Teacher’s Wisdom

Robert “Bobby” Barnett is one of the few living performers from Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballets Russes. He began his ballet study with Bronislava Nijinska, danced with the New York City Ballet from its founding in 1948 to 1958, then directed the Atlanta Ballet for 32 years. He is perhaps best remembered as the lead Candy Cane in Balanchine’s Nutcracker, but Balanchine also set several original roles on Barnett, including the lead in the men’s movement of Stars and Stripes and the third movement lead of Symphony in C. At 82, Barnett maintains an international schedule of teaching and staging Balanchine ballets. Sandra Neels, associate professor of dance at Winthrop University, talked with him while he was teaching and coaching at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.

How did your mentors inform your technique?

Nijinska, my main influence, would teach the same barre every day but vary the center. Her pirouette combinations constantly changed, and she would teach  three or four petit allegro exercises that would change direction; then she would put them all together in a variation. Her grand allegro was always in a circle, and she would finish with beats and turns in second. This was great for me because it built stamina and strength. What was missing was port de bras, but I learned this from Dorothy Alexander, who had studied with Fokine and The Royal Ballet. Anatole Obukhov was like Nijinska and trained my brain by making combinations out of several exercises. Balanchine was influential in terms of movement, attack, rhythm, and musicality.

How has your teaching changed over the years?

At first I copied my mentors. Now, I teach a combination of all my influences, beginning with Nijinska. I have taken the best from each teacher and created a new syllabus. However, my classes are spontaneous; I don’t plan. I walk in, look at the students to determine their needs, and then create the class specifically for them. Teaching is what I love most about being in dance.

What about your Ballets Russes experience most shaped your professional life?

I had been in the Navy and hadn’t studied ballet until I was 21, so everything in the Ballets Russes experience influenced me because I had no previous professional life in dance! I was so fortunate to be in a group of young dancers whom Anatole Joukovsky took under his wing, teaching and encouraging us. Dancing the wonderful ballets by Petipa, Fokine, Massine, and Lichine, as well as ballets that were created especially on us, which were all different, made for a well-rounded experience.

When you are coaching Balanchine repertoire, do you teach class differently?

No, but I do address Balanchine’s style. Balanchine himself taught straightforward technical classes. Then he choreographed. He was so pure in what he wanted us to do. Dancers have to be extremely musical in order to perform his ballets.

Should a company’s artistic director also teach?

This is terribly important, because one has to be connected to one’s dancers. This is not the norm now, and it is a big mistake. Balanchine was always in the studio because he was making the decisions about casting and choreography. He knew what every dancer could do. This was true of me also when I was artistic director of Atlanta Ballet. A person who doesn’t teach company classes cannot really be an artistic director.

What is the secret to mastering excellent pirouettes and jumps?

Dancers must be placed correctly and use their feet. Many dancers crawl up into their turns, which takes too long. They have to plié with correct placement, attack the pirouette, and be in position to turn on one count. They also have to close their ribs, pull up, and use a spot that works. As for jumps, Nijinska never allowed boys to stretch before jumping because they would lose buoyancy. However, male dancers now must have the same extension as females. Teachers have to give extra exercises that strengthen males for jumps. The brush determines the height of the jump, but the supporting leg—along with timing—gets the dancer there. Dancers have to brush and push at the same time in order to fly.

How have ballet classes changed over the years?

They are more technical. Young dancers are performing incredible feats now, which they didn’t do in the past. I think this has gone too far, because the art and classicism of ballet is lost. Épaulement and refined port de bras are being brushed aside for super technique. The demands from audiences and those who are hiring are greater, so that is why this is happening. What is missing from training today is a variety of styles and understanding of time periods. This is killing the artistic aspects of classical ballet in our time.

Your students have gone on to dance everywhere it seems—NYCB, ABT, Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Europe. What is it in your classes that makes them so versatile?

Strong basic training. I give my students structure, placement, port de bras, and knowledge of movement. Dancers these days must be on as well as off their centers, depending upon the choreographic material. They have to be able to switch styles with ease. Placement and basic training are the keys.

What advice would you give young dancers?

First of all, take care of your body! Come to class to work hard. Leave your problems outside. Attitude is everything. See in the mirror what’s really there, and not what you want to see.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Since helping to create contact improvisation in the early 1970s with Steve Paxton and others, Nancy Stark Smith has been traveling the globe, teaching and performing improvisational dance. She teaches often at the Bates Dance Festival and takes time from her touring schedule to publish Contact Quarterly, a biannual journal of dance and improvisation. Kristin Horrigan spoke with Stark Smith at her home in Florence, MA.

 

Could you explain what contact improvisation is? It is an exploration of the movement that’s possible when two bodies are in physical contact, sharing balance, communicating through weight and momentum. You’re using not only your own body and another body, but getting to know the physical forces involved: gravity, momen-tum, inertia, friction. You’re playing with these forces in “conversation” with your partner. What your partner proposes will affect how you can respond.

 

What are some of the problems that beginners struggle with? A big one is fear. There’s fear of falling—in contact improvisation, we’re falling all the time. We are in a constant state of being off balance, which is the fun of it! There’s fear of not knowing what comes next. There’s also fear of the awkwardness that comes from exploring new movement pathways. How can you work with that awkwardness and be curious, rather than trying to get rid of it? Then there’s the fear of being too heavy, the fear of being hurt, or hurting someone else. Other fears…TOUCH. In our culture we tend to use touching as a means of expressing love or violence, and the touch in contact is not necessarily either. It’s a listening through touch for movement or balance.

 

The lifting in contact improvisation can appear to require great amounts of strength. How do you teach dancers to support their partners’ weight? Practice is one way. Another way is to use your skeleton so that you’re not lifting as much through your muscles as through your bones. Your bones are strong and light, and they’re made to support weight. Timing is another way. When a person is jumping towards you, you can get your arms underneath their center as they’re starting to go up. You guide the weight onto yourself as it goes into the air towards the top of its arc before the person loses momentum and gets heavy.

 

In your classes you talk about the importance of “the last six inches”  before a falling body encounters the floor. The floor is your first partner in contact improvisation. Every fall that happens, whether you’re falling off someone’s shoulder or you’re just changing level by yourself, you’re going to have to pass through that last six inches and negotiate safely both to and up from the floor. If you can separate the first moment of touch from the full impact, and spread the transfer over a little bit of time, the weight can transition relatively slowly—we’re talking about fractions of seconds—then you have a smooth transition to the floor.


What do you believe makes good performance improvisation?
A good performance might be the same whether you’re improvising or not. It’s a combination of the clarity of the structure—the choreography you could say—and the interpretation of the performer. I believe that being present in your body and in your movement is the foundation for a beautiful dancer, and that’s true in any form. If someone is just executing moves and is not engaged, I’m not interested. On the other hand, there needs to be a balance between internal focus and communicating to an audience.

 

When improvising, it’s possible to fall into ruts and find oneself doing the same things over and over again. How do you help dancers break out of their patterns? I suggest just becoming more aware of when they’re doing the same old thing. At first, what tends to happen is that people realize it after they’ve done it. Then, as they strengthen their awareness, they’re in the middle of doing it, and they think, “Oh, I’m doing that thing again.” Then, they’re at the beginning, and they think, “Oh, I’m just about to do that thing again.” That’s where they can make a change. At that point, you can open up to another possibility, just by not doing the thing you always do. Leave some space. See what happens!

 

Can you talk about the connection of contact improvisation to the ideology of the ’60s—the social and political philosophy of the time? I feel like the dancing embodied some of the qualities that had to do with our relationship to power structures—whether it was challenging the government or their participation in the Vietnam War, or whether it was challenging social roles, the sexual revolution, gender roles. Can women be strong? Can men be tender? Can women and women work together? Can men and men? On the level of how dances get made and what a choreographer is and what a performer is, that was a change that came from those times as well. There wasn’t a master choreographer telling the dancers what to do. You can’t control what’s going on completely, you have to participate. You have to cooperate. Contact improvisation doesn’t work if you don’t.               

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Zvi Gotheiner began studying dance in his native Israel and came to New York in 1978. He has performed with the Batsheva Dance Company, the Joyce Trisler Danscompany, and Feld Ballets/NY. In 1989 he founded ZviDance, which has performed his choreography at The Joyce, Jacob’s Pillow, and the American Dance Festival. Presently he teaches ballet independently at a studio in City Center, where he spoke to Rachel Straus about his approach.

In your class there are New York City Ballet dancers, modern dancers from professional companies, and beginners. How do you account for the range of abilities in your class? I love it. Why not? It sends the message that here you can learn, that you don’t need to pretend like you know everything, that you shouldn’t be scared of failing. If you are ready to confront physical elements within yourself that need modifying, then this is a place to be. In my class you are not going to be ridiculed. I think that when dancers are offered a supportive environment they are able to access more of their creative potential.

What blocks dancers from fulfilling their potential? A negative mind! Thoughts and feelings like not being good enough, lazy, weak, ugly, or unsuitable for the field. These attitudes bring you to a wall because of the connection between negativity in the mind and tension in the body. Without an understanding of this connection, any attempt to help a dancer attain better placement and efficiency of movement proves to be very difficult. Tension is an unnecessary power in the body that contorts it, therefore alignment is improved by letting tension go. A change requires a release not just of the musculature around the skeleton, but also a change in perceptions and attitude created in the mind.

Who influenced your teaching? I studied with Maggie Black for 11 years. She helped me understand that alignment is not just for the sake of aesthetic value, that alignment doesn’t revolve around an idea of looking like royalty or the need to appear to be on top of something. Finding individual alignment is a way in which movement can become more organized and consequently easier to execute.

How is your class structured? I try to make the class that I would like to take myself. There is a kind of formula for the barre. It’s about quantities. You need enough of this, not too much of that to get the body deeply warmed up. At the barre almost every exercise is repeated twice. I learned that from Maggie. The first time you struggle with the exercise, you’re still catching up with what it is. The second time, you can ease into the movement and express yourself without struggling. Then it becomes like a song.

Class includes a slow exercise that gives each dancer enough time to meditate to experience their existence. It also includes exercises that are technically challenging—but are not impossible. Movement logic needs to be part of each exercise. It works well when the exercise is fun and when it is also musical to a point that it is just great to do. What I love to see is when a dancer comes to realize the inherent intelligence in his or her body. It’s far more satisfying than seeing someone who can execute eight pirouettes.

 

Why do you think that good alignment is often equated with muscular strength? There is a general perception of the body as weak and unintelligent. There is a distrust of the body as it is. I think the body is magnificent. With students I research the idea that they are using too much power in their support system and subsequently blocking their movement. Why they do that? I wish I had a simple answer. You might look at the imagery that is being used in ballet and contemporary dance training. You also might look at today’s cultural attitudes and beliefs. By cultural, I mean a perception of the body that is embedded in advertising. For example, the idea that being fit means a certain kind of musculature. Having lots of muscles today is considered sexy. But having lots of muscles does not necessarily translate to being centered, and it will not necessarily make you a great mover.

 

What other issues affect placement? Your placement is the physical manifestation of the way you see yourself. The more emotional trauma you accumulate in the body, the greater sense of physical protection with which you try to surround yourself. Your placement will also be affected by any imagery that is unrealistic or unsynchronized with the way the body functions.

 

You once said that ballet is misery. Please explain. If you interview those in the ballet field today, 97 percent will eventually confess that ballet is misery. It doesn’t make sense to me. Something that can bring such joy, like dancing, also comes with so much pain. Whether you talk to people who take ballet as hobby, modern dancers, or ballet dancers in companies, the conversation is the same. We have a history of using negative reinforcement in training dancers. If there is one thing that I would like to teach more than anything else, it is that taking pleasure in moving can make you a better dancer.

 

What do you think ballet offers beyond the obvious—learning a classical technique? For me, ballet is a source of meditation. You can learn who you are by working with your body. The idea of finding symmetry—ballet is just great for that. It’s so simple: front, side, back with one leg extended and the other supporting the body. At the same time, because of ballet’s straightforwardness, you are very exposed. This simplicity creates a greater potential for humiliation. Ballet brings all the divisions of the self together. Grace can be the result. In ballet you are constantly in a process of becoming excellent, however you define it.

 

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Teacher’s Wisdom

For more than 30 years, The Golden School of Irish Dancing in Brooklyn has been synonymous with the gold standard in Irish dance. Donny Golden has trained more than 1,000 students, including Jean Butler, the original star of Riverdance. He learned his art from Jerry Mulvilhill in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. His parents had emigrated from Ireland and enrolled all eight of their children in Irish music and dance lessons. Golden’s students now perform in commercial Irish dance shows throughout the world, and many have gone on to open their own schools. In 1995 he received the National Heritage Award from President Clinton. Golden and his dancers perform regularly with top Irish musical groups including The Chieftains and Cherish the Ladies. Darrah Carr, who teaches and performs Irish dance, talked with Golden after observing his championship-level class at the Irish-American Center in Mineola, Long Island.

 

What is the hardest thing for students to learn in Irish dancing? As in any dance form, the very first step, or the first few steps, are the most difficult because you have to get the gist of the style. In Irish dance, there are several traditional movements—the rock [with legs together and one foot in front of the other, shift from side to side, bending at the ankles], the cross key [start with one foot in front of the other, cross your toes, drop to your heels, turn your feet out, and place the front foot in back], and the box [on both heels, close the toes together to make a sound, and open them back up]—that are the most difficult. Even championship dancers have trouble with these three steps. Dancers are supposed to try to include an example of all three in their material at some point. Not all do, however, because those steps are so difficult to do well.

 

Do you instruct students to keep their arms down at their sides? Yes. And to keep their elbows tucked into their sides. To keep your arms from flailing around, it helps to hold on to the side of your shorts or skirt. You can also hold pennies or hair clips in your hands to keep your fingers closed.

 

There are so many different and controversial theories about why the arms are kept at the sides. Some say it is because of the powerful influence of the church and the ban they put on dancing and socializing. Years ago in Ireland, neighbors would meet at the crossroads and dance very low key, with just their feet. That way, they couldn’t be said to be dancing if the bishop drove out looking for them. Some say that the dances would take place inside the house, and that it was so crowded that there was no room for the arms. Whatever the reason, it is a tradition.

 

What movement quality does an Irish dancer strive for? Irish dance demands two different styles—light shoe and hard shoe. It’s hard to complete all of the different movements with grace. In light shoe, dancers strive for a quality that is very similar to ballet. They must be very light, graceful, and airy. They must dance high on their toes and have good extension. In hard shoe, they must have a good beat and a good feel for the music.

 

Unlike ballet, Irish dance has no codified language. Are there terms unique to your school? I use my own language. I’ve made it up as I’ve gone along, always pertaining to what I’m teaching. Irish dance teachers have lots of different languages. “123s,” “rally,” and “batter,” all describe the same movement. Our school calls one movement “over the bridges,” whereas other teachers say “leap-overs” or “hurdles.” Some teachers are trying to get a standardized way of saying things. I don’t feel it’s all that important. If you are reading steps from a book, it would be. But, with all of the video equipment and teaching DVDs that are available, it is less so.

 

How do you teach students who use different terminology? I demonstrate the step a few times first, so the students know exactly how it looks and what my words mean. They stand behind me as I demonstrate in order to get a picture of how I’m making the sounds. If the students are young, I might hold hands with one on either side of me and do the step with them. They get a better feel for it that way. It helps give them the right sense of lift and a nice flow.

 

How do you encourage your students to keep healthy? They all want to try to do whatever is winning competitions. A lot of things come in and out of fashion which are not always good for a dancer’s body. Some dancers are so turned out that it looks unnatural—one foot facing east, one foot facing west. Exaggerated turnout is torture on the knees. Also, dancers are really overcrossing today. That hurts your hips.

 

Toe-stands are another move that can be harmful. Today, there is so much walking around on the tops of one’s toes in hard shoes. Toe-stands have been banned in competitions for the under-12s, because so many were hurting themselves and spraining their ankles. The shoes were never designed for that purpose.

 

Your touring work with The Chieftains was at the forefront of pushing Irish dance out of the feis [competition] circuit and onto the concert stage. What kind of performance opportunities exist for Irish dancers? Years ago, there was not much for a dancer to do except to compete. The only time you danced it out was on Saint Patrick’s Day, at a family christening, or maybe at a bar. There were a few bands—The Chieftains and Greenfields of America—who took dancers along with them. People understood the music much better by watching people dance to it. That concert work was the forerunner of the large commercial shows.

 

Unfortunately, some students are going into the shows way too soon. They are not finishing school or college. I always advise them to finish their education first, or try to defer college admission for a year, do the show experience, and then return to college. There is always time to join a dance show.

 

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Debbie Allen is a human vortex. Perhaps best known for appearing in the 1980 movie and television show Fame, and choreographing the latter, she is always on the run. In addition to traveling the world as the United States ambassador for cultural affairs, she directs for television, writes/directs/produces musicals, writes children’s books, and teaches at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles. She has won two Emmys and a Golden Globe, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

 

The day Jennifer Edwards interviewed her for Dance Magazine, Allen wore large red glasses that matched her platform shoes, and a bindi on her forehead—an influence from her recent trip to India.

 

What techniques do you need to become a successful commercial dancer? In the world today, you need ballet, hip hop, and I would say tap. You need that ballet base so that you have command of your legs and arms to do triple turns and layouts.

 

What do you say to students who don’t want to take ballet and only want to take jazz? There is no jazz dance without ballet! And also without African dance. If you can do ballet and African dance, you can do anything. You also have stamina and you have grace. You can be fluid and lyrical, and you can be sharp and cutting. Ballet is always going to be the most important of techniques for any dancer.

Even your youngest students have great technique. How do you achieve this? I treat them like professionals. They are expected to be on time, to be quiet, and focus on the work at hand. The little ones are amazing. They are like sponges soaking it all up.

 

What do you personally like to teach? I’ve really been enjoying my musical theater class because there are so many dancers who are too shy to speak or sing. For my first Broadway show, I was hired as a dancer but I got to be the understudy for the lead by saying “yes” I could sing and “yes” I could act. I took voice lessons twice a week for six months. I enjoy the musical theater classes because we find so much expression and so much confidence. I’m able to help them explore their other dimensions, and it’s always fun when you’re in the process of discovery.

 

Who are your role models and mentors? The greatest role model is Katherine Dunham, the mother of jazz dance. A real pioneer, a woman with her own dance company, and an international celebrity. She is also an author of more than 10 books.

 

How important is it to be a triple threat? Your versatility is your ability to work. I’ve never been without a job, knock on wood [she does], because I do so many different things. The more you do, the greater your vocabulary is, and the broader your dream can be.

How do you recommend a dancer prepare for an audition? You better warm up, that’s for sure! During the audition process, you have to find a way to stay focused. You have to be prepared, and know that it can be a really long process or even one that’s too short [she laughs], so you’d better put your best foot forward right from the start. And be prepared to do anything that is asked.

 

What are the biggest mistakes a dancer can make? It’s not so much about mistakes as it is about preparedness and ability. There is a certain look, for example. If you have a ballet audition, there is a certain look. A hip hop audition, there is a certain look. If it’s jazz…maybe there is a certain eccentric look, whatever. Also, the pace at which you learn can be an asset or a hindrance. You can be very talented but take too much time. Choreographers don’t “take time.”

 

Are there any tricks to help students progress more quickly? You can come out and do a wonderful competition move that may look exciting but that doesn’t tell us if you can dance. Most competition dancers can get away with “tricks,” but I realized when working with these kids that once I moved them out of their routine, their safety zone, they were lost. They didn’t have proper technique. So I don’t believe that there are or should be “tricks.” They don’t work in the professional world.

 

Where do you draw the line between pushing a student to work harder and keeping a dancer safe? I think the only time safety becomes an issue is when I have students flying around doing the Cirque du Soleil techniques. Then it’s really a hazard. But otherwise, no. You need to work hard. You need to know what it is to sweat. Stamina is your power. It’s like on the basketball court. The players run up and down and up and down and they are judged by how quickly they recover. They have maybe 10 seconds to shoot some free throws, then they’ve got to go again. My daughter is dancing with Ailey II, and they rehearse six hours every day. So you keep working, but you need to know when it is time to rest. You can’t party all night.

 

Is there ever a point at which you look at dancers and know that their dream just won�t happen? Do you let them know? Do you encourage them in another direction? No, I never let them know! It’s rare, but I have seen a few who don’t seem to be getting anywhere. But I just keep trying. If they have it in their hearts that they want to, I think they should keep trying.

 

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Teacher’s Wisdom

In 2005, American Ballet Theatre asked Franco De Vita to become the principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, a new institution devoted to training ABT dancers of the future. Born in Italy and raised in Belgium and France, De Vita combines a Gallic effervescence with a no-nonsense approach to teaching. His European sensibility was nurtured as a professional dancer in Germany and France. Upon retirement, De Vita acquired the Enrico Cecchetti Diploma and received the highest teaching degree from the Accademia Nazionale di Danza in Rome. Before coming to the JKO School, he served as the dean of faculty and curriculum for the Boston Ballet School. De Vita spoke to Dance Magazine about his perspective on teaching and his priorities in starting a high-profile ballet school from scratch.

 

What are the challenges of establishing a school for a company like ABT? In a way it’s easier to start something than to take over an institution that has been established for many years. A long time ago, there was a school at ABT. Now we begin with a new school. I can start with my ideas, and there has been no precedent.

 

I want to teach very pure classical ballet because I think this is the need of the company. It’s exactly what [artistic director] Kevin McKenzie wants. The thing I really like—and I saw it the first time I came to America—is that everybody here has such incredible energy. Everybody wants to work in a very positive way. The port de bras is sometimes difficult for these dancers. I would like to see more quality in the port de bras and use of épaulement—it’s so beautiful. It’s important, also, when doing modern dance, the use of the weight of the body. The company is doing such a range of repertoire. When a dancer is trained in a very pure, classical way, it’s easy to switch to different styles. I want this to be a school that produces dancers for ABT and other companies. My first goal is to produce beautiful dancers who can dance Sleeping Beauty and ballets by William Forsythe and Antony Tudor.

 

Some schools require the girls to take the entire ballet class on pointe. How do you feel about that? Sometimes I like the barre on pointe—but not every day. When you do it every day, you never really work on the full articulation of the feet. Once a week, I like the girls to do the center in soft shoes because you can feel a different way of balancing. You need to do both because you work the feet differently.

 

Can you explain the connection of first and fifth positions, which you stress in your class? For me, first position is so important. It’s the first position! When you establish a first position cleanly and correctly and then just close into fifth, all the work is done. I work with first position in the top-level classes. Do some exercises and go back and feel the first position, feel the rotation, because it’s so basic. When you do tendu from first to fifth to first to fifth, you feel the position. I am a big fan of first position!

You work a lot with accents and phrasing. Do you encourage the students to find their own phrasing within a combination? Yes and no. You need to respect the phrasing, but when you hold your balance a little longer, you can accelerate the next step and still be in time. I think it is good for a student to try different phrasings and play with the qualities of faster, a little slower, and suspension. But it has to be on the music. It’s all about listening to the music. The music gives you exactly the quality of the movement. Sometimes I try to help with the use of my voice. I worked with a fabulous teacher, Alla Osipenko. She used to say, “Don’t just listen to the music. Sing the music.” Because when you sing the music, it’s in your body.

 

You speak a lot about recovering from a position before moving to another. Can you explain that? My first training was in the French school. Every time we did a step, it was very important to feel the centralization before going on to another. It gives you a lot of speed and you can change direction very easily. Every time you go from one position to another, you establish the center, and then you go. It resolves so many problems. You see it at the barre when a student does a grand battement—you have to feel being on both legs in fifth before going back on one leg. The younger students in the French school do a lot of exercises with a stretch and plié in between. Like brisé, stretch, plié, brisé. It makes you centralize your weight.

 

When you are on balance, you are on your legs and there is no pressure or tension. It gives you tranquility. When a student stays on balance, her face changes. It’s a beautiful feeling. At the same time, you rest. It’s an easier way of dancing. When you can feel the balance of the center of your body onstage and something wrong happens, you can save it with that sense of balance and control.

 

What did you take from the Cecchetti School? What I really like is some of the speed and allegro, which is similar to the French school. Cecchetti has a beautiful use of the port de bras and épaulement—and very specific. When you do croisé devant, you place the bottom arm a little lower. It gives you a presentation of the chest and upper body. When you are slightly inclined, your arms react, and again it gives you a presentation. I also like the work with the upper body in the Russian school. I take what is best from everybody. We are doing classical ballet, which involves a tradition. Picasso, before doing cubism, was an incredible technician.

Do you advocate the repetition of steps or combinations in class? I try working on two or three particular movements within a one- or two-week period. And I change the exercise, but I go back to that same movement. We did renversé on Friday and I repeated it today. Your body memory needs it. Sometimes I repeat exactly the same step and I see a big difference because the student can work more on the detail of the correction. I bring it back until I get what I expect.

 

Is there any curriculum you would like to add? My first dream is to have a dance history class. When I was in Belgium, I attended the royal state conservatory. To do our last ballet exam, we had to take a dance history exam. If you failed the dance history exam, you had to repeat the whole year in dance. I remember we were so upset then, and now I say, “Thank you,” because it changed my life. If you plan to have a career in dance, you have to have a notion of dance history. Sometimes I speak in class about Serge Lifar, Diaghilev, Pavlova, and everybody looks baffled. It’s so important to know this!

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Teacher’s Wisdom

As a child, Sam Weber first delved into tap dancing as a means of escaping reality. Now in his 50s, this protégé of Stanley Kahn has tapped his way to international acclaim. Weber’s dancing exudes an effortless grace that comes from his years as a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. He’s danced alongside Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, and the Nicholas Brothers, just to name a few. The first tap dancer ever to receive a Bessie Award, Weber currently juggles his time between touring the world as a principal dancer and choreographer with the Jazz Tap Ensemble, and teaching master classes and workshops. His first annual Weber Institute will take place in Chicago July 24–28 (www.samweber.org). Lane Alexander of Chicago Human Rhythm Project interviewed Weber about his simple, yet demanding, approach to training tappers.

 

Can you describe your approach to tap dancing? Find the most efficient, least effortful way to execute each movement and be able to do the greatest number of sounds with the fewest movements necessary. For example, a shuffle isn’t two movements, as many people are taught; it’s one movement that produces two sounds. If you have to make a new movement for each sound, that adds up to a lot of movements in fast tap dancing! It’s very hard to dance that way, and it makes it difficult to keep steady time or to be rhythmically accurate.

 

What are the most important things for a tap dancer to know? Transfer of weight and the relaxed ankle. Good body movement: a sense of relaxation and ease, [a sense] that the movement is organic to the step. Understanding of music and rhythm. A tap dancer should know as much about rhythmic theory as any other percussionist.

 

Do you organize your classes in a standard way? I start with basic exercises that will be adapted into more complicated steps and combinations. The early exercises may be technically challenging and rhythmically simple, or the opposite: technically simple and rhythmically challenging. In an advanced class, the material at the end of the class will probably be both technically and rhythmically challenging.

 

How do you differentiate between beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels? In an ideal world, beginners would start out with good technical training so that they won’t have bad habits to unlearn later on. For example, if dancers don’t develop the ability to instantly transfer their weight when they step at the beginning of their training, they encounter problems when they move to more advanced levels. This makes for “muddy,” inarticulate sounds. And if beginning dancers don’t develop relaxed ankles and use of the large muscles of the legs, they’ll always struggle with shuffles and flaps at faster tempos. I often see people in advanced classes who are really still at a beginning level technically, despite their having an advanced understanding of rhythm. The technical problems can even interfere with the development of the ear, because students get used to hearing their own faulty execution.

 

Advanced tap dancers are often seen leaving your class in a state of pleasant confusion. Why? I like to think that this happens when I’ve gotten them to reexamine the basic movements they’ve taken for granted for many years. Often advanced dancers spend their time learning “new” steps, which usually are the old steps in new combinations, but they never experiment with doing the simplest, most basic movements in new ways. When you can make a change at the most basic level, it can change your dancing radically.

 

How does ballet training help the development of strong tap technique? Ballet teaches body alignment, develops good weight distribution (keeping the weight distributed evenly on the foot, more toward the pads of the toes) for balance, jumps, and turns. Understanding how jumps work takes a lot of the mystery out of pullbacks and wings. And it doesn’t hurt to have a tap teacher who will incorporate full body movement, turns, and a general spatial awareness into a tap class.

 

What advice do you give to young tap dancers regarding their dance education and career expectations? There is more work for rhythm dancers, “hoofers,” than there was 30 years ago. You should learn about every facet of the business so that you can take advantage of opportunities that may arise while you’re waiting for the dream job. Often, the serious rhythm tapper has a limited background in other dance forms. And dancers who are well versed in ballet, jazz, and other “full body” movement often have only the most basic knowledge of tap. Or they know a lot of steps but not much about how to connect them musically.

 

How do you know if you have the right teacher? Watch the advanced class. These are the students who have studied there for 8 to 10 years. They should have clear, musical sounds and should move well. When you begin to study with a new teacher, expect progress to be fairly rapid, allowing, of course, for differences in aptitude and ability. Many students resign themselves to the idea that even a small bit of progress takes a long time. This really isn’t so, if the training is right.

 

What advice do you give to the injured dancer? Tap dancers are prone to many of the same injuries as people who run or play running sports, because tap is based on walking and running. So tap dancers get plantar fasciitis (which I’ve had), calf muscle strains (which I’ve had), knee problems such as meniscal tears (which I’ve had). Correct technical training can minimize injury. It really isn’t necessary to “hit” the floor in tap steps, only to let the weight of the body drop. But it’s popular today for dancers to dance as if they’re trying to drive their foot through the floor.

 

What is the most important thing you learned from your teacher? Stan Kahn was always learning and you could see that he was always looking for new ways to teach. He never stopped practicing.

 

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Zena Rommett is the originator of the Zena Rommett Floor-Barre and Ballet Technique. Her early training under Balanchine and other Russian masters in NYC led to her performing throughout Europe and in several Broadway musicals. During her 60 years of teaching, students have included Tommy Tune, Lar Lubovitch, Patrick Swayze, Judith Jamison, and several generations of Ailey dancers (Linda Celeste Sims is above in a purple unitard).

 

Rommett currently teaches twice a week at Steps on Broadway in NYC. Jen Thompson participated in her lecture-demonstration at Dance New Amsterdam and asked about the development, effectiveness, and future of her technique.

 

Why did you decide to put ballet barre on the floor? I had a beautiful facility so I was put in advanced classes, but because I did not know the basics I studied books on ballet technique. I analyzed the principles, practicing from morning to night. Later when I started teaching ballet, I felt that old-world discipline and precision was missing. So one day in the late ’50s I put my students on the floor, taking the effort of standing out of the equation. We do pliés, tendus, rond de jambes, frappés, cou-de-pied, développés, and grand battements—all with correct transitions and placement. Everything remains in the dancer’s muscle memory when she or he stands up.

 

When I began teaching Floor-Barre, I only worked the dancers turned out. One day to experiment I had the students bring their legs into parallel. Then and there I discovered the beautiful secret of my technique: By working in parallel, I could correct the body alignment for a perfect turnout. The students loved it. Now floor work has become very popular, but it must be done meticulously to be effective.

How do your exercises improve a dancer’s placement? Many dancers don’t know how to stand correctly. I see toes come off the floor, which tells me they are hyperextending. I see knees slightly bent. My new approach in class is to stand them up right away and begin to place them correctly. I put them in parallel, lengthening the inside leg muscles with knees together. The weight is forward, energy extending through to the back of the heels. The spine is supple and lengthened.

 

I then put them on the floor to reinforce placement. First the dancer lies on her back with both knees bent, legs held together in parallel position. There should be no space under the back. All 10 toes are firmly on the floor. Shoulders are down, the stomach held in, hands are on the pelvis. Then we flex one foot at a time, lengthening the leg straight down, away from the torso. The toes of the flexed foot reach back to the knee and there is space under the heel. When both legs are extended the inner leg muscles are held firmly together. This is exactly how the dancer should feel standing up.

 

Once you lie down on the floor correctly, you can apply that same precision when you stand up. Many of my students arrive early to classes, rehearsals, and performances to give themselves a 20-minute version of my class to tune their bodies.

How does the technique prevent injury, and how can it help recovering dancers? A weak point, an unaligned joint can escalate into more injuries and ailments like tendonitis. When body alignment is corrected the dancer can have a long, injury-free career. By putting the body on the floor and strengthening each joint and muscle, the dancer can recover from an injury and still work on classical technique. There is no weight-bearing pressure on the injury. In the late ’60s Melissa Hayden from New York City Ballet was one of the first big ballet names to come to me with an injury. When she returned to the stage, The New York Times review said she had never danced better. Judith Jamison from Alvin Ailey said her injury was a blessing in disguise because she discovered Floor-Barre! I’ve saved all my beautiful thank you letters from the past 60 years.

Should children take Floor-Barre? I want to cry when I see children working incorrectly, with ankles and knees bandaged and their parents telling me they have tendonitis. My technique gives children a strong foundation for unmannered dancing. It strengthens their joints, teaches them how to straighten their legs, and they become so strong. They love it! Their little minds absorb everything and they get excited to learn and feel correct placement. I would love to see Floor-Barre in schools and for all gymnasts, ice skaters, and young athletes. We are planning to open our own space in New York where my work will be archived and Floor-Barre certification and classes will be offered.

How has your technique changed over the past 60 years? In the ’60s when I worked with company principals, I concentrated more on perfecting technique and giving complicated combinations. Today dance has become very popular and there are many different types of bodies taking class. No matter what body type—big or small, young or mature—they all can work beautifully and correctly. I gear my classes to the students but there are always top professionals there, too, working on the basics.

 

An innovator of any technique is constantly evolving. I think about my work day and night and how I can improve. I am 87 and I am always learning.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Fernando Alonso, 93, is a founding member of Ballet Nacional de Cuba and, with his ex-wife Alicia Alonso, formerly co-artistic director. He created the curriculum offered in the national ballet school system throughout Cuba. He danced with American Ballet Theatre (then known as Ballet Theatre) from 1940 to 1948. Toba Singer recently asked him about his ideas on ballet training.

How does your varied background enhance what you bring to the studio? I bring what I absorbed from all the teachers, choreographers, and dancers who came my way—from the Italian, French, Russian, and Danish schools, even from musical comedy. I learned rhythm, timing, and the importance of not wasting time. Dancing with Ballet Theatre was like attending a university and getting a Ph.D.

 

Contact with orthopedic surgeons helped me understand anatomy. My great-grandfather, a professor at the University of Havana, gave me a wonderful sense of observation and taught me that there’s a scientific explanation for everything. Psychologists helped me study the characteristics, idiosyncrasies, and behavior of the Cuban people. I always had a strong sense of the Cuban way of feeling.

What is “the Cuban way of feeling?” The Cubans inherited from the Spaniards a virile sense of dance, with a hint of toreador-like aggression. From the Africans, we inherited a readiness to demonstrate those feelings with repetitive rhythms, plus a pronounced masculine sexuality in the men and natural charm in the women. We develop these characteristics to lend contrast to the pas de deux. We teach classical ballet; it’s the male and female elements which create a “Cuban” way of dancing.

 

Many Cuban dancers are amazing turners. How do you explain the dynamics of a pirouette? We use all the key physical laws when we dance: inertia (a body at rest), equilibrium (balance), centrifugal force (causing the body to fly outward), and centripetal force (causing the body to move toward the center axis). To start, you must be balanced on the standing leg so as not to totter forward and back. Let’s say that you turn from second: You have to break the inertia by using your front arm to push. Even though you need extra force at the start of the turn, if that force remains excessive and you don’t shift immediately yet slowly into centripetal force, you will be in trouble. Shifting too quickly will cause you to expend all your energy and you will lose the force to get you around.

 

The foot of the standing leg must be on high relevé to have the least amount of contact with the floor, or else the friction will stop you. And start not only with your arms, but with the working foot from demi plié before it goes to that high, turned-out passé to get you around.
But to be “art,” a step must say something. When you pirouette, you must consider what steps came before and come after. Are they dramatic, romantic, or hateful? What is the rhythm?

How does one avoid sacrificing artistry for technique? Quality is more important than quantity, but quality with quantity is best. Dancers must study acting—Stanislavski is the best—and music. And be aware of your timing so that you don’t rush. When Giselle begs Myrta, “Please let him live!” and Myrta says, “No!” there is a connection. Let the other dancer finish “saying” what she has to say before you respond. Don’t anticipate!

 

How do you advance students through the curriculum? Learning ballet is like learning geometry. You begin with the first theorem, master it, and then go on to the next. If you haven’t learned to solve the first problem, you won’t be able to tackle the one that follows.

 

I teach slight head movements as early as possible so that students can use the body more fully. The head is the heaviest part of the body and the part that leads, for example, in a soutenu turn. If you don’t spot, the middle ear fluid, which determines your balance, will not keep up with the rest of the body. Spotting tricks the fluid, so that it doesn’t retard you and throw you off balance.

What are the makings of a good teacher? Teachers are like priests: You must be the servant of the goal. A good teacher should tailor choreography to the needs of her students and design steps as teaching tools, rather than show off what a good choreographer she is. The teacher’s role doesn’t stop in the studio. You must be accessible to your students—show them books, paintings, exhibitions, architecture, clothing, costumes, makeup, teach them how to eat properly and comport themselves in public.

How do you train a corps de ballet to synchronize as perfectly as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba? To me, the corps is the prima ballerina of the company. The corps is the measure of the company’s value. The principal is not dancing alone. The corps de ballet is helping her by giving the necessary dramatic background.

 

The coryphée (front corps dancer) determines the direction of the lines. The dancer who follows, the second in line, determines the focus. You must watch the coryphée’s foot because if it goes to the wrong place, the second dancer must compensate or at least not move until the first dancer corrects herself. You must have very good eyesight for a wide optical view, eyes everywhere to quickly see where the mistake is and how to correct it. When Alicia began to lose her vision, we worked on all the other senses to capture the line. When you are promoted to soloist, you must remember all you have learned in the corps de ballet and think of the corps as the dancer who has the secret to the ballet.

 

 

Photo Courtesy BNC.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Derick Grant started tap training at age 2 in The Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts, the Boston studio run by his aunt. He served as dance captain in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk on Broadway, and for the first national tour he took over Savion Glover’s role. In the summer of 2006, he choreographed and directed Imagine Tap!, which had a four-week run at Chicago’s Harris Theater with a cast including several of the best tap dancers of his generation. Brian Seibert observed one of Grant’s classes at NYC’s Steps on Broadway and asked his advice for tap students today.

What do you find to be the most common difficulty that your students face? One of my favorite sayings is, “We get in our own way.” So much of tap dance is about confidence and insecurities. We’ve already decided who’s better than us, who’s not as good. We don’t want to make mistakes in front of people. I try to create a comfortable atmosphere. One of the hardest things is getting students to try. Just go for it. Mess up. That’s what class is for, screwing it up. We’re doing a bunch of experiments, trying to get it right. You discover what feels good, what doesn’t, and out of that, you create your own way, which is the point: self-expression.

In your beginner class, you start by having everyone stand on one leg with their eyes closed. Why? People who don’t tap always say, “What’s the trick?” I don’t think there is a trick, but if there were one, it would be balance and knowing where to distribute the weight. Ultimately the most important thing a tap dancer can have is strength in the standing leg while the other leg is doing all the fancy stuff. Then I give students exercises to go from one leg to the next. We spend more time on that than on “This is a shuffle, this is a flap.”

You talk in classes about making choices and taking responsibility for them. Why? Students often abandon their power to make choices. They just do what they see other people doing. Be conscious of everything available to you. Don’t just ask yourself: What step should I do? Ask: What should it sound like? What should it feel like? What should it look like? For the most part, we choose what we think will get a rise out of the audience. What makes you a more accomplished, mature, developed dancer is to go beyond that. There should be more.

What is that “more?” Being conscious of time, sound, knowing what’s coming and having a plan to get there, not just hoping things work out that way. Everything that’s coming out of your feet—be responsible for that. Even if you messed up, it’s all right. Figure out what’s wrong and make it right. If you’re not asking questions and seeking corrections, then you’re not going to grow. You’re just going to fly under the radar.

 

What do you mean when you tell students, “Don’t think about what step comes next, but what sound comes next?” We have to educate ourselves as musicians—know how to count, know the relevance of “the pocket” and phrasing. At the same time, it’s about releasing that music and not always judging it. People worry about all of those things; they get stifled. Be conscious about what you’re doing but also be free. All of those pretty little pictures we want to paint, that our spirit feels, that our soul feels, whatever is on our mind, how our day is going—those things should be expressed. That’s what I mean by “the next sound.” As opposed to thinking, “I want to do a really cool step.” The heart and the brain have to be balanced.

Is that why you have your students turn their backs to you and mimic your phrases by ear—what you call no-peeky-peeky? Yeah. It has to do with the intention behind the note. Putting it down versus slamming it down. A musician learns how to play with nuances that depend on his emotion or the groove. No-peeky-peeky gives us the skill set to accomplish that—to hear the phrase, process it in your head, and find it in your body. The thing I love best about tap dancers is when I can close my eyes and understand where they’re at. We’ve seen so much athletic tap dancing that we have certain expectations and sometimes our eyes can betray us. Because if somebody is not doing Over the Tops or crazy fast steps, we say, “Oh, they’re good, but…” But by closing your eyes and listening, you can enjoy nuances that you might not otherwise notice. And then there are some dancers who are chopping it up, and when you close your eyes, it sounds like a computer, not like the heart at all.

How can a student work on his or her individual sound in a group class? It can be hard to hear yourself. That’s one reason I teach without music. So that people can hear themselves and be responsible for their sound. We’re all gonna hear if you’re in the pocket or not. Outside of class, I recommend recording yourself and listening. Like hearing your own voice on a tape recorder, it’s not exactly what you thought it was. I watch myself on video too.

How else do you recommend practicing?
Take the exercises we do in class at your own speed. Also, I like to put on a tune I’ve heard a zillion times and pay attention to a different instrument—maybe listen to the piano all the way through—or two or three versions of the same tune. But most of all, listen to yourself and work at it. There’s a certain level of God-given talent, but all of the really, really good dancers, they’ve practiced their butt off.

How do students make that transition to professionals? This is my biggest pet peeve. I have a lot of people in class I call “professional class-takers.” The reason is that there are not enough opportunities for these dancers to be onstage. They have gone as far as they can go in a classroom setting, and I’d like to see them challenged by what the stage can offer. A lot of times, when you see students onstage, they look like students. And then tap on the whole gets a bum rap. Jimmy Slyde once said to me, “The only way to get good at performing is by performing.” And so, as a teacher, I would like to create a platform where they could practice that.

 

Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Steps.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Eleanor D’Antuono got her start professionally at the age of 14 as a dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her long career included stints at the Joffrey Ballet and 20 years as a leading ballerina with American Ballet Theatre. Today, she serves as artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition. D’Antuono has also taught at New Jersey Ballet (above), the Joffrey Ballet School, and the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. Christina H. Davis observed her class recently at Nutmeg and asked about what she looks for in a young dancer.

What’s the attitude you like to see in a student? If a student is eager to listen and strives to do something better, that’s exciting. I try to inspire people to take a chance, to take that ultimate chance, get just a little bit more. As a dancer I always felt that if I tried it one more time, I might fly.

When you say “take that ultimate chance,” what do you mean?
When someone offers a correction, don’t worry about feeling uncomfortable. Try to take the correction and see how it works on your body first and deal with it for a while. You might think, “Oh this doesn’t feel good.” Well, maybe your teacher knows what he or she is doing, so you should keep trying.

You had a lengthy performance career. Did you approach things differently than other dancers? I worked longer hours and danced more. I studied and studied, and took classes and more classes, and was coached privately. The only one who probably danced more than I did in my time was Rudolf Nureyev in terms of performing. I think it’s the fact that I worked so hard and stayed in shape constantly that saved me from serious injury for a long time.

What style of ballet do you teach?
The dancers from Russia say I teach Russian. I was brought up slightly Cecchetti. Certainly my training was pretty eclectic. The world is so small today that it’s all become integrated. But my thought was always, “If I can move one way, why can’t I move another?” Basic classical training is really the important thing. I always say to people, “Have you ever been in a class where they didn’t tell you to straighten your knees or stretch your feet?”

Physical appearance, for better or worse, is a focus in the ballet world. How should a dancer deal with that pressure? There are huge amounts that you can do to fix your physical look. I mean if you are 5′ tall, you’re not going to get to be 5’8″. But there are so many ways to change your appearance. Training can make a huge difference. I’m not suggesting everyone in the world can dance, but there’s a great deal you can do.

As artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition, how do you think competitions can enhance a dancer’s experience? NYIBC in particular has a training component. Young professionals come learn repertoire that the coaches teach them. That’s what they compete with. The original idea was that the playing field would be more equal that way. It’s such a wonderful experience for the young dancers to work with these excellent teachers and coaches. Many of the dancers who come to the competition, whether they win or lose, say that it’s been one of the most remarkable dance experiences that they’ve ever had.

 

Personally, I’ve judged many competitions and I think the value is primarily the training before it. You learn to work on something and how to improve it and not get bored with it. You have a goal that you’ve set for yourself.

How do you encourage students to perform in class as if they were onstage?
I think it’s my example. Ballet has to always be total, even in class. And it starts from the inside, not from the exterior.

But how do you teach that? Music helps hugely. To hear every note and have a physical response. It’s the music that made me want to dance. I hear a note, I change.

 

 

Photo by Joseph Schembri, Courtesy D’Antuono.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Kerry Hubata co-founded The Evanston School of Ballet with Phyllis Wills, her lifelong teacher and mentor, in 1968. Under Wills’ guidance, Hubata earned her Cecchetti teacher’s certificate, performed with the Evanston Concert Ballet, organized a liturgical dance group, and has become an enduring hero of classical ballet education in the Chicago area. Her students have gone on to perform with New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Swedish Ballet, and Pennsylvania Ballet, to name just a few. Hubata often asks students questions like, “Are you still breathing?” or “What’s the most exciting step in the combination?” or “How does it feel to do it this way?”—and she listens to the answers. Lynn Shapiro recently watched her teach and asked about the philosophy behind her classes.

What do you see as your greatest responsibility to your students?
To help them become the best people they can be.

How do you develop that? By showing respect for the individual—you’re not trying to tear them down, you’re helping them get better. I want to be honest with my students. I want them to make an honest effort. I don’t care if they don’t get it right away. That takes years. Working hard for something you love and not seeing the reward in sight is life in microcosm. It’s worthwhile that you’re creating something beautiful for the moment. It may not be complete, but it’s still beautiful.

How do you encourage students to work harder?
It depends on the individual. For one student, I had to notice her the minute she came in and engage her on a personal level. Another would work hard only if she saw someone was watching. Flowers bloom simply because they have to, even if there’s no one to see them. You hope that your students get to love this enough so they reach that potential.

How do you foster the relationship between technical and artistic development?
Live music helps because right at the barre you feel like you’re performing. Technical concerns have to come first, or else you’re using the wrong muscles and could injure yourself. But there’s so much more than technique. One of the problems we have is students who work so hard they tense up. You want them to be expressive, but they’re trying so hard to get the technique that they’re actually restricting themselves. Sometimes, I have to tell them perfect isn’t enough! It has to be beautiful. And they look at me like I’m out of my mind!

In class you said, “Eye contact is mind contact.” What do you mean?
You have to understand what you’re doing. If you’re dancing by imitation, it might work for a while, but you will end up looking like a robot. Movements have to go through your mind before they get to your muscles. When you see a beautiful développé, Miss Wills used to say it’s an emotional experience. Fonteyn never raised her leg up that high, but my goodness, the artistry there!

How can a student achieve lightness?
Lift your body off your legs; try to remain in the air longer; hate the floor on the way up, love it on the way down! You can’t jump and leave the floor slowly. That’s why in degagé at the barre, you mustn’t drag your foot. It’s about attack, speed. If you don’t feel energetic, fake it! You may have a performance one day and not feel energetic, so you’ve got to get used to making energy.

How can a student avoid wiggling in frappé? If you’re stretching your spine, you’re not going to wiggle. Think of putting air pockets between the vertebrae and using the space above you.

You told one student, “Oh, good, you fell forward!” Why? It showed she wasn’t arching and pulling back. Many students tend to fall back. That particular student has a tendency to collapse and over-arch the spine in attitude en arriere, so I was thrilled because she was trying so hard to fix it, she over-corrected.

What’s your feeling about falling in general?
You have to fall! It’s a hard lesson because students get embarrassed. We don’t want them to get hurt, but you have to have enough energy and be free enough that you actually might fall. You have to approach things with abandon to learn how far you can push. When a child learns to walk, there’s a lot of falling. You eventually find out where that center is.
I think it was Martha Graham who spoke about the line between earth and heaven—isn’t that alignment? Getting yourself right with God and getting yourself lined up in gravity and space; it works hand in hand.

How has your work in liturgical dance influenced your teaching? Dance is something sacred. The poet John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I’ve always seen that connection. The discipline of dance brought me to the discipline of religion. When I’m teaching, that’s when I’m most alive.

 

 

Photo by Nicholas Perron-Siegel.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Donald McKayle embodies the American modern dance experience. Having been mentored by or performed with Pearl Primus, Martha Graham, and Anna Sokolow, among others, McKayle emerged as one of the country’s most dynamic dancers and prolific choreographers. He has created more than 80 works, including his celebrated classic Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder. He has earned multiple Tony nominations for his choreography on Broadway shows such as Golden Boy, Raisin, and Sophisticated Ladies. His latest work, Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City, was recently premiered by Kansas City Ballet. He is currently on faculty at the University of California at Irvine, where Rose Eichenbaum caught up with him.

You’ve been active as a choreographer and educator for 60 years. How have you sustained such a strong presence?

Dance has been completely meaningful to me and therefore I give back to it constantly. I live in the moment and at the same time remember where I came from. This gives me a broad outlook with an eye to the future. And I’m always working cross-generationally with people of all ages—young students with ambition about where they’re going, as well as seasoned performers who bring the trajectory of the past with them.

 

What do you think is the main ingredient for growth as an artist?

You have to have a focus. I work with dancers on movement ideas but I always stress intention: What are you dancing about? Why are you doing it the way you’re doing it? What are you bringing to this movement? I want them to think about these things and come back to me with real answers.

How do you teach choreography?

Again, I always start with questions. I give my students basic exercises. I ask them to write down their aesthetic as of this moment—what they feel about their art, their craft, and how they experience it. I ask them to keep a daily journal and note if they are amplifying what they wrote earlier or if they’ve found something new that is changing how they view their art. So I have them engaged in constant internal inquiry. Then I ask them to use their craft to create their own movement signature. Working this way frees them from the preconceived tyranny of dance technique—the preoccupation with things like “How can I get my leg higher?”


Is it possible to teach qualities that are regarded as inherent, such as rhythm and sensuousness?

Yes, you can. It’s always a blessing when a student comes in with these innate abilities. But for some it’s like learning a foreign language. For these students I keep working with them until they get it. I use different methods and never give up on anyone.


How do you teach rhythm?

I tell them it’s not the sound that they’re making with their feet, arms, or body. It’s how the body moves through space. How one moves is largely determined by the natural orchestration of the body’s rhythm and pulse. I want dancers to feel rhythms and counter rhythms internally and let those inspire their movement.

 

I don’t use counts or what I call “digits.” Counting can be a crutch, a distraction that interferes with the feeling process. I speak the rhythm: ba da da de, ba da da de. If they are with me—speaking the rhythm—they don’t have time to count and are more inclined to internalize the rhythms like a new language.

How do you encourage students to move with a sense of weight?

Weight is vital to performance intention. You have to go to the ends of the spectrum: light and weighted. If your physical type is the opposite of either of these poles, you have to work technically to capture that opposite, maybe elusive quality. I give exercises that use breath to capture both lightness and weight, breath that carves the musculature and evokes a broad range of dynamics.

I read that Pearl Primus was responsible for your becoming a choreographer.

Yes, and she is still very much with me in spirit. I was in high school when I first saw her dance. She was like a vision, a beautiful sculpture. When she began to move her shoulders, her legs, and her bracelets began to jangle, my reaction was like a chemical explosion. After that I just knew I had to dance and choreograph. If I hadn’t gone to her concert that night I might have had an entirely different career.

How much do you rely on spoken language to communicate with students?

A great deal. I like to speak about what I’m thinking or just talk as I’m working. However, what I say to one student may not communicate to another. Or what I see coming back to me in movement might require that I use different words to get my point across. The difficulty comes when students misinterpret or don’t understand what I’m trying to do and their feelings get hurt. How do you deal with that? It’s one of the challenges of being a teacher.

 

 

Photo by Rose Eichenbaum.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Kee-Juan Han’s students grace stages across the country and abroad. Among them is American Ballet Theatre’s stately David Hallberg, who studied with Han at the School of Arizona Ballet. Han assimilated the Vaganova method from mentor Lin Yee Goh while dancing with the Goh Ballet in Canada. A former principal with the Indianapolis Ballet and a soloist with Boston Ballet, Han has danced most of the principal roles in the classical repertory, as well as works by Balanchine, Limón, Mark Morris, Susan Marshall, and Bebe Miller. Last year he became school director of The Washington Ballet, where he oversees a faculty of 10 teachers, and supervises the training of more than 450 students ages 5 to 23. Lisa Traiger recently spoke with Han about what he emphasizes in the classroom: determination, épaulement, and musicality.

What do you look for in young students that indicates the possibility of a future in ballet? You can see physique by the time they’re 11 or 12. That’s when bodies start to morph, so to speak. And you can see if a student has beautiful legs and feet. But that doesn’t make a dancer. It’s the determination, the drive, that makes a true dancer. There are a lot of kids who are trained well, and at 12 or 13 say they want to become a professional dancer. But by 17, dating comes and they’d rather go to university because they find out just how difficult it is to become a dancer.

 

And there’s nothing wrong with that. I tell students who graduate from training, “Give yourself two years. If you don’t get a job, go back to school.” A lot of them keep thriving, but it’s a very tough business. And those who decide to go back to school? That’s fine too. They will become good advocates for dance and will be our future audiences and board members.

 

Your students—both young and senior—carry themselves with a sense of elegance and expectation. How do you work on épaulement? I tell my students, “Even if you face en face, you still must have a sense of épaulement.” Every position has a different feeling. That’s why they have different names. Your back has to be very activated. I let students feel my own shoulders and back to understand how actively you must work.


Is that why in class you said, “I want your backs working even during your first plié”?
Right. The back always has to be active. Even when you turn, the back has to be strong and expressive. Whether they’re facing front or croisé or effacé, the back says a lot. I tell students, “I need your back to make you feel like you’re aristocratic, because classical ballet comes from the French court, so you’re all royalty.” When you look right and left, you’re acknowledging people—courtiers.

You also asked your preprofessional dancers to think specifically about where they’re looking. Why? Focus is important onstage. Say you’re a principal dancer; when you enter the room—or the stage—it’s like a pageant. You must make everyone look at you: “I’m the prince; I’m here.” You can’t walk into a room without making a statement. And that knowledge of where to focus your eyes comes from practicing it in class.

 

There’s a great deal of emphasis on musicality in your classes. I like the steps to be a little bit crisper, clearer, with syncopation, so it doesn’t become too flat. Some people might not like that choice and think, “Oh, it’s too rough.” I like the sharpness and cleanness. And the dancers feel better too; they feel like they’re actually dancing.

At what level do you start to teach musicality? I start teaching musicality when students are very young. I begin by making them identify music: simple things like whether the time signature is 3/4 or 4/4. And they learn to hear from that. When the pianist plays, I make them feel the music by putting their hands on the piano. I ask, “Can you feel the vibration between the notes?” That way they’ll understand that it’s not a sharp one-two. If you have a 3/4, there are three beats behind it: one-two-three. I also tell my students that they should not arrive in a place and wait; they need to take all three beats. They can’t do that if you don’t teach music in class. I always tell my students, “Don’t hear the music with your ears because by the time you transfer it to your legs, you’re late. You have to express and feel the music with your body right there and then.”

 

 

Photo by Stephen Baranovics, Courtesy TWB

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Jan Erkert is a dancemaker, teacher, and head of the Department of Dance at University of Illinois, Urbana/ Champaign. As artistic director of Jan Erkert & Dancers from 1979 to 2000, she began exploring the concepts of yield/push and reach/pull to differentiate qualities of effort and the focus of energy. This exploration of directing energy became the basis of her teaching philosophy. While a professor of dance at Columbia College Chicago from 1990 to 2006, she received the 1999 Excellence in Teaching Award. Author of Harnessing the Wind: The Art of Teaching Modern Dance, Erkert is a popular teacher in the American College Dance Festival Association of both students and faculty. Her naturalistic movement style evokes the primitive, with a seemingly effortless ballet underpinning. Lynn Colburn Shapiro observed Erkert’s classes and spoke with her during a June guest residency at The Dance Center, Columbia College Chicago.


Why did you have the students roll across the floor?
It’s based on movements of infants. Yielding to gravity––not flopping, but finding the yield and push––the students begin to discover that yielding isn’t always about the places in your body you’re thinking about. I’m asking them to wake up their nerve cells and touch sensations.

 

If I yield in a grand plié, I also have to reach. I ask the students to imagine the same yield and push related to a jump, to see it in their mind’s eye. I want them to feel the oppositional pulls of earth and sky resonate in the bones, and let weight and momentum carry the impulse.


How does your use of everyday gesture figure in teaching technique?
I start pedestrian and lead them into more skilled, stylistic actions. They know how to walk, and they know how to swing their arms in opposition. They’ve all practiced that. Then I can begin to guide it. The more advanced the class, the less the pedestrian actions––although when I teach professionals I go back to pedestrian. I see it as a full circle, and they have to work like hell to do it.

How can students apply your concepts to other aspects of their training? For example, the concept of yield: In improvisation, I have them first write in a notebook about their lives. Where do you yield in your life, and where don’t you? Then we practice yielding with each other. Yield is an idea full of life and psychology as much as an actual physical force. By flipping back and forth from everyday life to physicality, students can take the concepts beyond my classroom.

You have such strong ballet technique. What do you tell students without that background? My whole learning trajectory after ballet was for connectivity, flow, and understanding. I had to give up ballet temporarily to find that. I remember teaching when I got out of college, saying to students, “Throw it away! Throw it away!” And one of them asked, “How do you throw it away if you don’t have it?” I had to build students up while unleashing them, get the spine and core working first, the legs later. If I get the spine connected, the rest comes from that––like a starfish. I’ve learned to do that through Body-Mind Centering, anatomy, kinesiology, yoga, and Alexander Technique.

 

If you do one form too much for too long, you get frozen into that style. That’s why we do ballet day after day. You get better at doing ballet, but it can stifle creativity.


How does your choreographic process carry over into your teaching?
Idea-based exploration is no different in technique than in choreography. I did a piece about love. Where does it reside in the body? Is it in the heart? In the stomach? What comes if I move from the heart or the stomach? When you do a spiral, think of actually twisting your heart. The image of moving your heart first is really different from moving in a muscular-skeletal way.

How does your class prepare a student for the stage? I make them stand still for a God-awful three minutes! You have to be able to be still. You can’t be present if you’re fixing your hair, scratching your nose, or pulling up your tights. All dance training is about focus and concentration. You need to have presence in the body to be that absolute, charismatic thing onstage.

 

I see very accomplished dancers who aren’t grounded in themselves. They somehow manage the steps and have the outward form, the adoption of style without the principles behind it. Or I see peripheral showmanship. They’ll do a modern split leap but there’s nothing inside. The everyday gestures get dancers back inside themselves. The great ones, like Baryshnikov, embody a sense of technique from the inside out. That’s where I’m going. I want that to be dancing.

 

 

Photo by Bill Starr, Courtesy Colorado College Summer Dance Festival

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Fast and hard—that’s the reputation of Wilhelm Burmann’s class at Steps on Broadway. Although principals from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre take his class regularly, Burmann pays attention to any dancer who is willing to work. Originally from Germany, Burmann danced with the Stuttgart Ballet, Ballett Frankfurt, and under Balanchine at NYCB. He served as ballet master for The Washington Ballet, Grand Théâtre du Genève, and Ballet du Nord and has been a guest faculty member for ABT, NYCB, La Scala Ballet, and Paris Opéra Ballet. Jennifer Stahl recently caught up with Burmann for his thoughts on success in the classroom—and on the path to a career.

 

How should dancers approach class? The whole point of taking class, like Mr. Balanchine used to say, is to clean yourself. It’s like brushing your teeth: If you don’t do it you’ll get cavities. It’s not about being naturally perfect. Perfection comes through creating an illusion—and through hard work. When you mess up going across the floor, go to the back of the studio and clean it up. And don’t just rehearse the trouble spot. Rehearse the step that gets you into it—it’s always the preparation that determines how you do things.

How do you help dancers feel placed? If you let yourself go, you’ll get there. Standing on a controlled leg for three hours doesn’t place you. If you want to piqué arabesque, just piqué; don’t analyze it too much. Do the movement, then clean it up; not the other way around. Some people have been so drilled about feeling this detail and that detail, they can’t move.

 

How can a student get more personal attention in an open class? I’m willing. The only question is: Is the student willing? If you don’t want to go into fifth position, get out of the business. I can help you get there if you ask. I want people to learn something, but to really learn you cannot just take one class from a teacher and that’s it. “Oh, it’s too hard, it’s too fast.” It’s always too fast. If you want a career nowadays, find a teacher you really respect and keep studying with them. You don’t have to like them, but respect what they can teach you. You have to be selfish (in a positive sense) if you want to make it to the top.

 

Have you seen a change in dancers over the years? A lot of dancers now spend three or four hours on the computer, which are hours missing in the studio. It’s wonderful to elevate yourself and study and look toward the future, but if you really want to make it in ballet, you have to give to it totally. Dancers have to be better today. How can any audience nowadays take Swan Lake with someone who’s just good? It’s a ridiculous story. For it to be acceptable, the dancer has to be totally devoted to the craft.


If a dancer is “just good,” how do you help them advance to the next level? Often, people with a lot of technique have nothing going on inside. They just become pretty-looking things onstage and don’t give you anything. But everybody has a soul. When you see people who bare their soul, who are on the verge of being totally ridiculous, you’re right there with them. In the video of Swan Lake with Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell, she is so over-the-top, but just when you think she’s going nuts, she pulls back. That’s what all the excitement is about. A lot of dancers never experience that. They’re too afraid to expose themselves, to fall. But I always say, “You better fall and break all your bones. Then you can learn to pick yourself up instead of dancing so carefully all the time.”

 

You focus a lot on opposition in class. What does it do for technique? The left side of your body gets you to move to the right. If I do a développé with my right leg, I use my left side to get it there. That way the développé goes through my whole body, which gives the position strength. In German we say “the standing leg” and “the play leg,” which makes perfect sense to me: The standing leg lets the other one play. Artistically, you have to train the body with a slight épaulement because when the head gets stuck in the middle nothing works. If you really aim for opposition, the body automatically feels freer.

 

How do you help students find their balance? What Balanchine taught so well is that when you relevé, the action is down, not up. You have to put weight into the floor to get everything in line and know where your strength is. If you lift from the top, everything goes out of place. Also, you want to teach balance in movement. Anyone can stand still and passé for eight hours. Practice doing tombé pas de bourrée piqué and then staying there.

 

What would you tell young dancers going through difficulties in their careers? Don’t forget why you went into dance, whether it was for the love of it, to be a star, or to please your family. That helped me over the years. When you have bad days and everything aches or you didn’t get the role you wanted, just remember why you started.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Barbara Dilley performed with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in its early years (1963–68) and with the seminal improvisational group Grand Union. In the mid-1970s, she settled in Boulder, CO, where she became the leading force in establishing a dance program at Naropa, a Buddhist contemplative community. She later served for nine years as president of Naropa University. She is a master improviser, and her workshops focus on the awareness and presence that improvisation brings to dancers of all backgrounds. Cynthia Hedstrom spoke with Dilley after a four-day intensive workshop sponsored by Movement Research in NYC.

 

You have a three-pronged dance life as a performer, choreographer, and teacher. Where does teaching fit in your artmaking? Teaching has been a more consistent practice over the last 20 years than performing or choreographing. Because I’m involved in improvisational disciplines, the classroom is a place to make spontaneous composition all the time.

How so? As I began teaching improvisation, I found that I often used devices which were compositional. For example, I would talk about the beginning, middle, and end. Just being able to locate a trajectory or an arc of time is a compositional device. I began to see, Oh, we’re making something right here, right now.

How do you structure your improvisational training? It’s a developmental process. One, from the self, being able to work with the inner body-mind as a source for expression and movement; to two, working with others toward ensemble awareness and forming relational compositions in space; and three, to understanding that we’re creating an offering, a performance.

What’s the significance of the phrase you used in your recent workshop, “This very moment is always the occasion”? This comes from the founder of Naropa, Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. For me, it sums up a kind of instruction for the training: No matter what we do in this landscape of improvisational exploration, if we are able to stay in this very moment, all of it is expressive.

It implies you can work with any movement vocabulary. Any vocabulary works. If you bring the fullness of your attention to the most ordinary gesture it becomes extra-ordinary. There are no mistakes. I work from a nonbiased, nonjudgmental perspective.

You spoke of “kinesthetic delight.” What does this mean? Kinesthetic, the word, is about the inner consciousness of movement. There are lineages in the history of kinesthetic awareness. I think of Mabel Ellsworth Todd and her book The Thinking Body, Bonnie Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais (which I’ve started to study myself, and I’m totally awe-stuck by Feldenkrais’ body-mind work; it’s trickster, magic stuff).

Then, the question becomes for an improviser: What is your delight? It has to do with not doing things because you think you should––50 ab curls or looking a certain way for your teacher––but using delight as your touchstone. It’s a turning of the focus inward and allowing that to be the source of movement, without pointing to what you should or shouldn’t find. For me, that investigation has been the richest. I had to give up my habitual patterns of moving and come back to kinesthetic delight.

You referred to eye practices in the workshop. What are they? These are a way of expanding the presence of the gaze. I’m interested in getting people to use their faces more, to lean toward more emotional choices. As improvisers, our gaze tends to be on the floor. That’s a survival strategy, to handle the amount of physical risk we’re taking. So, when I ask dancers to not look at the floor, they have to figure out how to take in more types of visual awareness.

The first three practices are closed eyes, peripheral seeing, and infant eye, which is a strange, esoteric practice. It’s easiest to grasp lying around on the floor the way we did when we were infants. A lot of people who improvise are locked between the torso and the neck. In infant eye, the head and the gaze float. The fourth practice, visualizing negative space, is useful in a big group, because the spaces between are where you can move into. In direct looking, the fifth practice, I distinguish between looking someone in the eyes and actually seeing their gesture.

 

Who were your early, influential teachers? I think of Merce Cunningham and John Cage as my first master teachers. There were some seminal experiences when Merce was experimenting with open structures, particularly in Story and Field Dances. Those dances gave me choice within set material. All that experimental dynamic that we swam in during the 1960s and ’70s––it was the air we breathed.

 

What about technical training for a young dancer today? I think dancers should develop technique when they’re young. However, it should be enriching and not competitive in a harmful way. Good technical training filled with joy is necessary.

I also feel that multidisciplinary training gives the emerging dance artist a range of possibility. You can train as a ballerina and learn to use your voice, or as a modern dancer and keep on playing the cello. What makes a dance life sustainable is having more disciplines you can pick up and put down according to circumstance.

 

Is this the focus of the dance program at Naropa University? The BFA and MFA programs at Naropa are cross-disciplinary, movement/dance with acting together with voice. Woven into that is the mind-training practice of the contemplative education, which is about practicing mindfulness and awareness in a very ancient, formal sitting mediation. It’s what makes the Naropa approach to the arts unique.

 

 

Photo: Colin Fowler

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Take one look at Lupe Serrano and you’ll see a petite, incredibly fit, unassuming woman in her golden years. Take her class and before you’ve finished barre you’ll know you’re in the hands of a master. Her combinations are simple yet sophisticated, often syncopated, and always challenging. Why so difficult? Serrano wants her students to “dance ballet—not just do ballet.”


Born in Chile, Serrano made her professional debut with the Mexico City Ballet at age 13. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for a season as a soloist in 1951, and in 1953 she went to American Ballet Theatre as a principal. She was known the world over as a prima ballerina who could often jump higher and turn more than the men. Later, Serrano spent 14 years on the faculty of Pennsylvania Ballet and 10 as artistic associate of The Washington Ballet. She now teaches company and advanced level classes at ABT’s JKO School. Dance Spirit editor in chief Kate Lydon sat down with Serrano to talk shop.

What excites you about teaching? When you’re a dancer, you have one body to work with—your own. When you teach, you have many different bodies to work with. Some have facilities you never did and some lack facilities you had. You can always make corrections, but to correct in depth you have to analyze and understand how that person is built. I find it fascinating.

 

How are dancers today different from when you were dancing? There is more emphasis on stretching, and consequently the lines are better: the beauty of the arabesque, high extension, and the flexibility of the back. Also, some advanced students today can do double, triple, quadruple pirouettes and double fouettés. In my day that was a big specialty.

 

But there is more competition now—ballet is so international—and that might cause dancers to lack the freedom and individuality we had.

Can people find that freedom in your class? I like to relax the demands every once in a while and say, “Just do it! Just get up there!” First do the movement, and then clean it up. You can’t get too frightfully academic or else the dancers forget what it is all about—movement, not posing.

How do you want dancers to approach your class? With focus. I like seeing somebody who has a passion for dancing and for learning without overdoing the zealousness. When they are comfortable in their devotion to dance and they like working, that pleases me.

Can you explain how to turn out correctly? You rotate at the top of the leg at the hip joint or not at all. You shouldn’t turn out just your feet. You don’t need to grip the inner thigh to come around. I like to do a simple turn-in/turn-out exercise at the beginning of class so that students realize how easy it is to turn out—that it happens at the hip joint. If you clench too much, you suffocate the turnout.

 

You have many class plans typed out on sheets of paper, and you usually bring one to class when you teach. Why? I learned to teach backwards. First I did, and then I learned how. For the first 25 years, I just stood up and did what I thought was good for the students. Eventually, I began writing down the combinations I knew worked. I more or less created my own syllabus. Now each time I pick up a class plan to teach it again, I try to improve it and make sure it’s well balanced. I have 78 classes written down! Of course there are many repetitions, but I try to cover as broad a vocabulary as I know exists, including the novelties.

Tell me about your fabulous pointe classes. You want to be able to dance in pointe shoes as if you have soft shoes on or are barefoot. You have to handle and manipulate the toe shoe. When going up and down, you don’t want to have a big thump onto pointe. You should be so pulled up on the demi-pointe that getting onto pointe is seamless.

 

First I teach a lot of piqués. There are so many—piqué front, back, développé, attitude, and eventually, piqués with turns. Relevés are best done at the barre and on two feet to start with. Then we do relevés on one foot holding the barre, and eventually, in the center with turns.


What do you think about competitions?
Competitions are good for the profession because they increase public interest. They’re like the Olympics for figure skaters. Since they usually stress pyrotechnics, dancers are often drilled to excel in certain achievements. But ask those same students to perform with a different port de bras or musicality and they may be thrown. To dance professionally takes adaptability.


What qualities do you value in a performer?
I appreciate honesty and passion, a willingness to please, but also good taste. I don’t like dancers who throw it at you. Sensitive performers can make you believe what they are trying to tell you.

 

 

Photo: Rosalie O’Connon, Courtesy ABT

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Lise Houlton is part of a dance dynasty that began with her mother, the eminent Minnesota choreographer and teacher Loyce Houlton, and continues with her daughters, Kaitlyn and Raina Gilliland. Both attended the School of American Ballet, and Kaitlyn is now in the corps of the New York City Ballet. Artistic director of the Minnesota Dance Theatre & The Dance Institute in Minneapolis, Lise brings extensive experience in both classical ballet and modern dance to her teaching. As a dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, Lise performed in works by Glen Tetley, Antony Tudor, and Paul Taylor, among others. Linda Shapiro recently spoke with her after watching her class.

 

What did you learn from your mother that you bring to the classroom?

 

My mother had enormous curiosity and respect for a variety of dance forms. I encourage that in my students—by investigating many kinds of dance, they have more resources to draw from in their artistic development. My mother also taught me to expect the very best from every dancer, whether student or professional. And I learned from her that there isn’t an effective “recipe” class. Each class is unique to the dancers and the day at hand.

 

You emphasize a continuous flow of movement in the exercises and corrections you give. Why?

 

For younger dancers, the learning process can be slow. They have so much information to digest. But for advanced and professional students, the classroom experience is closer to the experience of being onstage. They need to let the mind go so the body can fall, fly, and fill the entire space. They need to build strength and stamina. Even just warming up at the barre—the more they are moving, the more the blood will be coursing through the veins. I also like to see dancers exploring the space between the landmarks of beautiful positions, so I give combinations that allow for play in that realm, where every movement serves the next.

 

What elements of your modern dance training have influenced your teaching?

 

I love to give an unconventional barre. I grew up in my mother’s classes where the barre might include grand battements, then turning around, hanging by the elbows, and dropping to the floor in a contraction. I often incorporate exercises that work the back in spirals and curves to develop the movement potential in the torso. The strength and suppleness of the back is something I look for in dancers. Glen Tetley once asked me, “Do you remember when you were a bird?” Glen’s movement was so organic and animalistic; it all began from the power of the back extending through the arms like a bird.

 

You often stress that “Everything has to be engaged.” What do you mean by that, and how do you teach it?

 

Take pirouettes, for instance. I think people get too much in their heads about turning. So I ask students to remember the feeling of getting picked up and spun around as kids. Turning is not a position—it’s a dynamic. It’s grabbing and pushing from the floor. Once students get the coordination of arms, legs, focus, and the thrust up from the pelvic floor, turning becomes really fun. People are sometimes a little shy of that force; it’s like a hurricane. It’s also important to jump from the pelvis and not expect our poor feet to do all the work. That’s where the “boing” comes from.

 

How do you define musicality?

 

I think it’s knowing when to accentuate, attenuate, anticipate, or just ride the music. I remember fondly dancing with Kevin McKenzie; we used to sing, sometimes in harmony, while we were dancing. When there is that dynamic play between the energy of the music and the energy of the body, the movement becomes emotive. It’s one of the great pleasures of dancing.

 

How should dancers prepare for class?

 

Get there with enough time to inhabit your space at the barre. Students should respect the classroom by having their hair out of their eyes and being appropriately dressed. I would love to see every student with a Thera-Band strengthening their feet, doing some core work like sit-ups, rolling through their feet to get the circulation going, swinging the legs. And they should be stretching before and after class.

 

What do you think is missing in the training of dancers today?

 

A sense of history. It’s shocking to me when students don’t know who Martha Graham or José Limón or even Anna Pavlova were. I would also like to see dance students being more curious and open-minded. How does one train to be in Billy Forsythe’s company, for instance? You have to be intelligent, quick, and inventive. You have to be able to immerse yourself in the brain of a choreographer.

 

Apart from you mother, who were your mentors as a dance student and what did you learn from them?

 

I had profound experiences with Mary Hinkson, Madame Pereyaslavec, and Madame Volkova. Mary Hinkson was a goddess Graham dancer. She would spend 45 minutes on just walking across the floor and somehow the house was on fire when she did it; she had us spellbound. Pereyaslavec and Volkova were Vaganova teachers but very different. Pereyaslavec gave a slower, sustained class—lots of big jumps; Volkova’s class was quicker, lighter—lots of petit allegro. From her I got lightness and fleetness of feet. I give specific combinations from both to my students. I also had the great fortune to work with David Howard and Maggie Black, who taught me that as long as you can hang on to correct placement, you can do multiple pirouettes and higher jumps.

 

What have you passed down to your daughters?

 

Discipline and respect. Those values are introduced in the classroom sanctuary from day one. Being a part of an art that makes you feel insignificant by its power and beauty, and at the same time significant because you are participating in it—that’s something.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Jeanne Bresciani is celebrated as an Isadora Duncan scholar, a soloist, a reconstructor of Duncan’s work, and a choreographer in her own right. Today, she devotes herself primarily to The Isadora Duncan International Institute, Inc., where she serves as artist in residence and director of education. In addition, she directs the Duncan program that she founded at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center, runs training programs in Duncan’s technique and ideology out of High Falls, NY, and directs two dance companies—one for adults, the other for children. Johanna Kirk recently spoke with Bresciani about the guiding principles of her work and her passion for sharing it with students.

How would you describe quintessential Duncan technique? Movement travels in rays through the body, emanating from the solar plexus (the top of the ribcage, where the two sides connect, below the breastbone). The core move in Duncan is to put your fingers on the solar plexus and breathe and find yourself at one with the harmony of the universe. The dancer is not an isolated, narcissistic, lost little creature. She is not out of touch with the exquisite vastness of music; the incredible, eternal source of nature; or the stimulus of others.

Are there any rules in Duncan that are maybe not so apparent? There’s no such thing as a straight line in nature, so there are no straight lines in Duncan dance. One wouldn’t come from a living source like the solar plexus and then jut out in a straight line. That has a deadness to it, it has a finitude. We don’t point the toes. We don’t end anything sharply. There is always premovement, movement, and after-movement. There is no isolation of parts in Duncan. Even a movement of the foot is related to the solar plexus. We don’t work in a forced turnout; it’s always an anatomical turnout. It’s “organic ballet.” Flow is essential. Even the strongest movements are still in “free flow,” in the terms of Laban. There can be strain, but not bondage. It is more about sensation than presentation. The animal, human, and divine levels are always operative.

Would you call Duncan’s movement “natural?” Isadora demanded that we be body, mind, emotions, and spirit. She wanted the highest intelligence and the freest body. We are nature embodied. We are felt nature. We are nature cultivated. We are nature imagined. So it is not just “natural” movement. It is nature revivified with beauty, strength, and freedom. These three qualities are our birthright as American dancers. They are what we take out to the world.

What is the relationship between the Duncan dance and its music? Our goal is to be visible music. The first music for us is our breath. We must attune ourselves to the waves of our breath. Then, we study other wave patterns: waves in water, light waves, and sound waves. If one can dance these waves, it gets the rigidity out of the body. Then, the musicality will develop. We cultivate a sense of rhythm early on. We don’t speak to the little ones, we sing to them. We make them laugh and lose themselves and then they can discover something new.

Will you tell me about skipping and other expressions of buoyancy in Duncan technique? Skipping is our way of being with weight and carrying it forth. We have to create a great deal of air in the body. We shine our knees up to the sun to get higher, rather than focusing on traveling forward. We don’t plié, and we land on the balls of our feet.

What’s the hardest thing for students to learn when they begin studying with you? If they come with a lot of technique, it is a process of undoing. Sometimes the core has already been bridled in a way that doesn’t allow letting go. If you can’t release and be vulnerable on the stage in front of people, you’ll do a nice formal job, but it won’t capture the full trajectory of the human potential of movement.

What do you love about teaching? I can have brand new dancers who somehow get to that place in themselves that is pure and cleansed, and what’s more beautiful than that? They expose their very soul and discover something exquisite within themselves that they never knew existed. And it can happen to someone who is 5 or someone who is 70.

How can the work benefit dancers trained in other styles? In Duncan class, you feel beautiful immediately. It’s instant gratification. Recently, two dancers in my training program with extensive dance backgrounds told me, “Jeanne, if I hadn’t found you, I would have stopped by now.” The Duncan work brings us up and out and into the world again with something fresh within ourselves to give back. Duncan was a paragon in the art of living; she called her school a “school of life.” Her movement reignites the fire for going out into the exquisite world of life as well as professional dance that is so thrilling, but can be very blistering too. If we could go back to our sources instead of being cut off from our whole selves by schooling, we could reunite with our faculties.

Should dancers learn about Duncan’s life and ideas to really benefit from studying her work? Duncan’s “palace of wisdom” can be reached by many paths: her life, mythos, transcendence, glamour, ideas, music, era, and what she passionately loved. The key is to realize that by reaching back into the source, you will become more in touch with yourself right now.

 

The work is a great tradition, not just a technique or an aesthetic. Isadora’s words were prophetic. She was not only a dancer, but a thinker and philosopher. I don’t like it when we teachers claim it all as our own. It honors us to be in someone else’s footsteps; it doesn’t make us less. I don’t want to co-opt her greatness, but I’m very grateful to be in her train. It is a privilege to carry her work.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Known for focusing on the elegance of classical training, Fabrice Herrault teaches students to dance with clarity of line and precise positions. After a performing career with Hamburg Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Ballet National de Marseille Roland Petit, Twyla Tharp Dance, and The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, he has become a sought-after guest teacher. He recently established his own school in midtown Manhattan, the Fabrice Herrault Studio, for private instruction. Sonja Kostich spoke with Herrault about his teaching style and philosophy after watching his class at Steps on Broadway.

 

You studied at the Académie Chaptal with Daniel Franck, a teacher from the Paris Opéra Ballet School. How do you see French training being different from training in the United States?

 

There should be no difference whether you train at the Paris Opéra or here in the United States. Some people think that because I was trained at the POB I emphasize detail and precision. The truth is, detail and precision are what classical ballet is. If you do not have that, it is because you were not taught classical ballet correctly. The same goes for how you use épaulement. There is only the correct way or the incorrect way. I always tell my students there are no secrets. Training to be a dancer is about discipline, hard work, and the communication between teacher and student.

 

If I were to point out one technical step that the French excel at, it would be “beats,” something that is not emphasized enough here. Also, some of the schools in America do not teach the full classical ballet vocabulary. POB follows rigorous traditions of classical ballet. Nothing has been watered down since its inception.

 

What is the first thing you teach a new student?

 

How to stand still. Students have a difficult time not moving and maintaining focus. Standing still requires all your muscles to be engaged, including the mind. You have to actually do something physical to stay still. And stillness also includes the eyes. You have to establish a certain focus. Someone with little training or not much technique will reveal insecurity in the eyes and in the face. When we allow our eyes to wander, our dancing becomes messy. It looks like we don’t really understand the language. You cannot simply look wherever you want. It is impossible to dance clearly without a defined focus.

 

You often deconstruct steps in order to teach the mechanics of the body. How does this help when most students just want to dance and not work on the steps?

 

I work slowly with my students regardless of how old they are. They must understand the basic elements so I try to make my teaching as simple as possible. It is physically very hard to work slowly. When you are young it hurts the body just to move one foot and isolate the rest of your body. Students have to first learn their positions, how to hold themselves facing the barre, how to repeat the same exercises. They will slowly develop strength in the feet, arms, head—everything. With time they learn the placement of the arms, how to hold the back, how to rotate, and to keep the feet flat on the floor without rolling—to find the perfect alignment and strength. Then awareness and understanding will come. They want to dance, but there is a long way to go before that.

 

How do you use music in your coaching?

 

Musicality comes with confidence. If you are not sure of what you are doing, you cannot be musical. If you don’t understand how to move your body in space, you cannot be musical. You can achieve awareness of your body only when you are precise. That is classical ballet—the line of the body and the precision of the steps. Even if you execute multiple turns, high jumps, etc., if you do not (for example) turn out, you cannot create a beautiful line and you will have no control of transitions.

 

Why do you place so much emphasis on clean fifth positions?

 

Fifth position is your support and your foundation. Technique is designed so that a tight fifth is where your strength and energy is held together. Without a precise fifth position you will be out of control. Dance is about how you start and how you finish. This is what the audience remembers. So not only is fifth position key for strength, it is your beginning point and your end point.

 

What do you tell students who are looking to attain artistry?

 

Artistry grows with your training, with your musicality. How you coordinate your arms and legs will allow you to develop artistry through your movement. When you’re young, what is artistry? It is very difficult. It is progressive. In order to get there you have to know your craft, and that takes time. To have a good teacher is a gift. And discipline is key. I tell students even if they mess up they shouldn’t give up. You learn from your mistakes. You can’t hide anything in classical ballet. When my students cry because they can’t do this or that, I tell them that frustration is part of the process. I want to help anyone who needs help, and I love working with kids. It’s my passion. How you communicate with students and build their confidence is essential to their growth technically, mentally, and artistically.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Victor Ullate has a reputation for being a “challenging” teacher. But would one expect anything less from the man who has launched the careers of Angel Corella, Tamara Rojo, and Joaquin De Luz? Since 1983, when he founded his Madrid-based school, Centro de Danza Victor Ullate, this commanding instructor has shaped some of Spain’s most sought-after ballet stars.

 

Born in Zaragoza, Spain, Ullate studied ballet under the celebrated dance teacher Maria de Ávila. His career took off in 1966 when he joined Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels. Ullate left Béjart in 1979 to become the first director of Spain’s national classical ballet company (now directed by Nacho Duato). Nine years later, he established Ballet de Victor Ullate, made up entirely of students from his school. In his class for young adults, after which Justine Bayod Espoz spoke with him, Ullate balances high expectations with an emphasis on “empujoncitos,” or baby steps. “Little by little,” he says, “but always pushing yourself to do better.”

How do you structure your classes for young adults? I assess each student’s level, and I design classes based on individual needs. It’s different from a conservatory, where each year is planned out. The first years at my school tend to be very clearly outlined, but afterward I evolve with the child. What does he or she have to work on? One day we’ll work on turns, the next day jumps or adagio. I don’t repeat exercises. I want the child’s intellect and memory to awaken, so that later, when they are professionals, they can grasp choreography quickly.

 

Are there differences between how you teach male and female dancers? It’s the same preparation, but with women the port de bras is much more feminine. They work more on turns and pointe and on developing that feminine charm, while the men are taller, more muscular, and have a much more masculine role. But the base is the same, the fondu is the same, the arabesque is the same.

 

A lot of your choreography combines ballet and flamenco. Do your students study traditional Spanish dance on the side? The earlier generations did have flamenco classes. Rather than teaching character dances like they do in other schools, we added our own national character. As the director of a dance company, I wanted to develop a style that would differentiate this company from the rest. I’ve never tried to choreograph flamenco dance, I’ve just tried to include the essence of flamenco in my vision.

 

You’ve taught some of Spain’s most prominent ballet dancers. How do you think you’ve influenced them? I’m interested in quality, in elegance. It’s better to take a little extra time and insist that everything is performed well and not just any which way. There are people who say that pirouettes and tours en l’air require the most work, but what about everything in between? The transitions are what make a great professional. A failli, a glissade, a port de bras––all of those things I try to improve in my students. Great dancers have a certain presence that others don’t, and it’s due to that detailed and meticulous work ethic.

 

On the other hand, many of your students are known for their high jumps and multiple pirouettes. What’s your approach to teaching these? Pushkin, who was Baryshnikov’s and Nureyev’s teacher, always said—and I say it too—that a dancer knows he’s dancing well when he has a good fifth position and demi-plié. The demi-plié is what makes you push and jump up.

 

Maria de Ávila used to tell us all these stories about Nijinsky. She’d say, “Nijinsky jumps and he remains up in the air.” All of us little children wanted to jump and stay there, like flying. Above all, jumps are a sensation, and the students must have that sensation of pushing and remaining suspended in the air.

 

As a dancer, I always had a very strong pirouette, which is a talent I have been able to pass on to my students. The student has to think about the axis, turn the head well, and have a properly positioned back.


What have you learned from your mentors that you use when teaching?
Maria de Ávila left the biggest impression on me. She gave me the groundwork I needed so that I could later be enriched by the teaching of others. I find the Vaganova technique works very well as a foundation. I start with that and build on it in my own way.

You’ve said that your true vocation is teaching. What makes it so rewarding? I love teaching. A lot of nights I go to bed pretty tired because I’ve been working the whole day, but the next morning, at about 6:30 or 7:00, I’m up and thinking about what I’m going to work on with them. It gives me meaning. I don’t want to lose the teaching facet of my career because it makes me démarrer, as they say in French, or get up and go. It’s the engine of my life.

 

What do you learn from your students? I learn how to say things in a way that is constructive. I’ve found it’s better to use a soft tone, rather than an aggressive one. You get more through love than aggression. You have to approach students with both affection and firmness and let them know that it’s for their own good, and that everything they give to dance, the dance will give to them.

 

 

Photo by Justine Bayod Espoz.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Frank Andersen has devoted great energy to preserving and advancing Bournonville technique, the signature style of the Royal Danish Ballet. A recipient of a 2002 Dance Magazine Award, he recently retired from his position as artistic director of the company, which he held from 1985 to 1994 and again from 2002 to 2008. Andersen began training at the RDB School in his native Copenhagen in 1960, joined RDB in 1971, and became a principal in 1977. He has also been artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet and has advised companies in China and Japan. With an enthusiasm that’s contagious, he embodies what August Bournonville intended ballet to become: so full of passion it could make an audience want to rise up and dance.

 

Toba Singer caught up with Andersen last November at the International Ballet Festival in Havana, where he was staging part of Napoli for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and teaching at Laura Alonso’s Centro Prodanza de Cuba.

 

Why should a dancer study Bournonville technique today? Adding Bournonville to a general classical background will give you greater freedom in ballet. The technique is difficult. It requires the coordination of the upper body, arms, and head inclined toward the legs. Every step, every enchaînement, must be danced with grace and élan yet look relaxed, happy, and free.

In the Bournonville style, what is distinctive about the use of the head? The head and upper body always follow the working leg. Let’s take, for example, a combination where you jeté onto the right foot, then onto the left, then chassé leading with the right, and jump forward toward the audience on the left. You must look first to the right, then to the left, then again to the right with the chassé, and turn the head with the jump. The Russians look away from the leg. We never do that, even in tendu. We look at the tendu leg.  

What’s the biggest adjustment a dancer new to Bournonville must make? If you can master Bournonville, you can master any classical style. What you have to conquer is dancing your way through the variation. A boy performing Le Corsaire or Don Quixote might run to the corner of the stage, then dance a diagonal to the center. In Bournonville, you are never running from place to place. You’re always dancing.

 

Another adjustment is the arms. The épaulement, especially what we call the “Danish embrace,” is one of the biggest challenges. The hands are open to say “Hello” to the audience. It’s one of the first things we teach: “Stop, stop, go back to have the feeling of the open hands.” The elbow should be slightly higher than the forearm, and the elbow and hand are always below the shoulder. If there is a jump, you jump forward, keeping the arms under the shoulders. The orchestra patrons, who pay the most for their tickets, aren’t included if your arms are up high.

In class today you said, “I see a little Swan Lake in the arms.” What did you mean? When the elbows are drooping slightly in second position, I call that Swan Lake. I’ve been preparing a full-length Napoli in Moscow for the Stanislavsky Ballet Company, and I see the dancers struggling to avoid this. In Bournonville, drooping elbows aren’t an option––unless we have a slight change into allongé. When we take arabesque and then a penchée, we make a breath with the elbow, but we never come to this drooping position.

Bournonville is known for its streamlined look, but I see a lot of dimension and nuance onstage. How do your dancers achieve that? In the studio we work more as academicians. When we go onstage there is a certain freedom that I like to compare with a highway emergency lane: The moment you know the technique, you can step into that lane and play with the phrasing and be more generous—draw a little bit here, push a little bit there—but that’s only when we go into battle. In the studio, you stay in the box.

Can you say more about the Royal Danish Ballet approach to Bournonville? I believe that dancers, even in the old days, wanted to be challenged. The classes they took in the 1930s and 1940s were not organized in the order we have nowadays, but we were still getting our daily technique. Then, in the early ’50s, when we turned to Vera Volkova, we were challenged with a different way of thinking and using our bodies. She created the distinct Danish style by combining French and Russian traditions with the Bournonville style. We took the arms, épaulement, fast footwork and melded them, then created the dancer who could do them. Volkova died when I was 22, but she selected me as an apprentice and dancer. It was she who proposed that we incorporate the best from both worlds into what I teach today. We owe a debt to her for this great artistic legacy. 

 

 

Photo: John R. Johnsen, Courtesy RDB

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Teacher’s Wisdom

A founding member of Twyla Tharp’s original group, Sara Rudner helped define the Tharp style. As a dancer, she had a sensuality and largesse shaped by a keen intelligence, and the look of utter spontaneity. She was mesmerizing to watch—and still is. Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic of The New York Times, recently named her one of the treasures of the New York dance scene. As a choreographer, Rudner moved away from the proscenium toward more informal settings, always with the idea of “dancing first.” Her recent projects include Dancing-on-View and This Dancing Life. Since 1999 she has been the director of the dance program at Sarah Lawrence College, where Hannah Gilfillan recently spoke with her.

When did you begin teaching, and why? I began teaching while I was with Twyla Tharp’s company. We would give performances and master classes at colleges and universities. And though all of the company members were interested in these experiences, I seemed to be the most curious. What I’ve realized in my years of teaching is that no matter what level we’re at in our learning, we’re all dealing with very similar things––how to stabilize, how to balance, how to feel our feet, how to discover our true rotation. I’m going to be 65 and I’m still working on these things. I think it’s good for students to keep in mind that we’re all in this together. Some of us have danced a little bit longer, but we’re still working on a basic foundation.

How do you feel you’ve changed the dance department at Sarah Lawrence College? I came into Sarah Lawrence when the dance world was undergoing a really wonderful shift; it was opening out. Dancers were beginning to study more broadly. Not just ballet and modern but jazz, tap, bharata natyam, flamenco, African, hip hop. I felt we should be cultivating the dancer as a whole human being so our students would be multifaceted in this newly broadened field. After four years of study, a student may want to concentrate on performance, scholarship, or choreography, but I see these as a jumble, all co-existing.

 

Another change is that we’ve expanded how long students spend in a practice (technique) class, rather than scheduling two classes back to back. In many undergraduate dance programs or conservatories, students do a modern class followed by ballet or vice versa. And each begins with pliés, so you’re doing pliés for more than an hour a day. But if you’re working very consciously the first time around, you don’t have to exhaust your joints in that way. It’s a more holistic point of view.

What’s the best way for a dancer to avoid injury?
I don’t think people should be doing the same class five days a week. What we do here is a mild form of cross-training. Not in the sense of going to a gymnasium but looking at your physical practice from other perspectives. And that means yoga, tai chi, improvisation, and contact improvisation, which give you insight into the workings of your own body. This also prevents you from hammering away at your body with the same types of activity. It can be very hard for a dancer because she might think, “I’ve got to dance every day or else I’m not going to get any better and I might get worse.” That’s just not true. If something hurts you, we’re going to show you a more balanced way to approach that movement.

What do you pass down to your students that you learned from your 20 years with Tharp? Dancing with Twyla, I learned how to find my own way through movement. And my way was very different from someone else’s, which in our company produced an aesthetically richer pool. We were never asked to dress alike, look alike, or dance alike. Twyla gave me the space and respect to find myself. That was a gift. And I hope it’s something we can do for our students. No one person, teacher, or choreographer knows everything. You’ll always find holes where you need to catch up or where you have a different point of view. I think that’s a very good thing. It means that you’re starting to think for yourself.

How do you challenge students to grow as technicians? First I try to establish a safe atmosphere, where a person doesn’t feel tense, so they can sense the parts of their body. Once that happens and we’re working on a certain movement, I challenge them with a variation by asking, “Can you do that with your eyes closed or with both legs? Can you do a side bend while you’re doing the turn?” You can do simple things, but with great awareness and a fresh mind. Each day everything will feel different and you’ll go through your checklist: Can I feel my toes, can I feel my hamstrings? Am I little too far back on my feet, am I a little too far forward? And then you run around the room and forget about it. And then you try again.

What do you learn from your students? When they say, “I don’t understand this movement” or “I don’t feel it this way,” that encourages me to take movements apart and try to understand them again. If you have questions, ask. It’s very helpful on both sides—for yourself and for the teacher’s understanding of what is going on.

 

 

Photo by Nathaniel Tilestone, DM Archives.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

De Ama Battle has been a longtime force in the Boston dance scene. Like her mentors Chuck Davis and Pearl Primus, she teaches West African movement with an anthropologist’s eye. A native of Cambridge, MA, Battle regularly visits Senegal, Mali, and elsewhere in West Africa to research dance traditions. Having taught at colleges including Radcliffe and Wellesley, she continues to direct her 33-year-old company, the Art of Black Music & Dance. For 15 years, she has also taught African Dance Styles at the Boston Conservatory, where she recently spoke with French Clements.

When you visit Africa, what do you take back to the studio? I try to capture on videotape a lot of things I’m exposed to—the way people wash clothes, go to market, celebrate weddings, and how they dress. I bring the tapes into class, to give a firsthand look at where I was, what I did, and what steps I’ve learned. Most people who teach these dances in this country say, “This is a celebration dance, a harvest dance,” but they don’t go into what the groom does before the wedding, or how the bride gets prepared. What kind of food is served? Who does the cooking? These lifestyle experiences help students get a handle on the dance itself and on the way people live.

What problems in training do students currently face in the United States? The hardest is to be loose in the body—to be opposite from the European tradition. One is straight up, and the other has all the limbs bent. You’ll hear me say, “Stick your butt out!” In so many techniques, we’re taught to tuck under. But a lot of the cultural forms are opposite. It’s another type of centering, as opposed to ballet, where you’re pulling up through the hips and ribs and nose.

How do you redefine the relationship of a dancer to his or her body? It goes back to the distinction between rigid European dance and fluid African dance. To address that, I get students to walk around in what I call “African first position.” All the joints are bent, the torso is at 45 degrees, the hips are flexed. The butt is not held strong—it’s out there. Eventually, they learn how to let their arms move in coordination with the legs. So many people forget how to walk in opposition!

 

What did you learn from Pearl Primus? The most outstanding thing Dr. Primus always said was, “Know what and whom you’re talking about as you’re teaching. Represent it as faithfully as possible.”

What kinds of questions do your students ask you? Some questions relate to synchronizing body movements. In my classes, when you raise your arm, the head is often moving in the opposite direction. Most students, when they raise an arm, take their head in the same direction. And they ask about the meaning of certain movements. The girls ask, “Why do we put our hands on our bellies?” That represents the sympathy you give to a woman bearing a child. Men put their hands across their chest and profess their willingness to help with a new life. Or, “Why do we curve our hands upward?” You’re dipping your hand in the river. The movement of using a hoe in the field is down low. We have no connection to that, as city folk.

Why is it hard for some people to adapt to West African dance? I think it’s a rhythm thing. If you haven’t heard the music before, it’s awkward. If you can put the movement with the music and feel it internally, you can more easily execute the step. Until you learn the music, you’re out of sync. People say, “I have no rhythm,” or whatever. Well, there was no one more awkward than me! Everybody’s awkward until they have a sense of the music and of the parts of the body that are accentuated. Everybody starts out on the same foot, no pun intended.

Do you think studying African dance makes today’s dancers more versatile? I think it’s essential to making a dancer well-rounded. You don’t go through life straight up and never bending in what you do. If you study ballet for years—without exposure to African, Brazilian, Mexican dancing—you never get to experience dancing on the downstroke. By experiencing different cultures, you learn all the ways your body can go.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Chicago-based Billy Siegenfeld is a jumping, tap-dancing choreographer and teacher who created his own dance style with his troupe, Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. He merges Gene Kelly’s silken moves with high-energy tap, and brings it all close to the ground. He received the 2006 Ruth Page Award for his unique dance vocabulary and was honored at the 2005 Jazz Dance World Congress. In 2005 he traveled to Finland as a Fulbright Senior Specialist to teach theory and practice of JRJP technique. He is on the faculty of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and his technique is also taught at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Writer Lynn Voedisch interviewed him after class at the Joel Hall Dance Center in Chicago.

I would imagine that classically trained dancers have no idea what you are doing when you start class. Is that true? Are they puzzled?

Of course they are. They are thinking that they ought to shut up—it’s dance class. Instead, we start out each class chanting the alphabet and calling out the beat. In ballet technique, the body is held up. This is not good for an aesthetic based on making rhythm. We help them unlearn it by passing through a series of exercises that takes them from the floor to standing. We concentrate on letting go of the bones. I have them sing, which helps release the weight of the pelvis. Engaging the use of the diaphragm leads you to release the internal organs.

 

Why do you use a human skeleton to demonstrate your technique?

I say to students, “This is how the body wants to be. Mess with it at your own risk.” The body is perfect for running from a lion or running toward something to eat. It has efficient locomotion. In nature, the rib cage is not lifted [the way it is in ballet]; that lift increases tension in all the joints. It pulls the body away from the ground, and then the body is in a constant state of falling.


How does your style protect dancers from injury?

The technique helps people work through old injuries. When the body is grounded, securely placed on the earth, then it is difficult to hurt yourself. You are letting go of the joints. You move the same way a cat jumps off a fence.

Your warm-ups are unconventional, with people roaming around the studio and vocalizing loudly. How do they prepare the students to dance?

We don’t force the stretch. I disagree completely with traditional warm-ups. The faster your cardio vascular system starts working, the better. We have shouted accents like “Bim!” “Boom!” “Bah!” at the very beginning of the class. First, accents are tremendously explosive energy. The idea is to let the body behave the way it wants to. Traditional warm-ups make the body do what it doesn’t want to do. We work on the efficiency principle—what the body wants to do.


In class you talk about a “kinesthetic eye” or kinesthesia. Can you explain what that is?

In most dance classes you are constantly looking in the mirror to see that you look right. Kinesthesia is a feeling of grounding your body. It depends on feeling if your body is relaxed. It’s all about how you take the energy coursing through the body and turn it into clear, articulate movements in space.

You ask your students to critique each other in class. How is this helpful?

It replaces the mirror. It engages the student as a teacher even as the student is learning. Teaching others to feel what the joints are like when they are tense and loose is the best way to learn the rhythm. When you put teacher power into students’ hands, it makes them better thinkers about what’s right or wrong.

 

Most dance classes are so hierarchical. It’s funny. It’s regressive. It forces students into not being able to talk back. They need to ask questions, engage in conversation. Here they are functioning in conversation with others. They are singing. Go to an African dance class and you will see singing and rhythm-making. It helps to increase the sense of community.

What exactly are the “drumbeaters” you talk about ?

The two hands, head, and voice. All four parts make rhythm. We use them as we try to transform the dancing body into an articulate, rhythm-making instrument. Human bodies are an outlet for emotional expression. Hands have a voice—look at the Italians. Tell someone you love them, and those drumbeater parts are instinctively engaged. We use the passionate force that’s in the body and that comes out in voice, hand-hits, movement of the head. People feel good when they are using the emotional life that’s within the body because they are expressing feeling in motion. We’ve coalesced all four parts. The more coalesced, the clearer the rhythm.


Are parts of hip hop very similar to Jump Rhythm Jazz?

We are doing the shapes of hip hop. Both are based on African dancing. We are trying to let the body be in a state of aliveness. Anything that’s stiff is not cool.

Can you talk about the role of breath and relaxation in your work?

Breathing is putting your body in the best position to scoop up a lot of energy. You must relax before you can fully inhale. That’s what helps you expel air by vocalizing. It’s finding strength through relaxation. In class, even when you are standing still, you are relaxing for a battement. I like to say we are in active relaxation. The ground is your best friend. Let the muscles and bones fall to the earth as they will. Then you will be moving from a sense of yielding.


Who are your heroes or models?

The Nicholas brothers, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly. All that kind of dance was brilliant, moving quickly with sharpness, humor, and mischievousness. When you see it, you can’t help but smile.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Eric Franklin helps dancers to improve their technique by applying scientific principles, anatomical understanding, and the power of the imagination. The Swiss-born movement educator teaches workshops around the world, both at Pilates studios and at major dance institutions like the Juilliard School, the Royal Danish Ballet, and Guangzhou’s Guangdong Dance Company. He is the author of Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery and Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance, both in their sixth printings. His 17-year-old institute is based in Switzerland. Rachel Straus recently spoke to Franklin about what makes his work so useful for dancers.

What is the Franklin Method? My method aims to improve a dancer’s technique rapidly and efficiently. When dancers have difficulty performing a movement, they are often told by their teachers to do something differently. Sometimes this helps. Often it does not. The brain needs to receive information on technique in a very specific language in order to control the body in the way that you want. This language is imagery. Imagery is not just pictures in your mind—it is how a movement feels, the rhythm and the mood of it.


How do you begin helping a dancer?
The Franklin Method has three steps: Define the technical challenge, create imagery based on scientific knowledge of anatomy, help the dancer to experience this imagery. This allows the brain to provide the body with the best possible movement organization. With the proper image, a dancer can improve his flexibility and balance in minutes. Sounds like magic? Yes and no. Dancers need to be trained to use imagery that is science-based and not just coincidental or random.


Tell me more about science-based imagery.
In the sports world, they’ve developed something called the IFM Principle (which stands for image, feeling, meaning). The theory is that for imagery to be effective, you need an accurate picture of what you’re doing and a positive feeling-response. For example, imagine your feet are spreading on the floor like buttermilk. You could tell someone that and they would say, “Are you crazy!” But if you say to a dancer, “If you want to have a deeper and more relaxed plié, imagine your feet spreading like warm buttermilk as you move downward,” that’s different. In this statement, I gave meaning: developing a better plié. I gave feeling: spreading your feet as you move downward. I gave positive imagery: warm buttermilk.

For a movement to have benefit, the thought, the picture, and the emotion must be positive and it must make anatomical sense. There is an immense amount of scientific research on the connection between emotional state and performance. In dance all the research is going past us. Dancers think if their body hurts, they are making progress. I’m sorry, but that’s a bunch of baloney.


Why did you gravitate from dance performance to somatic work?
After my first dance training, everything was hurting: my knees, my lower back. I thought dancing was supposed to be healthy and fun but it was making me feel unhealthy. I went to a variety of doctors who had all kinds of things they wanted to do to me. I said, “I have to find a new way.” Luckily I was in New York, which is the mecca of body therapy. I studied everything that was available: shiatsu to every type of imagery.

André Benard, who was influenced by Erick Hawkins, introduced me to imagery. I had the key experience in his class of doing constructive rest, where you lie on your back with your knees up and your feet flat on the floor. In this position my back released just through imaging. “What?” I thought to myself. “I did nothing but imagine something, and my back released like never before. Oh my God this stuff really works,” I realized. Until then I thought imaging was sheer fantasy. That’s one of the main problems: People think it’s fantasy, even though there is more research done on imagery than surgery.

What else should dancers embrace? Sports psychology has shown that you’re better off if you spend less time training and more time doing mental work. No athlete who wins anything these days is always training—it’s suicide. But dancers are. A 1930 study on basketball players by E. Jacobson demonstrated the best way to work is to spend one-third of the time training mentally and two-thirds training physically. We are not doing this in dance. It is well-known that dancers are weaker and less flexible at the end of a season. You should get stronger by being in a dance company. There is something called periodization in sports. Athletes have downtime and preparation time that’s carefully calibrated so that they’re playing when they are at their peak.


How can dancers change their technique?
There is only one fundamental way and it sounds radical: having a new set of proprioceptions—that is, a new set of sensations in the body. You can’t fully reproduce a movement if you’ve never felt it before. Instead you keep reproducing movement you’ve already felt—even if it’s inefficient. The key is to use new imagery to create a new sensation in order to move more efficiently. Unless that new information gets into your body, nothing will change. So many dancers take class day in and day out, but they don’t improve. They don’t change because their thinking doesn’t change.

What are some of your favorite mottos? If you want to change your body, first change your mind. If something is not working, make a different choice. Embodying function improves function. Don’t solve problems; experience solutions. How do you make your movement interesting? By being interested in your movement.

Go to www.franklinmethod.com for more information.

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Teacher’s Wisdom

Living legend Mary Anthony moved to New York at age 17, and with $25 in her pocket set out to become a dancer. She was awarded a scholarship to study at the Hanya Holm School, and later joined Holm’s company and became her personal assistant. Anthony opened her own studio in 1954 and began her company, Mary Anthony Dance Theatre two years later. Many of her students have gone on to make contributions to the dance world, among them Elisa Monte and Ronald K. Brown. Although her company has stopped performing, she continues to teach daily technique and repertory classes. In 2004 she was awarded a Bessie in honor of her dedication as a teacher. Johanna Kirk recently sat down with Anthony for a conversation in the Manhattan studio where she lives and works.

 

Tell me about your most inspiring experiences as a dance student and how they influenced your teaching. When I was a little girl and I saw Martha Graham, I said, “That’s it! That’s what I want!” It was just a question of getting to New York and studying with her. But, there is only one Martha Graham, and people are still making the mistake of trying to be Martha. I was very glad to have studied with Hanya because I became me. In the Holm work it’s experiment, experiment, experiment, experiment . . . then you have a finished dancer. I also studied with Julia Barashkova of the Kirov Ballet, and I incorporate Vaganova technique into my work. When I saw the Greek National Theater, I thought, “That’s the kind of theater I have to have!” So when I started my company, it became the Mary Anthony Dance Theatre. What I was aiming for then, and still am, is total theater, not just dance.


What do you mean when you say that students should strive to be conscious of themselves, rather than self-conscious?
Martha was actually the first one who said that self-conscious people are selfish because they assume that everyone in the room is looking at them. You have to turn that around and stay conscious of yourself, your power, and what you can do. That’s why I feel very strongly about not looking in the mirror, about letting everything that you do come from the inside. That’s where we come to the truth. If you look in the mirror, you’re coming to a reflection; you’re not coming to the base of you.


What do you do to develop strength in your dancers?
The trick to good technique is to always move from your center. I tell my students to think about their center in everything they do. I also tell them to use imagery. Think of an ocean and become it in movement. Find a verse of poetry, and become it. Let your movement be driven by real emotion.


How can dance help to center our lives?
The body does not lie. Knowledge gained through the senses—through the eyes, nose, mouth, hands, ears—stays with you. I worry these days, when kids are propped in front of the television set, that they are not using their senses. They’re smothering them. I refuse to come into the 21st century: I don’t e-mail, I don’t have a touch-tone telephone, I don’t carry bottled water. People are getting farther and farther away from truly living. They’re just doing. Moving is more important now than ever before. It’s how you keep yourself alive. People are astonished when I tell them I’m 91. And the reason that I am the way that I am is because I danced all my life.

What must dancers do to care for their bodies? Think of your body like a Rolls Royce. It has to have the best oil, the best tires, and it has to be examined all the time: “Is my Rolls Royce functioning exactly as it should?” Going to class won’t make you a performer, but if you are performing, you must be going to class. You must eat a special way. You must get proper rest. But the requirements of life for dancers are the requirements one should be following just to live a healthy life.

 

Hanya almost made it to 100 years. And Martha. And Ruth St. Denis celebrated her 80th birthday about 10 times. It’s not just that they were moving, they were taking care of their bodies. Also, dancers should read a poem a day. You need imagery. In addition, we have to be nature watchers. Watch a storm. Watch the stars. Watch the clouds. Watch everything, and let it become part of your movement. People are out of touch with nature. We need to make a point of bringing it back into our lives.


What advice can you give young dance students today?
Whether you become a performer or not, you’ll live a richer, deeper, healthier life if you study dance. It will give you dignity and a sense of who you are, of the way you move. And you’ll move with honesty.

 

And to those who are striving to be professionals, hang in there. Don’t ever give up. Just because something seems too difficult at the time, don’t think that you won’t be able to do it. Maybe it will happen a month later or a year later. You just have to trust the animal part of your brain, the medulla oblongata.

Hang on to the art of dance, but supplement it with museums, concerts, reading poetry, reading literature, reading plays. I assign my students to go to one room of one museum each week. You have to water the flower of the dancer with all the other arts.

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