Teacher's Wisdom: Diane Laurenson
Diane Laurenson moved to NYC in 1979 to become a journalist and take dance classes in her spare time. But when a friend dared her to attend a
Broadway audition, she couldn’t resist the challenge. As it turned out, her blend of innocence and sexuality—and most likely her svelte physique and playful movement quality—entranced the choreographer. That happened to be Bob Fosse, and the show was his acclaimed
After nabbing that first gig, Laurenson became a favorite on the Great White Way, performing in Fosse’s Sweet Charity, Big Deal, and Chicago, as well as Anything Goes, Dangerous Games, and the international tour of West Side Story. She gradually added teaching to her repertory and is now a sought-after theater dance teacher at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway. Lauren Kay chatted with Laurenson about the legacy she passes down.
You were a gymnast growing up and studied dance only recreationally until you moved to NYC. How did your late entry into dance affect you?
The physicality, flexibility, and strength of dance was challenging to pick up. And catching up in every genre was tough, too. Some people had studied tap since they were 3! I didn’t have the luxury of time. But the benefits outweighed these problems: I was a kid in a candy store! Twenty-one years old and realizing, “Oh my god I can learn to tap, sing, do theater dance, put on costumes and make-up, meet divas!” It was a new life—traveling, meeting people, and getting paid to do what I loved.
Who were your most influential teachers?
Richard Jones was my first jazz teacher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He stood in front of me, massive and beautiful, and I’ve never seen anyone stand still with more command, elegance, and sensuality. He taught me how to be motionless and mesmerize. And Luigi, to whom Richard sent me, does the same thing. He teaches you how to carry yourself with subtle movements, and you become like an MGM star, full of grace and power.
What do you emphasize in your class?
Performing, carriage, presence. Every time you take my class it should be a performance, start to finish. That’s why I start with a loud recording saying “Curtain up!” It’s like the beginning of a show; it brings everyone together as a company.
I want my students to immerse themselves in a character. When I was rehearsing for Sweet Charity, we were working on “The Frug,” and Bob Fosse took the time to describe who our characters were and what they were doing—that they knew they were the latest and greatest. Then he said, “Within those confines, don’t act, just be.” If you think about where and who you are in the piece we’re working on, it will change the way you move.
What else did you learn from greats like Fosse that you bring to your teaching?
Bob really knew how to direct. So instead of instructing, I try to be a director. That way, students can experience being in a rehearsal setting. Fosse, Graciela Daniele, and Michael Smuin also taught me to always move with an idea. Have something to say, even if it isn’t a narrative story.
You stress acting in your class—and ask students to sing—even if the steps aren’t perfect. How is this helpful?
Musical theater requires major multitasking, so my class is like cross-training. I tell new students, “Welcome to musical theater. We act, dance, sing, twirl fire batons—whatever the show needs.” At the same time, students need not only to pick up the steps, but also to develop a character with emotional output. You have to practice all of these things just like you practice a pirouette—and do all of it at once. I think students have trouble with that simply because they have nowhere to practice. Until you’re in a show, where do you try out combining those skills? That’s where I come in.
Suppose a dancer with no acting or singing experience comes into your class. What should they focus on?
Keep an open mind, throw out your inhibitions, and just tell yourself, “Let me try.” That’s what I do when I take Chio’s jazz funk class at BDC! I can either stand in the back and be inhibited or swallow my pride and realize I’m not half bad when I don’t restrict myself.
You teach a lot of duo and trio work. Why?
In other classes, students do a lot of solo work, but when you ask them to dance with other people—which they’ll probably do for most of a career—they’re lost. Practicing in an ensemble will prepare them for professional settings.
Why do you teach mostly repertory versus your own choreography?
A long time ago I took classes at American Dance Machine, led by Lee (Becker) Theodore. They did an amazing job of preserving musical theater repertory. When I started teaching, American Dance Machine was already defunct, and I realized, outside of Tony Stevens and a few other teachers, valuable musical theater work was being lost. I want my students to be familiar with original material and benefit from my experience with it.
Photo by Sarah Keough