Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?

Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?

Since I started writing and participating in social media dance discussions, I have aggressively and consistently avoided this topic. Recently, this topic reared it’s head once again in the guise of an innocent post that was worded as follows:

“ à la seconde extensions: hip up/open or hip squared?”

The original author then went on to explain how she had been trained and what she occasionally sees in other dancers. The overwhelming consensus in the responses to this query was that the hips should be squared and level for both Retiré and for the extension of the leg to the side. Some of the responses included the atomic need to lift the working hip when the extension to the side is significantly above 90°. In nearly every response, the reason given for “squared” or level hips was: “This is how I was taught.”

Well this was NOT how I was taught. 

For most of my performing career my ballet teacher was Madame Gabriela Darvash and Mme Darvash had some very different ideas about many of ballet’s technical points. And every one of her ideas had a REASON behind it. Here is what she taught on this particular point:
If a dancer stands in “Retiré” with “square” hips, and you draw a line from the center of the head to the center of the standing hip to the center of the standing foot, that line will form (for most  dancers) a slightly obtuse angle. 

If that same dancer “pulls up” in that standing hip as much as possible, then the line from the head to the standing hip to the standing foot will be a straight line like a flag pole, with the leg in Retiré out to the side like that flag. 

How will the dancer balance better: with the body forming an angle or with the body lined up in a straight line? (In a straight line!) And if the balance is better, the turns will be better and the technique will be stronger and the dancer will be freer to be more expressive. This always made sense to me, this always worked for me and this is what I pass on to my students. Mme Darvash went on to explain that the idea of level hips is a misinterpretation of the word “square”. She told us that when Mme Vaganova said “square” she meant square FRONT rather than twisted and she never intended the hips in Retiré to be LEVEL. I can not attest to the veracity of this last statement. I wasn’t there. I’ve never trained in Russia. Mme Vaganova died ten years before I was born. Now methods and ideas change (this is why the Vaganova Academy has no published text book) but according to my teacher, this is what Vaganova taught; at least during the time that she trained in Russia.

Students (especially beginners) need ONE WAY to train. When they are acquiring their technique they must have one way to work and they must trust their teacher. I trusted Mme Darvash. She had produced many great dancers who were principals in some of the world’s great companies as well as many brilliant dancers on Broadway. And at the beginning of my career I believed that EVERYTHING she taught was RIGHT (and, consequently, if another teacher taught something differently, they were in my mind obviously WRONG). 

As I continued through my performing career, my nine year absence from the dance industry after my retirement from the stage, and began my teaching career I held firmly to the the belief that everything I learned from my teacher was CORRECT. But as I continued to study and train, even though I was now a teacher rather than a performer, I was frequently coming up against new ideas. For the most part I pushed back, KNOWING that what I was taught was right. But over time I came to realize that some of Mme Darvash’s ideas and teachings were being replaced in my mind, in my work and in my teaching by new ideas. Ideas that had a REASON behind them and ideas that were working in my body. But this particular concept of Retiré and Développé à la Seconde has never changed for me. I have never been able to dance better with square hips. I have never been presented with any reason why square or level hips work better. And “That is how I was taught” will never be a good enough reason for me.

I do not ask that my readers agree with my ideas on Retiré and Développé à la Seconde. I know that most of you never will. I am not out to change anybody’s mind and I am most definitely not looking for an argument. I only ask that you think about WHY you teach what you teach. The most exciting part of the work for me is the exploration. “That’s how I was taught” is not a good enough reason for me. The deep exploration of “why” has made me the teacher that I am and has given me a thrilling and continuous source of wonder. And I hope, that from my small and insignificant corner of the ballet world, I can share that source wonder with you.

Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?

Passé, Retiré, Développé à la Seconde – Level Hips?

Since I started writing and participating in social media dance discussions, I have aggressively and consistently avoided this topic. Recently, this topic reared it’s head once again in the guise of an innocent post that was worded as follows:

“ à la seconde extensions: hip up/open or hip squared?”

The original author then went on to explain how she had been trained and what she occasionally sees in other dancers. The overwhelming consensus in the responses to this query was that the hips should be squared and level for both Retiré and for the extension of the leg to the side. Some of the responses included the atomic need to lift the working hip when the extension to the side is significantly above 90°. In nearly every response, the reason given for “squared” or level hips was: “This is how I was taught.”

Well this was NOT how I was taught. 

For most of my performing career my ballet teacher was Madame Gabriela Darvash and Mme Darvash had some very different ideas about many of ballet’s technical points. And every one of her ideas had a REASON behind it. Here is what she taught on this particular point:
If a dancer stands in “Retiré” with “square” hips, and you draw a line from the center of the head to the center of the standing hip to the center of the standing foot, that line will form (for most  dancers) a slightly obtuse angle.

If that same dancer “pulls up” in that standing hip as much as possible, then the line from the head to the standing hip to the standing foot will be a straight line like a flag pole, with the leg in Retiré out to the side like that flag. 

How will the dancer balance better: with the body forming an angle or with the body lined up in a straight line? (In a straight line!) And if the balance is better, the turns will be better and the technique will be stronger and the dancer will be freer to be more expressive. This always made sense to me, this always worked for me and this is what I pass on to my students. Mme Darvash went on to explain that the idea of level hips is a misinterpretation of the word “square”. She told us that when Mme Vaganova said “square” she meant square FRONT rather than twisted and she never intended the hips in Retiré to be LEVEL. I can not attest to the veracity of this last statement. I wasn’t there. I’ve never trained in Russia. Mme Vaganova died ten years before I was born. Now methods and ideas change (this is why the Vaganova Academy has no published text book) but according to my teacher, this is what Vaganova taught; at least during the time that she trained in Russia.

Students (especially beginners) need ONE WAY to train. When they are acquiring their technique they must have one way to work and they must trust their teacher. I trusted Mme Darvash. She had produced many great dancers who were principals in some of the world’s great companies as well as many brilliant dancers on Broadway. And at the beginning of my career I believed that EVERYTHING she taught was RIGHT (and, consequently, if another teacher taught something differently, they were in my mind obviously WRONG). 

As I continued through my performing career, my nine year absence from the dance industry after my retirement from the stage, and began my teaching career I held firmly to the the belief that everything I learned from my teacher was CORRECT. But as I continued to study and train, even though I was now a teacher rather than a performer, I was frequently coming up against new ideas. For the most part I pushed back, KNOWING that what I was taught was right. But over time I came to realize that some of Mme Darvash’s ideas and teachings were being replaced in my mind, in my work and in my teaching by new ideas. Ideas that had a REASON behind them and ideas that were working in my body. But this particular concept of Retiré and Développé à la Seconde has never changed for me. I have never been able to dance better with square hips. I have never been presented with any reason why square or level hips work better. And “That is how I was taught” will never be a good enough reason for me.

I do not ask that my readers agree with my ideas on Retiré and Développé à la Seconde. I know that most of you never will. I am not out to change anybody’s mind and I am most definitely not looking for an argument. I only ask that you think about WHY you teach what you teach. The most exciting part of the work for me is the exploration. “That’s how I was taught” is not a good enough reason for me. The deep exploration of “why” has made me the teacher that I am and has given me a thrilling and continuous source of wonder. And I hope, that from my small and insignificant corner of the ballet world, I can share that source wonder with you.

The College Degree in Dance, Does it Make for a Better Teacher?

The discussion of this question has been raging on for generations and I became aware of this divide when I first discovered that there was an online community of dance educators. Most opinions seem to sit firmly in one camp or the other and it seems that the culture surrounding the internet in general has created a generation of teachers who have an overwhelming need to be both RIGHT and THE BEST.

The college educated dance instructor will have been schooled in Dance History, Music, Pedagogy, Anatomy, Kinesiology, Dance Notation and many other relevant subjects that the non-college educated dance instructor will, in all likelihood, never have encountered.  College educated teachers tend to have better skills in constructing syllabi, creating lesson plans and seeing the overall arc of a dance education.

The studio/conservatory trained dancer who embarked on a stage career and then settled into teaching has had a very different educational exposure. Many have been taught by varied notable instructors who teach “experientially”; mining their memories for information on how they were taught, what they did to solve their own problems and how they arrived at a professional level. They will bring to their students the experience of dancing professionally on the stage, being part of a company, navigating the difficulties of the professional dance world, and actually being a part of the fabric of the industry for which we are preparing our students.

Occasionally and rarely we will encounter teachers who bring both experiences, typically returning to college to pursue a degree after a successful stage career (or sometimes, perhaps, the other way around).

There has been a feeling of disdain and contempt between the two groups since I first entered the dance community. When I was performing professionally in the late 1980’s and 1990’s it was generally assumed by working dancers that the dance education one received in a college was inferior to the education available at a professional school or conservatory. However, judging by the dancers coming out of some of those dance programs, this was simply not true. It also seemed to me, when talking with and interacting with these college educated dancers, they had been taught that without a college education, a teacher would be categorically inferior. I have, in fact, been told that I am an irresponsible teacher because I am not teaching ballet from a codified syllabus such as RAD, Cecchetti or Vaganova.

Well our opinions are formed by our own experiences. I have quoted this song lyric before; and trite though it might be:

“It all began the day I found that from my window I could only see a piece of sky.”(Alan and Marilyn Bergman)

I recently watched an interview with the great ballerina Wendy Whelan in which she recalled her time at the School of American Ballet. She talked about how each teacher brought something different to the classroom; from one teacher she got strength, from another she learned musicality, from another she learned style and from yet another she learned repertory. At that time, the great and varied SAB teachers were bringing their individual experiences to the studio. She said that she understood that all of this teaching was going to feed the one thing and she understood how to put it all together.

I will never know (without an enormous amount of study) what a university trained dance educator knows. Never. And that knowledge is extremely valuable. But on the other hand, a university degree can not impart the knowledge and experience that I acquired on the stage and under the tutelage of great professional (dare I say Master) teachers like Luigi, David Howard and Gabriella Darvash. In addition, I have had the experience that Ms. Whelan had of having to “put it all together”; and I believe that trains the brain and body in yet another way, bringing yet another experience.

It is very rare to find a dancer who learned it all from one teacher. And regardless of how a teacher ACQUIRED their knowledge, what is even more important is how a teacher IMPARTS their knowledge. There is something magical that happens when the right teacher connects with the right student. We have all experienced it; and it can’t be predicted and it can’t be taught. Degrees and resumes are snapshots of a teacher; a static image of the complex and ever changing nature of a career. Nearly every job for which I have ever been hired required that I teach a sample class. There were many, many, many jobs for which I have applied that I did not get. Many. In fact, the list of “No’s” is far longer than my resume. But when the fit was right, when I was the RIGHT teacher, the job was mine. And it wasn’t because of my time on the stage or the degree that I had (or didn’t have) but because of how I IMPARTED the information and how that information was RECEIVED.

Perhaps if we could respect our colleagues for their individual journeys, and hire them based on their individual abilities rather than a piece of paper, our students would get a richer and more varied experience in the classroom. And just maybe, as a result, we could let go of the animosity and disdain that divides our industry and work together to build dancers for the next generation.

Responding to a Colleague on the “Crushing Of Dreams”

There was a post making the rounds on social media that began something like this:

“Teachers and studio owners need to stop misleading ‘mediocre’ students (and there’s nothing wrong with being ‘mediocre’ ) into believing they can become a ballerina…”. 

There were also, in this post, some triggering phrases such as:  

“One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.“.

And as one might expect at first glance, the dance teacher community was infuriated by this post. Now I, myself, have been discouraged by adults in positions of authority many times in my young life. There was the music teacher who said “If you even consider auditioning for Julliard I will break your clarinet in half; you are an average talent with no chance for a career.” There was the high school college advisor who said “Why are you wasting my time with an application to this program? You will NEVER be accepted”. There was the family member who said “Well maybe if you had a better singing voice we could support a career in musical theater”. And as the adult-beginner dance student, I had nearly the entire world shouting “It’s too late for you”. 

But I grew up in a different time and in a different world; a world where dreams always took a back seat to practicality.

I honestly believe that these adults in my young world were not trying to crush my dreams, or squash my spirit, or maliciously hurt me. I believe that they felt that they were acting in my best interest, being the responsible adult who was protecting me from inevitable disappointment. I believe that the thought process was: “well, if you don’t try then you won’t be rejected, hence there will be no disappointment”. Those of you who have read my articles or know me personally know that that is NOT how things played out. As I have said so often: “The pain of disappointment is NOTHING compared to the pain of wondering what might have been”.

But back to this social media post and the dance community’s response. After reading this post I was a bit shocked. So I re-read it, and I re-read it again. And I believe that the original author’s intent was lost in what was a very poorly crafted social media post. I believe that the post was meant to serve two purposes. Firstly, I believe that she was cautioning teachers not to seduce students and parents into taking more and more classes by promising them successful careers. This is clearly not the same thing as saying to a hopeful student “Don’t bother, you are a mediocre talent”. Secondly, she was alerting parents to this practice of teachers promising success in order to sell classes and thereby, promote a book she wrote as a guide to navigating the dance industry. Now, I don’t know any studio owners who literally promise stardom to sell classes, but I would suspect that it is possible that this practice exists somewhere. Unfortunately, I believe that the author chose her words poorly and did not make her point; but I at first, like many others disagreed with her, and linked an article I had previously written on the crushing of dreams. But I was somewhat dumbfounded by some of the other responses. 

I believe that social media can be a fantastic learning tool. I have truly had my eyes opened both by posts that I have read and even more by discussions that I have had when commenters did NOT agree with me. And some of the comments on this post could have lead to a discussion which might have illuminated the original author’s intention (which she did ultimately try to, somewhat unsuccessfully clarify). But many of the posts were made in anger (and I do understand why) and much of what was written could only be construed as bullying. This, I found shocking. This will NEVER be constructive. If we as an industry are going to move forward, both in helping educate our students as well as our colleagues, name calling will not get the job done. I read words like toxic, disgusting, shameful, appalling, garbage, ignorant and disturbing. I read phrases such as “I pity your students” and “you have no business being in the field of dance”. And I COMPLETELY understand where this is coming from. And I completely understand why those comments were made. But bullying a colleague with whom you disagree is not going to get to the true meaning of her post. And if indeed her post was meant to be as negative as it was perceived, hurling insults at her will never get her to see another viewpoint. And aren’t we, as an industry, taking a stance AGAINST bullying; even if we vehemently disagree?

I will ALWAYS encourage my students to follow their dreams because no one can ever know what the future will hold. And I hope that the true meaning of the aforementioned post was lost in some poorly chosen words and phrases. But even if the author did indeed intend to be as negative as she was perceived, I hope that we, as her colleagues can SHOW her another point of view and maybe we can all come out of this a little better off. 

And We Start to Move Back Into the Studio


I have, in four previous blog posts, chronicled my experiences with teaching dance during the COVID-19 Pandemic. I discussed how virtual teaching would change the way our students learn, I discussed my struggles with technology as I transitioned to a virtual platform, I discussed classes that were, in my opinion, epic failures as the technology failed to perform (and the subsequent love and support I received from my students) and I discussed the despair that I felt as, month after month, I walked into an empty studio.

Now, as things are starting to re-open in New York City, I thought I would discuss my experiences as I transition back to teaching in the studio. 

I am primarily known as a faculty member of the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. And although much of my work is for Joffrey, in order to carve out a living as a freelance teacher in New York, I also teach regularly at four other schools. Each of these schools has a different set of circumstances and a different set of problems with respect to reopening. As I chronicle the last several weeks for you, I will be omitting which situation is occurring at which school, as to protect the privacy of those involved.

At the beginning of this pandemic, all but one of my regular weekly classes transferred to a virtual platform; so for all intents and purposes my schedule, career and income remained in tact. As the summer approached, and semesters and school years came to an end, I found myself with very little work over the summer, as enrollment plummeted in the summer programs by which I am usually employed. But as September approached, there were whispers of programs opening, studios opening and work returning. 

First came the faculty meetings on Zoom. Multiple faculty meetings, each running approximately two hours; for FIVE SCHOOLS. Faculty meetings about continuing on Zoom, faculty meetings about when we could open, faculty meetings detailing plans for keeping students safe, meetings about new attendance apps, new grading apps, new health tracking apps, new communication apps, new registration apps, faculty meetings about hybrid models, distance learning and recorded learning, and meetings about enrollment statistics and consequently meetings about decreased class numbers and salary cuts. Between the five schools it felt as if the meetings were endless. Each of the schools is also requiring COVID testing, and each is requiring that test to be performed a specific number of days prior to the first class. I have, so far, taken four COVID tests, as the re-opening dates keep changing. 

One of my five schools has decided to cancel all dance classes until 2021, so I have not had any further meetings or communication with them since this announcement was made. And, consequently, I have lost these classes and the income for the rest of this year. Another of the schools is hoping to restart dance classes sometime in November, so the meetings and communication  for this school have been temporarily paused until final decisions are made.

The first school to reopen is operating on a hybrid model. The hybrid model that is being used requires teaching classes that sometimes occur in the studio, and sometimes on Zoom. The Zoom classes and the live classes alternate each week but the day and time of the Zoom classes are different than the day and time of the live in studio classes (requiring double the time commitment for half the work). This school has a new registration and attendance program/app that was very challenging for me to learn and is still not working correctly for any of the faculty members. The “in studio“ classes have a zoom broadcast running simultaneously, and although there was a computer and big screen TV set up for my use, the picture was constantly failing as I struggled to teach the students in the room along with those fuzzy images of students at home on the faltering, flickering screen.

The second school to reopen also has a new attendance and grading app, but once I learned the program (no small feat for me) it seems to be working fine. This school’s hybrid model has me teaching every class in the studio with a simultaneous zoom feed; half the students in the studio with me, half at home. Fifteen hours before my first class a student at the school tested positive for COVID-19 and the classes went immediately to Zoom until the state could determine the extent of the exposure and decide on a safe re-opening date. 

The third school to reopen, on a similar hybrid model, had to completely reorganize their schedule to allow for social distancing in the hallways. They sent me a schedule. They sent me a revised schedule. They sent me a third schedule. They sent me a fourth schedule (all in the space of nine days). And each of these revised schedules created problems and conflicts with other schools, especially with the proposed schedules of the two schools that are not yet open. When I finally got to teach my first class in the studio, the computer and big screen TV that was set up for my use had terrible issues with the sound, that took more than half of the class time for the technical assistant to resolve. 

And so I have been stressed, and frustrated, and angry, and nervous as I transition back to teaching in the studio. 

But at each and every one of these schools the administration, program directors and tech support staff have created, completely from scratch, a brand new way to run a school. They have remained supportive, helpful and confident. These people have done the impossible. Despite the problems (and there were so many that I can’t even mention them all) they saw to it that the students had training, that the faculty had jobs and that everyone was kept safe and healthy. And as everything seemed to be crumbling around me and as my stress and anxiety mounted, these people worked literally around the clock to be sure that I and my students received as much support as possible. And as I walked through the door of each of these schools I was greeted by a smiling and unflappable administration and staff that has done everything humanly possible, and MORE, to be sure that the magic that happens in these studios lives on. So I applaud the administration and staff of New York Film Academy, New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts and The Joffrey Ballet School. I hope I can learn by YOUR example: to single-mindedly, and with limitless determination and resourcefulness, solve an unsolvable problem with grace, style and most importantly, with kindness and with love. 

Thank you.

On Teaching Beginners

We are now living in a world where it is apparently shameful to be a beginner. Aspiring dancers are becoming more and more reluctant to take beginner classes; struggling through classes that are far beyond their ability and thereby accomplishing essentially nothing. I have already addressed this topic twice and it is very much a sign of our times. The work, discipline and dedication that is required to really study a complex art form such as dance, is something that is disappearing in our instant-gratification / Instafamous world. But it has recently come to my attention that more and more prominent TEACHERS are reluctant to TEACH beginner classes and this is something that I am finding both surprising and puzzling.

My regular readers know that I started my dance training by studying jazz with Luigi. The legendary Luigi was, in his time, one of the most famous and renowned dance teachers in the WORLD. And he taught beginners. I studied ballet for most of my performing career with Gabriella Darvash. Madame Darvash, who produced principal dancers for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater taught eleven advanced-beginner classes every week. In fact, the list of brilliant master teachers in New York in the 1980’s and 1990’s when I was training, who regularly taught beginner and advanced-beginner classes, is staggering.

Luigi had a faculty of assistant teachers at his school; it would be impossible for him to teach every class himself. But, at least for the years that I studied with him, the classes that he almost always taught himself were the “style” class and the “technique class”. These classes were not the “advanced” classes. These classes were not filled with the working professionals (usually). These were the classes where he passed on the rich details of his brilliant technique to both beginner dancers and to dancers who were unfamiliar with his work. He felt a RESPONSIBILITY to ensure that the work was taught from the beginning, BY HIM, to ensure that the students were properly trained and were given a strong foundation. This responsibility to the beginner dancer was something that I recognized in many of the great teachers that I encountered during my training.

When I was almost 35 years old I left the dance industry for nine years. When I returned  to class nearly a decade older and 60 pounds heavier I noticed many changes. One of the most obvious changes that I noticed at the big studios in New York City, was that most teachers were no longer teaching multiple levels. Now, the more famous, notable teachers were teaching only the advanced and professional classes. With only a few exceptions, teachers teaching professional and aspiring professional dancers were rarely seen also teaching beginners. One of those exceptions was my beloved Luigi.

When I returned to Luigi’s Jazz Centre after that nine year absence, I found Luigi still teaching those lower level classes himself; painstakingly explaining the endless nuances in his work. What did change at his school, were the students. Fewer and fewer young dancers were willing to work in the way that he taught. It seemed that only a very few, very focused and diligent students were able and willing to undergo the the painstakingly slow, endlessly repetitive teaching method that had a 40-plus year history of yielding superior results; building some of the most stunning dancers the stage had ever seen. And so, this great master teacher, never once shirking his responsibility to the beginner dancer, continued to teach his work to the beginners who came to be taught.

I learned many things from Luigi and Madame Darvash. Many, many things. But one of the greatest lessons I learned from these two brilliant master teachers is to hold fast to my responsibility to the beginners. To this day, in addition to teaching advanced dancers in the preprofessional trainee program at The Joffrey Ballet School and in addition to the guest teaching engagements that I have at conservatories and ballet companies, I am regularly teaching beginners. I teach children at neighborhood studios. I teach absolute beginner dancers in colleges and musical theater programs. And I teach adult beginners in Joffrey’s open class program. Teaching beginners teaches me patience. Teaching beginners makes me more analytical. Teaching beginners presents me with endless challenges. And maybe, someday, teaching beginners will afford me the opportunity to do for some beginner what Luigi did for me: change the course of my life by opening a door and showing me a world that I never knew existed. 

Facing Despair as We Navigate the Pandemic

For my entire dancing life I have always maintained the daily practice of taking class. Even as I get ever closer to 60 years old, the need for daily class (whenever possible) has stayed with me. I have already written extensively on why I am still studying (https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2018/01/04/why-i-still-take-class-2/) and that is not the purpose of this article. But suffice it to say that the ritual of walking into the studio, placing my left hand on the barre and doing the work, is at the very core of who I am. I have even made a practice of getting to the studio early (when I could have access to an empty room) and giving myself class. I have always found something calming and comforting in being in that empty studio early in the morning; the quiet, the peacefulness, the opportunity to work carefully and methodically and at my own pace. Now we are faced with a global pandemic and we are living in a new world. Dance studios have been closed down and we have been asked to shelter at home. It has been nearly four months since the last time I could take a ballet class, and at least in New York City, there is no end in sight to this shut down. 

Artists being who we are, and the diligent, methodical discipline of dancers being what it is, we simply adapted our lives and our work to the internet. My classes transferred to Zoom, I gave myself my daily class in an empty studio, and I told myself that everything was alright. And for a while, everything WAS alright. I taught my classes on Zoom, and the students seemed to be thriving. I arrived early to the empty studio from which I was broadcasting my classes, and I gave myself class. I tried, best as I could, to keep everything as normal as possible. But the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months and this existence turned into anything but normal. 

Students, especially the young children, were loosing interest in classes on Zoom. I and my colleagues were constantly brainstorming for new ideas to keep them engaged, but the students came to realize, just as we had, that it just will never replace teaching in the studio. The professionals who take my open classes remained engaged, still working to the best of their abilities, as did many of the adult amateurs (in the best sense of the word) who are my students. They were, like me, trying to hold on to a sense of normalcy that was rapidly slipping away.

Now, four months later, as I enter that empty studio in the early morning, the quiet peacefulness that I once felt has been replaced with despair. That windowless room with the harsh fluorescent lighting that once welcomed me to work quietly and slowly, by myself, is now sardonically glaring at me; daring me to find the comfort that I once found there. The ritual of class, the music, the barre and the mirror, now represented loss and desperation. And the doing of the work that I once loved, that I sacrificed everything to be able to do, was steadily becoming an insurmountable challenge.

But I have never been one to shy away from a challenge.

So every day I will return to that empty studio. Every day I will face the flickering computer screen and try to reach my students in their little boxes on Zoom. Every day I will strive to continue to find the love and passion that I had for my work. There is a war being fought. Patients are fighting this pandemic. Doctors are fighting this pandemic. Politicians are fighting this pandemic. And I am fighting this pandemic; fighting to hold onto the joy in my work. Just as I strove for years to perfect a line, to hone a technique, to shade a nuance and make something beautiful, I will strive to fight this virus and keep it from robbing me of the one thing that has always brought meaning to my life: the joy in my work. So as doctors and nurses are fighting to keep hearts beating, I am fighting to keep hearts loving; loving this work that we do. But I’m just not exactly sure how.

When Kids Teach Kids

While scrolling through social media feeds lately, I have noticed yet another new trend: young teens being promoted by conventions and competitions as “Guest Teachers” teaching “Master Classes”. Now, I don’t want to turn this discussion into a discourse on the terms “Master Class” and “Master Teacher“ as I have already addressed this topic. Suffice it to say that the term “Master Class” is now synonymous with “Special Class”. I also do not want to drone on discussing pedagogy and what makes a great teacher as I have already exhausted this topic as well.

Recently, Dance Magazine published an article titled: “Being a Great Dancer Doesn’t Automatically Mean You’re a Gifted Teacher” (https://www.dancemagazine.com/teaching-dance-2646191253.html?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1). I assumed that the professionals in our field understood this. Perhaps they do not. Perhaps they do, but they see these classes as a way to earn more money; and after all they are running a business. My concern here is the message they are sending to our young dancers.

There have always been, in the dance industry, uber-talented kids who from a very young age, dance like adults. In the Musical Theater, Marilyn D’Honau (who I have had the honor of working with and who I consider a dear friend) and Cynthia Onrubia were both dancing on Broadway, in adult roles, at the age of 14. Joyce Cuoco and Darci Kistler both had professional ballet careers and great fame in their teens. These dancers were all clearly very talented and worked very hard; but after more than 30 years in this industry one thing that I have realized is that, for the most part, these extraordinary young talents don’t really know how they do what they do. And it is the knowledge of HOW the work is done; an in depth and rich understanding of exactly how the skills and artistry are acquired, that is the first prerequisite for great teaching.

Perhaps these youngsters can choreograph fun combinations and perhaps our young dancers would enjoy learning and performing these combinations. But this is NOT teaching; at least not in the way that I was taught. The assumption is that these classes are offering something MORE, something SPECIAL, something that they CAN’T GET at their home studio. And by putting these children on display, in front of our young students, and calling them “Teacher”, we are once again reinforcing the “anyone can do it / insta-famous” culture that is steadily breaking down our industry. We are teaching our young dancers that there is no need to study for years, there is no need to dedicate their life to their art, there is no need to to have the richness of experience to be a great teacher because anyone, even a kid like them, can do it. And what is even sadder, is that they are being robbed of the opportunity to experience truly masterful teaching.

I have had some colleagues comment (enviously) that these classes should be given to “an adult who needs the work”. Well I am an adult, and I certainly could use the work (this is a brutal business) but any organization that will hand a master class over to a 14 year old is not going to be interested in the academic approach and intimate connection to the great teaching of the past that I bring to the table. But certainly there are teachers who can bring the excitement and youthfulness of current choreography with the knowledge and experience of skillful teaching. And perhaps our students will learn a fun and exciting combination; but they will also be learning MORE. And maybe this more experienced, more knowledgeable teacher will stand before a group of convention/competition kids and pull back the curtain and give them a glimpse of the professional world and the way a professional works and trains. Isn’t this our ultimate goal; to prepare our students for a career? So often I have heard “Well most of them aren’t going to be professionals anyway.” And sadly, that is true; even for those who want a professional career with all of their heart. But shouldn’t they at least be given a fighting chance?

Ballet Training for the Musical Theater Student

Ballet training is part of all preprofessional college and conservatory musical theater programs. I am currently teaching in three such programs (one conservatory program, one associate’s degree program, and one bachelor’s degree program). I have come to realize, during the years that I have spent teaching in these programs, that there seems to be unrealistic levels of expectation that students have regarding their ballet training. There also seems to be different opinions (both of students and faculty) as to what this training should look like. I thought I would use this article to explore ballet training for the musical theater student.

Because I began ballet training as a young adult, and because many students enter these programs as beginner dancers, I feel that I am uniquely positioned to address training, goals, and expectations for these students. Most musical theater auditions do not have a dance component; applicants audition as singers and actors and are then, once accepted into a program, “leveled” into an appropriate dance class. Since some students come into these programs with absolutely no dance training, these students  are starting their ballet training at the very beginning. I am finding that more and more of these students have unrealistic expectations as to what can be achieved during their years of ballet study within these programs, and more and more of these students have misinformation as to how this training should be done.

Musical theater curricula are complicated and extensive. The goal of such a program is to train the students in acting, singing, and dancing. Each of these three disciplines could be a field of study on its own, but now the time must be shared between the three. In the division of hours, dance is usually given the least amount of time. To train in ballet; to really TRAIN effectively in ballet one must train daily. In a musical theater program, this is impossible (I have taught at the Phoenix Performing Arts College in Dublin, Ireland where the students have ballet classes daily, but this is very rare). Most programs will provide one to two ballet classes per week. So let’s do a little bit of math. These students are getting two ballet classes per week, and these classes are on the average 85 minutes long. The typical college/conservatory semester is 13 weeks. By the end of the first year they have completed 74 hours of ballet training; by the end of the second year they have completed 148 hours of ballet training. To someone who is not familiar with how dance training works, this can seem like a lot of training. But let’s compare it to what a serious dance student might do. When I was studying to be a dancer, I typically trained in ballet three hours per day, six days per week. As a serious dance student, I completed 148 hours of training in two months. TWO MONTHS. What a musical theater student does in two years, I as a dance student did in two months.

Ballet pedagogy goes back over 400 years. There are many different schools of thought and many different methods of ballet training. But these systems all have certain things in common that ALL WELL-TRAINED AND KNOWLEDGEABLE TEACHERS agree upon: Ballet training must start at the beginning, there are absolutely no shortcuts, the technique is built by endless repetition, and the progress must be slow, carefully laying a technical foundation which will ultimately support the high level skills. Building a stage-worthy, professional dance technique will take between 5 and 10 years of DAILY training. This is a fact and, again, there are no shortcuts.

I have been asked by these musicals theater students, on more than one occasion: “When I finish this program, will I be ready to go to a dance audition on Broadway?“. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is “No”. Unless the student is coming into the program with extensive dance training, a musical theater training program will not be able to prepare a dancer for a professional dance audition, given the amount of training provided. This does not mean, however, that the dance training that these students is receiving is not valuable and important. We are teaching the students the necessary foundations. We are teaching the students how to learn how to dance. We are building the habits that all dancers need to have in order to succeed. We are setting them on the path to a lifetime of dance training that should continue throughout their careers.

I have also, in recent years, received many complaints that the training is progressing too slowly. Students seem to feel that if they are not progressing and are not doing as well as they would like to be doing, it means that they are not being challenged. This concept of “being challenged“ in order to push a student to work, seems to be popping up a lot recently. Perhaps in other fields, perhaps in other disciplines “challenging“ a student will help them progress. Ballet, unfortunately, doesn’t work this way. They WANT to do double pirouettes. They WANT to do big jumps across the floor. If we push our students to do a double pirouette before they have the required strength and technique, what they will learn to do is “spin around on one foot”. This is not a pirouette. This will not get them a job. If we push our students to do big jumps across the floor before they can successfully and correctly land a sauté in first position, they will get injured. I remember being a beginner dancer. I remember dropping into advanced open classes to “push myself“; to “challenge myself“. I also remember not improving. NOT IMPROVING. I also remember the resulting frustration. It wasn’t until I took daily “absolute beginner” classes with the brilliant Diane Bryan (AKA Debbie Cruz) and built a solid technique through relentless, grueling, repetitive work, that I became ready to correctly approach even a single pirouette. Was I able to do stage-worthy double pirouette after two months of training? Of course not. This is why the beginning musical theater student cannot (and should not) be able to do a stage-worthy double pirouette after two years of musical theater conservatory training; nor, for the proper development of their technique, should they be trying.

One of the best aspects of teaching in these programs is that, for the most part, there is no mandatory class by class syllabus; teachers are given the freedom to construct their own classes. One of the worst aspects of teaching in these programs is that, for the most part, there is no mandatory class by class syllabus; teachers are given the freedom to construct their own classes. There are teachers who do not agree with the conventional wisdom. There are teachers who are teaching ballet in these programs who are “pushing” their students; “challenging” their students. They feel that since we aren’t given sufficient time to make dancers out of them, why not expose them to as much as we can? Why not “challenge” them? Why not give them what they want? I don’t want to diverge toward a defense of my teaching practices. Suffice it to say that I know from personal experience that it doesn’t work and in the end, they learn nothing. And what sometimes happens is that other teachers expose MY students to this sort of teaching. They are “pushed” and “challenged” and they LIKE it. And they WANT it.

Sadly, these students don’t know what they don’t know. They simply don’t have the education and knowledge required to make these sorts of decisions about their own training. They are beginners in a very complex discipline and there is no shame in being a beginner; all great dancers were once beginners. But I am NOT interested in giving students what they like. I am NOT in interested in giving students what they want. I am interested in giving students what they need. I spend hours crafting lesson plans that will serve the needs of my students. Anyone who has ever been in a classroom with me knows what my career means to me. At this point in my life, my only concern is for my students’ progress.

We are training our musical theater students for a profession on the stage. Well any profession requires professional training. And I only know one way to train a professional dancer: slowly and methodically with maddening repetition. Some of my students may feel that I am holding them back; that I am not challenging them and they are, therefore, not progressing. All I can say to them is that if they do not feel challenged it is because they are not working hard enough and they aren’t demanding enough of themselves. I have been in this industry for over thirty years and I recently made a discovery about my tendu to the side. SIMPLE TENDU TO THE SIDE. Yes, I am still trying to get it just right.

When the student finds the joy in the process, a dancer is born.

We Continue to Zoom…and Sometimes We Fail

We have now been quarantined for two months. Our lives and our careers have taken on a new form and have evolved into something different; something we never could have predicted. For the most part, my classes transferred to a virtual platform. I was resistant at first. I was challenged at first. I was miserable at first. I struggled with the technology, class content and my teaching methods. But I adjusted relatively quickly; I figured out Zoom, made syllabus adjustments and found a teaching style that seemed to broadcast well enough. I was calmer, and I was working. Then the affirmations started rolling in. I received numerous messages and emails from students that what I was doing was working. Everyone seemed to be loving the classes (as much as can be expected under these circumstances). I was feeling pretty fantastic about how I made this transition to virtual classrooms.

Everything was great; until it wasn’t.

I never want my blog or my social media feed to be an endless fount of everything that is perfect in my life. Quite frankly, my life and my career are far from perfect. And nobody is really interested in reading a self glorifying stream of consciousness that is calculated to have the rest of the dance industry envy my superior dance existence. What I’m trying to do is to simply share my experiences and share what I take away from them.

This past week I had an epic fail.

 

It was suggested to me that I “Zoom” from my iPad rather than my laptop. Since I’ve been teaching from an empty studio to which I have safe access, it would be MUCH easier to carry an iPad. So on Tuesday, I popped my iPad into my bag and I went to the studio to teach. It was an open class for Joffrey, a class that students had paid for. And the Zoom stream was terrible. I don’t know if the issue was the WiFi, the iPad or the gods conspiring against me, but I was getting constant interruptions, both voice and text, telling me that there were technical problems: “I can’t hear”, “ “The picture keeps freezing”, “The sound is out of sync”. When I teach in the classroom, regardless of what goes wrong, I am usually pretty adept at controlling the situation. This, apparently, is not the case when I teach on Zoom. With each interruption, with each complaint, I became more and more rattled. I became increasingly concerned that I was disappointing the students and that they were becoming more and more dissatisfied with the class. And as the problems mounted, my confidence crumbled. I started forgetting my own choreography; a new combination that I had been looking forward to sharing. Then THOSE thoughts started creeping into my consciousness. I started wondering why on earth these dancers would want to pay for a disastrous class with me when they could find a a better class, from a much more prominent teacher, and probably get it for free, somewhere else on the internet. (I don’t want to turn this article into a discussion on whether we should be giving our content away for free during this pandemic; but these are the thoughts that crept into my head as I was trying to maintain my composure in front of the camera.)

I felt like my career was dissolving in front of me; in 90 minutes.

 

I finished the class as best I could, apologizing every step of the way. I shut down the iPad and I went home.

 

The next day I got a few messages from students telling me that despite the technical mess, they enjoyed the class. Several of my regular students expressed that they needed  the connection with their teacher and that need outweighed the technical problems or the content of any one particular class.  Maintaining a connection was crucial to them during this time of crisis. And my heart melted. And then I read some very wise words from a dancer who has become a treasured regular in my open classes over the last several months:

 

“Your problems and your mistakes don’t define you.“

 

This one sentence from Martin Vincent Bonventre, these eight simple words, brought me back to my senses. And I am so grateful to him; for his dancing, his support, and his wisdom when I most needed it.

 

My next class on Zoom was smooth as silk. The technology ran perfectly and my confidence was renewed. I’m still working as hard as I can to reach into the camera; to send my teaching out through this technical stream and touch my students. But I’m definitely still learning. And as we, in New York City, have no clear end in sight to classes on Zoom, I will certainly face more technical problems. Hopefully I will handle them more skillfully because we all aim to learn from our mistakes. But if I let the technology rattle me again (because I am not perfect), I hope I will be able to remember that  “Maintaining a connection is crucial during this time of crisis” and that “My problems and my mistakes don’t define me”.

“If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”, Oscar Hammerstein II