Dance Idols: 12 Star Performers on their Idols

July 31, 2007
Everyone has an idol, a mentor, a personal hero—someone whose influence inspires life-changing decisions. For dancers, those pivotal moments might come from seeing a breathtaking performance, watching the evolving artistry of a colleague, or opening their minds to the revelations offered by a coach, choreographer, or director.
Dance Magazine contributing editor Cheryl Ossola asked 12 dancers—themselves likely put on a pedestal by admiring fans and colleagues—these questions: Whose dancing do you most admire? Whose artistry has influenced you the most? Here, in their own words, they talk about their personal heroes.
Angel Corella
Principal dancer, American Ballet Theatre
One of the most influential dancers in my career has been Baryshnikov. The first time I saw him was in
The Turning Point
; I was probably 9 or 10, one year into my training. He was a very masculine dancer, very powerful technically, who made dance look beautiful, and he was a very strong personality onstage.
Paloma Herrera
Principal dancer, American Ballet Theatre
Misha [Baryshnikov] has been my big inspiration—he was why I joined ABT. I used to watch him on videos at home in Buenos Aires. He’s always been such a presence. In the
Don Q
video, his dancing is so easy, so natural—it’s like he’s making it up. You don’t see the effort. With Twyla Tharp he was funny and serious at the same time.
I have always admired Sylvie Guillem and Alessandra Ferri. They have such an incredible stage presence—it’s not just the technique, it’s their style and work ethic. When I got to work with them I saw what incredible dancers and artists they are. For them it’s all about the details. They are completely different dancers—they both have beautiful feet and legs and line, but it’s the way they present themselves. It’s not about how high their legs go, it’s how they do it.
Margie Gillis
Solo performer
The first great dancers I loved were Daniel Nagrin, Jennifer Scanlon [with José Limón], and Ruth Andrien [with Paul Taylor]. There was such an immediate connection between the flicker of a thought and the movement they created.
Martha Clarke has been very important to me. We have similar ways of wanting the soul to become motion. We met when I was doing a project with MOMIX, and she asked me to be in
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Lauren Anderson
Principal dancer, Houston Ballet
The person who has had the greatest artistic influence on me is Ben Stevenson. He shaped me as a dancer, but he also taught me to put myself into a role. His imagination in creating imagery to help you feel a role is amazing. I think he could build a dancer from dirt. I’m a bravura dancer and he gave me the softness and delicacy to do swans.
When Carlos [Acosta] and I went to Chile to guest in 1996, we saw Cecelia Kerche—she’s Brazilian. There are ballerinas with great legs, feet, extensions, but who can’t jump and turn; then there’s the bravura type who can jump and turn and do anything. Well, she was this soft swan doing double fouettés—she was busting out! She had nice feet, hyperextended legs, and she could turn and jump, and she had presence. She had it all. I went home and worked and worked until I felt I could do anything she could do.
Chan Hon Goh
Principal dancer, National Ballet of Canada and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet; owner, “Principal by Chan Hon Goh”
In 1997, Suzanne Farrell worked with us on
—it opened my eyes to a new way of working, of hearing the music, and a new vocabulary. Suzanne has a nurturing quality; she’s willing to be in the studio until midnight with you if you want. She understands the heart of the dancer. Working with her for the first time I was a little intimidated, but instead of enforcing how she would do something, she let me find my own way. I was ready and capable, but I needed the confidence, and she gave it to me. The hardest things never seemed impossible when working with her. She has infused new life into my dancing, and it’s deepened my love of the art form.
Coincidentally, on my first trip to New York when I was 12, I had seen her dance
. Suzanne was striking because she did things her own way. She was captivating.
Carmen de Lavallade
Solo dancer/actress
Janet Collins was my number-one idol. She was my first cousin—when I was in grammar school I wanted to be like Janet. She came into the business at a time when it was very difficult for dancers of color. What she went through—she tried to get into the Ballet Russe [de Monte Carlo] and they wanted her to lighten her skin, and she refused. She was like champagne—always laughing. I’ve never seen anyone so bright on the stage—such energy and so much life. And I’ve never seen anyone move so fast. She was extraordinary.
Lester Horton was my mentor. From him, I learned everything about the theater. He worked like a director, always giving us imagery and ideas to work with, not just movement. 
Yuan Yuan Tan
Principal dancer, San Francisco Ballet
Working with Natalia Makarova was a great experience. When she coached us in
La Bayadère
, she gave me corrections that brought back memories of my training in Shanghai Ballet School, in Vaganova technique—things I had forgotten. She made me do my entrance in Bayadère over and over again. She’d say, “Walk like you’re in a cloud; make it weightless.” I think after that my dancing changed, became more classical. Maybe no one else could tell, but I could see the difference.
I saw an old film of Galina Ulanova. With her, it’s not only about the dancing, it’s the acting—telling a story, not just doing the steps. I was very young, maybe 12, when I watched her in
Romeo and Juliet
on TV. It was only my second year of dancing, so
I didn’t get all the technical things, but I saw that she was in love, and mad, and she was going to kill herself. Then in 1992 I won the gold medal at the 5th Paris International Ballet Competition, and Ulanova was the head judge. I was so thrilled to talk to
her that I was in shock. I remember that she told me that I had a gift and should keep working hard.
Darcey Bussell
Principal dancer, The Royal Ballet
I never admired one person—it was bits of everybody for me. Margot [Fonteyn] had that glamorous dignity—I suppose she was sort of royalty. Lynn Seymour had that gymnastic ability, and she was so real, and such an actress. I liked Sylvie Guillem’s technique, Alexandra Ferri’s feet, Natalia Makarova’s look in a tutu.
Maria Kowroski
Principal dancer, New York City Ballet
When I was 10, I saw Patricia Miller of the Joffrey Ballet perform
Round of Angels
. She was so beautiful—at that moment I knew I wanted to be a ballerina.
When I saw Sylvie Guillem do
, I was floored. I never thought anybody could be so beautiful—she was everything I ever wanted to be. She inspired me to work harder and be the best dancer I could be.
I respect and adore Wendy Whelan. I have watched her evolve into an amazing artist who continually transforms herself. She seems content with herself as an individual, and that’s reflected in her artistry as well. That’s inspiring to watch, because as an artist you are always trying to reinvent yourself and keep things exciting for you and the observers. 
Ann Reinking
Stage and film actress, singer, dancer
The person who inspired me to dance was Margot Fonteyn, when I was in sixth grade. I saw her in person and on
The Ed Sullivan Show
. She was contained and free at the same time. Her energy was truly connected and happy—she was good in her own skin.
Bob Fosse was a major influence in my life. I met him at the audition for
, when I was 22. He gave me amazing opportunities, faith, and trust. He not only was a kindred spirit; how he perceived dance and theater felt so right, so natural, that I felt I had found a place where I belonged. When you find a mentor there’s this dialogue—you have to be the interpreter of their expression and find your own expression.
Jason Samuels Smith
Tap dancer and teacher
Baby Laurence was one of the most musical tap dancers ever. He was a pioneer who incorporated jazz and bebop into his tap dancing instead of just listening to the music. The first time I saw a clip of him, in 
Jazz Hoofer
, around the time I was in Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, it changed me as a tap dancer—I started paying attention to accents, dynamics, shading in the music. On that tape he trades with a drummer and kind of embarrasses him—it’s amazing. He put tap dancing in a musical light and forced the jazz and tap community to recognize it on more than one level. He was also one of the first to record an album of tap dancing, by himself and then with Jimmy Slyde and Bunny Briggs. His solo CD is amazing—it sounds like more than one person dancing. He dances to a Charlie Parker song, “Billy’s Bounce,” and his tapping makes the music jump out even more and gives it a new personality.
Chita Rivera
Stage and film singer, dancer, actress
When I was growing up, Nora Kaye had the most influence on me. She was a brilliant technician and actress. And Tanaquil LeClercq was spiritual—it was awesome to see her move. And I thought Maria Tallchief was beautiful and passionate.
When I first saw my great friend, Gwen Verdon, she was a sight to behold. She had everything beyond ballet technique—personality and humor; she was like a female Harpo Marx. She was sexy and complete. When I was auditioning to be her understudy in
Can Can
, Gwen said, “Chita, you should think about doing your own roles, not somebody else’s.” She gave me courage. After dancing in the chorus of Can Can with her as the star, it was a great moment, years later, to have her ask me to star with her in Chicago. Dancing next to her was an extraordinary experience.
And there was no one like Carol Haney—I’d never seen dancers move like that. She was a little, powerful creature, like an elf. She had a great effect on me—her technique, her character, her personality.