Possibilities Amidst a Pandemic

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic I have been conspicuously missing from social media. As I hunker down in my personal cave, with much more free time on my hands than usual, for some reason I am not feeling motivated to reach out. As many in my world seem to be posting their dance classes, posting their recipes, posting their craft projects; introspection seems, for me, to be somehow more relevant and appropriate.

I recently read an article by Robin Conrad Sturm, a ballet teacher, writer and blogger for whom I have the utmost respect. The jumping off point of this article was the quote “Life is all about how you handle ‘Plan B’”. This article explored the different ways in which artists cope with the disappointment inherent in their “fall back plan”; their “Plan B”. (Find her on Facebook, read her articles, they are wonderful.) I usually find that I identify quite deeply with Ms. Sturm’s writing. However my path, as my regular readers know, has been so strange, that I found little with which to identify. The article did, however, provide me with much to ponder.

As I grew up, my “Plan A” just sort of fell into place. My world, my family and the culture in which I was immersed laid out my “Plan A” for me and it never occurred to me to even raise a question. I would work very hard in school. I would get excellent grades. I would go to a prestigious college, graduate school and post graduate program. What would then follow, of course, would be an extremely lucrative career and HAPPINESS. As I started on this path, I thought I was happy. I was a successful student and I was accepted into the graduate programs and post graduate programs of my choice. I was “living the dream” of many aspiring professionals. Well, just like the hopeful ballerina who never could secure a company contract, my “Plan A” didn’t exactly work out; but for a whole different set of reasons.

Real “success” in any career is impossible if one doesn’t love what one is doing; and I was miserable. But being a person who is terrified of change, I was resistant and so I stayed in that career for 30 years. Eventually I would have to make a change; I wasn’t happy, my finances were suffering and I ultimately had to face my crippling fear of change and DO something. And so I set out to cultivate a career as a dance teacher; at 49 years old. Coming from where I was coming, this is perhaps the strangest of all possible choices. But the “conventional” certainly did not work for me, so why not try the “strange”? And as you know, it has worked out better than I ever could have ever expected.

Now we are in the midst of a pandemic. We are staying home, social distancing, living a totally different existence. Ballet classes, as we all know them, are not part of this existence. But each of the schools for which I teach has, one by one, transitioned to teaching over the internet.

AND I AM TERRIFIED OF CHANGE.

I am not a fan of technology. I was the last person I knew to buy a computer. I was the last person I knew to join social media. And now I have to learn how to teach through something called Zoom! Now I will be uploading videos to Something called Cyanna! Now I will be setting up an account on something called Dropbox! Now once again, I am terrified. Now, once again, I am resistant. But I am always someone who has done what needed to be done. So I set out to learn to use these programs (and that would have been impossible without the help that I received from the BRILLIANT Tiffany Patrick at the Joffrey Ballet School). And as I learned to use these programs, I reflected back on that terrifying transition that I made into my seemingly preposterous “Plan B”. That transition provided me with a life that I still find surprising. Every day seems to present yet another adventure (I was teaching in Dublin, Ireland, just before this pandemic started). So how can I tell where this transition to virtual teaching may lead?

Facing our fears is a part of life. My history has taught me that weathering the storm of fear that comes with change, can open the door to a whole new life. So perhaps learning to teach online can give me some insight into a whole new way to teach. Only time will tell. But the one thing I DO know, is that I still have POSSIBILITIES because of the miracle that is my “Plan B”. And I can’t imagine a life without those possibilities.

Where is the Magic?

The more time that I spend sitting in a theater, the more I worry. I worry that we, the current crop of teachers, are training the “special” right out of our students. I recently sat in my seat of a Broadway theater, eagerly awaiting THAT moment. I’ve experienced it countless times; that moment when the performance in front of me would reach out, get inside me, and move me and change me in a way that nothing else could. I sat there for two hours and forty minutes. I heard excellent singing. I saw excellent dancing. I saw excellent acting. I heard excellent musicians. But THAT moment never came; I simply felt nothing. And this has happened over and over again for the last several years. It has happened at the theater, at the ballet, at the opera, at concert dance performances and at the concert hall.

I remember my youth. I remember sitting in theaters and being thrilled by the performers that I saw: dancers like Baryshnikov, Kirkland, Gregory and Bujones; broadway stars like Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury; musicians like Horowitz, Heifetz, Argerich and Rubinstein. Rarely am I seeing these kind of performances any more. And the more I talk to my colleagues, the more I feel like we might be part of the problem.

Dance teachers (especially in the competition world) are training their dancers to perform with stunning uniformity. Voice teachers with whom I speak are trying to groom their students to produce a specific, particular “sound”. Acting teachers are cultivating students that give performances with a chilling naturalism.

But where is the magic?

I think to a degree these teachers feel that they are producing what casting directors are looking for. But sometimes casting directors don’t know what they are looking for until it walks into the room.

Now I’m not saying that those special, moving, captivating moments are completely gone. Katrina Lenk certainly created a world that transported and thrilled me in her brilliant performance in The Band’s Visit. But those performances are becoming less and less frequent.

I recently stumbled on this video of a little boy dancing:

I think we can all agree that this child has something very special and he feels what he does from a very deep place. He clearly has a long road to the professional stage (if that is indeed his path) and there will be many teachers who will have a hand in helping him build a technique. It is my hope that the process of building the technique that he will need will not squash the gifts that he has.

I remember my training with Luigi, Gabriella Darvash and Frank Hatchett. I remember them talking of astonishing dancers; dancers like Maya Pliesetskaya, Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson. I remember them encouraging us to find what made each of us special, unique and astonishing. I remember Luigi saying so often “I don’t train chorus dancers, I make stars”. Yet today, as I still take class regularly, it is rare that I hear teachers discussing anything other than technique (save a few who touch on musicality).

I have always believed that every teacher has something unique that they bring to the table; every teacher has something that they bring their students that nobody else and bring. I have certainly had a unique path; I started dancing at 26 and I cobbled together my training by studying exclusively in open classes with world class teachers. This required a lot of “putting it together on my own” and this has provided me with a unique perspective on how a dancer is built. I have always made this perspective the foundation of my teaching. But now I am examining my work more closely. The Joffrey Ballet School has placed their trust in me, and obviously my students will need high extensions, dizzying turns and soaring jumps to be employable today. But I am mining the memories of how Luigi, Madame Darvash and Frank Hatchett nurtured us to be WHO we were, not the technicians they wanted us to be. And I am allowing those memories to come flooding back and to flood my classroom. I clearly can’t BE Luigi, or Madame Darvash or Frank Hatchett. They were unique talents and brilliant master teachers. And I certainly don’t want to parrot what they said to me; because it won’t be MY perspective. But I am determined to find the SPECIAL in my students. Not every student will have the potential to be another Margot Fonteyn, Gwen Verdon or Fred Astaire. But someday a student may walk into my classroom with that magic laying dormant inside. And I am, more and more, feeling the responsibility to find that magic and let it shine. I am striving to be part of the solution; to do my tiny bit to help bring that magic back to the stage. And maybe some of my colleagues will agree with me; and maybe they won’t. But I have always been determined to do things MY way. Clearly what we are currently doing is producing a result; but is it really the result that WE want?

I want to see the magic.

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.