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They taught me to...
Top dancers on how their favorite teachers shaped their dancing
Behind every gravity-defying leap, each soul-wrenching solo, each flawless fouetté is a great teacher who worked tirelessly to hone a young dancer’s potential. Ask any successful dancer how they got to where they are today and they will always thank a teacher (or three!) for helping them to reach their potential. Dance Magazine’s Emily Macel Theys spoke to five top-of-their-game dancers about mentors who helped to sculpt their careers.
Ashley Bouder on Darla Hoover
Ashley Bouder, principal dancer with New York City Ballet, credits Darla Hoover, now at New York’s Ballet Academy East as well as Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, for her mastery of Balanchine technique. The two have very similar career trajectories: Both trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, both received scholarships to the School of American Ballet, and both became dancers at New York City Ballet. “I’ve known Darla since I was very young. She grew up dancing with my mother and she trained me until I was 15.” A répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust, Hoover worked with Bouder on a core Balanchine aesthetic. “She taught me how to bring out the music through the way you’re moving your body,” says Bouder. “She teaches you how to be a dancer rather than just how to dance.”
Above: Ashley Bouder on Darla Hoover: “She teaches you how to be a dancer rather than just how to dance.” Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
What stands out to Bouder is what Hoover helped her to refine: speed and technical cleanliness. “She starts you off going slow and building strength so that when you get to moving fast, it’s accurate. You need to have a clean fifth position and clean pointed feet and can’t be messy in between.” Bouder started attending Hoover’s advanced class when she was 11. “She would have me stand behind one of the other girls to learn. The girl she had me behind was Noelani Pantastico, now with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.” Bouder says she transitioned from being the dancer standing behind another to being a model in the class for younger dancers to stand behind.
Though now a celebrated principal dancer, Bouder still keeps Hoover’s advice close at heart. “She’s always with me when I do petit allégro because that’s what she teaches best.”
Jason Samuels Smith on Savion Glover
Jason Samuels Smith is one of the busiest tappers in the world. He’s sought after to perform on national and international stages, on TV shows, and in movies—but perhaps even more to spread his rhythmic command through master classes, workshops, and festivals. While the 33-year-old tap-lebrity gives credit to many tap legends and teachers for his dance upbringing (including his mother Sue Samuels, who got him into dance), Samuels Smith says his most influential tap teacher was Savion Glover.
Left: Jason Samuels Smith on Savion Glover: “He was the kind of teacher that acknowledged hard work and effort.” Photo by Jayme Thornton.
“Savion showed me that you could accomplish anything that you wanted to as an artist,” Samuels Smith says. “He was involved in so many things at an early age, from Broadway to teaching to choreography, and that was definitely a major influence for me.”
Samuels Smith started studying with Glover at Broadway Dance Center, where his mother was teaching, when he was 8. Glover was only 15 but was already a buzz-worthy Broadway veteran. Glover instilled a strong work ethic in Samuels Smith from the get-go. “He was the kind of teacher that acknowledged hard work and effort. If you were hitting it and doing what he wanted to hear, that was a plus. But the harder you worked, your work ethic was what he would praise the most.” Glover saw talent in Samuels Smith early on and gave him his first highly visible dance gig—a spot on on the PBS show Sesame Street, where Glover had become a regular guest.
What the younger tapper appreciates most about Glover’s mentorship is his focus on those who came before: Gregory Hines and Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde, Dianne Walker. The ways he presented the vocabulary of the greats was new and accessible, Samuels Smith says. “He focused on a lot of paddle and roll, things rooted in cramp rolls and pullbacks, but it was all about how he was using the steps and creating musical phrases. That still inspires me when I think back to some of the stuff that I learned as a kid.”
Desmond Richardson on Penny Frank
“You’re coming to the space to electrify the sanctuary. You have to infect that space.” This was advice that Penny Frank, Graham teacher at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, gave to a young Desmond Richardson. And clearly, the advice hit home.
Right: Desmond Richardson on Penny Frank: “Because of her, I understand that the beauty is in the transition.” Photo by Jae Man Joo, Courtesy Complexions.
Richardson, the co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet who has electrified stages as a principal for both Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theatre, as well as bringing his larger-than-life presence to Broadway (he’s currently a member of the ensemble in the Broadway show After Midnight), got a late start to dance. “I came into the audition at the High School of Performing Arts not knowing that there were dance clothes needed. I just knew I wanted to dance. I got into the school and I was very hard on myself because I have a perfectionist mind and I knew that I was late to dance.” Richardson says Frank noticed how he was correcting himself constantly. “She would say ‘instead of beating yourself up, why don’t you take the opportunity to use this to think about your process. Take your time to get everything.’ When she told me that, things started to come faster.”
Frank taught Richardson the Graham principal of movement starting at the core. “I do that ad nauseam now because I had that information when I was young.” She also emphasized awareness of time and space. Richardson remembers, “She would say, ‘You must sustain at this moment because people are watching. If you continue through movement, it’s like a run-on sentence: There’s no pause, no lilt, no rise.’ I say that to my dancers today. Because of her, I understand that the beauty is in the transition.”
In addition to teaching technique and artistry, she also gave Richardson advice that has helped him throughout his wildly successful career. “She taught me to be humble, to be real and honest in all of my dancing.”
Diana Vishneva on Lyudmila Kovaleva
‘‘All my years at the company school, I worked with her, and whenever I am in St. Petersburg, dancing at the Mariinsky, I go back to her. She’s strong and demanding and pays a lot of attention to details. She doesn’t care how you feel, what bothers you. If you come to work, be ready to work hard and be very precise.
Left: Diana Vishneva on coach Lyudmila Kovaleva: “Lyudmila knows how to hide all problems, and look the best onstage.” Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
‘‘Every dancer knows his body better than anybody else. Everyone has their own problems—me, too. I know that my body is probably not ideal. Lyudmila knows how to hide all problems, and look the best onstage. She has a very good eye, and she’s always honest with me. We trust each other. If that were not so, we probably would not have been able to work together all these years.’’
Kathleen Breen Combes on Magda Aunon
Kathleen Breen Combes, principal with Boston Ballet, says she wouldn’t be the powerhouse jumper that she is today without Magda Aunon, her teacher at Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique from ages 8 to 12. “She was the first teacher who saw real potential in me. She honed in on that and made me realize that I could have a future.”
Above: Kathleen Breen Combes on Magda Aunon: “She would tell us, ‘Dance is an art form, not just a sport.’" Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
With Aunon, it wasn’t just about the technique. “She was always interested in the artistic quality,” Combes remembers. “Her biggest thing was the performing qualities in dance. She would tell us, ‘Dance is an art form, not just a sport.’ ”
Having a teacher who urged Combes to prepare for a performance by starting at the barre made a huge impact on her as both a performer and now as a teacher herself. “I find myself telling my students a lot of things she said to me. It’s not just about what’s happening from the waist down, it’s about the big picture.”
What stands out to Combes about Aunon’s teaching style was the individualized attention she received. “She saw you for what you had to offer and tried to make you the best that you could be rather than fitting into a mold. She would adjust her teaching style to make sure you’re featured in the best way you could be.”
As a young dancer Combes admits she wasn’t a very good jumper. “When I was 9 she brought a mini trampoline in and she made me do all my small jumps on it during class. She would hold my hand while I worked on my ballon. I think that’s why I can jump as high as I do now.”
Emily Macel Theys is a Pittsburgh-based contributing writer to Dance Magazine.
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.