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.