Our “10 Questions With…” feature is back! Dancer/teacher/writer Roger Lee got in touch with Christina Pastras from The Rock School for Dance Education and sent us this lovely interview to run on the site…enjoy!
1. How did you get involved with dance?
My mom put me in dance because I had too much energy and not the right outlet to express it. I could not sit still and was always moving. I was a bit of a troublemaker! Once I began dance classes, even at an early age, my parents could not get me out of the dance studio. I instantly fell in love with dance and it became my world. I begged for a ballet barre and mirror for my play room. I could be found dancing in every picture and video from events in my life.
- What are you currently doing in the dance field?
I had a wonderful career dancing worldwide as a professional ballerina. I had a chance to perform roles in amazing ballets including Swan Lake, Gisele, Les Sylphide, Coppelia, Don Quioxte, and Jewels. I unfortunately ended my ballet career with an injury. I thought my world had ended but I quickly found a new passion through teaching. I was fortunate to become a faculty member at The Rock School for Dance Education. I found love, support, and teacher and choreographer mentoring through The Rock School’s Directors Bo and Stephanie Spassoff and Ballet Mistresses Jennifer Wheat and Gina Grace.
After several years on faculty, I additionally began teaching in and later managing The Rock School’s outreach program, RockReach. My passion was reignited! RockReach’s a mission is to bring dance to as many undeserved youth in and around the Philadelphia area. Since becoming manager, we have grown tremendously over the past two and a half years. Through the support of the Directors, the growing need for arts and physical education in the school district, and the amazing dedication of Sue Rock, we are reaching close to 18,000 school children a year through our various programs. We also hold residencies in 19 schools. The program would not have the success it does today without the wonderful RockReach faculty and the support of The Rock School and communities we serve.
- What are your favorite things about dance?
Dance has been in my life longer than anything. It is the air I breathe. I love that dance can brighten my day. I can be having the worst day and once I walk into the ballet studio, my world shifts. I leave my feelings at the door or I take them out on the floor. Everything becomes clearer and sharper as I take my first breath and step into B+ or first position. The love I receive from my students is also very inspiring. Their hard work and dedication gives me strength and elation. It is very similar to the feelings I have as a mother. My kids are my world. They are the light that guides me. They inspire me to be the best dancer, teacher, and choreographer that I can be. I also love that in dance we never ever stop learning, growing, and striving to be our very best. We do this for ourselves–and the people in our lives.
- What was the proudest moment of your career (to date)?
I am proud of my students’ individual triumphs such as mastering a combination, nailing a performance, getting into a company, or landing a dance job. I am also extremely proud of how RockReach has evolved so drastically.
- What has been the hardest or most challenging aspect of your career?
I think there are different challenges between being a performer and being a teacher. It can also be hard making that transition from one role to the other. As a performer you have to work hard to care for your body. Training and working on technique is a challenge. I feel all dancers are perfectionists and we are never happy with ourselves. You have to work really hard to keep that perfectionism in perspective and not be your own worst critic. You have to soul search and be proud of what you have to offer to a director or a company, even a role, while continuing to grow as a dancer. As a teacher I always try and make sure that I am providing my dancers with the right tools and continuing to challenge them in the studio.
- What is the best advice that you have ever received from a dance mentor or teacher?
The best advice I received is “Don’t be afraid to fail!” Just because you can’t do something right now doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Even professional dancers get corrections. I was also told to have a love affair with my Pointe shoes and that dreams are meant to make realities.
- What advice would you give someone who is just starting a dance career?
There are so many amazing technical dancers out there. However, being a great proficient dancer is not enough. You also need to be able to perform and captivate an audience. Remember that even the smallest movement or simplest movement can take someone’s breath away and send chills throughout the audience. As a performer, you need to feel every breath, transition, and movement that you execute. The audience needs to feel inspired by your movements, connected to your work on stage, and also be amazed with your technical ability.
I would also encourage new dancers to explore all sorts of genres. You can specialize in a dance genre, but make sure you step into other classes as well to broaden your horizons! I found as a ballet dancer you can be very easily pigeonholed in that particular art form. As dance has become more mainstream, companies and directors are now looking for more well-rounded and versatile dancers.
- What is your dance teaching philosophy?
I am big on positive reinforcement. For every correction, I like to give a compliment. I feel that I get more out of my dancers that way. It helps to build their self esteem and I find they work harder on the correction I am giving them. I try to never cross the line between friend and teacher while always being accessible to my students. I care very deeply for all my students and want to know what is going on with them. I never mind spending extra time after class to work with a dancer. I love when dancers come up to me and ask for something specific to work on. I never count anyone out because I do not think they have the technique or the body to be a dancer. It will be that very student that ends up surprising me the most! You never know what someone will become.
It is also important to give both individual and group corrections in class for learning purposes. I am very vocal in class. It is important to explain every detail of executing a step. Some dancers learn visually while others learn from the way you explain the technique behind the movement. What does it mean? How do we execute it? What does it take to make it work? These are some of the things I talk about with my students.
- What has been your biggest “breakthrough” while teaching?
I think I’m currently experiencing my biggest breakthrough moment right now. I am at a place where I’ve worked with the same dancers for years. Some who started with me as a young child are now embarking on a professional career. It blows my mind to think I have had some impact on that dancer in some way! I recognize that breakthroughs come in many shapes and sizes. It can be a messy, hard, tiring process, but it is well worth it when you come out on the victorious side. I think we experience these moments with our students each and every day. We push and encourage our students mentally, physically, and technically.
- What is next for you?
A long vacation on the beach, toes in the sand, the works!
But in all seriousness, I’m a dancer. We need to continually create and we are never happy sitting still. I want to continue my mission of bringing dance into as many young children’s lives as possible. I want to show children that they matter and their dreams are important regardless of their situations. I want to continue to be inspired by other dancers and teachers, because that helps me be the best dancer and teacher I can be. I would like to continue to choreograph more and create new works of art.