A New Year Brings Refections on the Last Decade

Each time we roll into a new decade I tend to reflect back on the previous 10 years. Each decade has always brought change; some good and some bad. But the 2010’s have brought more new beginnings and more career growth than I could have ever thought possible. When 2010 started, I never could have imagined that I would return to the dance industry, but return I did. It was during this decade that I had the opportunity to teach at:

Hamilton Dance
Cora Dance
Alden Moves
The Manhattan Ballet School
Broadway Donation Dance Classes
New Rising Sun Dance Project
Hunter College
CAP21
New York Film Academy
New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts
Molloy College
Marymount Manhattan College
Broadway Dance Center
and of course, The Joffrey Ballet School

It was also during this decade that I started traveling the country to guest teach at countless schools, studios, conservatories and conventions.

I would be remiss if I did not thank the people who were responsible for making this transition possible. So on this New Year’s Eve I want to extend a huge THANK YOU (in no special order) to (I hope I’m not forgetting anyone…apologies to anyone left off the list):

Lisa Gajda Maiolo
Beth Goheen
Richard Pierlon
Lisa Lockwood
Era Jouravlev
Elizaabeth D’anna
Stephanie Godino
Angelica Lynn Stiskin
Jo Matos
Michael Blake
Colleen Barnes Merwin
Austin Eyer
Jeanne Dybdahl Chelsen
Rita Hamilton
Shannon Hummel
Alden LaPaglia
Nick Rice
Jennifer Groenke
Elfriede Merman
Janna Feinman
Nancy Saylor
Madame Gabriella Darvash
Luigi

Without each of you, I would be living a very different life. THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart.

In 2020 I will be traveling over seas to teach for the first time. THANK YOU to Therese Rooney for opening that door for me! Because of you I will be starting a new decade with a new adventure!

Here’s to new beginnings! Happy 2020.

The Nature of Dance

This weekend shed new light for me on the nature of dance.

I spent Sunday afternoon  the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I walked through the galleries, viewing the art, I had a sudden realization: These great artists worked endless hours studying, training, honing their art to create these masterpieces. And here are these great works, hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years later, still reaching, touching, moving their audience.

I reflected back on the previous day. I began my Saturday (as I always do when I’m not teaching) by taking class with the legendary Zvi Gotheiner. Although most certainly a ballet class and clearly grounded in the work of his mentor, the great Maggie Black, the class is not a “typical” ballet class. The barre is nearly an hour long, slow, methodical and thorough. The centre combinations are more like inspired choreography and less like classroom exercises and most definitely reflect the modern dance vocabulary displayed in the works performed by his brilliant company. And then there is the music. The highly original, unique and brilliant Scott Killian is at the piano. He can make that instrument sing like a choir, pound like a bass drum, swell like a string section, blare like a brass band and percolate like a gamelan. The varied, surprising, mesmerizing sounds fill the room, fill my body, and push the movements out from the inside. The music is one with my dancing, it hangs in the air; and then it is gone. I always try to bring a performance to the classroom. I have long believe that HOW we take class will affect how we dance on the stage and that technique and artistry are inextricably linked. But in this class I don’t just dance; I live.

There was a rather inspired combination that swirled across the floor, changing directions in surprising ways, with pirouettes and arabesque turns growing out of the choreography and growing out of the music. I felt my body fill with the sounds emanating from the piano. I felt my entire being explode across the floor. I felt every ounce of my energy flow out into the room.

And then it was gone.

I see so many young dancers capturing these moments on their phones and posting them on the internet. But our technology can only capture so much. We can record a dancer and we can enjoy the video. But the real depth of beauty; the deeply expressive, highly detailed nuance of our art form can often elude the lens. There is a performance of Swan Lake danced by Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones that will forever be seared into my memory. No video of these two dancers that I have ever seen does this performance justice.

We work a lifetime to build a technique. We work a lifetime to develop an artist’s soul. We work a lifetime to dance. And in a moment, what we produce is gone. And I found a beautiful, profound sadness in the ephemeral nature of what we do.

The great art in this museum, these masterpieces that will last centuries to move and delight a limitless number of viewers, reminded me of this profound sadness.

And then I remembered that Swan Lake. I remembered that rainy evening when I sat in the dark and I watched, for the first time, two truly great artists take the stage and captivate an audience. And I realized that their performance isn’t gone. It lives in my memory, it lives in my heart and it is the reason that I do what I do. So now I am looking for ways to communicate this to my students; to help them reach their audience in a profound way. I want to them plant memories, perhaps in the heart of only one audience member, so that their work can live on to inspire someone sitting out there, in the dark.

Judging

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

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

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

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

THIS was GREAT teaching. Here was my reminder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Finding a Voice

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


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


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


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

When Teachers Learn to Teach

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

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

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

Not My Son…Boys Don’t Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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