Selecting a Teacher

This is an article that I adapted from an earlier blog post. It was published in Danzin’ Magazine.

As we approach a new year of dance training, many parents and students in our industry will be looking for new teachers. Similarly, many schools, studios and conservatories will be looking to hire new faculty members. And finding the right teacher can be a very difficult process for both students and studios. It has come to my attention recently,  that many parents, students and studio owners are favoring young teachers who can still dance “full out” over older, perhaps more experienced teachers. Dance can not really be taught by simply “showing”. If showing and demonstrating was the primary necessary skill and talent, then one could simply learn to dance by watching videos of dancers… and we all know that isn’t possible. Many newer and younger teachers (not all) tend to “show”. Clearly they explain while they show but they tend to rely on “this is how you do it” and then demonstrate the step or combination. Of course they will give some “how-to” information and offer some corrections, but in my experience with many newer teachers, they tend to rely on their technical prowess to make their point. I know that I did. Then the years crept on and one day, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many hours I put into the studio, my body betrayed me.

I believe that dancing is more about “what it feels like” than “what it looks like”. This idea has always informed my teaching, but as my body declined it became more and more apparent that I was going to need to become a more skillful explainer if I was going to have a career. Of course, when teaching beginners, a certain amount of demonstration is helpful; and perhaps even necessary. But one does not need to tendu like Baryshnikov to teach tendu.

I remember the legendary Luigi talking about what he “felt” in class. He continued to demonstrate, as best he could, as his body aged. Clearly in his advanced years he couldn’t dance like he did in his youth. No one can. But he could still, though his teaching, take an absolute beginner and guide a dancer into a career. He explained everything from the point of view of what it felt like to him. He explained these feelings in excruciating detail. He explained what he did and how he did it with brilliant clarity. It was a painstaking, time-consuming process. And it took a student who was very hungry and very patient to “get it”. But once the student “got it” they had a depth of knowledge and understanding of dance that was richer, more profound, more expressive and more interesting than the students of the other methods that I encountered. He so often said to me “I don’t teach chorus dancers, I make stars”. And to a certain degree he did. Every student that passed through his studio was brought up and nurtured, through his technique, to become profoundly unique artist with a solid technique that supported their artistic expression. There certainly are young, fit, still performing dancers who are excellent teachers. But to think that a studio owner or parent would prefer a young teacher, still in “performing shape” to a seasoned and experienced professional simply because they can demonstrate “full-out” is disappointingly short sighted.

Building a dance technique and cultivating an artist is not a quick process. It takes endless hours of maddening repetition under the guidance of a teacher who knows how to impart the information. I implore studio owners and parents to weigh their choices very carefully. Careers can be made by a teacher and careers can be destroyed by a teacher. Do not select a teacher based on what they can show, because these teachers will create dancers who can “do”. Rather, select a teacher based on what they can teach, because these teachers will create dancers who can soar.

Luigi teaching in the studio
Luigi, well past the age of 80, still teaching

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.

Breathing Life Into Dance, One Teacher’s Perspective – A Book Review

In her beautiful book, Breathing Life Into Dance, Robin Conrad Sturm does just that. I have been familiar with Ms. Sturm’s writing for some time now, having read many of her inspirational, charming, thought-provoking and always enlightening blog posts. But those posts could never have prepared me for what lies within the pages of this book. Part autobiography, part teaching manual, part survival guide and part blog, this book touches on every aspect of building a dancer and a life in ballet. Her passion and her love for this art-form, for a life spent studying, exploring and celebrating ballet infuses every page with that life.

This book chronicles every aspect of ballet education: technique, artistry, syllabi, pointe work, adult beginners, choreography, performances and auditioning. She talks about the transition that every dancer must make when a performing career comes to an end. She discusses teaching. She writes about the college decision many dancers face when high school ends. And she graces us with a number of her beautiful articles and musings on ballet and ballet education.

But what sets this book apart from the myriad of teaching manuals and ballet survival guides that I have read is its focus. This book is centered on the love and the joy and the LIFE found in the process of studying ballet. It should be read by every dancer, every teacher, everyone who loves this art form. I smiled from cover to cover.

Breathing Life Into  Dance is published by GraceNotes Press

With Ballet in My Soul: Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario – A memoir by Eva Maze, Moonstone Press LLC

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“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.” – Helen Keller

And with this quote, Eva Maze begins her fascinating memoir- With Ballet in My Soul, Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario.

There are many, many people who have dreamed of a career and a life on the ballet stage. And that dream becomes a reality for very few. Some choose to leave ballet all together while others choose to channel their passions into one of the non-performing roles in the ballet industry. In the case of Eva Maze, she turned her passion for ballet into a brilliant career as an impresario, forging a path where no woman had previously traveled, presenting the very best of Theater, Music, and of course, Dance to audiences around the world.

Born in Bucharest, Eva Maze dreamed of being a ballerina but had been forbidden to study ballet as a child (she had suffered a devastating illness at age 7 and her parents were terrified of her exerting herself). Her family moved to the U.S. when she was in her teens and she finally began studying ballet at the age of 20. Her husband’s career with Pan Am required that they periodically relocate and this had afforded her the opportunity to live all over the world; the first stop being India. While on a return visit to New York, Ms. Maze met with her old ballet teacher. It was during this visit that her teacher suggested that Ms. Maze organize a tour of India for a small group of ballet dancers. And so was born the fascinating career of Eva Maze.

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Through her clear, straight forward, un-fussy writing style and pages of gorgeous photos, Ms. Maze chronicles her life’s work and passion for the arts. She spins out the story of how her love for ballet, (and for all art, ranging from the classical to the avant garde) and a meeting with her old ballet teacher lead her unsuspectingly into a career and a life dedicated to bringing all forms of artistic expression to the great stages of the world.

This is an engrossing, whirlwind of a book detailing a whirlwind of a life and career. And in the end, Ms. Maze finally “hangs up her pointe shoes” and begins her retirement in the United States. We feel the poignancy in her knowing that she had lived her life well, bringing the beauty of Art to countless fans around the world, with Ballet in Her Soul.