Burning Your Bridges As You Move To The Future

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.

1969 – Final Bow with Harkness

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.

Teaching Adult Babies at Ailey Extension

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!

“THE NUTCRACKER” BALLET – A LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Life Lessons Learned Performing the Timeless Holiday Classic

“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:

  1. Take the time to celebrate your own personal and professional accomplishments
  2. Fearlessly pursue new challenges, especially those that promise to bring strength and balance to your life
  3. See “The Nutcracker” ballet! The music is glorious and the story is timeless. I promise you will be truly inspired

PIROUETTE EN DEHORS: Working your feet

Every movement you make should be powered by the action of your feet (or foot). In terms of preparing for the pirouette en dehors from the fourth position, keep the following in mind:

  1. Your supporting foot grips the floor in order to bring the body and legs into place for the preparatory pose and the plié.
  2. Your supporting foot grips the floor in opposition to the upward stretch of your head. This engages and connects all of the muscles in your supporting leg from the toes to the hip. How can you expect to line up your  leg bones properly unless you engage the muscles that move them?
  3. Your supporting foot grips the floor in order to bring all of the weight of your body into it.
  4. Your supporting foot grips the floor and determines the placement of your back foot.
  5. Your supporting foot pushes down on the floor so that you relevé and turn on a straight leg.
  6. When your back toe leaves the floor that is when you turn your head and spot.

FJ_DVD_WALLETExcerpted from my book The Finis Jhung Ballet Technique: A Guide for Teachers & Students

Guidebook

JUMP TIP #1

 

JUMP TIP #1

Bounce like a rubber ball: When teaching jumps, use a rubber ball (Spalding is best) to show your students how you want them to bounce off the floor. Raise the hand holding the ball as far from the floor as possible and then bounce the ball as quickly as possible. Point out that the ball does not sit on the floor—you don’t see the ball on the floor. You see it going up. In the same way, when your students plié to jump, their feet should not rest on the floor. They must not plié slowly. They should be stretched up strongly in Number 1, keep their hips up high, make the plie almost isometric, and jump with a fast minimal push from the knee. They should focus on the action of the foot going from flat on the floor to being pointed in the air. Concentrate on the pushing the floor as quickly as possible using the ankle, instep, and toes. Push and point— QUICKLY! For more detailed instructions like this, use “The Finis Jhung Ballet Technique: A Guide for Teachers & Students.”

Guidebook

CAUTION!

The more you practice incorrectly the better you get at doing it wrong. It does not matter how many classes you take—wrong will never be right. Open your mind to the possibilities of new ways to do old things.Try doing things differently and surprise yourself.

Finis Jhung

Think Big

Skies are grey today. Temperature has dropped.  Hurricane is brewing. Rainy chilly days are coming. But above it all the sun continues to shine. Just because you can’t see it or feel it does not mean it’s not there. Don’t be fooled. Think big. Life goes in cycles. You will see the sun again. Your pirouettes will return.

Balance Your First Arabesque

The beauty of the arabesque depends on the correct placement of the head. The head must be centered on a high chest with energy going up the back of the neck. Stand in front of the mirror in first arabesque on the right foot. Your left arm is in second position, your right arm is extended forward defining the first arabesque position. Do not tilt your head to the right towards your right shoulder and arm. This is why you fall off forward when you attempt a piqué arabesque (stepping directly on the half-toe). When you pose in arabesque on your right foot, use your left arm for balance. Reach out and towards the back with your left arm as you extend your R arm forward. Keep your shoulders level with the floor as you press down on the air with both arms. Standing on the right foot, think of listening to the music with your left ear. The rule of balance: Ears Back!

Falling Over?

If you’re stumbling over your feet as you dance forward (pas de bourrée, piqué, tombé, chassé) it’s because you are leaning over your feet. Keep your head and chest high and reach back with your shoulders and arms. Think OPPOSITION: feet and legs forward; Ears, shoulders and at least one arm backward.

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#bigpicture #lifeisajourney #infinitepossibilities #fjballettechnique