In the late 1960’s the Cincinnati Ballet Company had a youth company. They held yearly auditions for positions in the program which had the young dancers dividing their training time between their original dance studios and the company. I was accepted into the program when I was twelve. This began a whole new chapter in my life – a lifetime of training with a lot of different teachers and balancing the physical and mental demands of a professional career in dance.
The funny thing about the dance profession is that it isn’t always the naturally talented kids that succeed. It’s the ugly ducklings – the ones that don’t fit the classical dancer mold. I was a prime example: I’m short, my torso is too long, my legs are turned in – and yet I managed to become a professional dancer. Several times in my early training years, I was asked by several well intentioned teachers if I had ever considered a career change – like secretarial school or the circus. Many of today’s professional dancers can tell you the same thing – how they too were discouraged from continuing dance in their earlier years. I think that the one thing that many teachers discount is sheer will and desire. Those are the qualities that determine your future. While the talented kids have an easier time through the earlier stages of their training, there comes a point in everyone’s training when you hit an obstacle. Something you can’t immediately do and something you need to work towards. Many of the talented kids quit dancing at this point, having never learned how to deal with the frustration of not being able to do something OR the patience needed to methodically tackle challenges. For the ugly duckling, it’s a day like any other. The ugly duckling has spent a lifetime running up against and climbing over brick walls. In other words – no biggie!
As a dance teacher, I still value hard work and determination over natural talent. I’ve seen the ugly duckling rise to the top many times over. On the first day of a new teaching job in Toronto, the director of the school pulled me aside and pointed to one child, “Don’t waste time with that one; she’ll never be a dancer.” True – the kid was a walking disaster. All her body parts seemed to fly off in different directions, BUT she was eager to learn and she worked hard. Despite the director’s directive, I cast the kid in one of my year-end productions. Every time she came onto the stage to perform, I would sink down into my chair and cover my eyes with my hands. The kid just massacred my choreography. Slowly she began to improve. Today she is a successful contemporary dancer who has won a lot of recognition for her work. Never discount the ugly ducklings.
I used to get defensive about my own obvious lack of physical attributes until a wise dance historian pulled me aside one day and listed the physical disabilities of some of the world’s greatest dancers. This one had weak ankles, this one was legally blind, and this one had bad feet. The list was endless. A few years back, I was sitting and talking with one of the better known Canadian ballerinas and we were laughing about our physical imperfections. She looked at me and said, “You know, if we had to audition in today’s market, we probably wouldn’t make it.” I agreed with her at the time but after thinking about it for a while, I think she’s wrong. She and I would have still made our marks – we were both hard workers.
Dance is perfected by repetition. Once you figure out what a movement or position is supposed to look like and what it is supposed to feel like, then it’s simply a matter of repeating it over and over until your body masters it. However, let it be said that knowing that your leg is supposed to be up around your neck and getting it there are two different things. Learning to dance is a long and tedious process. They say it takes a minimum of seven years to produce a decent dancer and I think that estimate is pretty close. Few people realize how many small details a dancer has to deal with at the same time: All toes on the ground, ankles straight, knees aligned over the arches of the feet, legs turned out, seat in, back straight, stomach in, chest up, shoulders down and back, long neck, head up, elbows rounded, thumbs in – and you haven’t even started to move yet! Then it is a matter of maintaining all of those positions while moving gracefully – and making it look effortless. The time consuming process of training takes a toll on the student and the teacher alike.
Patience is a virtue but even the best of teachers lose their composure occasionally. Usually they would yell, throw a few things or give themselves a time out by leaving the studio for a bit of time. In 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s hitting was still an accepted reaction to frustration. Many of my teachers used a form of aversion therapy to get their point across. You know – pain as a negative reinforcement. Like anyone needs to add more pain to dance. Actually – now that I think about it – it was only my male instructors that ever used those sadistic methods. One male teacher liked to place his cup of hot coffee on my lifted and turned out leg, resting it on my foot just below the ankle. I was then to move my leg from the front of my body to the side, without spilling the coffee, using the threat of hot liquid burning my foot as motivator to make a monumental effort to do it right. Another teacher used to belt our knees together to teach bourees (which are comprised of fast and tiny little steps that move you across the floor). The difficulty with the belt trick was when he would run behind me and yell “Faster”. The question wasn’t really whether I was going to hit the floor; the question was which body part was going to hit the floor first – my hands or my face. It took several years for a cigarette burn to finally fade on my leg. Compliments of one teacher who felt a lit cigarette under my raised leg would give me the needed incentive to hold it up longer. It did give me incentive. Unfortunately my leg muscles didn’t have the same incentive. Oh and yes – the teachers used to smoke while they taught.
Many young students developed physical ticks due to tension. Everyone has these little habits – stuff that you do when you’re anxious or concentrating. Tapping your fingers, biting your nails, playing with your hair, etc. My problem was my thumbs. I just couldn’t keep them down. The harder I worked, the more they stuck straight up. I looked like I was constantly trying to hitch a ride. Gentle reminding didn’t work and neither did warnings of physical violence, beyond a couple of minutes. One male teacher decided to bind my thumbs to my hands with rubber bands – which cut off all the circulation in my fingers. After a couple of mind-numbing painful classes, I would be given probational freedom – on the condition that my thumbs remained in their proper place. I would spend the entire class concentrating so hard on keeping my thumbs down that I forgot everything else – getting in the way of other students and forgetting all the exercises. Unfortunately in a few weeks, my thumbs would pop up and my teacher would start the correction process all over again. One of my more humane teachers felt that using a ping-pong ball during the barre exercises would do the trick, on the theory that unlike the rubber bands that physically bound my unwilling thumbs down, I would have to consciously hold the ping-pong ball. Class started and I have to admit that it was working. I had to really think about the position that my hand was in. As the class quickly turned around to begin the second side of the barre exercise, I fumbled passing the ping pong ball to my other hand. I dropped the ball. It dropped to the floor with that annoying hollow ping-pong ball sound and it bounced away from my feet. It bounced all the way across the room. It took a few scrambling moments to dodge all my fellow students’ legs, grab the ball, jump back into my place and continue the exercise. Sad to say but I dropped that ping-pong ball a lot. I spent a lot of the next couple of days chasing my ping-pong ball around the room while the rest of the class carried on. The teacher was not amused. Two days later, he presented me with a couple of limes. “You can drop these all you want.” I had to admit that the limes did work much better. On the first couple of drops they would roll a bit but their odd shape really wasn’t made for long distance bouncing. Also – after a couple of drops they became squishy and would plop unmoving to the floor. Did it work? Yes it did – although it did take some time. Practice and patience.