February 26, 2013
In every class I teach, I see many students who do most of their barre exercises without being properly placed over the supporting foot. They rely on the barre and don’t seem to have an awareness of the importance of transferring their weight to the supporting side. When I watch them work, I see that they’re “not on their leg.” If they were to release the barre, they’d fall over.
Not transferring weight on to one leg becomes a huge problem because the bottom line is simple: In ballet you will be doing most of your dancing on one foot, not two. No matter how much effort you put into perfecting the movements of your free leg, if you are not balanced on your standing leg you will fall over.
Let me tell you what happened to me when I had my first professional job in New York City in 1960:
My story is an example of the law of cause and effect. I am a Buddhist, and I begin each day with prayers and self-reflection in front of my home altar. Buddhism teaches us that we are responsible for our actions. The way we live and act today is based on actions we took in the past. Our thoughts and actions today determine what will happen to us in the future. It is like the saying, “what goes around, comes around.” The law of cause and effect can work for us or against us: Work positively, get a positive result; Work negatively, get a negative result.
I took my first technique classes at the University of Utah, when I was 18. I majored in ballet, which in 1955 was something of a first, especially for a man. I studied with Mr. C (Willam F. Christensen) who was still able to demonstrate pirouettes, double tours and jumps. He would always warn us men that we shouldn’t try to have perfect foot positions. He would say “Men shouldn’t to be too clean, too perfect. Always be a little dirty, a little sloppy.”
When we practiced pirouettes, he repeatedly told us not to over cross our fourth position, using as an example a respected male dancer who was overly conscious of his positions and who placed his feet in a textbook perfect fourth position, but couldn’t turn to save his soul. Mr. C encouraged us to place our back foot where we needed to in order to keep our weight on our standing leg. He showed us how to wind up and push down and spot like crazy.
Mr. C’s double tours in the air were lightning fast and solid. He knew (from his years of Vaudeville touring) what the audience saw and didn’t see. The audience wasn’t looking for a perfect fourth position before a pirouette—they just wanted to see lots of fast turns. The audience wasn’t checking a dancer’s fifth position of the feet before a tour either. They just wanted to see him get in the air, turn around twice with lightning speed and land on a dime. And then do it again. And again.
Mr. C had the “teacher’s eye.” He knew what to look for. He wasn’t checking us for textbook perfect foot positions. He was watching our placement, our timing (yum-pum-pum-pah) and he encouraged us to attack our steps with guts and vigor, which enabled us to make fast multiple pirouettes and strong double tours.
Each day after class, the guys—this included Michael Smuin, Kent Stowell, myself and others—would get together and conduct our own pirouette and double tour contests. We would stand in a circle. One of us would begin with a single pirouette. Then the next guy would try, and the next. Each time the circle was completed, we would start another circle, this time adding on one more turn. We usually got up to four or five turns (more or less.) After many tries and
displays of pirouettes (Michael would usually win the contest) we’d next practice our air turns.
We’d put a handkerchief on the floor, stand on it, do a double tour from 5th position without moving the feet, and have to land on it. Practicing double air turns without any preparatory steps (i.e. sous-sus, pas de bourrée, chassé) taught us to power up in the center of the body and to use our feet and eyes. While encouraging and challenging each other, we perfected our pirouettes and tours.
I graduated with a BFA (Ballet Major), High Honors, Phi Kappa Phi, in 1959 and then spent six months in the Utah National Guard, fulfilling the government’s mandatory military requirement for men. After basic training I was stationed as a clerk-typist at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. When I was tested for typing speed, I learned I was the fastest typist in the U.S. Army at 100 words per minute. (And that was with one those big clunky Underwood typewriters.)
In February 1960 I received a telegram from Rogers & Hammerstein. They needed an Asian male ballet dancer who could do double tours for their hit Broadway show Flower Drum Song. Other than standing on a platform in the middle of a drill field demonstrating squat jumps in front of hundreds of guys, I hadn’t done any sort of plié or ballet class for at least four months. I had only a few days to get into shape, so I gave myself class and practiced my pirouettes and tours in a room in the barracks.
I was flown up to New York, showed the dance captain my pirouettes and tours, was told that as soon as I completed my Army duty at the end of the month, the job was mine. As soon as I was discharged, I flew back to New York, watched the show on Saturday, had a private rehearsal to learn the number, and on Monday, made my Broadway debut in the “Pink Ballet” in Flower Drum Song at The St. James Theater.