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By Rachel Howard
Sally Streets’ advanced classes at Berkeley Ballet Theater are popular with teenagers, adults, and professional dancers alike. But Streets’ most famous former student is her daughter, recently retired New York City Ballet star Kyra Nichols. Like her daughter, Streets enjoyed a long career, first dancing with New York City Ballet at age 20, then returning to the stage with Pacific Ballet and later Oakland Ballet from age 31 to 47. Now 73, she continues to teach four days a week at BBT, which she founded 25 years ago. Rachel Howard recently spoke with Streets about her approach.
You stopped dancing at age 20 and made a comeback over a decade later. How does that experience influence your teaching?
I try to give more information to my students about the practical part of using the body. When I was trained as a child, I was just told to do this, do that, turn your feet out. No one explained body placement, where the hips should be, how you should hold your arms.
I ruined my knees because nobody ever said hold your arches up, get your knees over your toes. I was strong and I looked good; you couldn’t tell anything was wrong. I was fortunate that when I came back to ballet, my teachers Richard Gibson and Alan Howard taught me body mechanics and helped me dance more correctly.
Who are your other teaching influences?
Balanchine was a big influence, even though I danced for him a long time back. I also observed him and took class from him when Kyra was in New York City Ballet and took in his sense of musicality.
Under Ronn Guidi at Oakland Ballet I learned to be much freer, not uptight. Ronn’s combinations weren’t always musical. He would just kind of do it and not say how it should be musically. He wanted people to just dance freely. I had always been very studious. At first I thought: How can he give class like this, with everyone phrasing so differently? But there’s something releasing about that.
Your class is not quite that free, but it moves quickly.
I’m very sensitive to getting people warmed up. I keep going. If I talk, I talk while the students are dancing.
Also, everything I do is based on rhythm. We’re not just talking and getting boring about it. We’re applying and fixing. I like to have something fast and something slow, different rhythms, different emphases, using different muscles, so that you’re not just using your thighs for every exercise. Even at the barre, I give exercises that get people moving, and moving big.
How did you come to start every class on the floor?
I’ve been doing the floor warm-up since Oakland Ballet. It felt good to me and made sense. I always felt so bad when I started barre with pliés. It’s good to have no weight on the feet to begin with and get the hips warmed up, and get students using the abdomen.
You also start every center portion of class with the same exercise.
Quarter turns get people centered without the barre and they start to feel underneath their buns. At first everyone’s wiggling around. By the time we’ve done both sides, people face the fact that when they pick that foot up they’re going to have to know where they’re putting it to be on balance.
Your advanced classes welcome students of varied experience and skill. How do you accommodate everyone?
I play more to the professionals so that they’re challenged, because it is supposed to be an advanced class. But I always try to provide alternatives and say you don’t have to do all of what I’ve given. I let students do steps a little bit wrong. They have to get on with it, get the rhythm, the idea. And little by little you correct them. You can’t correct everything all at once. It’s like whittling. If you whittle too far, you’ve ruined it.
Obviously, Kyra learned a lot from you as her first teacher. Have you learned anything from watching her dance?
I’m not very impartial when it comes to watching Kyra dance. But one thing I’ve learned from seeing how she developed is that she didn’t really need to be taught. In a sense she taught herself, and there are students like that. So I’ve learned to discern which students want and need corrections and those who are self-directed. Sometimes you get students who are so musical and inclined to push themselves that they don’t need much help. And other students can be extremely talented, but they need someone to push them to blossom.
What are your basic principles?
My main thing is to always observe the music. Don’t get so absorbed in the steps that you aren’t hearing the music. And the other principle is to stay down. If you’re in relevé be on top of your feet, but relax down into the floor. The more you work down, the stronger you’ll be and the higher you’ll go up in the air.
Finally, class has to be fun, instructive, and aerobic, and it has to move along. If you don’t enjoy class you’re not going to get much out of it.