by Ava Brown
copyright © 2012 by Ava Brown
Leo Rosten said, “the only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it.” I think that is true of any art. Someone else said, if you get up in the morning and you have to make music, dance, paint, draw, sing, dance or act, then you should. Why is this? We are best by an urge to express ourselves, physically and mentally, whether as an outlet for our experiences, feelings or just to do it. Can this become habit because it is rewarding, or even if not rewarding, or painful, or expensive, fraught with difficulties, learning experiences, dues, turmoil and other obstacles, something we MUST do? I am not what I would call a writer. I am a human with a drive to have questions answered, and I often ask myself, why???I continue to do certain things, what is personally gratifying about these experiences and I wonder why I continue to do some things, or love them, and why I do not continue to do them. I am afraid of not finishing, quitting, not living up to possibilities, not having those answers and dancing in the dark, so to speak. But of the many things I have started or given up, dance has continued to be the one that was most memorable to me. I felt that by not doing it I was being less than I could be. Even as I take my own daughter to dance, it is for her own good and nothing else, as in the end I know, that is all that matters. I give her the gift and the opportunity to grow and to have the basis of dance on which to measure herself all of her life and to thank not me, but it, for giving her so much that is within herself to accomplish. To be, to be healthy is everything, and dance is a path, not just to health, but to so many other positive feelings, states of mind, experiences, and memories, it just cannot be compared to any other outlet I have known or path to one’s own worth and ability. It is truly possible in dance to become the best that you can be. In writing, art, music or any other form of expression, I am not sure the positive aspects are so overwhelming or obvious and it occurs to me that for other people to be able to read and share those experiences, it might inspire people to take dance to find out what is so great about it. I feel that almost everyone who takes it will be hooked. Having so many answers from so many people might also answer, finally, some of the many questions dancers have about dance, themselves, and what makes dancers tick, common experiences, solutions to problems, similarities and differences. There is always the history of dance, but never a history of dancers and in the end, too few books about the subject and on the shelves at your local bookstore. I think this is a shame. For something so great and for so many people to have so little access or information on the wonders of dance, the issues, nutrition, medical advice, studios, teachers and other people who have been instruments of spreading this happy disease seems to tell the world it is not important and it is.
“Eighty-percent of success is showing up.”
I started very late (15) and had a very successful and uneventful dance career for about seven years-that is, no injuries. I was fortunate to have excellent dance teachers in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Dayton had a pretty good regional ballet company with proprietors in the form of two elderly women (the Schwartz sisters). They were Josephine and Hermene Schwartz, and so enthusiastic they were about ballet, that at a very young age they began a dance school in their living room in order to afford their own classes which were taken once per week in Cincinnati. I quote from their manuscripts, housed at Wright State University:
Hannah Schwarz took her daughters to see Anna Pavlova dance at Memorial Hall in Dayton, Ohio, when they were very young. Miss Jo, as her friends, students, and colleagues have affectionately known her throughout her life, began her dance career in the Botts Dance Academy, a local school of dance. Her mother enrolled her in dance class to regain her strength after being bedridden with a severe case of the mumps. When her skill and desire outgrew her local teacher, she studied in Cincinnati, Ohio each Saturday. This proved to be expensive so Miss Jo opened a school of dance in her living room at the age of 14. Her sister Hermene played the piano. There were ten students and the lessons cost 10 cents each. This was how Jo earned the money for her own lessons. More at: http://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/collection_guides/guide_files/ms218.pdf
They were somewhat of a local institution, the way ballet mistresses become, when a school is in existence for a long time and they had both danced professionally and so had a celebrity status as well. The sisters used this slight advantage to train dancers seriously from all walks, and I have seen no better school:
Hermene’s interest in learning how to dance grew and, after high school, she worked in a doctor’s office earning money for both Jo and her to go to Chicago. The sisters spent three summers in Chicago, studying and performing with Russian dancer Adolph Bolm, from the Russian Imperial Ballet, at the Bolm School of Dance. They became members of the Ravinia Opera Ballet Company.
Both Miss Jo and Hermene traveled to Europe in the 1930’s to study at the Hellerau-Laxenberg School in Vienna, Austria. The sisters also studied with modern dance pioneer Mary Wigman. Jo performed in the Burg Theater in Vienna and also toured with Bolm’s “Ballet Intime” while in Europe.
Josephine and Hermene founded the Schwarz School of Dance in Dayton in 1927.
I began taking with Miss Jo in the Fall of my fifteenth year. She had an adult beginner class (and I had only had a summer of ballet and modern-4 days per week), so was accordingly nervous about taking a class with Josephine Schwartz. Those who knew her loved her and sent their daughters to her (and their sons). Her classes were full and she had a junior company as well as a ballet company. Thanks to Miss Joe’s connections, worthy dance companies came to the Theater and tickets were always available to students at a discount. Workshops were usually given and we could watch rehearsals, too. In the summers, they always had dance luminaries from large ballet companies and sometimes VIPs. Hermene was around, but she didn’t teach often. They still made appearances together and attended ballet performances at the Victory Theater below the studios.
My mother had looked them up, read about them for years in the local papers, and told me where to go. There are no pictures online of Miss Jo or Hermene, that I can find, but I remember her long black dress (1978, not 1908), and her long silver streaked hair was pulled back into a bun and she said nice things to me occasionally. She complimented my bun and my balance! She made us work very hard and her studios were very warm in the Summer. Winter or Summer, you could look out of the window and see people hustled down main street, or into the Rike’s Department store across the street, buses surging past, horns honking, for this was one of the crosswords of the busting community of Dayton, Ohio. There was a bridge access to cross one of the four rivers of Dayton-the Great Miami River (Little Miami), the Mad River, Wolf Creek and the Stillwater river. Originally Dayton was built along this Riverfront despite local natives warnings about the recurring flooding. Subsequently dams and local reserves were created to ward off substantial recurrences, but this year was the 100th anniversary of the Dayton Flood (March, 1913) in which 20 feet of water covered the central business district. It is said that the amount of water running through the rivers was equal to one month’s worth of water cascading off Niagara Falls.
The large building would have been the Biltmore Hotel, and in front and below, the Victory Theatre. In 1978, the major differences included bridges and dams to which this roadway led, dividing the many sides of Dayton. Today, Dayton is named one of the top 10 places for college graduates to find a job, the Dayton Ballet Company and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company are flourishing and a new Five Rivers Entertainment Complex boasts live events, concerts, sports teams-there is even an ice skating rink! Not much has changed otherwise. The Dayton Ballet Company continues to be a major regional ballet company and sometimes stepping stone for aspiring dancers.
There was really nothing in my life that compared to that 7pm ballet class on Friday nights. It started in September, and the odor of the sweat permeating the wood floors, the smell of the iron bars, the lights rising up through the sounds of the streetlife as you stood along the sides of the studio with the over-ten-foot high glazed windows, the streetlights reflecting on the mirrors, the exhilaration felt after class, swinging down the bannister and stairwell to the street below, covered in a fine mist of sweat to head for the bus home. dayton was a city with mass transit, long before similar larger towns had figured out less efficiently how to move people from one place to another, directing their attention to certain areas. Having a large German population, people actually argue about public engineering there, and it is no wonder that the University of Dayton is reknowned for that department. I guess if I had to compare it to any other city, I couldn’t, but Dublin would remind me of it for some reason. Perhaps the Irish put their mark on it as well.
Miss Jo stood in front of the class and talked to you. She did not show you how to do anything-she communicated to you. You watched her foot slide along the floor, explanations with gestures, and you learned. Her incessant corrections and walking from student to student during class, making nearly inaudible corrections, touching, pointing, only demonstrating occasionally what she meant, and yet she produced more dancers, calmly, in a genteel almost retiring way-by elegance and suggestion. She might start or step in a direction, or show a foot position, but she gave corrections orally, and there were no impulsive movements or strident tones. She was a forerunner of modern dance in this country, too, because she had a modern troupe and taught experimental dance. She was also teacher to Jeraldyne Blunden, founder of The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, an all-black (at that time) professional (and touring) company of modern dancers which she kept in existence for over 30 years. She died at only 58. I think these were two of the really great women of ballet/dance in the midwest and their dancers and students dot the country and the world today.
Mrs. Blunden developed a number of leading American modern dance performers, among them the former Alvin Ailey star Donna Wood. The November 24, 1999 issue of Dance Magazine announced-“The 1998 Dance Magazine Awards for lifetime service to the field of dance were given yesterday at the Asia Society (in New York). The winners are Jeraldyne Blunden, the founder and artistic director of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company; Julio Bocca, an international ballet star and a guest artist with American Ballet Theater; Dame Ninette de Valois, the founder of Britain’s Royal Ballet, and Suki Schorer, both a longtime faculty member at the School of American Ballet.” I am sure the Miss Schwartzes’ were very proud of their legacy of dancers and movement we learn from and watch today. For more about Ms. Blunden visit the PBS Timeline of Dance at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/timeline/timeline7.html. You will see Ms. Blunden’s entry in 1968 at the advent of opening her school which taught Horton technique and the styles of Truitte, et al. I mention Ms. Blunden with awe and great respect as a few of the teachers who inspired and taught me. She taught classes herself also. I remember taking her classes. They were HARD.
The Victory Theater was a lovely place to watch ballet. It was even more exciting to take classes above it every week, climbing up the stairs, walking into the old dressing rooms and walking out into that grand empty studio whose very floors evoked feelings of grandeur and majesty of dancers who sweat upon them (and they did!), point classes and rehearsals, for so many years. The floors showed these scars. The sisters practically lived there and there was almost never a time when some dancer was not practicing in these large studios, only the light from the large windows illuminating their path, as they slowly refined their artistry in shadows. The light was an amazing dramatic enhancement to these movements and served to emphasize the concentration going on. No wonder I have such a passion for theater and dance!
Of course they claim it’s haunted!
But this is where it all really all began with Pat fox, Director of the Dance Department at Sinclair Community College, where I took my classes that first summer. She had graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Dance and was an excellent teacher. Her background was modern dance and she had us buy books! She felt that you had to read about dance, know its history and approached her teaching methodically, from the ground up. Basics first. There was no cheating and no escaping her watchful and cautious eyes, where from behind large glasses they seemed to stare right through you and she did not miss anything! I bought all of the books she recommended for my daughter also. She was amazing. All of my natural instincts about dance, I attribute to her abilities as a teacher in the precise cultivation of the body as an instrument, to developing, waking up, building, and taught to use. Even now I can remember her classes and regimen, so methodically did she go through the movements and so perfect was her example. She was so particular about it that you did it in your sleep. She was tough! She stopped a bad action immediately before you went on reinforcing it. She literally kicked out sicklers and other offenders who would repeatedly perform exercises incorrectly, then she would go after them and make them fix it-sometimes running down the hall and dragging them back. Some were daunted and she never caught them, but generally, they came back. You had to listen. You had to watch. You had to do. You wanted to know everything she did, and you had to read!
Patricia Burke came on after that summer to teach ballet, and had it not been for her, I might have not learned ballet the way that I did. It is hard to explain my relationship with her. I was certainly the youngest student in the college class, having gotten permission from my high school to take classes there (to overcome the obstacle of “no previous dance training”) in order to be able to study at the Dayton Ballet School, but I was still considered too old for serious training. Pat must not have thought so and we had a good relationship. She worked me harder than anyone ever did again. It was Pat Burke who gave me my definition of a hard work ethic in ballet, and reinforced the natural ability to focus I had. I have not seen any teachers here in the US who come close to her indoctrination methods (with respect to my daughter) although there are a lot of good teachers. She was trained in Pennsylvania and then went on to dance with the Royal Ballet. A perfect technician and teacher, who explained the meaning, then definition (in French and English) and used mnemonics to help you remember. She taught with a Montessori-type drill replete with correct emotion and such clarity of movement that you could never question the right way to do something. She never made a mistake-ever! The class for her was a class, she always appeared dressed-out in leotard, tights, short hair in a tight little bun-she taught by demonstrations, example and you had to do what she did, have her stamina, and she never chided me for getting lost or doing it wrong-you just caught up. It was like following Margot Fonteyn around for an hour and a half-a dynamo and virtually indefatigable. She was about strength and she started with the feet working up. She did jumps, adagio and port de bras. She put a lot of emphasis on beats, grande batteries, petite batteries, jumps. I was very very lucky. You always had a marker and a guide with her example, rapidity and brilliant execution. Sweat was pouring off me after two or three exercises in the center and we did 8-16-32-64, whatever she felt you could conceivably handle, working up. I began taking her private class on Saturdays when she opened a little school in Kettering, Ohio. She eventually closed it and I believe married. But she used to explain her devotion to her craft at a young age-doing dishes while stretching her leg on the sink, picking up things with her feet. She told me after a while, maybe one year, that she felt I was too old to start at first, but then after getting to know me, she thought I could do anything I set my mind to. She even came to NY to see me when I went off to college and visited me in new York with her new boyfriend. I loved her like a sister.
I was blessed to have these people teach me, notice me, correct me, and to have feel the way I do about dance is really because of all of them. They were truly inspiring. Literally, by doing what they said, and by hearkening to their advice, I was brought to viewing dance from a new perspective and joy, a feeling hitherto not experienced in my young life and really never surpassed by anything else. There are so many techniques and things to learn about ballet!
I remember the first book my mother gave me about ballet. It was already a very old book. The illustrations were of a little girl in a leotard with ballet shoes. She wanted to learn to dance. Her parents took her to a ballet class. After the lesson her new teacher asked her if she would like to come back. Her parents put a mirror her room and a barre to support her first efforts. She practiced what she had learned that day-so did I. I read and re-read this book and committed to memory the first positions explained there long before I was ever able to take a dance class. I didn’t start dancing until much later. My mother was not able to afford ballet-even in those days-but I wanted to learn. It was not until much later that I was able to afford dance classes, but that little book, and those days, came to mind.
I was working in high school and I decided that if I wanted my body to be a temple I should start treating it like one. I needed a plan, an outlet, and a safe place, and suddenly the idea of taking dance classes (probably put into my head by my mother) was born. I went to the local ballet studio in Dayton, Ohio, where they had a company, a junior company and classes and I tried to register for the adult class on Friday evenings. They asked me about any experience I had and I had to admit I had none. They recommended that I take some ballet lessons from the local community college before enrolling in their class, which required some knowledge of ballet, so I did. I registered for modern dance and beginning ballet classes. These were held 4 evenings per week.
It didn’t start with a book with my daughter, although maybe it did, and I don’t remember. I bought a lot of books-books represent about half of me. She started dressing up in costumes with her brother when she was very little and they danced! I would have to thank Daffy’s for that, because I could not have afforded tutus and things like that if it were not for Daffy’s in New York. But, it was much later, when I moved from New York to California, that I actually registered her in ballet classes-just three years ago this month. As she remembers it, she wanted to take tap , then jazz, classes with her friends at the local dance studio in Laguna Beach. She was there for the year, but when she wanted to register for more in the Spring, I informed her that I took dance very seriously and I wanted her to learn ballet as a basis for every other kind of dance she was to learn (and modern). If only I had had this opportunity with my sons, who assiduously avoid anything I formerly did! Her friends were treating dance very cavalierly, as a hobby, something anyone could do, and their expectations were not realistic, but it was fun. She liked it. I thought dance was hard work and required formal training to understand and to be good at, not something you did down at the little local studio, putting on recitals and getting on your pointes too early. I told her that if she wanted to take these classes, I would also insist that she take ballet classes from a good ballet studio three days or four days per week. That was the deal. She agreed to try it, reluctantly.
If I had waited another year, or not had my convictions about ballet and dance, perhaps she would have fought me on it-and won-as my sons did. But she didn’t, so I (hurriedly-I have two older children-you have to strike while the iron is HOT) called the local studios and researched them on the Internet to find a class appropriate for her from a reputable school. I think it is very important to look very hard for a child’s first ballet studio. Their philosophy is crucial for your child’s positive outlook about dance and especially themselves. I did find one studio on the Internet which advertised and upon calling I found that they had a level class that was appropriate for her age. That’s about all that I can say positively about it. The good side was that we possessed this impulse to register, we had some money-my grandmother had given me-and she was willing to try. Beyond that, this world was very foreign to me, and this was a pre-professional school. Admittedly, she (and the other students there) had a lot of flaws, but they had been working on theirs, were approaching it from a level of professional preparation, and whether all of them had the design or facility to become professional dancers, the opportunity was there to try. This was more than a bit intimidating for us. For me. In all fairness my daughter did not have this perspective. She was naive.
When, over the telephone, the co-director from this school said to me, “You don’t expect your daughter to have a professional dance career, do you? She is starting very late”- I should have left it, left perhaps, but she must have gone on to say something else, sometimes words just popped out of her mouth, and I think she was saying that, if I did, and she knew I was, that we would have to work harder than everyone else, and we would have to see. She would have to take more classes, and this became an issue later. This person was very knowledgeable about what it takes (now) to become a ballet dancer, and a professional dancer, but their school typically did not force movement or extra classes on students because they burnt out. This came up in a later discussion, but at this point, I cannot lie, I took her meaning perhaps in the wrong way, or perhaps she stated it somewhat differently than she meant it. But we went anyway.
She enrolled her anyway, and the tuition was much higher than the little dance school in town, but not unimaginable to pay for quality ballet education. I waited to see what the teacher was like, and my daughter went to class. I will say that an unlikely pair, these two directors were actually very professional and delivered a really good dance program for students. Their productions were beautiful, and they provided many opportunities for advancement. There is the studio politics, which they try to keep at a minimum, I suppose. It is probably much more of an issue with families who have more serious intentions for their daughters, where the children may or may not have what is required to become professionals. Parents like that want a guarantee that their children are going to have the best chance, first pick of the roles and plenty of opportunity, before they make an investment or while they are doing it. It did not result in my daughter, at her level being denied prime parts, of course she was not ready. She had parts, she took class, she learned about the ballet studio from the ground up. She had a phenomenally nice and caring first teacher, Ms. _________.
We were definitely not in that market, either, and through sheer differences, are likely never to be. By hook and by crook, we have managed to avoid a lot of those arguments, and pitfalls. We have not become (as so many have wished us) carrion of ballet on the roadside. But, I did have a very difficult time making friends there. It was very cliquey. But the directors were not the ones controlling that, and after a while, the parents (sort of) lightened up and were a tiny bit nicer or at least took the attitude of, “Well, I do not want you here, but if you are staying, then help.” But it is not until much later that you even begin to understand this and can develop a sort of callous against it, or toward it. In many cases, they mean to make you leave, want you to leave, and the children (and parents) will sometimes actually say it. It is a very emotional environment. But still, you can talk, and make friends, watch your children grow, become involved, stay busy, if you can handle the heat. Some parents there were really nice from the start, and some were in a position, or trying very hard to get into a position, to help control their children’s careers and opportunities even further, and some were never around. Even though I like that type best, it is not conducive to running a ballet studio where so much is expected it would take a King’s ransom to afford and most ballet tuition just does not cover it, so putting up with parents, inviting them to volunteer and dealing with them is usually necessary. There is the argument as well, that you need to be there for your child.
I thought, who was she to say at that point what potential my child had, or what path she would take in dance? I literally kept this in my mind, did not tell my daughter until fairly recently, and it went on the list, rightly or wrongly, of reasons to find somewhere else to study, eventually. It was a decision-making factor, however she meant it or well-intentioned she was. In fairness to her, she never brought it up again and does not remember having said it now, so after all this time, I am forced to let it go, as she probably was just having a case of verbal diarrhea, thinking out-loud, and let’s face it, being truthful. We had no idea what we were coming into and she did start very late nowadays. Much has changed since I was a little girl, or even a big one. We were literally NEW. Some people say they are NEW when they come from another studio, switch forms of dance, some even lie about their age or training. Determination is a major factor for learning dance and any limitations taught or observed, in my opinion, are a harbinger for disaster of art and teaching dance education, once in the classroom. And you will find, left alone in the classroom, most of these political issues fall away, so you have to back off. Anyway, that was not the reason for our leaving almost 2 years later.
Perhaps if my daughter did not have the negative experiences that she did she would not have been challenged enough to keep dancing. At least that is how I see it now. She was a natural in many aspects and she loved it! She loved to dance. It was a new world to her. She really wants to be successful in dance, and has her own unfiltered vision of how that is going to be. Even then, she eventually developed her own critique of the school and the teachers-saw whatever they did and judged them. This had somewhat of an influence on me because of course, I was very naive about it, and yet, wanted her to be happy where she was, felt she could be taking more classes, and needed to have more performing experience or attention. If there were things that went wrong, or unfairness (in her mind) towards other people, she judged immediately those in the position to act as adults, keep their silences, and treat children decently and fairly. She made her own decisions about that. I was the driver of the car, but at a certain point you become just that and you guide your children, approve or disapprove, but they fill the sails!
She had just turned eleven at this point and the way I was taught-my mother had been a dancer and her mother before her, going en pointe much before 12 would mishape the feet, damage the bones and muscles, shortening the life of the dancer’s primary tools and career. There is much to learn before going onto pointe, however, and my daughter has had her share of problems. We bought the regulation white demi-skirt, ballet slippers and white leotard. I will always be glad we started there if only for Ms. ______ and the white outfit, but also because when I look back, it wasn’t as bad as all that. Maybe that was the moment of truth. A lot of the inspiration for parents to spend a good part of their lives driving their children to ballet, washing leotards and tights, attaching elastics and ribbons to shoes, buying shoes and the other accoutrement that attend ballet MUST be borne from the vision of our children actually in the dance class on the stage performing. I missed that class. I admittedly was more concerned with what could take place mentally in dance, as it had for me, forgetting that my own daughter was an entirely different animal and I did not have the perspective of say a grandparent, or mature dance practitioner. This is very important in ballet actually, and I believe has a tremendous amount to do with children quitting or not continuing ballet, not putting enough into it to succeed and parents being involved with certain aspects of ballet training that they shouldn’t thus slowing the development process. It took me a long while to adjust-I am still adjusting.
Learning is taking place, and even though it is not traditional learning, it should be traditional ballet discipline and movements. For me, I was in rapture at her in her first class. She could have been Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn or Cynthia Gregory standing there in her first class. She seemed to have their natural deportment and grace. Compare it to when you first lay eyes on your child and that wet baby is the most beautiful treasure you have ever seen in your life. This was right up there, as an experience, for me, and I had not seen or felt that, to that degree, before. I never thought about it much at all. I have a feeling this happens to a lot of mothers-maybe all the hopes of what they can become lie in ballet, discipline and it is though we say, “there,” is where she will be safe, where young ladies belong, the best environment for her growth, development, comportment-as a women-where she will find her strength. It is OUR imagination that sees ballet as their calling and possibly, their savior. We want all the attributes that we fantasize about projected onto our children: the grace, beauty, sylph-like litheness, slender bodies, costumes, roles….it is how we are sucked in, moved. But in the end, although no one else really ever understands us, it is just about the best thing you can do for your child-in my opinion. Whether I am in that league, and there is of course, a lot more to it, it dawned on me, that competition and jealousy are your enemies in ballet, and now I realize they may be your only friends. That is not what I foresaw for my daughter, and I did not see her flaws at first, how much hard work she would need to put in, and how that hard work would have to be held up continually with no breaks, how expensive it would become, or that it was exclusive. In may ways, the co-director should have said more, a lot more, but that only proves that either she wanted my money, or she had hope. Hope, in the end, is all you may be left with.
Although there is nothing at all wrong with this, we often have to ask ourselves if they have it in them to succeed and their pains are our pains, making it, I am finding out very difficult for us to watch as they learn, and yet making us prouder than we have ever been if they do just one thing right. This becomes each and everything as they follow a syllabus, graded or not, for each achievement mirrors the other obstacles in life they have to take down, and day by day, we grow ever more confident of their abilities to be successful in life, if they continue to do so. Ms. ________ was the primary ballet mistress and how kind and wonderfully encouraging she was! We also project onto the teachers the values we espouse, imagining we have a clue as to what makes the dancer tick, binds us with the studio or its directors, the teaching process, or our child for that matter, and I often see parents butting in, trying to tell the teachers what to do, “helping” out, and how often these efforts by the parents anger other parents, and how petty jealousies ebb and flow, how much drama the parents bring into the studio, themselves. This must be very frustrating for the teachers as teaching ballet is no less an art than dancing it, and it requires much more patience, concentration, communication and a special, unbreakable bond between the teacher and the child-one that I warn should not be undermined by the helpful or protective parent. If there is something you cannot tolerate, tell the teacher about it privately and NEVER communicate this with your child unless it is to assist them-and think this over very thoroughly before doing so. Sometimes we pass on to our children our own fears and protectiveness and this can hurt them understandably as they need to form their own opinions and experiences. This, however, in ballet, is pretty much impossible as we are so selfish.
Putting up my daughter’s very long, thick hair was an exercise in itself, but like all the disciplines of dance, this becomes easier and then the dancer takes over, adding this skill to her ballet accomplishments. A good bun is remarked upon even by teachers (I remember mine was pronounced “beautiful” by Ms. Schwartz and I was very proud). A sloppy bun-sloppy dancer! It sounds priggish and judgmental, but this basic discipline serves the dancer well, and to support the teacher in their role as leader does your child no disservice. Command attention and respect for the teacher! Focus. Straighten your seams. Sew your own ribbons. One by one, these “exercises” add to the installation of discipline and direction, taking the young girl and leading her into womanhood, responsibility and grace. They also learn dance etiquette from all of the other students, so I am really for a firm hand by teachers in fraternity and humanity. I really do not like slovenly teachers for beginners, professionals or no. They seem to have no self respect. How can you teach that without it? No matter the parents, the children are what is important. Respect for the teacher, timeliness, cleanliness and a host of other things that you could not teach them at home easily. So why come into the dance studio at all? You have to trust them, right? In all, a dance studio is a very nice home away from home. It becomes like another family for them, and as they grow, they realize, it is a small world, which the outside world has hidden from them, and which if you are not careful, your child feels more comfortable in than the real world. This can be a good place to be these days, though, and it does protect them from some of the experiences associated with youth today, but not all. It is important that they have outside friends and social activities and experiences. They should be encouraged to continue school, no matter how ‘serious’ they become.
There was much made of the brand BunHeads in the stores, so I bought a lot of other little things like pins and sewing kits, etc..that were not available when I was young. I may have spoiled her just a little bit by buying things I wish I had when I was a child-this is probably a mistake, but I enjoyed it much more than she did. She only loved dancing, and accessories decorate her person, but she is just as happy sweating away in her favorite torn leotard, failing to be able to locate a new one like it. I only had two or three leotards the whole time I studied dance and although I recommend a stoic dance ritual, focusing on the technique and not the costumery, there does come a time when “dressing up” is part of the social environment, and preparation as a dancer, a sort of “coming out” which the dancer learns from her peers. Humorously, this might result in periods of awkward hairdoes, too much make-up, and bizarre colors and styles of leotard, but it is a phase and a sign, that the dancer wants to be an individual, a sort of rite of passage for female dancers and get pictures because chances are this elementary phase disappears eventually and there burgeons a young woman, replete in her formality and seriousness, bound for eventual maturity and grownup qualities and the little girl is put far behind her. You will want to remember these days.
I could not resist-but this did result in my daughter asking for many things she did not need. Black is the true color of your beginning dancer’s wardrobe, and until it is deemed that he/she has reached a level to merit some other color (or the studio has designated levels by color), they must get used to it. Usually, some studios relent and give the dancer’s one day a week to wear a colored leotard. You must think of this as you would of uniforms in private school-the emphasis is on the learning, not the wardrobe. As you must also remember it is easier and less distracting for teachers to view the girls in identical wardrobe and clothes for correction of mistakes and proper use and development of muscles. For me, now, important in considering a school, would be the deportment of the other students, the professional attitude of its directors, and knowledge, but perhaps most importantly, that the children are not injured and that there are proper corrections going on constantly.
There is much more flexibility in balletwear than when I or her teachers studied, you can imagine and we cannot help but to compare our own experiences with what is going on around us. I have even had the professional dancer, and even those with children, who are also dancers, expressly tell me that things have changed drastically in formalism, training and the world of dance since they were in school. It has become much more competitive. There is certainly an emphasis on gymnastic training and innate flexibility. Even of different parts of the body, not just splits, but say, back, and or feet, curvy and not straight. These aspects are hugely controversial, too, and despite these judging points, dancers continue to be successful who do not possess all of these traits, and injuries continue which cause some dancers, who would never have a chance, to be the replacement for one who had all of them. Just life and chance, persistence and dedication, and teachers. Not Descartes, but I dance, therefore I am a dancer even before I began to study the art form known as dance, I was a dancer. Dance to me is the study of ones self, the limits and abilities of the body and the mind. This I reinforce with my daughter daily, so believe me she doesn’t ask for much anymore! Sad in a way. I feel this is very important….really. As she gets older, I realize that perhaps it will come, and perhaps she is a bit of a different kind of dancer, and I am glad, either way, that she takes joy in ballet, whatever her reasons.
Likewise, practicing what they learn in ballet is very important. It is a fact that the more you dance, the better you get. You cannot expect to become something if you take a class and leave. Dancers think about dancing 24 hours per day. Some people work very hard in class and then do nothing in between. Some work more outside class. Some take privates, study other forms of dance, gymnastics and a myriad of other disciplines, too. Some are not sure about ballet. Everything changes all the time and it is common for the parent to be in one mind and the student to be typically of another with respect to their training and wishes. Who knows more is very difficult to say, but you can rarely separate the two ideologies until the dancer matures, comes into her own, progresses. I believe ballet is its own discipline and a strict and jealous master. She believes that, too, perhaps more than I do. Once asked how she prepared for surfing, what exercises she did to strengthen for surfing, a champion surfer said, “surf.”We have discussed what made me dance, why my daughter took a ballet class, but what kept her there? She did, and I did by taking her. But her happiness and zeal for learning drove me to it, forced me to endure it, and then, only begrudgingly, did I take a sort of pride or happiness in it, when I happened to catch an improvement in a step, a jump, an expression or a force-then I was truly pleased.
These two elements are key-and I know a few mothers who take their daughters to dance and the daughters do not apply themselves. They do want to be there, but they do not want to work and they do not want to become professional dancers! You cannot make someone a prima ballerina. They have to do that, they have to have it all, not you, so stop kidding yourself that when they are 14-15 they will not quit, get a boyfriend, do something else, and it can happen anytime, maybe unwittingly. All that work and labor and emotion down the toilet so you say, but it becomes part of them forever, and no matter your broken heart, they may find another career more realistic, or they may just decide that they are not really interested in working against their flaws anymore, or they are moved to do something else. Whatever the case, I think you will find they are improved as a person by the experience of ballet school. You might be best advised to find another pastime and let them do their thing, see what comes of it and not take it so seriously, for you will not matter in their or the world’s final assessment and decision. Letting go is hard, but I recommend it, eventually. I think that my friends are right in bringing their daughters regardless of the outcome, because children test you in so many ways, even threatening to hurt themselves with actions that they are aware will hurt you, too. But, if you hang in there, you send your child more positive messages than negative ones by your example and different kinds of positive reinforcement.
What makes people dance? I mean study dance, be drawn to it everyday, choose it as a way of life, a vocation, an avocation? What is it that calls to so many people on so many levels from so many walks of life and backgrounds, to know more, learn the language of dance? It is the only art I have ever known that encompassed all of me. It is usually because they are good at it. I have never known anyone to like anything that they were doing poorly in: math, sports, music, even socializing-you name it. Students who are good at it always find someone who is better. This is important because we learn, from those better than us, by watching. Also, if we are good at something, we feel rewarded by our efforts in it. If something is continually disappointing, then we lose interest. This is very self-evident in ballet. Perhaps parents getting involved in it and pushing their children into it, keep the rest of us, and our children from finding out that it is , not for them, as we are forced to wait to see if our own children have what it takes, aside from the politics, the same children getting the roles, and we would or they would realize more quickly how hard they need to work and exactly what they DO need to succeed. If you hang around enough though, your child does gets better, those children will sometimes drop out, body types change, interests do, too. So much can happen, just like real life, that you have to see it through,persevere. Much of this is up to teachers who interact with us in class and do not criticize too much, but rather give us things to work on regularly and pay attention to us as in, “You can do better!” and not, “You are hopeless.” But do not expect this to work-sometimes the tough tact is required for certain children to succeed and they like it. Other children do not like to be told they are wrong, cannot bear failure, and must be cajoled into liking it. No child is hopeless, in my opinion, but I am sure a lot of good dance teachers would disagree with me. There are many snobs, but be thankful, in a way, for the schools who take only certain students, protecting you from a too-submerged technique, because they could also be saving you a lot of money, and if your child still continues to dance, one day, they will be in the same classes with many of those students, and finally, they may exceed those students in some abilities or in their career. It’s all about the dancing and Keeping on Dancing! It’s funny, but there is definitely something to not quitting and continually working toward your goal. More about that in another post.
What definition of dance do you want for your children? Do you have a past affinity for dance, or rue lost opportunities or dreams? Do you want them to dance to be the best or to most enjoy the experience of dancing and learning and discipline? Do you want them to compete? Do YOU feel competition is the key to being noticed and being successful in dance or does your CHILD? Or do you feel the expression of dance is most important, the vitality and slow transformation of the body into an instrument capable of responding to directions to express beauty, emotion and strength or are you of the opinion that your child can do anything you MAKE them do? Children aim to please, but to demand too much of them, even if successful can mar them for other things in life, as in “parenting.” It is one thing to believe in your child’s best abilities, but it is another to hound them about things you perhaps want for yourself, as a justification of yourself as a parent, as in having the BEST children, better than anyone else. I believe a lot of people think like this and they send their children to dance, trying to find the perfect place for their children to succeed, but I have also seen the work of ballet take over and transform those parents into believers of ballet in general, and to sort it out. And if you kept the parents completely OUT of the studio, politics and business it would be a possibly better place-usually, but dance and ballet would not rise to level of importance in your community or the world, this way, in the ways that it has. Dance needs communicators and instigators, and activists or advocates. Agitators. There is a useful place for everyone in the art, I believe. Sometimes it comes down to finding your own best use. When we realize that we are all doing the same things it is laughable, really, but some people don’t like to be laughed at either. After all, the children aren’t bothered, why should we be?
This is how I found the dance studio environment, thirty years after giving up dancing, with my then eleven-year-old daughter and the answer is I was (completely) out of it, on the wrong foot, so to speak, and she was in it, trying to get on the right foot. Shame on anyone hindering her. But, what to do is puzzling, how to help them the best you can, parent etiquette, how many classes to take, what path, what supporting classes, what schools or teachers, what physical issues are there, what injuries, and a lot of other coverable topics that would clearly help parents to refocus some of that energy in a positive way. A no hands policy is just as bad as one of driving the car of your child’s life completely. A balance is sometimes hard to find and maintain. Her experience seems to be very very different than mine as I remember it. Can you separate the two parts of your own effectually? She has come farther than I did in a fewer number of years. She is solely dedicated to dance. I was not. Is this what I want for her, really? Is that, or should that be, my choice? The answer to that might be the key to everything. What about the rest of the family, financial circumstances, time? Could I have been mistaken? Was I in denial about what I needed to do and what is required of me as a parent? Am I still useful? How can you help and not be a hindrance to your child and to everyone else?
In many places ballet has become a competition-based pursuit, like gymnastics and ice skating were and continue to be. Sometimes the competition has become the basis for everything a studio does and that goes to the training as well. But you will be very hard put, in an advanced arena of teaching, to find one that does not do some competitions or tolerate students who have that desire. It has been a way for good teachers with good students to get noticed in the competitive selection process of higher education institutions like the Bolshoi or the Royal Ballet School, and helped to provide their students the consideration of companies and the world at large. A way to help students of ballet. A resort, or last resort. Also a response to parents who have demanded those guarantees, how will my child succeed if no opportunities exist for them in the field of dance without training at one of the elite schools, or from those who do not wish their children to have to leave home, give up education, etc. Jazz dance competitions have always been this way, but what about ballet? Are there two kinds and if so, is one better than the other? Has dancing changed or are dance classes at a lower level school always so political and performance selection focused? Competitions provide a student with an opportunity to show off their particular performance skills.
My mother always warned me against “performance” studios. Why? Are there some bastions left of excellence in the art of dance? Yes, many, in fact, now is probably the best it has ever been in this country, or the world, to find a reputable and caring place to study ballet, to have the best training, and the best possibility of achieving your goals in dance. Whatever may be said about the studios we have been involved with, they took my daughter and began or continued her in her path of excellence in dance, so there I did not err in my judgment or choices. They have all been exemplary in their way. They did care about her, but I may not have handled the situation correctly, or they may have left off communication misinterpreting our departure, etc. It takes work on both sides. Some studios may not be willing to go that far to keep your child, so my motivation, and hers, is to find someone who is willing to work with you. Some parents do not have that problem for many different reasons. You do have to guess and factor and plot and try, for your child.
In this environment, how do I communicate to my daughter the art of dance over scholarships, competition and “winning?” It is possible that this has been futile, because in the end, if she continues, this will inevitably be a required part of her training and to dissuade her entirely would be to her great disadvantage and she might even be missing an important part to her components as a dancer. The point is, I do not believe there is just one way. Successful studios continue to both promote competition and others to deny certain forms of it. These attributes are widely variable, not mutually exclusive and complex-each studio is different, and may change. I think to take a position one way or the other, without regard to waiting until your child’s future in dance is commenced, would be a mistake. Some considerations will not apply to you then and more questions will arise to ponder, make no mistakes! Keep your eyes wide open and your ears. Judge less, do more. Wait and see. Be proactive.
There are many other issues to discuss about ballet and I hope that this first post of our continuing saga in ballet will be helpful to those starting out. I mean to set the environment for an open communication for individuals to comment with their opinions, advice, and to share their own experiences and insight at length. I will not condone and do not mean to expiate against the virtues of one studio over another, for each has their place and merits consideration. While I might say things about the studios my daughter has been involved with, I intend to give no names, and to protect them from unverified slander, even from mysylph. While each of us may have our own experiences, they are personal, highly emotional and there are two sides (at least) to every story. They have helped my daughter on her path in ballet. Hers is not an easy one, for them, for me, or most importantly, for her and our situation is very particular-so is yours. So, let us rest in giving them the benefit of the doubt and let our own experiences and goals be the guide. They are all hard-working and provide good training.
Keep on Dancing!