What drew you to the profession of teaching dance?
To be honest, it was at first for very selfish reasons! As a young dancer, I was given some advice from my Artistic Directors to begin teaching as a means of improving upon my own technique. As a dancer, it is sometimes difficult to feel what exactly your body is doing. Teaching provided me with the opportunity to take the role of the onlooker, see corrections that needed to be made on my students, and apply them to myself. I started teaching at a very young age, and I really think it enriched my dancing on the whole.
What does your average work day look like? Give us a little snapshot of your life…
I’m freelancing a good bit these days, so my schedule is a bit all over the map. At the moment, I’m in Carlisle, PA teaching for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet’s summer program and having a blast, but there is always a long list of ‘to do’s’ to keep my life running back in New York. Here’s what today looks like:
7:00am – 9:00am – Answer questions for this interview over coffee and a bagel.
9:00am – 10:30am – Teach my morning class at CPYB
10:30am – 1:30pm – Head to Staples to print, sign, scan and email a contract for a new ballet I’m creating for Point Park University in Spring of 2016. Then I head to the Post Office to ship two orders of ‘Find Your Fifth.’ We are a small start-up, so orders are processed not through a company, but from my apartment in Queens (or wherever I happen to be). You should see my living room. It’s a ‘Find Your Fifth’ extravaganza in there!
1:30 – 4:00 – Teach technique and pointe at CPYB
4:00 – 5:15 – Coffee #2 and study time for my upcoming gig as Guest Ballet Master for the Slovak National Ballet in September. Choreographer Daniel de Andrade of Northern Ballet is creating a brand new production of ‘Nijinsky’ for the company with an original score by Carl Davis. I’m so excited to be on board for this creation, but it will be a huge undertaking for all involved, so I study any chance I can.
5:15 – 6:15 – Teach a private lesson at CPYB
6:15 – ??? Make the four-hour drive home to NYC (during rush hour, yikes). Tomorrow I am up at 6am to help set up a vendor booth for ‘Find Your Fifth’ at The Pulse Convention, and then head over to work on my new ballet for Broadway Dance Center’s Professional Semester Students at Symphony Space.
It is definitely a hectic life for me at the moment, but I am so grateful to have a job that I love to do.
You obtained a degree in performing arts a few years ago. How did this enrich your life as a teacher?
The LEAP Program, offered through St. Mary’s College in California, is designed to help dancers fulfill their degree while offering a flexible schedule that allows them work full-time. It was a saving grace for me, and, to date, getting my degree is one of my proudest accomplishments.
At LEAP, I studied Alexander Technique and found it completely transforming. The idea of freeing the mind in order to accept new information was particularly compelling. I wrote a thesis on the ways teachers can take the principles of Alexander Technique and apply them to both the mental and physical aspects of classical ballet. For example, I’ll ask a dancer, “What muscles specifically do you need to execute an arabesque?” Then we’ll go step-by-step, and eventually eradicate tension in the shoulders and neck, because it simply isn’t necessary. I’ve found this works so much better than to simply tell a student to put their shoulders down, and it allows them to work on the mental process of learning without any harshness or fear of limitation, which, sadly, many still view as part of classical ballet.
Additionally, I was given the opportunity to study business courses through the LEAP program. I was a development intern for Career Transition For Dancers and an intern for a major branding firm in NYC as well. These experiences have been a key component in my freelance life. It is so important for dancers, and those in the arts in general, to have knowledge of the business side of things. Being a freelance artist can be a bit hectic and brutal at times and knowing how to market and brand yourself intelligently can be a huge help.
Tell us a little about “Find Your Fifth”. What can viewers expect from this program?
‘Find Your Fifth’ is my baby. While it is, by the books, an instructional video and a CD for ballet class music, it is so much more as well. We took six professional dancers who have worked with some of the best ballet companies in the world (Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, to name a few), and we offer the experience of a ballet class in New York City, complete with multiple camera angles and a cinematic feel thanks to our amazing production company, Big Village Media. It is a ninety-minute class for dancers of the Advanced Beginner level and up. We start with plies and go straight through to grand allegro. We also offer ‘Handy Tip’ sections which break down trouble steps for teachers and students.
The way I offer the combinations has much to do with the non-intimidating approach I spoke about in connection with my studies of Alexander Technique. For example, in one of the ‘Tips’ I explain petit battement in the scenario of The Wizard of Oz. The teacher is Dorothy and the student is a rusted-over Tin Man. Dorothy has only gotten to the student’s knee joint with her oil can, so the student is only allowed to use that joint as a ‘hinge’ to execute the petit battement. It makes it lighthearted, fun, and allows the student to take a correction without feeling beaten down or scared.
Once the class is over, we have a twenty minute talkback section. The pointe shoes come off and we sit on the studio floor and talk about life as a dancer in NYC, complete with all the successes, failures, and (hysterical) onstage mishaps that come with the business we are in. It shows these amazing dancers as human beings as well, which was an important aspect I wanted for ‘Find Your Fifth.’ There just might be a blooper reel in there as well from our shoot day.
The other side to ‘Find Your Fifth’ is our album, which offers twenty-seven tracks and sixteen original compositions for ballet class music. Our accompanist, Patrick Gallagher, has created some truly beautiful and inspiring tunes. I use it almost every time I don’t have a live accompanist, and, I can honestly say, it feels like Patrick is right there playing live every time.
What inspired you to create “Find Your Fifth”?
Last year, I worked for three months as Guest Ballet Master for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and we spent a month of that time on tour around the country. In a few of the cities, I taught outreach classes to young male dancers in New Zealand. We always had so much fun and one boy came up to me after one of the classes and thanked me for helping him learn to appreciate classical ballet. Those words meant the world to me and I knew immediately I wanted to create something to help more people really and truly fall in love with the art I love so much.
On the plane ride home from New Zealand, I began drafting the opening scene, which showed vignettes of a bustling and borderline frantic New York City that builds to a frenzy, then an abrupt shift to a lone dancer stretching in a studio in almost meditative silence. I penned that in December, and, by May, sure enough, I laid eyes on the opening credits of ‘Find Your Fifth,’ which shows just that. I can’t lie, I got a little teary-eyed the first time I saw it. My hope is that those who watch the film will find it as inspiring as I do.
How would you describe the dance class culture of NYC? What makes it different or unique?
The dance class culture of NYC very much reflects the pulse of the city itself. It can feel rushed at times. It is also very expensive. There are times when I have to tell my class en mass simply to remember to breathe! Classes here are comprised of ballet dancers nursing injuries, businessmen and women who work 24/7 and need an escape, musical theatre dancers who might just have been cut from three auditions, and so much more. I refuse to let my students bring this into the studio. My class is a safe-haven, and it is an excuse for all to let go of everyday life for an hour and a half and focus their energy on something that is beautiful, inspiring, and touching to the soul.
Beyond technique, what qualities do you try to bring out in your students?
I was lucky enough to have been trained at The School of American Ballet, which values not only technique, but a keen sense of musicality as well. Ballet is nothing without the music behind it, and I like to gear my classes to help students truly listen and react to the music. There is a huge difference when you see a dancer performing who is thinking about steps rather than the music. I’d take two clean and musical pirouettes any day over nine turns that have absolutely nothing to do with the music behind them.
Additionally, and this is a big one for me, I think it is important to allow students to make mistakes, particularly in class. Dancers beat themselves up over the smallest things (myself included), but I think it is important to remind students that class is for learning, not perfection. How else will you grow? In ‘Find Your Fifth,’ we show a few of the dancers’ mistakes as well. We laugh about it, we fix it, we move on. That’s what class is for.
What advice would you give to advanced-level students or professional dancers who are interested in pursuing teaching?
First and foremost, teaching alongside of dancing is wonderful and so helpful, but don’t transition to a full-time teaching position until you are absolutely sure you are finished dancing. I had a beautiful eleven-year run as a professional ballet dancer, and I taught alongside of dancing for most of those years, but I made sure I was finished performing before I even gave thought to teaching full-time. The years as a dancer are few and precious, make the most out of them!
Second, if you have never taught ballet before, ask a teacher you admire if you can sit in on a class or two and take notes. The first class you teach can be a bit nerve-wracking. I remember in one of the first classes I taught as a teen, I gave one the most un-musical adagios on the face of the earth. The counts didn’t match and I was mortified! Studying a class and taking notes can be a helpful way to get the ball rolling and make you feel more comfortable.
Third, once you become a full-time teacher, don’t think the learning stops. Always find ways to grow and discover new things. Every time I teach at a new school or company, I try to take something away from the students that I can use to make myself a better teacher. I also love watching other teachers teach. Nowadays, there are workshops designed specifically for teachers, which I think is wonderful. Having just joined the guest faculty at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, I think they have one of the most prolific and successful syllabi in the ballet world, and I am telling everyone I know to look into their teacher workshop. There are also anatomy classes, nutrition seminars, and online resources available for teachers that can be so useful. Once we stop growing, we are no longer artists!
And here’s a little peek for you: