Teacher's Wisdom: Luigi
By Rachel Straus
Eugene Louis Facciuto’s first career as a lead dancer in Hollywood was destroyed at age 21 by a near-fatal car accident. His doctors predicted that the former child star wouldn’t emerge from his coma, let alone rise again on half-toe. But the Ohio-born dancer rallied to recover and become a chorus staple. During pauses on film sets, he created his own exercises to stay limber and strong. While filming On the Town, Gene Kelly affectionately nicknamed him Luigi and the name stuck. Soon, dancers were following Luigi, 10 or 20 at a time, as he performed his warm-up routines. He has now been teaching his self-preservational movement studies for 56 years. Liza Minnelli, Susan Stroman, Ben Vereen, Debbie Allen, and Ann Reinking all studied with him. Last spring, Luigi spoke to Rachel Straus about how he teaches his 12 classes a week at Luigi’s Jazz Center in New York City.
Why did you create your technique? My technique was not created for jazz. It was created for ballet because that’s what I was doing when I was performing in motion pictures in Hollywood. I found that in any ballet class I took, my body wasn’t ready to stand in fifth position. So I created a therapeutic warm-up that would prepare me for class. I also created it because of my automobile accident, which left me partially paralyzed. I loved ballet’s barre exercises because they helped me correct my injuries. But when I left the barre, I was in trouble. My technique addresses how to stand up without the barre. It teaches the body how to support itself and how to use muscles evenly.
How does your class begin? The first motion is standing still. You stretch through every fiber of your being. You pull the shoulders down and that opens the back, and the back lifts the stomach. The buns straighten the legs and pull in the abdominals. By standing still you learn what it feels like to be in the right position, and you keep this feeling when you dance.
And then? For the next seven minutes we work the whole body in preparation for more complicated technical movement. First we stretch up by reaching the arms over the head. Then we stretch down, rounding the back over to loosen up the spine. As we unroll the spine, we work the legs as the stomach presses against the back muscles, and we roll the shoulders forward, back, and down. We lift the arms from the elbows, which are slightly in front of the body, and extend them to the invisible barre.
How do you teach balance? I had an 8-year-old ballet student in my class last week who was quivering and falling. I said, “Shhh, take your time. Place your body first.” She was mimicking the exercise instead of feeling her body. I stood in front of her and told her, “Put your hand on my back. Feel my arms and how I’m pressing down on the invisible barre. Now,” I said, “put one hand on my back and one hand on my buns,” so that she could feel how I used them when I straightened my legs. “My balance is coming from across my back to the barre.”
What makes an interesting dancer? I think a boring dancer is a stiff dancer who has absolutely no épaulement. Épaulement gives the body direction and gives a dancer greater feeling for where the body is in space. Using my épaulement helped me recover from my injury and overcome my problem of losing my balance, which happened because I wasn’t working with opposition and muscular evenness. Épaulement puts me on the right track for the next movement and it makes dancers look beautiful.
You are known for saying, “Never stop moving.” Why? Most of my warm-up focuses on liquidity. The body should never stop moving. Even at the end of the number, when you strike a pose, the movement needs to go on and on through the fingertips. If you reach like this to the audience, they’ll reach back to you. That’s how you hook them. Moving smoothly also prevents injuries. I’ve never had an accident in my class.
Describe the atmosphere in your class. There are a lot of retired professional show people. This is great for young dancers. They get to listen to the old pros talk and pick up the vibes of what Broadway is all about. They also learn that being a good dancer is about being a good human being.
What do you say to students who are overly focused on one thing, like leg extensions? I watch ballet kids do things that I did and had to undo, like putting the legs against the wall and working the split over and over. It’s always the legs for them, never the whole body. In my class we never stretch just one muscle but build and stretch many through smoothly-done exercises. When you teach the whole body to work this way, you develop higher leg extensions and deeper backbends.
What makes a good dancer? Musicality is key. Every part of the body should respond to an instrument playing in the music. A dancer needs to hear, feel, and see the music. To dance, put your hand on your heart and listen to the sound of your soul.