The Finis Jhung Blog

Happy Father’s Day!!

First off, Happy Father’s Day, Dad!!

And Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers out there and anyone celebrating their father or father figure on this day.

I am honored to be guest-writing this blog entry and giving my Dad more time to work on his pictorial memoir.

Growing up in New York City, I remember being a very happy child living on the Upper West Side while Dad was always working in some capacity, which continues to this very day.

If memory serves right, he has missed only 2 days (or something ridiculous like that) of teaching in the last 40 something years which, occasionally, makes me question whether he is a real-life human being or an early attempt at the perfect ballet-teaching cyborg.

While this was hard to understand growing up, it is his passion for dance, integrity as a human being and discipline as an educator that constantly leaves me in awe.

As I sat down and thought about what to write, I started with “what makes a good father or father figure?”

A father or father figure:

  • Doesn’t have to play catch with you when you’re a kid, or teach you to fish, or drive, or anything specific for that matter
  • Always leads by example and does whatever they can for you and others, throughout their life
  • Doesn’t try to make you what they wish they could have been or want you to be, allowing you to be you
  • Supports decisions you make and explains the outcome by focusing on the process, right or wrong
  • Is in your corner, no matter what
  • Pushes you to be a better person, constantly

Dad, you embody all of the above to me, and I appreciate all of the things you have done for me throughout my life.

For all the times we were stopped in the street on our way to dinner when I was a kid, I realize now how special it was that the people stopping you were former students or people you had crossed paths with in your life, and they wanted to say hello to you out of respect and admiration.

That continues to this day, and I put together a little video from your 80th birthday party put on by your adult babies at Ailey to reflect exactly this.

 

 

I am so grateful to be working alongside of you producing your instructional videos, working on your pictorial memoir and slowly taking over your home business and helping you expand into the digital world we now live in.

 

Dad, today I celebrate you and want everyone out there to know that I couldn’t have asked for a better father, despite my being a constant pain in your rear.

I love you very much and hope all the other fathers and father figures/mentors out there are being appreciated as well.

Your son,

Jason

Memoir Update

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.

Lucky to have such a vast collection of ballet history to pore through

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: finis@finisjhung.com or via phone: 1-800-357-3525

Finally, do any of you have a favorite memoir? If so, what do you love about it?

To Dance is to Live!

Finis

Turning 80, Last Monday Night Class & Final Workshops

Hi all,

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!
Finis

Why I Made the New Foot Strength Videos

Vernard Gilmore of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Ballet is about balance. Every movement in dance – from the simplest motion to the most complicated center floor combination – requires a solid foundation and concentrated energy. Achieving this centeredness can bring about greater discipline and understanding in all aspects of life.

During my career as a professional dancer, I was proud to be a part of talented companies that could make the grace and beauty of ballet seem effortless. As an instructor, I often tell my adult beginners that even these masterful and soaring performances started from the ground up – with a focus on footwork.

When working with my students, one of my biggest on-going challenges is finding better ways to teach these students how to demi-plié and relevé so that they will balance, turn, and jump with strength and control.

Students should work with the understanding that almost every movement we make in ballet consists of a plié and a relevé – a rising to a balance on the half-toe. Simply put, we go down to go up. Therefore, learning to plié-relevé correctly is of the utmost importance.

Even students with previous training make the same mistake as absolute beginners in that they think “pose” instead of “action.” They begin by bending the knees and then sink down into a PASSIVE pose with legs and feet relaxed. This does not strengthen the feet or legs, nor does it prepare them to spring up quickly into a balance, turn, or jump.

That is precisely why I teach the ACTIVE almost-isometric demi-plié – initiated by the toes gripping the floor and pulling the legs into a minimal plié. The muscles of the foot and ankle are actively engaged, which prepares the foot to spring up on the half-toe.

Coming out of the preparatory plié is achieved by reversing the action: the foot is relaxed, the toes are spread, and you push down until you rise on half-toe with legs straight and the weight of your body reaching the tips of the toes.

Learning to think with your feet and have your feet activate your legs is not taught in the traditional ballet class. Once students have tried making the demi-plié from their toes to their toes, they say they can feel the difference and find they have much better balance and control.

The benefits of doing supplementary exercises outside the ballet class that will strengthen your foot and ankle goes cannot be underestimated. A little practice each day at home will strengthen your  feet and ankles, improve your balance, and lessen the chances of falling and twisting or spraining your ankle or knee. For this reason, I am introducing new “single-exercise” streaming videos that can be viewed anywhere, anytime, provided there is internet and a viewing device.

Learning to think with your feet and have your feet activate your legs is not taught in the traditional ballet class. Once students have tried making the demi-plié from their toes to their toes, they say they can feel the difference and find they have much better balance and control.

These relatively short single-subject videos have three sections: first I show and describe the exercise; next, with the demonstrator, I break down the exercise to its essentials, especially detailing the muscular control and sequence of movement through the body parts; and then it is demonstrated to music by the dancer with me standing by coaching.

The first series of three videos is titled FOOT STRENGTH and is demonstrated by Vernard Gilmore of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I am so happy that Vernard was available to do this video. It was such a wonderful experience to come full circle with a former student who is today a greatly admired artist and human being.

Celebrating Love on Valentine’s Day

Over centuries, Valentine’s Day has become a celebration of love. I am blessed that my first love – ballet – has spanned decades and oceans and burns as bright as the moment I was first smitten. In assembling photos and thoughts for my forthcoming memoir, I was reminded of some of the many ways that my love of dance has been renewed.

In 1982, for example, I fell in love with the idea of having my own company, Chamber Ballet USA, despite the dire warnings from friends of taking on financial and artistic stress. But love makes us do crazy things. I went ahead like a maniac, spending $50,000 of my own money borrowing another $50,000 from the bank (roughly $240,000 in today’s dollars), and risking the stability of both my home and studio. Little did I know that the decision would also have me playing cupid.

Chamber Ballet was a small company, made up of only 8 dancers. This intimacy not only brought the dancers closer to the audience, it also brought the dancers closer to each other. Out of these 8 dancers, two couples emerged.

In 1983 Chris Redpath (my first NYCB dancer in 1974) met Bill Soleau as dancers in CBUSA. They were married in 1994. Chris continues to be a ballet master at The New York City Ballet (specializing in ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins). Bill has created over 80 ballets on companies around the world, just premiered his Midsummer Night’s Dream with The Richmond Ballet, and presently is in Santa Barbara putting his Gershwin ballet onstage.

In 1985, Martha Purl and Jeff Satinoff met as as dancers in CBUSA, were married and today their son Dennis is working in the film industry in California. Jeff has made over 40 ballet on companies around the US including two that he directed, and developed the Dreyfoos dance program. Martha danced in his companies and is Dean of the Bak Middle School of the Arts Dance Program. They have students working everywhere today.

As one of our critics wrote, “Chamber Ballet has small cast, big future.”

These lasting romances probably weren’t what the critic had in mind, but they are part of Chamber Ballet’s proud legacy.

I say “Love conquers all.”

 

 

Dealing with Winter Doldrums

 

Winter weather has a way of making you wish you could stay in bed all day. Toes retreat under covers on bitterly cold mornings, while snooze buttons enjoy vigorous workouts. On days like this, it can feel like just making it from a cozy slumber to the kitchen to start the day is quite an accomplishment. The good news is that if you’ve made it that far, you could be well on your way to a productive and fulfilling day!

There are a few things that I do in the kitchen to prepare myself mentally and physically so I can power through the day without experiencing periods of low energy – especially during the winter doldrums. I realize that you are probably not thinking of grace, balance or strength. More likely, you are thinking COFFEE! This is the perfect time to get your body moving.

Instructor Finis Jhung at The Ailey Extension, part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. New York, NY 5/6/2013 photo by Joe Epstein/JoeEpsteinPhotography.com

The morning coffee kitchen sink stretch: While you are waiting for your coffee or tea to brew, stand in front of the kitchen sink – about an arm’s length away from it, with both feet parallel. Get a good grip on the edge of the sink and pull away from it, sticking out your bottom so that you lean forward with your body parallel to the floor. Stretch your shoulders, back, and hamstrings. Keep pulling on the sink and grip the floor with your feet. Contract the abdominals, tuck under, and tilt your pelvis forward. Continue pulling away from the sink as you bring your pelvis forward and up, which will bring your knees over your toes as you slowly push down and stand straight.

Now bend your elbows and lean forward on the sink. Keep your legs, back, and neck absolutely straight. Feel the stretch in your calves and ankles. Keep leaning forward and slowly arch your back so you stretch the front of your body from your hips to your neck. Recover your upright position and enjoy standing tall. Repeat several times.

NOTE: I love Starbucks Ground Coffee Dark Sumatra with Soymilk and Agave syrup.

All that stretching made you hungry? Don’t go for that donut. Vitality comes from a blend of activity and nutrition. Why not enjoy –

Oatmeal standing at the window. I get energized watching how pedestrians walk on their way to school or work. I stand while I eat, making slow relaxed demi-pliés in parallel first to stretch my calves and ankles. Still eating (slowly) I stand on one foot at a time in a relaxed fondu, which works strength and balance at the same time.

NOTE: I like Trader Joe’s Gluten Free and Wheat Free Rolled Oats with frozen blueberries, butter, soy milk, and honey.

With my kitchen routine complete, I’m ready to go to my desk, check my e-mail, send birthday greetings to Facebook friends, catch up on business matters, work on my new video series, or assemble photos for my forthcoming memoir – whatever the day demands. And it all starts with a simple stretch outside of the comfort of my warm cozy bed.

Self-Massage. Throughout the day, I do various stretches (sitting and lying down on the floor, at the kitchen sink again) and use my self-massage tools (the air-filled ball, Palm Urchin, Thera-Cane, and the door bar) as needed. This keeps me limber and focused as I go about my day.

The Unfinished Dance awaits . . .

KEEP MOVING FORWARD

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.

With My Adult Babies at Ailey Extension

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.

LONG LIVE ALVIN AILEY!

 

Today we celebrate the birthday of Alvin Ailey, founder of the world renowned company and burgeoning school that bear his name, and choreographer of masterpieces such as Revelations, Blues Suite, and Masakela Language.

I first met Alvin in the summer of 1962 at Watch Hill, Rhode Island. I had just joined the Joffrey Ballet, and Alvin had been commissioned to create a new work for our company in preparation for our unofficial New York debut at the Fashion Institute of Technology to be followed by a 15-week tour of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Alvin titled his new work Feast of Ashes. The dance drama was based on Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba with music by Carlos Surinach. I was cast as one of the villagers, and especially enjoyed being evil and nasty in the men’s dance with hand-clapping and slashing footwork. We sprayed our hair out of shape, added stubble to our faces, and walked onstage backwards while smoking cigarettes before whipping through our stormy dance and tormenting the fragile heroine.

Finis, Karina Rieger, Dennis Wayne & Marlene Rizzo in Feast of Ashes

While choreographing Feast, we were able to see Alvin and his company perform at a nearby college.  When I saw Alvin dance, I was mesmerized and in awe—I had never before seen a male dancer move the way Alvin did—he was like moving sculpture, bending and twisting his body in all directions and working his feet and legs at different speeds with superb control and balance. He exemplified what he later described as his preference for a dancer: “a ballet bottom”—deftly articulated legs and feet—combined with “a modern top”—a dramatically expressive upper torso. No wonder I loved watching him and his dancers move!

Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey at the Jacob’s Pillow
Credit John Lindquist/Harvard Theater Collection

I was in three of the short-lived ballets Alvin choreographed for The Harkness Ballet. In Ariadne, I was a centurion waving a banner while I jumped and turned; in Macumba, I pranced in pointe shoes while brandishing a parasol; and in Yemanja I was a river god having trouble performing devilishly difficult turns in second on a raked stage.

Marjorie Tallchief, Richard Wagner, Helgi Tomasson & Finis in Ariadne Photo by Mark B. Anstendig

So many of us owe so much to Alvin Ailey. When I first worked with him in 1962, I never dreamed that that 55 years later we would make a full circle and that I would be having the time of my life teaching ballet classes to adult beginners in his Ailey Extension.

Finis in Ariadne

The legacy of Alvin Ailey is magnificent! The multi-racial Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is considered the “Cultural Ambassador to the World” and has performed before more than 20 million people, and enriched the lives of countless others through numerous television broadcasts. The second company, Ailey II, tours extensively and garners rave reviews; the hugely successful Ailey School offers world-class dance training to students ages 2-25 and offers a BFA degree in partnership with Fordham University; the Ailey Extension offers multi-discipline classes to students of all ages and interests. And, to accommodate all this activity, four studios are being added to the existing facility and will open later this year. Long live Alvin Ailey!

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 GREATEST GIFT I EVER RECEIVED

 

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.