February 28, 2013
While doing the show, I began taking class with a famous Russian teacher in New York City whose students included leading dancers of world class companies. I was in ballet heaven, and felt especially honored because this teacher gave me so much personal attention, placing me in the front row between the ballerinas.
She called me “Fine.” She would come up to me at barre, lift up my rib cage, push my “popo” (pelvis) under and jam my feet into a perfectly tight fifth position. Ouch. Nonetheless, I fell in love with her and her wonderful classes. I wanted to be “perfect” for her. I forgot everything Mr. C had taught me.
The more I tried to please her, the worse I danced. The more I took her classes, the more I pulled on the barre so that I could show my extended leg and foot in a flat second position. Consequently, my supporting side was always twisted toward the free leg. I was never able to release the barre without falling off my leg.
Without realizing it, I was losing my supporting side and forgetting the way I had worked with Mr. C. It wasn’t long before I started losing my double tours on stage. I was bouncing off course and stumbling on my landings. I started to get nervous and anxious because I didn’t know what was going wrong.
In Act II of Flower Drum Song, I had more double tours than in Act I. While doing tours, I had to cross the stage in front of the proscenium curtain with only about four feet of stage space. I feared falling into the orchestra. To complicate matters, I had to do these tours with a straw hat in one hand and a cane in the other. There were times when I nearly fell off the stage.
Eventually, I stopped trying to do the tours. I settled for double pirouettes. My self-esteem dropped several notches.
When you start falling all over the stage, you get “mental.” I grew afraid, lost my confidence and began panicking and freezing like a deer in the headlights. I was so scared my body would tense up before the tours, which is the exact opposite feeling I needed. I felt like every action I made was incorrect, which compounded my problem. I was losing my balance in the air, and was haunted with the memory of falling while trying to spot the red “EXIT” sign at the back of the audience. My tours got worse. So, for the next several years, I went through many ups and downs (both literally and metaphorically) with my tours.
When we had pirouette combinations in the ballet class, the teacher would stand in front of me and scream “five pirouettes!” and show me her hand with five fingers extended. And, of course, I tried to do them and usually ended up hopping around trying to stay on my leg.
By the time I joined the San Francisco Ballet in December 1960, my tours were even worse. (How much more could I fall?) In The Nutcracker, I had to do the ribbon dance (Russian) alongside my old friend Michael Smuin, who had become the company virtuoso. I was terrified and bounced all over the huge stage of the San Francisco Opera House. I was ready to kill myself. I would practice and practice. I got to the point where I could almost do them alone in the studio. But when I got on stage and looked out at the enormous blackness of the audience, I “pulled up,” scrunched my feet together in fifth and there I was: working out of my body again.
In time, I realized that I had lost my double tours because I chose the “vanity” route. I wanted to “look perfect” to please my Russian teacher. I had forgotten all the good things Mr. C had given me. I ignored proper mechanics so that I could show a textbook fifth position. I became so pulled up I looked like I was walking on egg shells. I couldn’t push off the floor properly.
I didn’t recover my tours until I joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1962. Robert Joffrey kept telling me I was “too light.” I didn’t know what he meant. I was pulling up as much as I could! In fact I was so pulled up I was close to walking on air.
Gradually, Joffrey’s very basic classes began making sense to me. After all the emphasis on perfect fifth positions in class in NYC and with the San Francisco Ballet, it was an eye-opening (mind-opening) relief to see Paul Sutherland at the barre. He never had perfectly turned out 5th positions. He didn’t have perfect turn-out, kept his knees straight, and didn’t try to force his 5th position. Because Bob Joffrey never asked for tight, perfect fifths, I began to find my legs and feet again. My tours started to come back, even though it took me a while to get over the fear that automatically set in each time I got on stage, saw the blackness of the theater, and was reminded of my disastrous performances with Flower Drum and SF Ballet.
I found that much as I wanted to, I could not go back to the Russian teacher I loved. Her teaching methods were too contrary to what I needed to do in order to dance well—i.e. working with my body as it was built, and not forcing myself into textbook-perfect positions.
I finally overcame my double tour problem, but it took mental discipline and lots and lots of practice. In 1965, while dancing with The Harkness Ballet of New York in Cannes, France, my triumph came. I ended up performing 64 double tours over the course of a weekend of four performances without a hitch. Our Director, George Skibine, who had himself been a famous dancer at the Paris Opera, said he had never seen any dancer do so many perfect double air turns in one weekend and gave me a prized bottle of champagne.
Now you know why I say, “The more you stand; the more you stand. The more you fall, the more you fall.”