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.
In July, at age eighty, I make the BIG DECISION. I will have my severely arthritic right hip replaced. I’ve been putting if off for years, but have finally accepted the fact that the leg is too unstable and getting weaker by the day. What hurts most is not the muscular pain and limited movement, but that after forty-five years of teaching, I no longer have the strength in my right leg to demonstrate full-out. And remember, I’m the guy who has always said “To dance is to live.” Ouch.
Luckily, my personal physician is Dr. Alan Kadet, who only refers his patients to top-tier specialists. His wife, Cindy, had her hip replaced in 2016 by Dr. Roy Davidovitch, Director of the Hip Center at NYU Langone in New York City. Dr. Davidovitch was the first surgeon in New York City to perform the minimally invasive (MIS) Anterior Approach Total Hip Replacement and has since successfully performed hundreds of these procedures.
Unlike other approaches to the hip, the Anterior Hip Replacement is truly a minimally invasive approach that requires a specially designed surgical table. The goal of the anterior approach total hip replacement is to return patients to their normal functional level in an accelerated fashion.
Wednesday, September 6, my son Jason and I check-in at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. The nurses in surgery greet us with huge smiles. They are so friendly and relaxing! There are nine other patients who will have surgery today.
We are all dressed in a plastic gown that has a tube attached to a heater. It’s inflated with warm air which is comforting, since the room is very cold. We are served coffee!
My vitals are taken, the anesthesiologist goes over details, and Dr. Davidovitch, the surgeon, visits with a reassuring smile.
I am taken to the operating room and placed on that special table. The next thing I know, I wake up lying in bed in a private hospital room with Jason and more smiling nurses attending me. I have absolutely no discomfort or pain. In fact, I’m hungry. Lunch is baked salmon on spinach with fruit for desert, and coffee and water. It’s all surprisingly delicious for hospital food!
That night at 8 p.m. Jason brings me home. I am wearing inflatable sleeves over my calf muscles which increase the speed of blood flow and reduce the risk of clot formations. I will wear these sleeves that constantly compress and release at least eighteen hours each day for the next fourteen days. Whenever I walk about I will wear the ActiveCare control device that weighs 1.6 pounds. When I’m stationary, I take off the devices, and plug them into outlets for charging. When I rise from working on my memoir at the computer, I often forget I’m wired in and begin walking out of the room until I am abruptly jerked back by the calf device cables.
On the second day after surgery, there is hardly any swelling and I feel good enough to try some of the exercises recommended by NYU. As usual, I overdo it, and loosen the tape over the protective gauze, and blood trickles down my leg. I am momentarily alarmed, but that drainage is natural after surgery.
The next day, Jason takes me to the doctor’s office where his assistant adds another layer of gauze and, she attaches a PICO device. Besides the long cables for the calf pumps, now I also have a small wire coming out of the protective gauze which is connected to a miniature unit with a long cord that is battery-operated.
For the next five days, I will be wired up to two different devices day and night.
Four days later, I return to the office where Dr. Davidovitch himself removes the PICO device, both dressings, cleans the area, puts on a new dressing, which I am to remove tomorrow. As long is it’s not draining, I will keep the incision uncovered. For the first time, I see that they really did use little metal staples to close the incision. One of my video customers, Justine Coulon, writes that her dad invented those particular staples. Small world!
The staples will be removed on Friday, September 22—seventeen days after surgery.
After this visit with Dr. Davidovitch, swelling and discoloration begin to appear in different areas of the leg each day. Somedays the thigh and knee are so swollen and tight it’s hard to bend the knee to sit.
I’ve been following a carefully prescribed program of medications, but rarely use the pain-killers like Hydrocodone or the “break-through” pills Oxycodone. Only during this past week—when the swelling made my thigh muscle painfully tight—did I take minimum doses. They don’t relax the muscles which are understandably swollen since they are healing.
What works best is to sit back in my zero gravity recliner which elevates my lower legs so they are higher than my heart and ice the swollen thigh for fifteen minutes an hour.
I seem to be in a very intense period of healing, where swelling and discoloration move up and down my right leg. I never can sleep for more than two hours at a time, because my body is cleansing.
Sleeping is a challenge since I am a side sleeper and it’s very difficult to do this with the right leg very weak and swollen, plus I have cables stemming from both knees that are always connected to the device. Last night, nine days after surgery—Saturday September 15—I finally found a comfortable sleeping position leaning back on a bed reading pillow with legs atop two body pillows and a smaller head pillow.
Since this is my first hip surgery, and each person reacts differently, each day has new challenges.
Sunday, September 16, when I awoke, the swelling and muscle tightness had lessened considerably. I did the gentle home exercises (lie on your back and flex and point the foot; bend the knee and slide the heel toward the buttocks; squeeze the buttocks together; and tighten the top of the thighs by pressing the knees into the bed) and I also walked down to the floor below and up to mine twice—a total of sixty-eight steps—using the handrail and a cane. No pain!
Monday, September 18 is the best day yet. Although my right foot is black and blue—it’s a natural healing progression—I can sit and stand and walk with minimal cane use. Jason takes me to see my intern who wants to make sure I’m not urinating excessively because of an infection.
Wednesday, September 20 Dr. Kadet informs me I don’t have a urine infection; the frequent urinations is just part of the healing process. And, today is the day I no longer have to wear the calf pumps. Off they come and away they go! Yeah!
Before lunch I go through all the home exercises and walk the stairs (17 steps) down and up three times—total 102 steps. After lunch, as usual, the swelling increases. My right foot and ankle are especially stiff and swollen, so I lie back on the recliner with legs up and ice.
At the moment, I’m sitting upright at the computer feeling no pain or discomfort. I am so glad I had this surgery and am fascinated with the recovery process.
As many of you know I will be having hip replacement surgery performed this Wednesday, September 6th at the NYU Langone Medical Center under the direction of the inventor of a new procedure, Dr. Roy Davidovitch.
My son, Jason, will be documenting my recovery on Instagram and you can follow @fjballet or search the hashtag: #fjrecovery
Here I am at the Pre Admission Testing Center last week:
Hopefully I will be able to pirouette again, and sometime soon!
FJ Now: Memoir Update
I am 80% finished with the memoir having just completed Chapter 10 – Chamber Ballet U.S.A.
Many of you may not know that I owned my own company from 1981 – 1986, and writing this chapter reminded me of hair-losing dramas like being forced to choreograph a ballet for opening night in New York in less than two weeks.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 10 – Chamber Ballet U.S.A.:
Juan and Ellen were to perform Vicente Nebrada’s brilliantly choreographed A Dance for You, a bravura pas de deux to the piano music of Teresa Carreno. Both Ellen and Juan are exceptionally talented virtuoso dancers with extraordinary technical facilities, musicality, and artistry. This would have been the highlight of the evening—or, for that matter—any evening anywhere. A truly staggering dance event.
And then, two weeks before the show, Juan’s knee begins to give out. Before coming to New York, he had had trouble with his knee. The demands of Vicente’s choreography have reawakened an old injury. Juan breaks down in tears, saying his knee hurts so badly he’s afraid it’s going to give out on him. Oy vey. What are we to do?
So, out goes A Dance for You, and in comes Libido.
With our limited budget, and without Juan, it fell to me to choreograph a replacement ballet. Bill Soleau is such a graceful manly dancer. He is not a ballet virtuoso, but he moves beautifully. And Ellen can do anything you ask. So, I desperately create a duet for them that I intend to be fun and sexy. I begin listening to music, and discover the scherzo movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. Libido is born.
Bill and Ellen are good sports about working late at night. We do the best we can, under the forced circumstances, and this is why it promises more than it delivers. In 1984, I’ll rework it and critics and audiences will get what they paid for.
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!
Today we remember one of America’s greatest heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. This wise and courageous leader left us with many inspiring thoughts. One of them is my daily mantra:
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
When I first started teaching 44 years ago, I mainly taught professionals who were skilled dancers that required barre exercises that developed slowly in complexity and speed, and center combinations that were choreographed like short dances. The classes always ended at performance level with dancers flying and turning across the floor with dazzling speed and expertise.
Today, I no longer teach advanced professionals. Instead, at The Ailey Extension (and around the world with my streaming videos and DVDs) my focus is on teaching amateur adult beginners.
Because most of these adults are non-dancing professionals (doctors, lawyers, administrators, office workers) moving forward for them happens slowly. But steadily.
My personal challenge each day is to continue moving forward by thinking backwards – distilling ballet technique to its most simple and learnable elements so that regardless of a person’s age, anatomy, background, or aptitude, it is possible to learn how to stand and move with balance, strength, and grace.
As I watch my “adult babies” learn each exercise with childlike wonder and practice each exercise with rapt concentration, they reaffirm my deep belief that the art of ballet teaches one not only how to dance, but, more importantly, how to continue moving forward in the journey that is life.
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.
RISING ABOVE – OVERCOMING SETBACKS ON YOUR UPWARD TRAJECTORY
A life devoted to ballet offers many chances to be graceful – just not always in the ways you might imagine
My spirits should have been soaring. It was 1965 and The Harkness Ballet of New York was making its official debut in Cannes, France. I was a soloist in a company of 40 dancers, fulfilling my humble dreams as a small child in WWII Hawaii. Even so, I was not a happy camper. Of the 18 works in our repertory, only three were classical – my passion and forte. Worse still, I never got to dance them onstage.
Much of ballet is centered on strength and grace. I found it hard to exhibit either limited to supporting roles as “exotic” characters. In fact, it was hard for me to take ballet seriously at a time when much of my time on stage was spent on the floor wearing knee pads rather than soaring through the air. It was particularly difficult to exhibit grace as the better parts went to other dancers. While I had great respect for their abilities, I felt with proper rehearsing I could do as well as they.
Luckily for me, our guest star was the great Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. He was the recognized “King of Ballet”— a living legend with phenomenal technique and extraordinary grace and beauty. He helped me to understand that what separated the elite performers from the merely remarkable was not ability, but approach. Great stars always work overtime. Erik took me under his wing and became a mentor – let me sit in his dressing room while he made up his god-like face (and hair); let me do the pre-show warm-up with him; and coached me during rehearsals. In all things, he showed me how to do my best.
Erik also taught me the importance of repetition – applying the same process to achieve the same result – day after day. Essentially, how you practice is how you play. After working with Erik, I was no longer concerned with what roles I had, but concentrated on perfecting my technique in preparation for better parts. Which did come with changes in our repertory the following year.
Since then, my own experiences as a teacher have taught me that the world is a better place when every individual is inspired to reach his or her fullest potential. Working with adult novice beginners is especially gratifying, as our sessions aren’t only about improving technique but also enhance the quality of life.
Whether you are a banker, doctor, lawyer, stay-at-home parent or billionaire CEO – the principles apply: discoveries in ballet lead to discoveries in life. Deeply immersing yourself in the movement process can lead to new life-changing thoughts in daily life.
With dedicated repetition of the fundamentals, both student and teacher steadily move forward with knowledge, grace, vitality and strength.