by Catherine L. Tully
As I reflect back on my time in the dance classroom, my thoughts often turn to those who taught me. I was lucky to have had some pretty incredible instructors–there actually weren’t any that I think of in a negative light. Each and every one of them shaped me as a dancer; gave me a piece of themselves really, when it comes right down to it.
Every teacher emphasizes different things. Some work you when it comes to technique while others hone your lyric ability. If you’re fortunate, you get a range of these teachers and become a well-rounded dancer with mad skills. Today, I just wanted to take a minute to write a little bit about what each of my instructors did to shape me as a dancer…
Mrs. Engstrom – Typically, your first teacher is pretty much the luck of the draw. Most people don’t know much about choosing a ballet teacher when they enroll their child in class, and I got so lucky with Mrs. E. She gave me a great foundation of technique, concentrated on proper placement and age-appropriate movements, and from that, I had a terrific base from which to grow as a dancer. She made sure our feet were ready before putting us in pointe shoes, let our turnout develop slowly, and really enforced basics. Hats off to her for a great start!
Iosif Isrealiov – (think I’ve got the spelling right there) Iosif was my character dance instructor when I studied at Chicago City Ballet in the 80’s. From him I learned stamina. He used to have us do this mazurka step in a circle until we would literally drop from exhaustion, one-by-one. I always strove to be the last one standing; and I often was. He pushed us very hard physically, and I found out I could reach deeper than I believed possible in terms of what my body could do.
Homer Hans Bryant – Homer wasn’t actually my own teacher–he taught another level (and I think it was a boys class?). Even so, his class was often right before mine, and when I’d watch I saw things I’d never seen before in a ballet classroom…he had them doing pushups and other exercises that were not exactly traditional. I found it exciting! From him I learned that sometimes you can step outside of the typical class structure and infuse the training with something practical and interesting. I also discovered that you can learn from observing a class–you don’t always have to take it.
Marjorie Tallchief – Soon I’m going to post something about Marjorie, so I won’t say too much here now and spoil it. But as for what she gave me, it was a more advanced understanding of ballet technique, coupled with the ability to execute combinations at a level that I never dreamed.
Inesse Alexandrovich – Ahhh. Inessa. This woman really developed my upper body–specifically the movement of my arms and my épaulement. Bolshoi trained, she knew how to tweak my movements perfectly to draw out the beauty in my port de bras, and she would help me understand what it meant to lose myself in the music. We had a special relationship. Even though she spoke little English, she knew just how to show me what I needed to do.
Rick Hilsabeck – Rick has always been a favorite teacher of mine. When I was just starting jazz at Lou Conte Dance Studio after many, many years of ballet training, it was Rick who worked with me patiently – trying to get me to let go a bit. It took a long time. He was great every step of the way.
Claire Bataille – Claire was a technique machine, but in a different way than I’d experienced before. She was confident and strong both inside and out, and although I found it intimidating to be in her classroom, it was also an adventure.
Maria Tallchief – What do you say about taking class from this woman? If I was intimidated by Claire, it was tenfold for Ms. Tallchief. She had a presence that can not be described unless you’ve been in a room with her, and learning directly from someone of her stature was extraordinary. You felt as if everything she said was something that could change you forever as a dancer.
Now that I’ve had the chance to talk about a few of my teachers…would you share something about one who shaped you as a dancer?