was never placed on any kind of scholarship, I paid for every class myself, with money that I earned). So with absolutely no goal except to learn how to dance, I took my first steps down the road to becoming a dancer. I trained hard, relentlessly hard, harder than I knew I could. I lived in a very modest apartment, renting a bedroom from a woman who was a very accomplished dancer and teacher, and I became completely immersed in the New York dance world.

I never had any expectations of being “great” or being “the best in the class”. I was an adult beginner in New York, a city filled with professionals who had been dancing all their lives. But I absolutely loved what I was doing. So without ever being “great” or “the best” I would occasionally be asked to dance in a project that one of my teachers was producing. And although I was never the lead, never the star, never “front and center”, I worked as hard as I could to be the best that I could be, and I adored every minute of it. I started auditioning. And as most professionals in New York will tell you, that brutal process usually lands you in the alley with the rest of the rejects. But occasionally I would book a small company job, music video, commercial or an out of town musical. And I quickly learned that jobs were very often gotten NOT because of how well one danced but because of tenacity, work ethic and relationships fostered. And so I had my modest performing career: no major company, no Broadway, no national tour. And eventually I felt that I was “done”. I had some bad experiences in an “out of town” musical theater production and I decided to stop; not angry, not bitter, just “finished”.

And I didn’t dance a step for nine years.

But I couldn’t stay away, and eventually I found my way back to class. I started dancing again, a few classes a week, simply because I loved to dance. One day, one of the teachers with whom I was studying asked me to sub for him. I had never really thought much about teaching. I never really wanted to be a teacher, but I was incredibly flattered and thought it would be fun. He asked me to send my resume to the manager of the studio (one of the big open class studios in NYC). I emailed my resume. A few hours later I received an email from the studio with a big fat resounding “NO”. They would not be having me sub.

The studio instead engaged the legendary Lisa Gajda to sub that class. I believe she had danced in seventeen Broadway shows. Now, I’m not an idiot. If one is trying to promote a sub, who are you going to promote; someone with seventeen Broadway shows or some adult beginner with my modest resume? I was incredibly disappointed. But as disappointed as I was (and a little bit angry) I decided to swallow my pride and take Lisa’s class. I was the only dancer in the room over the age of forty. I was in the back of the room, doing a grand plié in second position, when Lisa Gajda asked me: “Who the F#@k are you?”.

“No one” I said.

“Because I’m looking at you and I thinking that YOU should probably be teaching ME” she responded.

After that class we exchanged a few very interesting messages on Facebook about navigating the dance industry. And I figured “Well, that’s that”.

But then I thought: I do not need to teach in a big prestigious studio in Manhattan. I can teach somewhere more modest and enjoy that process in very much the same way. I had a friend who owned a lovely neighborhood studio in Brooklyn. I gave her a call and she gave me a job. I had three ballet classes per week: two adult beginner classes and one class of ten year olds. And so began my teaching career. It was here that I was able to develop my personal take on training dancers. I was able to develop a teaching style rooted in the training that I had received from the legendary teachers with whom I studied, being able to trace my educational lineage directly to Vaganova and Cecchetti. Of course I spent decades under the tutelage of the brilliant Luigi, his philosophies deeply inform everything I do. I had a lot of knowledge from many great teachers. A lot. And my personal approach had the unique perspective of a teacher who was once and adult beginner.

One morning, about a year later, I opened my email. There was an message from someone named Austin Eyer. He wrote that he was the dance coordinator for a conservatory called CAP21. They were looking for a ballet teacher and he got my name from LISA GAJDA. A year later! Apparently this program was quite prestigious, producing a number of professionals. I didn’t realize at the time that being hired by this program would in some way validate me as a teacher. I got this job NOT because of a brilliant performing career, not because I was the BEST dancer or even the BEST teacher, but because of tenacity, work ethic and relationships fostered. And in obtaining this job I learned a very big lesson. If I can foster these relationships, both personally and through social media, and if I can present a teaching style that is MINE, bringing MY personal take on training that no one else can bring, I might be able to cultivate a career.

I never really set out to GET a job. I continued to dance in open class studios all over New York. I continued to meet people both in the studio and on line. And I stayed true to my relentless, diligent training and careful cultivation of professional relationships. And so followed many, many schools and guest teaching engagements, all through the building of relationships and bringing my unique take on training dancers. And slowly, over a decade or so, my path eventually lead to a career that included the Joffrey Ballet School, Ballet Academy East, Broadway Dance Center and guest teaching engagements across the country and overseas. This philosophy has also allowed me the luxury of leaving a studio or school when the “fit” was no longer right. But I have always honored my contracts and obligations and left on good terms (even when disappointed or angry) because my entire career is based on tenacity, work ethic and relationships fostered.

And with all the the places that I have taught and the experience that I have, there are still schools and studios in New York that are not interested in hiring me (including that studio that would not have me sub). And that’s fine, actually. It is because that studio said “NO” that I met Lisa Gajda. It is because that studio said “NO” that I learned how to very slowly and patiently allow my career to blossom. It is because that studio said “NO” that I now get to teach at schools that support and promote me.

As Luigi said: “Never Stop Moving”.

Dancing With Different Bodies-Time for a “Re-Post”

Now, in my 60’s, I am finding that i have to strive even harder to do more with even less. time to re-visit this article from a few years ago:

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.

Ballet is the foundation of…

There is a saying that has taken a very strong foothold in our industry; a saying that has been on the lips of many dance teachers and on the websites of many dance studios for years:

“Ballet is the foundation of all dance.”

Before I discuss this adage, I would like to explain (for those who are unfamiliar with my work and career) my place in the dance industry, which will clearly influence my point of view. I am most widely known as one of the “keepers of the flame” of the Luigi Jazz Technique. I studied with Luigi for decades, I was certified by him to teach his technique, and I have traveled the world passing on his beautiful method. The majority of my day to day work, however, is as a ballet teacher at The Joffrey Ballet School, Ballet Academy East, New York Film Academy and The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

So, as I see it, ballet is the foundation of ballet.

There are some genres of dance that clearly have ballet in their roots. This is nothing new. Since the beginning of time, art forms have influenced each other. Many modern dance techniques (but not all), many Jazz techniques (but not all), and some newer genres such as contemporary and lyrical dance, can trace part of their heritage to the traditions of classical ballet. Classical ballet training provides a very specific esthetic, alignment, elongation, placement, strength and form of control that is foundational to ballet and the aforementioned genres that claim ballet in their roots. A dancer of any genre that embraces the very specific esthetic that ballet training produces will benefit from ballet training. (One of my colleagues has stated that Pilates and Yoga can provide the same benefits, and on this point I will respectfully disagree, but this is a small point in this particular discussion.) If a dancer is focused on a career in western concert dance genres such as modern, contemporary, Broadway style theater dance, some forms of jazz, etc., ballet training will help produce the desired technique and esthetic for which most choreographers, directors and producers are looking. Many Broadway shows (not all, it depends on the style) require a ballet audition. I should add that more and more works are being created for very commercial venues that are employing dance forms that are not based in this esthetic; most certainly a positive change.

The esthetic that ballet produces, however, is in no way the foundation of ALL DANCE.

We live on a very big planet and the diversity of cultures that populate the globe is both incredibly rich and incredibly vast. It would be impossible to discuss ALL dance forms. It would be impossible to simply compile a list. I will, instead, discuss a few forms to make a point.

I live in New York City. I was born here and I have spent my entire life here. I must qualify this discussion by stating that I am not well educated in Hip-Hop and street styles but I do live in a major urban center and these styles are all around me. If there are any inaccuracies in this article, I do welcome comments and corrections from my colleagues who were brought up, live and work in the Hip-Hop culture and industry. After all, if I can’t listen, how can I learn?

A number of years ago I was asked to join the faculty of Cora Dance as a ballet teacher. Cora Dance makes it’s home in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. This is not a competition studio. It is a school dedicated to teaching dance to children as a means of passing on art and enriching lives. Period. Seeing the Hip-Hop being taught at this studio was a revelation. This was not the Hip-Hop that I saw in the social media videos coming out of neighborhood studios and dance competitions. This Hip-Hop was a completely different thing. It was thrilling, exciting, innovative, energized, incredibly musical and it literally took my breath away. It was here that I started learning what little I know about Hip-Hop culture, training and how the dance forms are taught and passed on. But the most import thing I realized watching these classes was that ballet was absolutely and in no way part of this art form. In fact, in my opinion, ballet could interfere with Hip-Hop training as the esthetic is so very different. Similarly, it appears to me (please correct me if I’m wrong) that ballet could interfere with certain styles of tap dance. I can’t imagine that ballet could be foundational, or even helpful in any way, to the work of Jason Samuels Smith (with whom I have worked when he was a child) or Savion Glover. The style of Jazz that I teach is clearly rooted in Ballet (as well as the Modern Dance techniques of Michio Ito and Doris Humphries). Luigi acknowledged the ballet foundation in his work and often credited his teacher, the great Bronislava Nijinska. But Luigi’s work (and much of the Jazz taught at dance studios across the country) is just a TINY PART of what Jazz dance actually is. The real beginnings of Jazz the real foundation at the base of the great tree that is Jazz is in African Dance and the dance forms of African Americans. It would be ludicrous to think that ballet is at the foundation of the work of Pepsi Bethel or the performances of the great star Josephine Baker. In my opinion, ballet training would have interfered with the magic that these luminaries brought to the stage. The subject of Jazz and its roots is beautifully discussed in the film Uprooted – The Journey of Jazz. It was indeed an honor and a privilege to have been part of this film.

There are countless dance forms that have been developed in every corner of the world; dance forms that have had no contact with the ballet technique that started developing centuries ago in France, later spreading and continuing its development throughout Europe. These forms are rich and beautiful and varied and have absolutely no basis in or connection to ballet technique.

Those of us who are seeing this article are living in a Eurocentric world. And this does sadden me. Because that world has placed an unfair importance on ballet’s place in the dance industry. It has caused ballet to eclipse the infinite, varied, and beautiful dance forms that populate the globe. And it is a lack of understanding, a lack of open mindedness, a lack of education that has lead to the proclamation that “ballet is the foundation of all dance”. Clearly there is much work to be done, clearly there are things to change. I wish I had more answers, but I do not. I am one ballet teacher in an enormous industry, trying to scratch out a living in the hyper-competitive New York City arena. In an attempt to do this work, to make these changes, ballet has been (in some discussions) vilified. Ballet is not the villain here. Ballet is an art form. It is my hope that the world will see all art forms, all dance forms for their inherent value and beauty. I hope that we can all work to make that happen.

Fundraiser for the Ukrainian Red Cross

Dancespiration Designs, a small ethical dance wear supply company, with 15 other brands on board including Lucky Leo Dancewear and A Ballet Education, has set up a fundraiser for the Ukrainian Red Cross. They are sponsoring prizes for a fundraising competition. 100% of the proceeds will be donated to the Ukrainian Red Cross. So far, they have managed to raise approximately $900 USD but are hoping to do much better! Check out the fantastic work they are doing here:

Raffle Tickets – Ukraine Crisis Appeal

When We Doubt Ourselves

I have been teaching for many years. I have been taught by some of the very best teachers in New York. I have taught at some of the very best schools in New York, including The Joffrey Ballet School and Ballet Academy East. And yet, at times, I have doubts. 

Over the years I have had professional dancers attend my open classes; working dancers with actual careers who I have confidently taught, guided and helped. But today was different. As the students filed into my intermediate ballet class at BAE, I noticed three young women who looked, acted and carried themselves like polished professional dancers. We have all seen this type of dancer in open NYC classes and it’s always great fun for me to have them in class. But then I noticed, in the back corner of the room, and older woman taking her place at the barre. And there was something very different about her. I explained the first exercise, the pianist played the introduction, and I saw, from that back corner, something that I rarely see these days; a dancer with real depth, richness and beauty. I saw it immediately, from the first port de bras and the first tendu. There was a quality, a fullness, a sense of internal artistry and control that I very rarely see today. She reminded me of the great dancers of my youth. 

And I started worrying.

Was I qualified to “teach” this dancer? What does she think of my class? What does she think of ME? I started too late. I never had a conservatory training. I never danced with a major company. She will see all of this and she will know.. And a little pesky voice kept whispering doubts in my ear as my meticulously prepared lesson started fading in my memory. I struggled to remember my combinations, and I worried more. But I am a teacher, and I pushed through. 
I watched the three young professionals dance their way through my combinations with clear technique, musicality and phrasing. They had beautiful high extensions, secure turns and buoyant jumps. But it was the older woman in the back of the room who kept pulling my eye. Her stunning quality of movement, her carefully sculpted epaulment, her musicality, phrasing and style were breathtaking. 

And I continued to worry.

At the end of the class the students filed out, each cheerfully thanking me. I am new at BAE so I am trying my best to connect with each student, learn names  (something with which I truly struggle) and become part of the BAE family. This older dancer was the last to leave. She thanked me with a smile. I said to her: “You are absolutely beautiful, where did you dance?” Her response: “American Ballet Theater, but to be honest, these days I feel like sh#t!” And then she gave me a warm chuckle, took my hand and said “Let’s chat”. 

Well as it turns out we had studied with many of the same teachers, had several mutual friends and she was an absolute delight. She spoke of her performing career, and her teaching career and her aches and pains (we all seem to have them) and before I knew it, forty five minutes had flown by. 

And as she got up for the bench on which we sat she took my hand again and said: “From the first exercise that you demonstrated I could see that you were beautifully trained. There is something very interesting and musical about the way you put the steps together. I’ll be back.” And she was gone. And so was my worry.

Now this is New York, and there are many beautiful dancers here. And chances are that sometime in the future another dancer like this will grace my studio. And I will see that dancer. And I will worry. Because after all, I am only human.