Joy Womack: The White Swan, a film review

On July 19, 2021, Joy Womack: The White Swan was released digitally in the UK. This searing documentary pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse of a rarely seen slice of the ballet world; the inner workings of the legendary Bolshoi Ballet and the lesser known Kremlin Ballet through the eyes of the American born Ballerina, Joy Womack.

Womack left her home in Texas at the age of 15 to train at the revered Moscow State Academy of Choreography (Bolshoi Ballet Academy). After graduating with the highest possible grades she was invited to join the Bolshoi Ballet Company with the promise of soloist roles. Coming up against prejudice and corruption, the film chronicles Ms. Womack’s journey through her training, grueling regimen, fierce dedication, relationships, marriage, injuries, disappointments and triumphs. 

Visually stunning and dramatically engrossing, this film doesn’t just tell Ms. Womack’s story. It brings the viewer along for an unforgettable ride from the optimistic beginnings through corruption and despair to the eventual triumph of one ballerina’s unique and fascinating story. 

Joy Womack: The White Swan is out now in the UK on digital platforms

view the trailer here:

Teaching Jazz Technique

I recently re-posted an old blog article on social media; the topic was “Teaching the Luigi Jazz Technique” The post spurred a number of comments by readers; but this comment by Annemarie Drake caught my attention:

“Bravo! I am so frustrated by the lack of technical training in modern and jazz in today’s studios. In the comp studio where I currently teach  they only have a ‘technique’ class which amounts to conditioning and tricks.  Fortunately they have a strong ballet program (compulsory),  but only learn dances, not technique in jazz and contemporary.”

Dance education, like everything, grows, evolves and changes and I am fully aware that in some respects, I am trapped in a past that no longer exists. Many of the younger teachers and administrators working today (including some that I have worked under) do not realize or understand that the Jazz in which I was trained has a technique unto itself. 

A strong ballet technique (which is extremely important for most (not all) western/European concert dance traditions) will not fully prepare dancers for Jazz. I have taught Luigi Jazz technique to many ballet conservatory programs and some ballet companies. These dancers do NOT look like Jazz dancers when they begin, because they simply do not understand Jazz technique. Jazz is much more than steps and choreography. It’s style and technique must be STUDIED if the dancers are truly going to inhabit this idiom.

When I refer to Jazz Technique, I am not really referring to isolations, progressions, or a particular set of port de bras, pirouette preparations or parallel tendus (although these are certainly part of Jazz). These are typically taught in a cursory fashion, never digging down to the depth of what Jazz truly is. The Jazz technique to which I am referring is much more about the “How” than the “What”. I am teaching how the shoulders work, how epaulment is used,  how the arms are connected to the back, how the rib cage is held, how the spine is lengthened while the top of the chest and shoulders and back pull down, how the oblique muscles are activated, how the hips are pulled up, how the thighs are pulled up, how the turn out continues up into the hips and helps them “pin back” while the glutes are activated, how plié is used, and how the entire body is worked as a unit. I am teaching about feelings of opposition with respect the the epaulment, plié, and how the body reacts to gravity. I am teaching about the resistance against the space. I am teaching about creating a palate of movement qualities. I am teaching about phrasing and musicality. I am teaching about line, energy and finding the movement within the shape. I am teaching about style. I am teaching Jazz. 

And so, trapped in the past, a past where Cyd Charrise stabbed the air with her endless legs, a past where Bob Fosse hunched over, cocked his hat over one eye and turned in his feet, a past where Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera exploded across the stage, I continue to search. I am searching for just the right word or phrase to explain how this work is done, taught, and passed on to the next generation. And I am searching for just the right word or phrase to explain why. Because this work is disappearing. And because the loss of this piece of our artistic heritage would be a tragedy beyond measure.

“Never stop moving” – Luigi

Trash the Trophies, How to Win Without Losing Your Soul – book review

In Chasta Hamilton’s book, Trash the Trophies, How to Win Without Losing Your Soul, Ms. Hamilton explores the world of competitive dance, the reasons why she decided to leave the competitive arena, and how she created for her students an even more successful, totally new, non-competitive dance experience.

In the first sections of her book, Ms. Hamilton explores the competition arena; painting a vivid picture of this world as she saw it; clearly laying out how, in her opinion, the industry seduces competitors into signing on for more and more competitions, and what they do to keep their customers happy. She describes her experiences, her students’ experiences, their families’ experiences and discusses what was for her, a turning point:

“My motivator moment happened when competitions started giving ‘kindness’ awards.”

She decided to leave the competition arena and reformat her studio to focus on the art of teaching dance while affording her students first rate training and as many performance opportunities as possible. What follows is nothing less than brilliant; her plan to transition out of competition dance, maintain the success of her studio, and grow her business, without participating in competitions. 

Ms. Hamilton’s writing style vibrates with energy; the reader can feel her excitement as she brings the reader along on her journey. This book is a joy to read.

Trash the Trophies is an impassioned look at the dance studio industry and a triumphal ode to the art of teaching in dance; not as a means to garner accolades and trophies but but as a means to teach art for art’s sake. It is a beautifully written must read for studio owners, teachers and dancers alike who yearn for something outside the competitive realm and serves as a model for any business owner on the precipice of a major change.

I Took Class, ON ZOOM!

Last week I took class, for the very first time, on zoom. When the pandemic started and the world shut down, I had free access to Hamilton Dance; a beautiful studio in north Brooklyn. I had been teaching at Hamilton since the very beginning of my career, and Rita Hamilton (who tragically passed so young this year) gave me free use of her studio. I taught all of my zoom classes for five different schools from this studio, and in this studio, I gave myself a daily class. I had been in the dance industry for more than three decades. I had taught scores of dancers at every level. If I wasn’t going to be taking class live in a studio, why would I take class on zoom? If I was going to be by myself anyway, why not just give myself class? And that’s just what I did. Day after day I spent a full hour at the barre, I did all 42 minutes of Luigi’s beautiful technique exercises, I did a short centre practice and worked on a jazz combination. Every day, of every week; month, after month, after month.

But some months after Rita’s passing the studio closed its doors for good, and I lost my home. It is impossible to dance in my tiny New York apartment and my daily class started to dwindle down to a couple of times a week, when I could find some empty studio time at one of the schools at which I was teaching.

When I was first made aware of social media I was very reluctant to join. It actually seemed pointless to me. But at my sister’s insistence, I joined Facebook and Facebook became a great way to find and reconnect with old friends. But as the years rolled on, I became aware of Facebook groups, and started networking with colleagues all over the world. And I made friends. Actual friends. Some of whom I have met in person, others I know only through the virtual reality of the internet.

One of these friends is Pallas Śridevi, a ballet teacher with an impressive education linking directly back to Balanchine and an even more impressive and eclectic performing career. We have spent quite a bit of time messaging on line, talking of the phone and visiting on zoom. And although we have never actually met face to face, I am truly honored to count her among my colleagues and friends. Although our training was quite different, our philosophies of teaching are quite similar and I discovered through our conversations that she has an incredible depth of knowledge in, and passion for, the art of ballet.

Pallas had suggested several times that I take her ballet class on zoom. Now, to be perfectly honest, I was quite resistant. Why would I take someone’s class on zoom when I could just give myself class on my own? And why bother trying to find an affordable studio space at the precise time that she was teaching when I could just do class alone, right before or right after one of my regular classes that I teach?

Why? Because I might actually learn something. And so I signed on to one of Pallas’s classes. Firstly, the class is brilliant; a full barre and a “short centre” that gets everything done with incredible economy. Her class made me really examine what I was doing when teaching on zoom. I was feeling the need to “pack in” as much as possible into the time allotted; always feeling like I was racing the clock. Pallas’s class brilliantly gets everything done in a clear, concise and economical format that never feels rushed. She is breezy and relaxed, making everyone feel welcome, all the while imparting first rate teaching. Her exercises are inventive, musical, artistic and challenging and her keen eye saw even the smallest details that required correcting. When I give myself class I will often make tiny discoveries, but when I study with another teacher (the right teacher) I often realize how much I still have to learn. I learned so much from her in those 75 minutes.

After dancing alone in a studio for more than a year, I had forgotten something that is so fundamental about dance training; it is something that we do for ourselves, in a very profoundly intimate way; yet we do it together, as a community. And what I didn’t realize, was that I was missing that community. For centuries, ballet students have come together, placed their left hand on the barre, and lived through the daily ritual of class. Together. Tomorrow, as some studios are now open in New York, I will be taking my first live class since the beginning of the pandemic. But I have Pallas Śridevi, and her exquisite teaching to thank for reminding me of the importance of our community. I have Pallas to thank for opening her heart and reaching out across an ocean, to teach me this important lesson. I am honored and touched to have been so warmly welcomed into her ballet community. Her class is a treasure.

Unfairness in Competition Judging

I came upon an online discussion focusing on unfair and biased judging in the dance competition industry; it’s participants enumerating the best strategies for handling this practice of unfair judging. There were many suggestions, including emailing one’s feelings directly to the competition, explaining to parents that the reason their child didn’t win was due to judges’ biased decisions, and explaining to the children that they did indeed perform better than the judges’ evaluations suggested. As most of my readers know, I’m not really part of the competition segment of our industry, but as I read this discussion I thought: “What part of the dance industry at large (or any aspect of the arts) is actually fair?” I think that the appearance of biased judging can actually be good teaching moment for the dancers; not necessarily a teaching moment about dance, but about life. By making complaints to competitions, discussing the “unfairness” with the parents and telling the dancers that they were better than the judging suggested, and that they should have won, is not preparing them for the professional dance industry or adult life in general.

Early in my career I applied to choreograph a national tour of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Review “Some Enchanted Evening”. I submitted a video (a VHS tape, this was a long time ago). I was called in for an interview. I traveled in a snow storm to go to the interview (which went very well) and I was offered the job. I was told to expect a contract shortly. Did I get a contract? No. I got a message on my answering machine explaining that although they felt my work was superior, they would be hiring the producer’s brother in law, and they were sorry. (At least they were honest). Was that fair? That is this industry.

I didn’t lose a trophy that day. I lost a JOB; a job that once on my resume could have changed the course of my entire career. And so I moved on.

My experience teaching college and conservatory students today is that they are unable to accept any unfairness or disappointment. I think we need to use these moments to teach them how the world actually works and how to accept things that are unfair and out of our control.

Too harsh?

“I Was Taught That…“, The WHY Behind the WHAT

As teachers, we often discuss what and how we teach. We have these discussions in faculty rooms, we have these discussions on the telephone and now, more than ever, we have these discussions on the internet. A question might be posed, or a topic is brought up, and we will very often begin our thoughts with “I was taught that…”.

I have always believed that there is something very special about the way our art form is passed down from teacher to student. The real truth of the work is not kept In a book or on a video, it is kept in our bodies and in our hearts. And we pass this work, from teacher to student, for generations. I believe that all dance teachers are part of a distinguished line of teaching and I have always felt extremely fortunate and honored that I was trained by Luigi and can trace my ballet lineage directly to Cecchetti and Vaganova.

Recently I found myself embroiled in a discussion on grand plié in fourth position. Each of the participants explained what they had been taught about grand plié in fourth. Many explained when, and under what circumstances they used grand plié in fourth. Many expressed concerns about injury risks related to grand plié in fourth. But almost nobody explained or discussed WHY they taught it. Few seemed to have a reason that went deeper than “I was taught that…”.
I have already written an article on the different paths to becoming a dance teacher ( Regardless of the path that we take to this career, I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to examine the “why”. Even with extensive pedagogical training, the exploration of the “why” will enrich what we bring to the classroom.

As I look back on the teaching I received from the great teachers under whom I studied, I realize that none of these teachers, even those with extensive pedagogical knowledge, relied solely on what they had been taught. Each of them deeply examined what they taught and why they taught it. And often what they taught was fluid, and changed over time, as that examination of the work grew deeper year by year. Even Gabriella Darvash told me recently that what she taught and how she taught drastically changed since the time when I was her student. And along with this ever changing approach comes a realization that what is “correct” also has some fluidity. I am constantly surprised by the number of teachers who are very quick to exclaim “that is wrong!” when faced with something they have never seen before; simply because it is not how they were taught. I think, in this respect, we have a responsibility to keep an open mind. I have had so many thrilling  “ah ha!” moments since my days with Madame Darvash, when teachers presented different ideas to which I was at first resistant. Deeper exploration of these ideas changed me as a teacher, helped me grow my knowledge and understanding and greatly benefitted my students. I realized that to have a deep understanding, and a real understanding of HOW technique works, one must explore and analyze the work of many great teachers. It is nearly impossible to learn it all from one source.

Recently, a colleague remarked to me that she felt that I was irresponsible. She believes that teaching ballet experientially was doing my students a great disservice. She believes that the only way to effectively train a dancer is to undergo some sort of codified teacher training and then, essentially, regurgitate this teaching method to the students. Codified methods work. They produce results. The Luigi technique is a codified Jazz method in which I was trained and I now teach. But if I simply parroted to my students, exactly what Luigi said, without examining how and why it worked, THAT would be, in my opinion, irresponsible. No great teacher has ever worked in that manner.

Every day I go into the studio. Every day I bring with me the work of the great teachers with whom I was fortunate to study: Gabriella Darvash, David Howard, Elena Kunikova, Lisa Lockwood, Zvi Gotheiner, Diane Bryan (the finest adult beginner ballet teacher I’ve ever encountered), David Storey, Richard Pierlon and of course the legendary Luigi. And every day I look at the work, I examine how it feels and I analyze what each step, exercise and component brings to the training. I try to see what enriches the work and above all, how I can bring both technique and artistry to to the student. I will never have the knowledge, insight or instincts of a Luigi or a Madame Darvash because that level of genius is very rare. But what I did learn from them is the importance of examining the work and the exploration of the “why”.

THAT is what I was taught.

Teaching the Resistant Student

As most of my readers know, I started my dance training at Luigi’s Jazz Centre, studying this revolutionary technique under the master himself. And although my focus switched to ballet after my first two years of training, I continued taking regular Luigi technique classes throughout my entire career. Luigi, himself, certified me to teach his work and this certification has opened many doors. 

When I started my training with Luigi I had a deep love and admiration for the great movie musicals of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Studying with Luigi was, for me, a direct connection to the brilliant dancing of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Cyd Charisse  with whom he had worked. This also was the training method that was responsible for so many of the great Broadway legends such as Donna McKechnie, Ben Vereen and Liza Minnelli. This was the dancing that I loved and this was what I wanted to study. What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that this technique was unlike  the other Jazz classes in New York. This technique has an approach to style, musicality, line, epaulment and quality of movement that is unique and, consequently, it produces a result that is unique. My training under Luigi was responsible for my career, both as a performer and a teacher and the importance of this work in my life is immeasurable. 

Now, more than three decades later, I am charged with passing on this work to the next generation of dancers and often I am met with resistance. These classes are not like the Jazz classes to which today’s dancers  are accustomed. There is a detailed and painstaking breakdown of the technique exercises. There is a demand for a precise use of epaulment and nuanced quality of movement. There is a complex approach to musicality, rhythm and timing. And there is not a lot of flash. The work is hard, the music is complex and unfamiliar and the choreographic style is foreign. And this year I had one particularly challenging group. They found the work exceedingly difficult. And they did not like it. There was eye rolling, thinly veiled looks of disdain and a lot of frustration. I implored them to be patient, to work slowly (as I had done) and to search for the results. I tried to explain that this is not just a technique designed to produce good alignment, clean lines, high legs and dependable turns. This is a technique that builds style. This is a technique the nurtures artistry. This is a technique that brings LIFE to the steps and MAGIC to the stage. As Luigi often said to me “I don’t train chorus dancers, I make STARS. But class after class I was met with blank stares.

This week, as I soldiered on through this class, using every trick I could think of to engage these students, I referenced Fred Astaire. And their eyes were vacant. So I asked: “Who has never seen Fred Astaire dance?”. Every single hand went up. No one in this class had ever seen Fred Astaire dance. And at that moment I realized that I had completely forgotten something extremely important: their experience was nothing like mine. They had no reference for this work.  Not only had they never seen Fred Astaire, they never had even heard of a Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Donna McKechnie or Ben Vereen.

So, we spent the rest of that class watching videos. We watched Astaire partner a hat rack and bring it to life in Royal Wedding, we watched Gene Kelly partner the stunning Cyd Charrise in Singing in the Rain, and we watched Luigi tear up the floor in the ensemble of White Christmas. And much to my surprise they were mesmerized. These films are more than 60 years old and quite frankly I expected to receive the same dismissive attitude that I had been receiving all year. But it was as if the light was finally turned on. And much to my relief, they saw the greatness in this work. They saw the artistry In this  work and they saw the magic; a kind of magic that is all but gone from our industry.  

When I walked into the studio for our next class it was as if I was facing a completely different group of students. And after months of explaining, begging and cajoling, they finally started to work; the way I had worked and all of the great dancers that came before me.

I am not so naive as to think that the next time I’m facing challenging students, an old MGM video will solve all my problems. But I did learn a lesson here. This group’s problem stemmed from a lack of reference; and I failed to realize that. I learned that part of being an effective educator is searching for the solutions to just these kinds of problems. Sometimes I will find the answers (as I did this time) and sometimes I won’t. But I will never stop trying. 

Luigi once said to me: “You are not the best dancer I’ve ever taught, but you have a deeper understanding of this work than anyone that I’ve ever taught.”. That understanding and this work are gifts that have given me my life’s work. And bringing these gifts to the next generation of dancers is what I do. Now, in addition to teaching the “what” and the “how” of this work, I am having to teach the “why”. Making this work relevant to today’s artists is essential to its survival. And as far as I’m concerned it must survive for generations to come. 

Children Will Listen

I have written many articles which include bits of my personal history in dance; my very late start at 25 years of age and a family structure that did not encourage or support a career in the arts. I have previously recounted an incident that occurred during an argument with my mother, when she said: “But you never asked for dance lessons”. And she was right. I never did. And at the time that I wrote that article, I said that the reason why I never asked for dance lessons was because I felt that hearing “No” would have been too painful. And that is true.

But there was another reason.

Our memories and our minds work in mysterious ways, and recently a memory came flooding  back with a vengeance.

My sister, who is four years my junior WAS, as a small child, given dance classes. On a few occasions I was brought along and, through a glass window, I watched her classes. I studied her teacher, Mrs. Wright. She seemed to hold the key to a world that I so desperately wanted to be part of. I watched her teach class, and I hung on her every word. I was nine years old. I was the type of child that never wanted to make waves. I was the type of child that wanted to be “good”. I was the type of child who desperately wanted to fit in; although I never really did.

At the end of the class, the children came streaming out of the studio and Mrs. Wright stopped to chat with some parents. Again, I was hanging on her every word. And in one of these casual conversations I heard her say, with a roll of her eyes:

“Thank God I have no BOYS in this class this year”. As if boys in her dance class were a problem. As if boys didn’t belong or fit in.

Those words had power. Those words affected me.

I HEARD that remark. And I listened. And consequently, I never asked.

Perhaps if I hadn’t been brought a long that day I wouldn’t have heard that remark. Perhaps I might have asked for lessons. Perhaps I might have had a different life. But our lives take the path that they take, and I will never know what might have been if I had started training as a child. I have taken responsibility for my decisions and made my peace with them. However, I still wonder…
But I do know that we must be mindful of what we say and do around a child. Our words have power and their futures are so uncertain.

Children will listen.

Teaching Ballet to Musical Theater Students; A New Focus

My career path has been strange to say the least. For my new readers who may not be familiar with the story: I was an adult beginner dancer with a short but reasonably successful professional career. I “retired” just shy of my 35th birthday and didn’t dance at all for 9 years. I started taking class again at 43 and met the legendary Broadway dancer Lisa Gajda who recommended me for my first professional teaching job: teaching Ballet at the musical theater conservatory CAP21. That recommendation lead to a completely new career path that I could have never imagined.

Throughout my teaching career, teaching Ballet to musical theater students has been my “stock in trade”. In addition to the Joffrey Ballet School, I am a regular faculty member in the musical theater programs at Molloy College, New York Film Academy, New York Conservatory for Performing Arts and I have traveled as far as Dublin, Ireland to teach at the Phoenix Performing Arts College (a truly remarkable musical theater program). And with each passing semester, each passing year, each new student that places their trust and their futures in my teaching, I have examined and re-examined the ballet education for musical theater students.

When I was training, the concept of the Musical Theater Conservatory was a new idea. The only program that I was aware of at that time was AMDA, and most aspiring performers shied away from this program, rather opting to train in open dance classes, small independent acting schools and with private voice teachers and coaches. We would cobble together a training regimen that suited our talents, tastes and interests. It was understood by most of us that in order to be a technically secure dancer for the type of dancing that would be required on the musical theater stage, ballet training was essential; and most of us started our day with a ballet class. 

When the new musical theater conservatories started springing up, and programs were being developed, ballet classes were rarely scheduled more than three times per week. As time went on, and programs evolved, most programs decreased ballet classes to twice or sometimes once per week. This presents a problem for the teacher. We are now faced with teaching a discipline that, for it’s 300 year history required daily training, in one or two classes per week. For these performers, ballet training is being used to “build the instrument”; to turn the performers’ body into a machine that can, with technical security, execute a wide range of dance vocabulary. Not only must the performer have this technical security, but they must have style, artistry, musicality and presence as well. Ballet only works to achieve these goals if it is taught to these students the way it is taught to ballet dancers. 

Over time I have have been adjusting my syllabi; tweaking what I do in the classroom to best serve my students’ needs. Of primary importance is “placement” and what Vaganova referred to as aplomb. The alignment of the bones/body, the positioning of the hips/pelvis, and vertical steadiness must be of primary importance. Ballet teachers can spend hours dissecting this topic. The Jazz master Luigi’s concept of “pressing down against the space” has always worked for me to quickly find that placement, aplomb and steadiness and I have brought that concept into my ballet studio. A clean shift of the weight from one foot to another is also essential. I started striving to create barre exercises that will achieve this placement, aplomb and steadiness, and I EXPLAIN as clearly and efficiently as I can HOW the exercises should be executed to achieve these ends. The exercises alone are never going to be responsible for the result; it is HOW the exercises are done that achieves the end. Luigi was a master explainer and I am so grateful for my years under his tutelage because it is in the EXPLANATION that the knowledge is imparted. 

Musical theater dancers also need to develop a sense of musicality and phrasing. Most ballet “technique” classes are designed to teach just that; technique. The typical ballet student will develop the nuances of musicality and phrasing in their variations, character and pas de deux classes as well as in their coaching sessions. But musical theater dancers will rarely take such classes. I therefore have started constructing my exercises and combinations to have complex rhythms and have started insisting more and more on a deep attention to musicality and phrasing, even in a tendu exercise. I will tell my students to “feel the music from the inside” and to “dance the sound rather than the steps” right from the very first moment that their hand touches the barre. This attention to musicality and phrasing must become part of how the dancer works instinctively, and this seems to be the best way to get that job done. I will talk about the music for ballet class. I will touch on the differences between a Polonaise, a Waltz and a Mazurka; not because the students will be performing these dances but because a knowledge of the musical forms will increase their understanding of music general.

Musical theater dancers will need to develop epaument, line and presence. They will need a rich and exquisite port de bras and need to develop a way of communicating what they do to reach and move an audience. Again, I have started creating exercises focusing on these facets of the work and started explaining the combinations in a way that highlights and clarifies these aspects of ballet. 

What I have realized recently, is that what musical theater dancers do not need (in general) are a near perfect turn out, high legs in adagio and brilliant petite allegro (beats). Professional musical theater jobs that require this aspect of the ballet technique (dancing roles in shows with “dream ballets” or extensive ballet sequences such as Oklahoma!CarouselOn Your ToesPhantom…, and Brigadoon ) are going to ballet dancers. Broadway productions are boasting cast members from NYCB  and ABT in these parts. Well, since producers are mining big ballet companies to fill these technical demands, I am finding it less necessary to train my students for jobs that they aren’t going to get anyway. I am, of course, still teaching turn out, but I am teaching HOW to use turn out for stability and I am respecting their bodies’ limitations. I am, of course still teaching adagio, but the FOCUS of the adagio is on the line, phrasing, quality of movement and the vulnerability of the exercise, rather than the height of the leg. And of course I am still teaching jumps and beats, but the FOCUS of the allegro exercises is on power, exuberance and the quality of the jumping rather than the lightning quick beating and ever more complex petite allegro combinations.

My teaching is still a work in progress. There is so much that I still do not know. But as I am charged with preparing my students for an ever changing musical theater industry, at conservatories with ever changing programs, I am constantly reevaluating what I bring to the classroom. As I continue to craft my ballet classes for my musical theater students, I am changing the focus to suit their needs. I am still teaching ballet, the way it was taught to me by my master teachers. I am still presenting a ballet class in its entirety, the way it has been presented for generations. But I am changing the focus. And I hope that this change will help my students succeed in this industry. Only time will tell. 

Searching in this Pandemic as my Career Takes and Unexpected Turn

I have, for many years, considered The Joffrey Ballet School my “professional home”. Throughout my teaching career Joffrey has given me consistent employment, limitless support and a full understanding of my vision for what dance education can be. But I certainly didn’t start my teaching career at Joffrey. I started at Hamilton Dance. The brilliant Rita Hamilton who trained generations of dancers in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, took a chance on an aspiring ballet teacher with absolutely no experience, and in 1989 gave me my first teaching job. She was a consistent and loyal mentor, role model and dear friend from our first meeting and I could have never become the teacher that I am without her guidance, support and love. 

When we found ourself in the midst of a pandemic, and studios closed, Rita made her school accessible to me, and this little studio in Greenpoint became my new home. I could safely teach all of my Zoom classes for five different schools in this studio (my apartment is far too small), I could give myself daily class in this studio, I could work on choreography in this studio, and she never took a dime in rent. And as the pandemic raged on I had some online triumphs and I had some online disasters. I felt inspired to dance and I felt resigned to dance. I felt at home, and I felt imprisoned; and all in this tiny studio.

In the midst of this pandemic Rita became quite ill (not COVID-19 related) and required extensive surgery. Anyone who has ever met Rita Hamilton would describe her as a force of nature and a power to be reckoned with; I had no doubt that she would recover. But I was wrong. And Rita tragically left us much too soon. And the despair in that tiny studio engulfed me. But the studio was there. And I danced.

Well, it appears that this beautiful studio that Rita Hamilton built will be closing its doors forever. The countless children that have been touched by her brilliance will have to find a new place to dance, and I am losing my home. I have been helping with the clean-up/clean-out. I have been finding homes for dance wear, costumes and barres. I have been quietly saying goodbye to my professional home. And I never knew that it would be so hard.

So I am now, once again, looking into the future with uncertainty; a place that I have found myself so many times before. My online classes will have to be taught from somewhere, I’m just not sure where that will be. My grandmother, with whom I was very close, used to say: “When a door closes, a window opens”. Well this is a very big door and it is slamming shut very hard. And I keep looking. And I don’t see that window. At least not yet. 

One of the most important things that I have learned from my dance training is the importance of relentlessly looking and searching. I have spent decades searching for just the right line, just the right the right placement, just the right musicality, phrasing and quality. Some of things I have found and figured out. Some things I’m still working on. And it is this search that has been central to my growth as a dancer and educator. Now I’m facing a different kind of search and a different kind of challenge. Rita was limitlessly optimistic and always had confidence in me; much more than I had in myself. And so as I search for a new place to dance and to teach my virtual classes, I am searching for the confidence in me that Rita always saw. I hope that Rita’s limitless optimism and confidence will help me find, and open that window. Only time will tell.