Why Should Competition Dancers Be Studying Ballet?

I have been hearing from studio owners who seem to be having trouble explaining the need for ballet training to parents of competition dancers. It can be very hard for someone who is not a dancer to fully appreciate what ballet training – REAL ballet training – does to one’s body, one’s mind and one’s life. I’m hoping that my thoughts on this question might clarify the matter for both parents and students.

We have all heard that “Ballet is a foundational training technique” and that “Taking ballet makes everything better”. And these statements are true. But these statements do little to actually explain what ballet brings to a dancer and why.

Firstly, dancing is physical. We, as teachers, don’t just teach steps; we train dancers. Everyone has seen professional dancers; everyone knows what they look like and what they can do. People without TRAINING are not capable of doing what a trained dancer can do. Period. I can explain in 5 minutes the mechanics of a fouetté turn or a brise volle, but try as they may, without training, a student will never be able to perform these steps correctly. NEVER. Ballet training has been scientifically designed over the last 350 years to produce the physical strength, flexibility, placement, balance, agility and technical ability needed to dance at a high level. No other genre of dance has this history, wealth of information or breadth of knowledge. None. And no other genre can produce the same result. The modern techniques of Graham, Horton, Limon and Cunningham; and the jazz techniques of Mattox, Giordano and Luigi can all boast that they are comprehensive training methods…and they are. But the practitioners of these techniques, the experts in these techniques all agree that without a solid professional ballet foundation, the dancing will never be what it should: strong, secure, clean, clear, expressive, beautiful dancing.

I have a colleague who was quite a good jazz dancer. She taught at some good schools and believed she was dancing at a high professional level. But she almost never got hired for performing jobs. Once, when auditioning for a Broadway show, the choreographer pulled her aside and said “You are beautiful, but you need ballet. I can’t hire you for this show but you should train in ballet for two years and then come find me.” She never followed through with his suggestion, and she never worked professionally again. This is only one instance, but it makes my point.

There is also the ritual of ballet class; a ritual that connects us as dancers. There is the daily routine of walking into the studio, placing your left hand on the barre, clearing your mind of all the extraneous noise and focusing on the work. I know I am lucky in that I trained exclusively in New York, and because of that, I can trace my lineage, from teacher to student, directly to Cecchetti and Vaganova. But we are, ALL OF US, part of a distinguished line of teaching that has been lovingly passed down, from teacher to student for over 300 years. This chain of knowledge enriches us as artists in a way that no other technique does, and since most of the parents have not experienced this for themselves, they will simply have to trust us on this point.

Many parents will argue: “My child is not going to be a professional dancer.” Well most of the students we teach are not going to be professional dancers…including the ones who want it with all their hearts. This is a brutal business. That is a fact. There aren’t nearly enough jobs for the myriad of aspiring professional dancers. But the ballet training we are providing reaches far wider than the competition or the professional stages. We are teaching the value of tradition. We are teaching the value of art. We are teaching the value of education and hard work and study and discipline. And there are great life lessons to be learned from doing something (like training to be a dancer) to its fullest; the right way and without short cuts.

The day I walked into my first ballet class, the day I placed my hand on that barre for the first time, the day I struggled, at 26 years old to execute my first tendu and demi plié, my life changed forever. And every day we, as ballet teachers, are hoping to change lives: the lives of recreational dancers, competition dancers, adult beginners and preprofessional students are all enriched by SERIOUS ballet training. Why would anyone want to deny themselves or their child this opportunity?

Winning

Many of my colleagues and many schools are training their students to WIN. I think winning is fantastic. But the more time I spend online, the more time I spend interacting with readers and the more time I spend talking with my students the more I have come to realize that we are, as a society, obsessed with winning. We want to win awards. We want to win dance competitions. We want to win sporting events. We want trophies, plaques, medals, certificates and ribbons. And we want to display the spoils of our winning-focused efforts on the internet so that the world can envy us for our superior, award-winning accomplishments; or for those of our children; or for those of our students.

I would like to take this opportunity to come out: I have never won anything. And I’m sure winning is GREAT! It must be an amazing feeling to know that at a particular point in time and amongst a particular group of people you were the best. I was not a child who had a room full of ribbons and trophies. I have a vague recollection of an unimpressive “participation trophy” for bowling when I was about 11 (yes, there was the occasional trophy for just showing up back in the dark ages). I also seem to remember a second-place certificate for writing an essay about the American flag when I was in the sixth grade. Neither of these was a “win”. But I truly didn’t care.

Recently I heard a teacher complaining about her student dropping out of a competition at the last minute. The teacher approached the student’s parents and asked why they were pulling their child out of the competition. The parents’ response:

“We saw the dance at the recital and we know it isn’t good enough to win.”

This stunned me. These parents are teaching their child that there is no reason to follow through with a commitment; there is no reason to continue working toward a goal; that there is no reason to participate in a competition unless they are assured a win.

The legendary sports writer Henry Grantland Rice so famously said:

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

The great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov has been quoted as saying:

“I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to to dance better than myself.”

I can’t begin to tell you how often my parents echoed these sentiments; that doing my best and striving to improve, that working toward a goal, that being part of a group with a single-minded aim were valuable and important. And so I spent my childhood and my adolescence doing MY best. Really DOING MY BEST. But I never won a competition. I never was first in my class. I never took home the trophy. Never.

Did I want to win?…of course I wanted to win. And I am not criticizing teachers for wanting their students to win. Everyone would like to win. But I never was devastated when I didn’t.

And when I started dancing (in my 20’s) I found myself really at a serious disadvantage in that pretty much everyone around me had started training before the age of 9. Now the idea of “winning”; the idea of being the “Best” would have been the most preposterous example of wishful thinking EVER. But I loved to dance and I wanted to improve. So every day of my life I walked into that studio. Every day of my life I put my left hand on that barre…the same barre that supported the hands of brilliant dancers; dancers with trophies, dancers with careers, dancers who were winners. And I worked and I struggled and I improved. And I was never the best. And I never won…a prize or a trophy. But it isn’t as if I put in all those years of work, sweat, pain, and disappointment without ever receiving anything.

I received my career. I received my life; a life spent doing what I love more than anything else. And guess what? I’m still not the best. But every day I try to get better. There are ballet competitions giving awards for the “best teachers”. Really? Teachers need these awards too? Surviving the competitive nature of this industry and carving out a career as a teacher in the NYC dance industry is stressful enough without worrying about being the best. So in addition to teaching my students the technique and artistry of dance; in addition to guiding them in the “relentless pursuit of that unachievable perfection” I try to teach them the value in the DOING- the value in the WORK for the work’s sake. And I try to bring these ideas to my competition students when I guest teach at their studios (which I have been doing more and more lately). And I believe (as do their teachers) that it makes them better (shocking!). And maybe it helps them win. But now, it is so much more than a trophy that is being won. Now what they are winning in addition to that trophy is an approach to life that will serve them and stay with them long after the award is forgotten; an approach to life that will help ensure their future; an approach to life that will make them a richer, wiser, happier individual whether they win or loose.

This is how I am training my students to WIN.

Passing On The Work…Just a Thought

What we do as dancers is so very intimate and personal; our bodies are our instruments, our muscles contain our memories and our art is kept in a very deep place…on the inside. This art, this work, these traditions are lovingly and painstakingly passed down, from teacher to student; from generation to generation. My beautiful Joffrey trainees are part of this distinguished chain of teaching that stretches back through the generations. It was thrilling to watch as they brought this ravishing work to life through the brilliant teaching of Stacey Caddell. I am in constant awe of my colleagues and honored to be part of this program where I can bring my link in the chain: from Maestro Cecchetti to Madame Nijinska, to Luigi, to me to my students. Joffrey Ballet Trainees.

On My Mentor’s Birthday…Happy Birthday Luigi!

Today is the birthday of the Legendary Luigi. 31 years ago I walked into Luigi’s Jazz Centre, an adult absolute beginner, and began to study his revolutionary Jazz technique. Starting as an adult, it never occurred to me that dancing would ever be something more than a hobby. About a year later, one day in class, he whispered in my ear “It’s not too late for you”.

That day, that sentence, that whisper in my ear, forever changed my life. My career is now in dance as I endeavor to faithfully pass on the teachings of Luigi to the next generation of dancers. In every class I teach, including the ballet classes, it is Luigi who I bring into the studio with me. I strive every day, just as he did, to painstakingly pass down the teachings of the great teachers of the past: From Cecchetti, to Nijinska, to Luigi, to Me to my students. And I bring his glorious jazz technique to today’s dancers as accurately and faithfully as possible and try every day to fill the work with the joy and the love that he brought to the classroom.

The work that dancers do and the way that we pass it on from generation to generation is so intimate and personal; because we carry these ideas,these teachings inside our bodies. Our bodies are our instruments, our muscles contain our memories and our art is kept in a very deep place…on the “inside”.

So, as my mentor and teacher Luigi always said: “Dance from the Inside” and Never Stop Moving”

 

Our Dreams

This past Friday I was listening to WNYC as I was frantically commuting from one job to another (the life of a free-lance dance instructor in New York). That afternoon there was an interview with a young American writer named Zak Dychtwald. Mr. Dychtwald learned Chinese, moved to China and now writes extensively on the “Restless Generation” of “Young China”. The interviewer asked: “When you are here in the United States, what do you miss the most about China?” The writer’s response: “Talking to my friends about their dreams”. He went on to explain that the youth in China today freely talk about their hopes and dreams while their American counterparts view talking about their dreams as “lame” (his word).

I immediately flashed back to 1966 when I saw my first Nutcracker on a rabbit-eared black and white portable television. I was transfixed and I was hooked…for life. I longed to dance like the fuzzy images on that tiny screen. I knew that I was meant to live a life in dance. But I believed that it would never come to pass. This was not the world in which I lived. I lived in a world where people didn’t dream on a grand scale. I lived in a world of practicality. And I lived in a world where boys most certainly did not dance.

A few years later I discovered The Royal Book of Ballet by Shirley Goulden / illustrated by Maraja on the shelf of my elementary school library. I checked the book out of the library week after week, hiding it from my family for fear of being discovered, pouring over its pages of extravagantly beautiful illustrations behind my bedroom door.

But I never spoke of my dream. I buried that dream as deeply as I could, locking it away for safe keeping it at the very core of my being. And those readers who are familiar with my story, know that I didn’t take my first dance class until I was well into adulthood. And it was the brilliance of Luigi who unlocked that dream and introduced me to a world in which I thought I would never live.

Years later I confronted my mother. I was certain that the world of convention in which I was raised, my preposterously late start in ballet training had all but ruined my life. Her response: “But you never asked for dance classes”. And she was right. And the light was finally turned on.

So from that moment on I spoke of my dreams; I shouted my dreams to anyone who would listen. I was approaching 50 and clearly my performing days were over. But I could teach. I could pass on the knowledge, the training, the passion that was instilled in me by great teachers. And so was born my new career; my new life. I am now poised to take a very big step. I am making some very big changes in my life and taking some very big risks as my dreams for my life in dance get bigger and bigger. And I speak to my students of my dreams for THEM as I help mold the next generation of artists.

Pirouette Preparations

I have read a lot recently on pirouette preparations with respect to competition dance. Since I mainly teach at professional schools (Broadway Dance Center), preprofessional programs (Joffrey Ballet School), conservatory programs (NY Film Academy) and colleges (Molloy/CAP21) my experience with dance competitions is very limited. I am, however, a frequent guest teacher at numerous competition schools across the country; bringing my take on classical ballet technique and the technique of my mentor, Luigi to the fantastic work being done at these studios. Since I do work so often with competition dancers, I am always trying to learn more about what is expected from these dancers in the competitive arena.

There was a thread that I came across in a teachers’ chat group, discussing pirouette preparations. There seemed to be a consensus that “turned out” pirouettes must be preceded by a “turned out” preparation and a “parallel” pirouette must be preceded by a “parallel” preparation.

This thread started me thinking back to my training. Madame Gabriella Darvash, who was a student of the legendary Vaganova and my ballet teacher for my entire performing career, often said: A dancer must be able to turn in ANY position from ANY position. The academic preparations in fourth position and fifth position used in ballet technique class are used to TEACH dancers to turn. These preparations are also typical in 19th century classical ballet choreography, but as our art grew in the 20th and 21st centuries, so did the vocabulary of possible preparations when turns started to grow out of the dance without that moment of “tendu a la seconde, plié in fourth position” which stops the energy and flow of the movement.

Luigi, my mentor and Jazz teacher, spoke of his teacher Bronislava Nijinska. She said that her brother (the incomparable Vaslav Nijinsky) could do 10 pirouettes with no visible preparation. Luigi, in his choreography, endeavored to choreograph pirouettes from positions that wouldn’t be recognized as “preparations” as we typically know them.

So here is my question (after a very long-winded prologue): Since competition studios invite me to guest teach – bringing this work to their dancers – adding yet another layer to their work – should I not be bringing this take on pirouettes? I often teach classes on “Principles of the Luigi Technique for Teachers” and these concepts of pirouette preparation are typically part of those classes. My goal is to keep the great traditions of the past alive…to bring the work from Cecchettit, through Nijinska, through Luigi to my students and from Vaganova through Madame Darvash to my students. But I never want to teach in a museum…all of the work looks forward to the future. And as I teach students and teachers alike, I would never want to interfere with their ability to succeed at competitions.

After exhaustive discussion with many teachers there seems to be a new consensus: Academic preparations should be used by less advanced dancers to ensure that they are working toward excellent turning technique while more advanced dancers should be turning with out a “visible preparation” that stops the flow of the movement. And through these discussions we can all learn, and all grow as teachers; I know that I do.

Thoughts?

Success and How We Define It

Tonight I attended a showcase in which several of my former CAP21 students were performing. When I entered the lobby of the theater, a group of former students ran up to me excitedly and threw their arms around me. I couldn’t have felt more welcome and more loved. This showcase will be performed later this week for agents, casting directors and other industry professionals and it started me thinking about how we define success.

Most artists spend their entire life, their entire career, striving for success. Success; that elusive goal, that intangible finish line that we all are longing to cross, means something very different to each of us. And how we define success can mean the difference between a life in dance that is rich and satisfying and one that is marked by repeated disappointment.

When I was training, auditioning and performing, my idea of success was a Broadway Show or a first rate company; and on that point there would be no compromising. If I couldn’t dance on Broadway, in NYCB or in ABT everything else would be a compromise. So I spent my 20’s and 30’s working toward that goal. And every job I got along the way (and there were many, many jobs) was viewed merely as a stepping stone toward that ultimate dream. Every regional theater gig, every off-Broadway show, children’s theater, music video, T.V. show, commercial and small dance company was simply another step along that road to “success”. When I reached my mid-30’s and still had not achieved what I set out to achieve, I simply retired. I figured: “What was the point of continuing?” I was getting near the age when dancers become less employable. I was competing with younger and younger dancers with the kinds of credits on their resumes that I longed for. I was, in my mind, a failure. And so I left the industry and turned my energies elsewhere. I didn’t feel angry; and surprisingly, I didn’t feel disappointed. I just simply felt like I was done.

After nine years (during which I didn’t dance a single step) I was brought by a friend to take an open class at one of the big and famous studios in N.Y.C.. And I was “home”. I had forgotten what it was like to move. I had forgotten what it was like to feel the music, sense the excitement and explode across the studio. The sounds, the smells, the feelings were intoxicating. It was amazing. It was also heart breaking because I realized that my narrow-minded definition of success and my need to ACHIEVE kept me from doing the one thing that I truly loved for all those years. It was also heart breaking because I knew that now, well into my forties, I would never again dance the way I did when I was young. I thought I had experienced pain before, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotional roller coaster of despair that was brought upon by that single class. And so, after much soul searching, I decided to start taking that class; just twice a week. I struck up a friendship with the instructor and I was dancing again. After some time, this instructor asked me to sub the class for him. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me to teach, and this studio was literally world-famous. But when this world-famous studio got a look at my resume, they said “NO”. And there I was…once again a failure. I decided to take that class with the sub…the class that I believed should have been mine. And one year later that substitute teacher recommended me for my first teaching job at CAP21. And after that came The Manhattan Ballet School, and Hunter College, and New York Film Academy, and Broadway Dance Center, and my beloved Joffrey Ballet School (and all of the fantastic opportunities to guest teach across the country- and soon in Europe). And yet, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, was that little voice reminding me of that “world-famous” school that wouldn’t hire me because I was a FAILURE.

I started talking to colleagues about their careers; their definitions of success. And I learned something very interesting: almost everyone I spoke to felt the same way. In fact, a dancer with more than 10 Broadway shows to her credit confessed to me that she was miserable her entire career because she was terrified that the dance world would realize that she wasn’t any good. Another dancer with many prestigious credits, including having danced for Balanchine, Robbins and Feld told me that she felt like a failure because she couldn’t get into ABT. Yet a studio owner that I know, who has been running a lovely neighborhood dance school for more than 30 years feels fulfilled and content because, as she put it: “I have enriched the lives of children for my entire working life. And my former students bring THEIR children to be trained by me…and what could be a bigger compliment?”.

So I am re-adjusting how I look at success. A few weeks ago, a head hunter emailed me about a position at a very prestigious school. And whether I get this job or not- someone thought enough of my work, my reputation, my level of SUCCESS to submit me for this position. And as I look back on my career I am seeing my past through different eyes. I am seeing an adult beginner who had a busy dancing career and a gainfully employed teacher who’s students are appreciative and have gone on to careers of their own. But I think my biggest success was the most personal and the quietest: the day I set foot in that open class, in my mid-forties, 50 pounds over weight, completely out of shape and danced. That day I danced into my new life.

So to all of my students who performed tonight…to all of the artists that read this article: be wary of how you define success. We can not define success in the arts by dollars and cents. We all know of GREAT artists who were unable to carve out a living. George Seurat never sold a painting in his lifetime. We may think that we can define success by a Broadway show, or a major dance company…but I can point you toward many artists who have had those jobs that still feel like failures. Success in the arts is best defined (in my opinion) by the joy that you get from the doing of the work and the impact that you have on others. And with a full heart I am looking toward what I hope will be my next 30 years of teaching, because every moment in the studio is a gift and every class that I teach will touch my students and help guide them toward the success they so richly deserve.