When Your Teacher Is Your Mom

April 30, 2013

Five dancers discuss how learning from their mothers shaped them.

Photo of Stacey Tookey by Joe Toreno for Dance Teacher.

At age 13, Stacey Tookey didn’t like the solo her dance teacher was creating for her, and she had the audacity to say so. “I thought I could do better, so she left me to do it,” says the three-time Emmy Award–nominated choreographer best known for her work on So You Think You Can Dance. “In the end it was a good thing,” she adds.

That teacher was Shelley Tookey, Stacey’s mother. She owns Shelley’s Dance Company, a school in Edmonton, Alberta, now in its 44th year of operation. The studio started out in the family basement, where as an infant Stacey would be lulled to sleep by the sounds of tapping and jumping. As soon as she was old enough to walk, she began taking dance classes from her mother. “She taught me everything I know to this day,” Stacey says. “There’s not one exceptional moment in my life career-wise that I don’t root back to something my mom taught me.”

That’s not to say it was always easy. Despite providing certain advantages, having your mother be your instructor can complicate an already fraught relationship. “We spent so much time together that at moments we wanted to kill each other,” Stacey admits. Like any teenager, she tested her mother—but in her case that usually happened in the studio.

“You feel like you can take liberties, not follow direction—but she would put me right back in my place,” Stacey says. She recalls the time she refused to remove her sweatshirt after warm-up, a rule Shelley strictly enforced. “I was just being a brat, and she came up and took the back of the shirt and tore it off my body,” Stacey says with a laugh. But her mother’s tough love ultimately paid off. “She ingrained in me that I had to set a good example because I was her daughter, and that has made me a very good leader.”

Ellis Wood (aloft) and her mother, Marni Thomas, kneeling, in an early version of Wood’s “Flower Fiction.” Photo by Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy Wood.

Sometimes, though, being the teacher’s child has the opposite effect. Ellis Wood, a noted choreographer and director of Ellis Wood Dance, trained with both her parents—Marni Thomas and the late David Wood, former Martha Graham company members who co-founded the dance department at the University of California at Berkeley. As a little girl, she recalls “doing triplets up and down the hallway” at home, and her mother and father leading her and her sisters through Graham classes on a train during a cross-country trip. But when it came to studying with them formally at Berkeley, where she was a dance major, she would hide in the back of the room for fear of looking like she was getting preferential treatment.

“I didn’t want to be aggressive in my mom’s class. I didn’t want to stand in the front and take parts; I felt like it would look bad,” says Ellis, noting that this habit hurt her at the outset of her career. “When I got to New York I would stand in the back of auditions and wonder, Why is no one taking me?” She eventually figured out that she had to put herself out there to be noticed. Ellis appreciates that her parents focused on sharing their passion for dance rather than pushing it as a profession. “But at certain times I think more guidance would have been helpful,” she says. “One part of me felt like, Why didn’t you teach me this?”

Susan Pilarre, visiting her daughter Zoe Zien, backstage at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Lilly Echeverria.

Miami City Ballet corps member Zoe Zien received plenty of insight into the profession from her mother, Susan Pilarre, a former New York City Ballet soloist who now teaches at the School of American Ballet. Zien was 11 when she started taking weekly technique classes from her mother. Like Tookey, she had moments of “teenage angst” in  the studio, especially when getting corrections. “As a kid it’s a little more overwhelming coming from your mother rather than someone you’re not emotionally attached to,” she says. “But I always knew that she was giving me such valuable information—a realistic sense of the art form, what’s going to be rough—in a way that I was really lucky to have.” This was especially useful when it came time to look for a job. “She was very encouraging about me having a career,” Zien says. “It was frustrating for her that I didn’t end up at NYCB and I was disappointed, but she always made sure I knew there were other Balanchine companies, including the one I’m in.”

Photo of Daniil Simkin by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

While Tookey, Wood, and Zien mostly trained in a class setting, some dancers work with their mothers one-on-one. That was the case for American Ballet Theatre principal Daniil Simkin, whose parents were both professional ballet dancers in Russia and Germany. Simkin’s mother was his only teacher for 10 years—but she never pressured him to follow in their footsteps. “I was immersed in this world from early on, but for my parents it was more important to provide me with the opportunity to decide that I really wanted to do this, because they did not have that choice,” he says. “In Soviet Russia, the profession chooses you!” His mother made sure he had as normal an upbringing as possible and limited his lessons to two hours a day, a method that suited Simkin. “I think if she would have forced me to train I would have done everything in my power, for better or worse, not to do it.”

Jared Grimes, performing in DRA’s Fire Island Dance Festival. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Grimes.

Jared Grimes’ mother took a more hands-on approach. The tap artist who performs this month at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and this fall in Cotton Club Parade on Broadway started out taking dance lessons from her in Jamaica, Queens. When he latched on to tap, which was not her strong suit, she taught him the basics and then coached him around the clock. She’d drag a plank of wood from the garage into the living room, “and we’d be up in the wee hours of morning and she’d be drilling me—‘Keep it clean! Watch your arms! Look up! Smile!’ ” recalls Grimes. “I never did anything perfect for her. Even if it was perfect for another teacher, it was not perfect for her. That used to annoy the hell out of me, but it made me a better performer.”

Heightened criticism isn’t the only challenge these dancers faced growing up. Tookey remembers walking into a dressing room where other mothers were gossiping about a scholarship she’d received and how her mother had orchestrated it “to keep the money in the family.” (In fact, she’d had nothing to do with it.) “There were all these rumors [about nepotism], but to be honest I think it’s the opposite,” Tookey says. “You actually get less attention because you’re family. You’re almost in the shadow of paying customers.” Similarly, Wood says her mother shied away from casting her in her dances at Berkeley, and Zien’s mother felt she couldn’t call artistic directors she knew to recommend her as she would any other student because she was her daughter.

Still, all of these dancers say the positives of being trained by your mother far outweigh the negatives. And all their relationships have continued to evolve—even from afar. “I’ll be struggling with something and I’ll tell her over the phone It’s this section of the ballet when I do this step, and she gives me an idea of how to fix it,” Zien says of her mother. “I know she’s dancing the step on the phone and the next day I go in and apply that and it’s extremely helpful.” Simkin, too, still relies on his mom for guidance and advice. “Her vision brought me to where I am in life. I would consider it stupid to stop listening to her now.”

Grimes and Tookey see their mothers’ influence when they choreograph and teach. “I advocate that same kind of perfection from the students I work with,” Grimes admits. “I’m probably worse than her.”

Wood and her mother are charting new territory by performing together in an intergenerational dance called Flower Fiction that also includes her daughter (they are 78, 48, and 8, respectively) at the Ailey Citigroup Theater this June. “We laugh more; we hug more; we talk more. It’s this incredible place to be in with her,” she says.

And, of course, although your mother/teacher may be a tough critic in the studio, in the audience she’s your most devoted fan. “She always reminds me that I haven’t stopped growing as a dancer,” Zien says of Pilarre, who recently saw her perform a lead role in Liam Scarlett’s Euphotic and was moved to tears. “When she comes, it’s always the best she’s ever seen me,” she says. “And then the next time it’s even better.”

Elaine Stuart is an NYC writer who has covered dance for
The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.