Teacher's Wisdom: Gerry Houlihan

July 31, 2007
A former dancer with Lar Lubovitch’s company, Gerri Houlihan is renowned for her fluid fusion of modern and ballet techniques that serves today’s contemporary dancers. Houlihan trained with Antony Tudor and José Limón at the Juilliard School. For the last 20 summers, she has taught modern dance at the American Dance Festival at Duke University. This summer, she will receive ADF’s Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching. Joseph Carman talked with Houlihan about phrasing, placement, and patience.

The dancers don’t work at the barre in your class. How did you formulate your warm-up, which begins on the floor and incorporates ballet vocabulary?
When I first started teaching modern, I did a sort of Sanasardo/Limón/Lubovitch barre and then came to the center. The more I taught, I realized that I often was teaching a modern class after students had just come from a ballet class. It seemed redundant to put them back at the barre. Sometimes I was teaching in places where there wasn’t even a barre in the room! So I started to reevaluate the structure of the class. One of the things the ADF students most request is a class that prepares them for their day. They’re working with choreographers and need to be really warmed up and on their legs. So I try to get all the ballet in there. I put the breath and an off-center axis on top of that.

In your class you use odd meters—sometimes a count of seven or ten. Why?
It’s so easy for students to tune out the music completely and just work on the movement. With the newer kinds of release technique, often dancers are told to find their own timing within a phrase, and that can be really interesting and you can discover a lot about the way you move. But when you’re training dancers to get jobs—if they want to work for Mark Morris or Bill T. Jones—they need to know when they’re dancing in a seven and when they’re dancing in their own timing. I think it’s critical. It forces you to really listen and to move within a certain rhythmic and metrical landscape which is very specific, not just the way you like to move. My years with Mr. Tudor were incredibly formative in this area; musically, he was such a genius.
How do you balance body placement and the instinct to move? 
The big question is, “If you don’t have a center, how can you go off your center?” If you have that core support ingrained, from that you can do anything. The preparation of being solidly in control of your body and on your legs gives you all kinds of options to choose what you want to do from there.

re there specific areas of technique that you’re focusing on now? What’s interesting right now is release technique and the way it will impact training. There are certain students who feel that ballet is anathema to release technique. I don’t think that’s true. Like a visual artist, if you just want to take a brush and throw paint on a canvas, that’s fine. But the ones who are able to do that well can probably sit down and draw a still life very specifically. I’m a traditionalist in many ways, but I love what’s happening with release technique. I love seeing dancers do my movement and translate it into something more contemporary. I find that exciting.

What part does dynamics play in your class?
For myself as a dancer, it was very easy to get into “flow and glow technique”—it’s very beautiful, but very seductive and can become very even. It’s important to find dynamics within a phrase. Students learn in so many different ways. The more ways you give them to access that information, the better chance they have to accomplish what it is you’re looking for. I try to do that with rhythm, by an image, or by physically giving them a goal to accomplish, like covering more space in a movement phrase.

How do you handle student injuries?
I can usually see it—in their eyes, by their dancing—if they’re starting to compensate. I probably err on the side of telling them to be careful and smart. One class isn’t going to make much difference if you’re talking about a 30-year career. It’s amazing how much they can learn by sitting and watching.

How has the current generation of dancers influenced your class?
Because I started with so much ballet, my nature is to be much more vertical—there is a sort of classicism. I’m trying to find new ways to incorporate some of the newer requirements for dancers—moving upside down, or up and down from the floor. I’m trying to get off my own verticality and use more floor work—especially in the warm-up, so it doesn’t just come out of nowhere when you start moving.

Where do you get your patience?
I’m not one of those critical, “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” kind of teachers. I was almost destroyed when I was young by some Russian teacher who said, “You look like a constipated pigeon.” In my own teaching I tend to be very supportive, because when you’re in a supportive environment you’re much more likely to take chances. A few students want to be told how dreadful they are. There are plenty of people who will tell them that. I’m not going to be one of them. I’m going to be on the other side and champion them.