Here’s what Andy Blankenbuehler, my former student at BDC and three-time Tony-winning Broadway choreographer (Hamilton, Bandstand, and In the Heights) says: “Thousands of lessons, hardships, joys, and triumphs . . . thousands of moments when generosity shapes the future. These are gifts along the journey of life! In this book, Finis Jhung honors those gifts, and shows through his words, teaching, and career, that the journey is not successfully navigated without a stunning love for the work and a great deal of inspiration. As a teenager, I walked into Finis’ class with my dance bag and countless hopes and dreams. Luckily for me, a stunning love for the work and a great deal of inspiration was waiting at the barre.”
And strangely enough, twenty years ago, when Andy first tried his hand at choreography for a regional theater, I interviewed him for my website. I knew then he was a special talent who had the makings of success—but never to the degree he has since attained! Busy as he is, Andy found time to write his thoughts about my memoir while flying to the UK to set his choreography on the London production of Hamilton which premieres this December.
Finally, my mind can relax, and I look forward to sleeping at night without memories of the past making me jump out of bed to write them down to add to the memoir. The hardest part of writing the book was not so much the writing—which I’ve always enjoyed (even as a cub reporter for the local newspaper in Honolulu when I was eighteen years old)—but hunting down the people who took photos of my dance activities from 1949 to 1986 and getting their permission to publish.
This has truly been a labor of love, and with the completion of each chapter, I have continually been reminded of how fortunate I am to have been able to enjoy the realization of all my once seemingly impossible childhood dreams.
Release date is December 1, but Ballet for Life is available to pre-order now.
People have been asking me to write my biography for years.
But, I don’t like looking backward – I’m always trying to think of new ways to teach ballet, so my mind is always focused on the present and future moments.
This past winter, my son Jason started producing my new FJ Single Streaming Exercise videos and he sat me down for an interview for what was supposed to be a short video for the About section on my website.
He asked me a question about when I first found my love for ballet, and I ended up talking for 40 minutes and more or less told the story of my life since I first began dancing at age 9 in WWII Honolulu.
After finally watching the whole interview, I began looking through my photo collection, and realized I have a lot of very interesting pictures from my past 71 years of loving ballet.
So, I thought, why not a pictorial memoir? Not a biography with zillions of words, but more like a scrapbook of interesting photos and little stories about them.
I spent most of January and February collecting all the photos I could find: from growing up in Honolulu, studying with “Mr. C” (William F. Christensen) at the U. of U., dancing on broadway in Flower Drum Song, joining the San Francisco Ballet, going to Hollywood to dance in the film version of Flower Drum, joining the Joffrey Ballet, the Harkness Ballet, leaving the ballet world for 3 years to devote myself to world peace through Buddhism, opening the Finis Jhung Ballet Studio, getting married, losing our first child to meningitis, but then having another son, Jason, who is today my office manager and emerging video producer, founding and directing my own Chamber Ballet USA, going through a divorce and single-parenting Jason, teaching in all the major studios in NY, and at workshops in the USA and Europe, and producing more than 50 instructional ballet videos and 18 music CDs for the ballet class, and today teaching my adult babies at The Ailey Extension.
What has been extremely time-consuming, frustrating and rewarding was locating the photographers who took the photos so that I could have their permission to publish. Michael Avedon photographed the Harkness Ballet, and after weeks of searching I was told that, sadly, he had passed away. I was greatly saddened to learn this as we had been good friends. And even more saddened to know that I would not be able to use his photos.
And then, through Christine Redpath, I was referred to Mimi Paul (yes, that gorgeous NYCB ballerina of the 60’s) who told me Michael is very much alive! And now I have secured his permission, and you will be able to enjoy his photographic artistry.
I did not keep diaries, and, in fact, I threw out some incredible media when I left the ballet world, so it is challenging to try to remember specific events.
But at the same time, I am being energized as I realize through the photos all the wonderful events that have happened so far have fulfilled all my childhood dreams I had growing up in a poor family in Honolulu.
I am blessed, and hope to share that with you in BALLET FOR LIFE: A Pictorial Memoir by Finis Jhung.
Speaking of which, if any of my customers or friends are in publishing I am actively seeking a publisher. Please contact me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone: 1-800-357-3525
Finally, do any of you have a favorite memoir? If so, what do you love about it?
Last Sunday, my adult babies & the Ailey Extension hosted a celebration for my forthcoming 80th birthday. I was overwhelmed! It was so wonderful to see so many lovely people—some of whom I couldn’t recognize because I’ve never seen them with their (street) clothes on and their hair down!
Special thanks to the those who put the event together: Caleena Chiang, Graham Daw, Noreen Figueroa, Mariko Fukuyama, Donna Ghelerter, Hilde Gore, Jin Kang, Donna Knipp, Adele Macintosh, Ari Miyagawa, MP Nunan, Mayumi Omagari, Sooji Pak, Ileana Luminita Ray, Amy Thomas, and Julie Wong. (If I’ve missed anyone, please accept my apologies.)
Making the occasion especially joyous was the presence of dear people from my dance journey who are still very much with me today:
Judy Weiss, Master Pointe Shoe Fitter at Grishko NY (she was in my very first ballet class 45 years ago)
Larry Rhodes, Director of Dance at Juilliard (we shared the stage in the Joffrey & Harkness Ballet companies 48 years ago)
Christine Redpath, ballet master at NYCB (my first New York City Ballet dancer 44 years ago)
Barbara Forbes, Feldenkrais practitioner and teacher of ballet at Sarah Lawrence College (the ballet mistress for my Chamber Ballet USA 1982-1985)
Recording the event for posterity was my video director/producer and business manager son Jason, and his expert cameraman, Gregory Washington. And let’s not forget the ever-present Stephen von der Launitz, who began studying with me in 1984 and has photographed most all my DVD & CD covers, designed earlier catalogs and has shot all the photos you love to see on Facebook. Adding family joy was my niece, Catherine Jhung Hickey, and her handsome son, Shannon.
Thank you all for your beautiful cards and gifts, and a special thank-you to Dana Evans for showing the spirit of aloha with her heart-felt hulas. In Hawaii, we have a special word for “thank you”—it’s MAHALO.
I gave my final Monday evening class for Absolute Beginners at the Ailey Extension this week.
After 45 years of teaching, I’ve decided I need another full day off so that I can focus on writing my memoir (and other books) and to create more short videos for those of you who can’t attend my NY classes.
Thank you to all my dedicated Monday students over the years. If you can’t make any of my other classes during the week, you should try my streaming single videos so you can continue your ballet education at home, at work, or on vacation.
I hope you will all attend the weekend workshops for Adult Students and Teachers this summer, as they will be the last. Much as I love doing them, they don’t come out of thin air—I spend hours scripting the workshops and then teach for almost 10 hours each weekend. It is true, I am turning 80 and my muscles are demanding rest and care.
Working on my memoir (working title: Ballet for Life)—is a challenging experience. You know I only like to live in the present and look forward to the future, which is why I’ve never tried to write my own biography—all those words! But, many of you have commented so often on the pictures I’ve posted on Facebook, so I thought “Ah ha!”—I’ll make a pictorial memoir. It’s all based on photos of events in my life that go all the way back to 1938.
But that also has not been easy: sifting through photos I haven’t bothered to look at in years; trying to find the photographers who recorded my professional career to ask their permission to publish—and sometimes going into blind alleys—and sometimes finding pots of gold such as unpublished photos of me in the Joffrey and Harkness Ballets by master photographers like Jack Mitchell.
The upshot is that I realize I’ve led a blessed life—which you will see when you read the book—I was born under lucky stars—or as we say in Buddhism, I’ve had very good karma. One thing has always led to another, each better than the one before, and at age 80 I have so many wonderful people like you, who make my life worth living—and serving.
Mahalo and a Happy Memorial Day Weekend to everyone!
It’s that time of the year again – out with the old, in with the new. Now, I’m not suggesting everyone will want to do what I did, when I discovered that burning your bridges to the past can open doors you never knew existed.
In 1968, I was a principal dancer with The Harkness Ballet in Monte Carlo. My childhood dreams had been fulfilled—I only wore white tights and danced classical roles. I was also I a devout Buddhist (having converted 20 Company members), and, one day, had a realization: “I can’t be lying here at the swimming pool in Monte Carlo doing nothing”—while the world is in tumult following the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; Vietnam; hippies; LSD; women’s lib; racism; and college protests.
In January 1969, The Harkness Ballet performed in New York. Shortly after the season, I told Larry Rhodes, who was the director, that I had decided to stop dancing so that I could devote my life to achieving world peace through Buddhism. I had no idea what I was going to do for a living.
After sitting in a hot tub and crying my heart out over what I then thought was the greatest mistake I had ever made, I pulled myself together and found a 9 to 5 job working in an office as secretary to a private investor. My evenings and weekends were now free to roam the streets looking for people to invite to our Buddhist conversion meetings.
For three years, every waking moment was happily devoted to Buddhist activities. And then, the owner closed his office and I was out of a job. I asked my Buddhist leader what I should do, and he said “Why don’t you teach ballet?”
I contacted Wilson Morelli who said he would love to have me teach at his studio in downtown Manhattan. I went to look at his class and was shocked. I could not remember what the steps were called! I was seeing ballet through the eyes of a stranger. I was in a mild panic. How could I hope to teach professionals when I couldn’t make sense of what they were doing?
I was in trouble—after I quit ballet, I zealously burned all the ballet memorabilia: books on technique, beautiful photo books, and films I had taken of Erik Bruhn onstage—the man who was one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century and had mentored me. I purposely destroyed all the reminders of my ballet past so that I could prove I was completely happy being a “nobody” without any special identity.
And now, in order to make a living, I was about to re-enter the ballet world. In desperation, I ran to the book store and bought all the ballet books available. My first class was attended by four students. Clearly, I had made a dreadful mistake—how would I survive making such little money? And teaching every exercise in 3/4 since I was too insecure to try anything else.
As we now know, I did survive—and thrive—and am now in my 44th year of teaching.
Because I had burned my ballet bridges, I was free to create my own ballet technique, based on teaching the way I wish I had always been taught – with sensible exercises that warmed you up slowly and thoroughly, built strength and artistry, and even more, with explanations on HOW and WHY we ballet dancers do what we do.
Through the years, I’ve graduated to teaching adult beginners in classes at The Ailey Extension in New York, written a Technique book, and sold over 54,000 instructional videos. Another book and more videos are on the way. 2017, here we come!
A One-Way Ticket Sent Me from Hawaii To Utah and Forward on a Path of Lifetime Learning
Everyone knows that there is no place like home for the holidays. The season brings hopes to nice and naughty children everywhere. For their parents, the chance to bring joy or put a smile on a child’s face is priceless – even if there is a little sticker shock. It is a time when the difference between luxury and necessity is blurred. Many work and sacrifice all year just to make the occasion more special for loved ones. Their generosity inspires kindness that is almost self-sustaining. That kind of impact can be felt over the course of a lifetime.
The most amazing gift I ever received began a journey of self-discovery that continues to this day. A one-way ticket from Hawaii to Utah changed my life forever and I owe it all to the devotion of my mother. I was only eight years-old when my parents divorced. It was 1945, and the war was over. My father left the islands. He also left his debt-ridden tailor shop at Hickam Air Force Base to my mother as our family’s only means of support.
With the war over, however, most of the servicemen left the base, as well – to return to civilian life on the mainland. With the departure of the troops, the business was a struggle. Mom had to rent the tailor shop, pay two seamstresses and raise three boys. Searching for houses we could afford to rent, we moved six times in the span of five years.
Each night my mother would come home with bundles of uniforms that needed alterations. After making dinner, she’d start ripping apart the seams of the uniforms so that the next day her workers would sew them together. Her ceaseless efforts and love for us three boys taught us to always do our best. Even at her busiest, she found time to encourage us to pursue our dreams – no matter where they would lead.
By 1954, I was 17 years old, and I still had my dream of wanting to be a professional ballet dancer. I had no idea whether I had the talent, but I knew I had to leave Hawaii to find out. It was not easy to leave behind everyone and everything I knew.
The Head of the Ballet Department at The University of Utah in Salt Lake City was Willam F. Christensen, famous for founding the San Francisco Ballet. I was accepted with a partial scholarship as well as a $160-scholarship from the Exchange Club. All great in theory, but there was one problem. We had no money at all. In fact, we hadn’t been able to pay the $14 registration for my senior year in high school.
Miraculously, to me, Mom somehow found the money to pay for my plane ticket to Salt Lake City and living expenses to start off. It was the gift of a lifetime, but not in the way I thought in that moment. That one-way ticket has never stopped giving, and has allowed me to give more of myself than I ever dreamed possible.
As a performer, I have been proud to share the artistry of ballet with generations of appreciative audiences. Since then, as a teacher, I have been blessed to impart the knowledge I have gained through a lifetime of collaboration with some of the greatest performers and teachers of our time. Going to Utah opened the door to my career in ballet that has never ended. Today, as a teacher to my adult babies at The Ailey Extension in New York and via my instructional videos – I connect with dance enthusiasts around the world every single day.
I am forever grateful to my mother – who was born on Christmas day—and to my two older brothers – for believing in my dream even before I believed in myself. Every Christmas since, I think about mom and the greatest gift I ever received.
“THE NUTCRACKER” BALLET – A LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN:
Life Lessons Learned Performing the Timeless Holiday Classic
It’s clear – the holidays are here! Amid the hustle and bustle of the shopping season, most important are those annual traditions that bring us all together – as families and as a culture. For me, nothing signifies the start of the season like the return of “The Nutcracker.”
Appreciation for this holiday classic spans generations and borders. In fact, for the next few weeks, versions will fill stages across the country – and the world. Joyfully, the performances will feature dancers of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels. How many promising dance careers were launched in the warmth of a theater in December, as young sons and daughters were inspired by the artistry and athleticism on display?
Children are not alone in being captivated by the choreography in “The Nutcracker.” The music is familiar and irresistible —certainly a few parents would admit to trying to pull off a few steps when they thought nobody was looking. If you accidentally kicked over some furniture or tweaked a hamstring – don’t be discouraged. Every journey begins with a single step. However, it’s usually best not to start with the hardest one.
As a teacher of adult beginners, I encourage my new students to focus on the long-term benefits of dance, and not on “looking pretty.” Ballet will make you stronger, more graceful and improve your balance – in everything that you do. My own experiences in performing “The Nutcracker,” however, are proof that this success isn’t always overnight:
“It was Christmas in ’55 and all through the house, Finis was fuming, not even a mouse.” – I vividly recall sitting alone in the dark in the theater at The University of Utah, watching a dress rehearsal for the “Nutcracker” and feeling as lonely as could be. It was Christmas, and we just didn’t have the money to fly me to my Mom in Hawaii. Meanwhile, I wasn’t even ready to be a mouse in our production. And I felt just that small.
Still, I was determined to work harder to grow my ballet technique. Only three years later, I danced the “Snow Prince” plus the Spanish and Russian dances in our production. What great preparation for later in life, when I would be a father, teacher and student – all at once. My adult beginners, too, understand the complexities of balancing many roles with energy and passion. The versatility and perspective that adult beginners bring to dance can speed progress and understanding.
The biggest obstacle to achievement for the adult learner is sometimes vanity. I know this too, from experience. In 1960 I performed the Russian ribbon dance in “The Nutcracker” with Michael Smuin of the San Francisco Ballet. Trying to keep up with Michael, the best jumper and turner in the company— doing double air turns across the stage while holding beribboned batons with both hands high above my head—had me bouncing all over the vast opera house stage. Repetition and practice – my usual solution – failed to correct the issue and left my confidence shaken.
My mental block was cured only when I realized that I was focused on trying to look text-book perfect (forcing my turnout and pulling up so much I looked like I was dancing on egg shells), instead of using my body as it was built and the correct body mechanics I had learned from Bill Christensen at the U of Utah. I was working outside of my own body!
It took several years to overcome the mental block of falling all over the stage, but by 1965 I had regained my technique. While dancing with the Harkness Ballet of New York in Cannes, I successfully performed sixty-four double air turns over the course of a single weekend. Four performances, without a hitch – occasion enough for the director to give me a bottle of champagne to celebrate as he thought I had set a new record for double air turns.
I offer this advice – learned by performing in the Nutcracker – to both students and teachers this holiday season:
Take the time to celebrate your own personal and professional accomplishments
Fearlessly pursue new challenges, especially those that promise to bring strength and balance to your life
See “The Nutcracker” ballet! The music is glorious and the story is timeless. I promise you will be truly inspired
ARE YOU ON YOUR LEG? Stand in front of the mirror in first position. Stand on your left foot and perform four 2-count battements tendu à la seconde without tilting or moving your pelvis, without wiggling your supporting foot, and without changing the alignment of the supporting side. Do it on the other leg. Repeat both sides. Rest. Repeat with battements dégagé. Can you do it?