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.
I call my adult ballet students at The Ailey Extension my “adult babies” —not because they act like babies and throw tantrums like divas—but, on the contrary, because they come to class with the openness and purity of mind only a child can have. With a sense of wonder and a strong compulsion to learn, they show a limitless potential to improve class after class.
Among my adult babies are doctors, lawyers, bankers, business people and homemakers. Some have never ever been in a ballet studio, others are returning after a hiatus of several decades. They differ in anatomy, background, and aptitude.
However, they all have a common bond in that they are serious about learning ballet, which brings out the parent in me. I don’t insist they all force themselves into classical positions their bodies can’t handle, nor do I insist they do movements that are beyond their means.
Instead, in slowly-paced exercises that are digestible and doable, I show my babies which muscles to use and when and how to use them. I am always on the look-out to make sure they are using their bodies correctly so that they get stronger as they get older. This is probably the key to why adult beginners seek out my classes and instructional videos: I teach the movement process. I want them to be educated ballet students who know how to work their bodies to their advantage.
For both old and new students, my ballet class provides a lifetime of firsts—standing with good posture like a dancer, feeling the strength of working from the core, shifting weight from one foot to the other in various positions—and, also, from out of the blue, having a completely new thought that solves personal and career problems.
Not all my students live in New York—many are spread across the USA, in Australia, South Africa, Dubai, and with our armed forces in Europe and the Pacific. They are my long-distance babies who are learning with my instructional DVDs, streaming videos, and working one-on-one via Skype.
My adult babies know they are on to something new—who would have thought studying ballet could make you feel younger in body and mind?
“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
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.
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 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!
It is important to remember that the demi-plié in ballet dancing differs from the plié in contemporary dance. In ballet, our movements are usually upward, quick, and light—the dancer must rise from a plié into a pose, turn, or jump and therefore a high center of gravity is required. In contemporary dance the movements are usually horizontal or downward, and weighted—the dancer works with a low center of gravity since there are frequent descents into prone or sitting positions on the floor.
Please don’t relax your demi-plié during your barre exercises. When you have a deep relaxed plié, this will force you to pull yourself up out of it and in doing so this will tend to set you back on your heels and make you behind the music.
At the ballet barre, and as much as possible in center floor when working slowly, always remember you are going to do something with that demi-plié whether it be a pose, turn, or jump. Therefore, when you demi-plié in each exercise, initiate the plié by clawing the floor with your toes and gripping the floor. You want to connect with the floor. You want to feel the muscles in your toes, instep and ankle fully engaged. You are preparing the ball of your foot and your toes to extend, spread, and take all of your weight when you relevé. Make sure you feel a muscular connection from the tips of your toes to your hip—you are spring-loading your feet so that you can push down on the floor and propel your body upwards.
Start and end each demi-plié with your toes and you will improve rapidly. As much as possible (if music and the choreography allow), use this kind of plié in center floor before you pirouette as well as to initiate jumps from two feet.
Fast forward to 1:29 and you’ll see Antonio Carmena, NYCB soloist demonstrate it. I love this music!
The class was full with 35 students, so it was a challenge to teach them all how to do this dance which reinforces the idea of using opposition. For most, it was a totally new experience to tombé in second position on half-toe, so I I used Sophie Ono, who is a regular and continues to improve like a house afire, but who at first did not understand the movement. To help her balance the tombé to the right, I pulled her left arm and shoulder away from her right foot, and told her to keep the weight of her head on her left shoulder. Voila! That demonstration of opposition helped most of the class understand how to work their bodies and after that most could do the exercise with grace and fluidity. We also worked this idea forward and back. I love to see dancers dance!
If you are a teacher, this video will give you lots of short dances you can use in class. If you are an adult student, get the video and do these simple dances in your living room. On with the dance!