I met this lovely man at Dance USA when he came up to talk to me after the panel on Dance Writing–he had a pretty cool idea that he wanted to share–and now I’m pleased to be able to share it with you…
1. What is your dance background?
When I was in third grade, San Francisco Ballet’s Dance In Schools Program (led by Charles McNeal) came to my school, and following the residency I received an outreach scholarship. I started training at the San Francisco Ballet School from the age of eight until I graduated at eighteen. After ten years in the School, I became the first outreach student to get into the professional company as an apprentice in 1993. At that time SFB was becoming a world-class company, and I was very blessed to grow up watching and then performing with some of the best dancers from all over the world.
In 2001, after seven years performing professionally with the San Francisco Ballet, I moved to New York to join Dance Theatre of Harlem as a soloist. Under the guidance of Arthur Mitchell, I felt myself become more than just a dancer, but a true artist. I felt real satisfaction and fulfillment as I was promoted to a principal dancer and given the opportunity to dance leading roles in many iconic neoclassical ballets. For two weeks we performed at Lincoln Center, the heart of dance in America, and I felt I had reached a very high point in my career.
Unfortunately, after only four years dancing with DTH, the company closed its doors. I was blessed enough to join the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago and landed nicely on my feet (as always!). After my experiences in San Francisco and New York, I felt confident in my abilities as a technician and as an artist. One of the highlights of my two years at the Joffrey was working with Sir Antony Dowell on the role of Oberon in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream.
My time in Chicago was short and sweet, and in 2006 San Francisco called me home again. This time, I had the fortune to dance with Smuin Ballet. Michael Smuin was one of the best artistic directors I have worked with. He had a way of bringing out the best dancing in me and giving the audience a really great show. Mr. Smuin had been the director of San Francisco Ballet when I was just a kid, and we had worked together at Dance Theatre of Harlem as well. It was great to work with him on a full time basis because I felt he appreciated me as a dancer and as person. Up until the day he died in the studio, my experience with Smuin was marked by some of the best dancing I’ve ever done.
Since I left Smuin in 2008, I’ve been freelancing around the Bay Area. I am currently working with the San Francisco Opera as a resident corps dancer. One of the best things about working with the Opera is being back on the War Memorial Opera House stage. This is the very same stage where I did my first Nutcracker as a Mother Ginger kid. It feels like home, and the opera singers are amazing too…
2. What is “Just Turns” and why did you decide to found it?
Just Turns is an interactive classical ballet workshop. The two-hour Just Turns workshop is designed to focus the student’s approach and maximize turning technique in order to increase confidence and ability in all kinds of turns. The class structure and progression are designed to break down every part of turning technique— training spot, balance, force control, and placement from the ground up. Students are encouraged to ask questions, experiment, and take notes throughout the workshop in order to realize their ideal turning method.
My inspiration for Just Turns is in helping dancers with one of the hardest and best parts of ballet technique. While I was dancing in New York, I would take class at Steps on Broadway with Willy Burmann. In his class I really started to develop a great turning style. My turns were always good, but with the Mr. Burmann’s help they became great! When I returned to San Francisco, dancers would frequently ask me for help working on their turns after class. One day I was talking with my friend Vanessa Zahorian (principal dancer with SFB who is a great turner as well), and I thought, “How great would it be to bring back the ‘turning class’ that we would take during summer sessions?” That thought brewed in my head for a while, and when I started teaching ballet two years ago, it was time for Just Turns to be born. Now, as I am moving toward the next phase of my career as a teacher, I am finding my specific niche as a turning coach. Just Turns is my way of reaching the broader dance community and using my passion and specific expertise with turns to help dancers everywhere.
3. Who can benefit from the “Just Turns” approach?
What’s great about Just Turns is that ballet lovers from kids to adults, students to professionals, can all benefit from the workshop. Just Turns goes back to basics, building turn technique from the barre forward. For students who are just learning how to turn, it will give them the good habits and useful material to start with. For professional and pre professionals, Just Turns can give them some tips and tricks to clean up their turns and be more consistent. Adult students love it because they get a chance to ask questions and take time to really break down turns. An intermediate understanding of ballet technique is all that is required to appreciate and benefit from a Just Turns workshop.
4. Can you share a few tips for better turns?
As a matter for fact I can! I have developed four fundamental rules for turning that are the center of my turning curriculum. The Four Rules are designed to fill the thought space right before a turn with concepts that are simple, dynamic, universal, and easy to remember.
One – turn in one piece, in one count
Fast – fast spot, fast into the position
Strong – strong standing leg, strong core
Finish – begin with the finish in mind!
5. What is one of the biggest mistakes dancers make when it comes to turns?
Turns are very much an individual feeling, so technical mistakes vary widely from dancer to dancer. Most of all, I’d say that frustration is the biggest limitation dancers face when it comes to turns. I’ve seen good turners fall apart as their frustration builds and their turns worsen. Patience and problem solving are the best tools you can have when approaching turns. Turns aren’t the same every day, and frustration can “turn” a bad turning day into a deeper mental block. In my Just Turns workshops, I strive to take away that frustration by filling the dancers’ thought space with useful ideas and positive reinforcement.
6. Do you think anyone can learn how to turn better? Why or why not?
YES! When it comes to turns, it’s not how many you can do, it’s the quality and finish that’s key. A perfect double pirouette with a beautiful finish is better than four sloppy turns any day. Any dancer has the capacity to build on their consistency and approach to turns. Dancers are always learning and striving to be better, which is the fundamental challenge and beauty of dance.
7. What are your workshops like?
Class begins with a short barre that is streamlined to train the mind and body in the fundamental physical dynamics of turning. The student is introduced to the Four Rules – one, fast, strong, finish – and will use these concepts as the basic components of turn technique. Center work begins with simple exercises focused on training preparations, spot, balance, coordination, and strength, and then progresses to more advanced combinations and specialized turns. In a workshop series (two to eight classes), students can execute up to fourteen distinct types of turns, and have fun doing it!
8. Since you have begun the “Just Turns” workshops, who have you worked with?
This summer alone, I have worked with San Carlos School of Ballet, ODC’s Teen Summer Program, Vacaville Theater Ballet, Santa Clara Community Center, Livermore School of Ballet, and the Dance Theater of Harlem Professional Training Program. I also teach private sessions, and one of my students was recently accepted to American Ballet Theatre’s JKO School trainee program. The feedback from all the workshops has been amazing! I saw many students experience the “Ah ha!” moment of realization with their turns. Watching an eight-year-old girl do her first clean double turn with a beautiful finish was priceless and very humbling.
9. What would be the one thing you would tell people about learning how to turn better if you could only share a single piece of advice?
Visualization is very important when it comes to turns. What a dancer thinks about in the split second before the turn is key. A dancer must have a clear and focused idea in mind, and know what they want to turn to look and feel like from start to finish. Just Turns offers a broad range of ideas to experiment with, and in that way each dancer is able to find the key to their turning potential.
10. What is next for you?
The next phase of Just Turns is to get the word out through great blogs like this one and my own. I learned a great deal from the Dance/USA conference in San Francisco this year, and now I am putting those business ideas into action. My goal is to take Just Turns to a national stage and incorporate the workshop into the curriculum of professional ballet schools all over the country. I want to be known as an expert turning coach and elite level classical ballet instructor.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to post on this blog. Just Turns is my business and my passion, and I am always happy to share it with the world!
BIO: Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Ikolo Griffin received his dance training from San Francisco Ballet School through the Dance in Schools Program. In 1993, he became the first student from the school’s outreach program to join the San Francisco Ballet Company. In that same year he received the Princess Grace Award in Dance for Ballet. After seven years as a member to the San Francisco Ballet Company (SFB), he joined the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) as a Soloist, promoted to Principal, and four years later joined the Joffrey Ballet Company. Two Years later, returned back to San Francisco and joined the Smuin Ballet.
As a member on the SFB, Ikolo worked on many World Premier ballets with such choreographers as Val Caniparoli “Lambarena”, James Kudelka “Terra Ferma,” Stanton Welch “Taiko,” Lar Lubovitch “Othello,” Lila York “El Grito,” Christopher Wheeldon “Sea Pictures,” and Mark Morris “Sandpaper Ballet,” “Maelstrom.” He also preformed in Heigi Tomasson’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “Giselle,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Swan Lake.” He has also danced in works choreographed by Lew Christensen, Paul Taylor, and Anges DeMille.
In DTH, Ikolo danced leading roles in Jerome Robbins “Fancy Free” as the Romantic Sailor, George Balanchine’s “Agon” in the 1st and 2nd Pas De Tois, “Stars and Stripes” as the Captain, “The Four Temperaments” the Sanguinic Pas De Deux and the leading role in “Prodigal Son”. He was invited to dance leading role in World Premier of Michael Smiun’s of “St. Louis Woman” as The Jockey Augie in Lincoln Center, New York.
During his time with The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, Ikolo performed the lead Pas De Deux in “Larencia Pas d´Action” by Rudolph Nurueyv, The Caviler in Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker,” Anthony Tudor “Dark Elegies,” Twyla Tharp “Deuce Coupe,” and was personally coached by Sir Anthony Dowell for the leading role of Oberon in “The Dream” by Sir Fredrick Ashton.
After joining the Smuin ballet in 2006, Ikolo worked very closely with Mr Smuin before his death in 2007 on ballets such as “Obrbigato, Brazil” and Ariel in “The Tempset” “Christmas Ballet” “Shinju” “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Deuttino”. As well as Amy Seiwarts World Premieres “Falling Up” and “Reveling the Bridge” and Kirk Peterson’s West Coast Premiere of “ Reinin’ in the Hurricane”
Currently Mr Griffin is a freelance professional dancer working in and a round the bay area, for companies like the San Francisco Opera, Western Ballet in Mt View, and Menlowe Ballet.