What They Wish They Knew

During the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Dance Magazine had a monthly series called “Brief Biography: Dancers You Should Know,” which introduced our readers to dancers we predicted were rising stars. It turns out we were right on the money with many of our picks. We’d featured a young, wide-eyed Gelsey Kirkland, a focused Paul Taylor, and a long and lean Judith Jamison. We’ve asked a few of these dancers what they wish they had known at that early point in their careers when they were first profiled in our pages.


Martine van Hamel
Faculty, the JKO School at American Ballet Theatre
Brief Biography: February 1969

I had gotten a lot of attention because of winning the gold medal in Varna in ’66, and was dancing principal roles with National Ballet of Canada. I expected to be riding on this attention when I came to New York. I thought I would join ABT as a soloist, but there was no job at ABT that matched my expectations. It was the beginning of a difficult time—to assimilate success with the reality of the business. It was a time of learning and adjusting and figuring out how to live up to the potential of that quick burst of fame and recognition. You have to stay in touch with yourself and reality—that’s the hardest thing to do. I was struggling. I got fat. I was depressed. But I did a lot of classes. Eventually I joined the Joffrey, and that wasn’t right for me.


It took a long time, and even when I joined ABT, it was like starting over again. I wasn’t able to feel comfortable portraying roles. When I saw dancers like Lynn Seymour and Marcia Haydée, I thought, “Wow, I really like watching them! You’re watching more than technique: It’s an experience.” In a way, having that difficult time helped me to mature and have some real life, love life, and disappointments. You need to have those experiences to understand what you do onstage.


Advice: When you’re able to dance, really enjoy it and take every opportunity to fulfill it rather than expect something you don’t have. Don’t get stuck with not having the opening night or doing the matinee, because that’s not what’s important. With each performance you grow and learn and get better.


Arthur Mitchell
Former principal, New York City Ballet, and founder, Dance Theatre of Harlem
Brief Biography: December 1957

Oh, you can imagine my first performance with New York City Ballet—the expletives that came out of the audience when they saw me! There was no hiding of that. The stage is a place where the artist, choreographer, or director gets a chance to do and say what he or she wants done without the restrictions of the outside world. What I wish I knew then was how important it is today to have money in order to make art.


Yuriko
Former lead dancer, Martha Graham Dance Company
Brief Biography: March 1955

In 1943 I came from an internment camp. I was very fresh and new and hungry for dancing. I began in Martha’s company in 1944, and I worked with Jerome Robbins in The King and I (1951, stage production; 1955, film). I don’t have anything that I could say I wish I knew—I had such a full life, a wonderful dancer’s life. I just planned to become a good dancer and things turned out. I didn’t plan to be on Broadway, I didn’t plan to be in Martha’s company when I came out to New York. I was interested in Doris Humphrey, and then Hanya Holm. Martha Graham was my last choice. But I am very grateful to Martha. I started working with her on Appalachian Spring and I wouldn’t give up the role of one of the followers until I left the company. Being onstage with Martha was so beautiful and wonderful. I learned so much from her and I stole a lot of things from her.

 

Advice: Always be hungry for knowledge and hungry to be a better dancer and things will turn out right. Strive for perfection but know you can never be perfect. You have to allow things to happen.


Paul Taylor
Artistic director, Paul Taylor Dance Company
Brief Biography: June 1959

I can’t think of anything I wish that I knew then! There are some things that I’ve learned that it was good I didn’t know—like how hard it is to raise money for a company like this. But in those days, we could do things for very little cost. I was lucky to dance with a lot of companies in the early days, but those choreographers never gave me advice on how to proceed. I learned something from watching them work. It helped me learn what I didn’t want to do as well as what I liked.

 

There are highs and lows, and it’s tempting to say, “I wish that hadn’t happened.” But in the long run, those things, if you can surmount them and endure, make you stronger. I always trusted my talent and knew that I wanted to be an independent. I didn’t think of it as a career—it’s a calling [laughing]. I didn’t know how long I’d be able to survive. I didn’t have any great dreams of glory; that wasn’t what I was interested in, and I’m still not.

 

Advice: Dancers shouldn’t even try unless they are absolutely driven to it and believe in the strength and universality of dance.


Violette Verdy
Former principal, New York City Ballet
Brief Biography: April 1958

I wish I’d known more about how to avoid injury, about the things I could have changed in my training. My Achilles tendons were constantly plaguing me. In my day you paid no attention to injuries. You just braved it and kept going. And, of course, sports medicine was unheard of, so we didn’t have the kind of understanding or resources dancers have now. I missed many opportunities Mr. Balanchine had in mind for me but he was always so understanding. Yet I still had a wonderful stage career. Whatever distinction I may have gained came from the sense of duty and devotion to the art of ballet that I inherited from my first teachers. I tried to remain a student to the very end. It was never a question of wanting to be number one. I simply strove to do my very best.


Gelsey Kirkland
Former principal, American Ballet Theatre
Brief Biography: December 1971

I’m really glad I didn’t know anything. I believed that if you just did your work and did it honestly, everything would turn out all right. Life is more complicated than that, especially when you have a strong will—I was very strong-willed. It would have been wonderful to know my own limits, but I don’t think that would have helped me anyway. Given who I was and how I grew up, I’m not sure I could have taken any other path. If somebody had told me go this way, not this way, I’m not sure I would have been able to put it into perspective. I had to go through many different life excursions in order to learn.

 

Advice: Unless somebody asks for help, it’s not a good idea to force your ideas on people. You can only change within a working process. Otherwise, it’s just turning on the remote control and tuning in another bit of information. You have to invest in yourself and have experiences on many different levels of working.

 

Judith Jamison
Artistic director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Brief Biography: August 1969

I wish that I’d had more modern training then, more Horton. If my body had been more informed I could have prevented a lot of injury. Two months after joining the Ailey company I had water on both knees. Up until then I had been trained in ballet, jazz, and acrobatics. I studied Horton with Joan Kerr when I was 19, but that was later. When I was picked by Agnes de Mille to come to ABT to perform The Four Marys, I knew that I had something. I knew I had a passion for music, for rhythm. I knew I had technique. I was tall! But I didn’t think that I was special in that sort of rising-star way.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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