1. Sylvia Hamer
I was six years old when I took my first dance class at Sylvia’s School Of Ballet in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What I remember most was she rapped us on the leg with a stick when we made a mistake, and the second thing I remember is the embarrassingly low-cut bodice on the tutu my grandma made for my first-and last-ballet recital before my mom let me quit. Ms. Hamer was the first to put me on a stage—for which I am eternally grateful.
Lesson #1: There’s something to be said about “Firsts”.
2. Mr. Payne
After my first dance tutorial with the infamous Sylvia, I switched to tap.
Mr. Payne was a very popular tap dance teacher in our community. My mom put me and my 3 brothers in class with him. He was a good teacher(and he made it okay for boys to tap) but one of his assistants is the one I ended up learning from the most. She had a home studio in her basement next to my elementary school. I could walk there right after school to dance with my some of my best friends at the time.
Tap came fairly easy to me. After about 4 years, I was starting to get really good when I quit! Hey, I had bigger fish (boys)to fry.
Lesson #2: Don’t take your natural talents for granted.
3. The girls in the junior high school Annex room
After inhaling our paper bag lunches, us dance-loving seventh graders rushed to our brand new junior high school’s “Annex” where a jukebox was installed that played all the latest pop hits with a heavy emphasis on Motown songs…The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha And The Vandellas, etc.
There, the black girls taught us white girls how to do all the latest line dances, how to emphasize the downbeat— and, basically how to groove. Even though they pulled the plug on anything that wasn’t a Motown song, we quickly forgave them for we realized they were right—those were the best songs on the box.
Lesson #3: Sometimes some of your best teachers come from the most unexpected places.
4. Elizabeth Weil Bergmann. Chair, Department of Dance, University of Michigan
During my sophomore year of college, E. Bergmann http://www.elizabethbergmanndance.com/ admitted me to the fledgling Dance Department at the University of Michigan —without an audition. There I completed my four year stint as a dance major, studying ballet, (sans stick)modern, jazz, African, ballroom, anatomy, kinesiology, dance notation, etc..
The best part about that four years, though, was a collaboration between myself and 7 other dance students. The Wolverine Dancers was in an in-house, darlings-of-the-department dance company that came together, rather serendipitously it seemed.
All eight of us members danced and choreographed our way to nearby schools, colleges, and performed extensively around the University’s campus. The cherry on top of it all was that I finished junior and senior years mostly freelancing. Lord knows how I ever would have gotten through “traditional” college without that gift.
Lesson #4: Do what you love and the money/recognition (and sometimes college credits) will follow.
5. Gay Delanghe (RIP)
Gay Delanghe graced us with her presence when she came to The University of Michigan after dancing professionally in New York with Lucas Hoving, Yvonne Rainier, and many other, elite and avant-garde modern dancers of the time.
Originally from Detroit with an extension that rivaled the best, feet pointing without mercy, and her drop dead gorgeous-ness, all we wanted to do was be like her.
After teaching and choreographing for many years, she eventually went on to Chair the University of Michigan Dance Department and was influential in the development of modern dance in Michigan.
Lesson #5: Grace, brains, and professionalism is not a bad thing to aspire to.
6. Alvin McDuffie (RIP)
Alvin McDuffie. What a beautiful man, a terrific dancer and an incredible jazz dance teacher as well. He brought out the funk in an insecure, newbie-me. He went on to dance prolifically with many companies at home and abroad and, unfortunately we lost him too soon during the early years of AIDS. He always treated me like Gold and gave me the stars to match.
Lesson#6: Hang with people who “get” you.
7. Alana Barter
Alana Barter is a gorgeous woman and also a gorgeous dancer. As a T.A. , she taught modern and jazz classes (often in collaboration with Alvin) in the department. She also told me something I’ll never forget.
At the very moment I was feeling particularly hopeless with my seeming lack of progress in La Danse, she walked up and told me “You have a lot of talent.” When we met again recently, I told her that her words convinced me to stay.
She taught me to believe in myself. She has gone on to teach and inspire many, other dance students on the college level.
Lesson #7: Never give up!
8. Bella Lewitzky(RIP)
Not long after I joined the dance department, I visited Eastern Michigan University (right up the road) for my first dance workshop with renowned, West Coast modern dancer, Bella Lewitzky http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bella_Lewitzky. While I was getting my groove on at school dances and teenage parties, I was not studying professionally from age 13-18 (which is a long time). I was so pumped to make up for what I’d missed and yearned to learn everything I could about Modern Dance.
In that workshop, She gave me a great compliment…”You take direction well.” I soaked up her words, and her corrections, like a sponge.
Lesson#8: Never stop learning.
My next dance workshop was at U. of M. with Phyllis Lamhut. Ms. Lamhut was a principal dancer with the Nikolais Dance Theater and in 1970 formed The Phyllis Lamhut Dance Company. http://dance.tisch.nyu.edu/object/LamhutP.html. A wee thing to look at, with her heavily mascaraed gaze she could be one, tough cookie.
She saw something in me though. For the workshop’s final performance she singled me out and dressed (only) me in all-white. That bit of “star quality” she bequeathed on me help bolster my confidence.
Lesson #9: Be yourself.
I spent a good part of my NYC dancing days at The Merce Cunningham studio on the Hudson River in the West Village. Mostly I took classes with his principal dancers, but the master himself popped in unexpectedly from time-to-time to school us in Cunningham Technique. It was much like he and collaborator/composer John Cage’s “Chance Choreography” wherein they made their art and music separately, then put them together and let miraculous moments “show up”.
I’m very sad to say that his company and wonderful, light-filled studio are no more. Luckily, his work lives on through his trust, http://www.mercecunningham.org/trust/. Others can reconstruct his amazing dances and keep the fires burning.
He taught me the importance of being present. That life is art—continually unfolding.
Lesson #10: You never know what miracles are happening right before your eyes and If you’re not paying attention, you may miss them.
I have been blessed by so many, great teachers from the dance world. I have left so many out! I am so grateful to every one of them. To be continued…
♦It was usually the case that when professional companies came to town, I got more positive feedback about my dancing than during most of my days studying from the educational institution I graduated from. While I wouldn’t trade my time at the University for anything, my experiences studying with the pros made me believe that that’s where I was headed too.
So… listen to Lena. And BELIEVE IN YOURSELF!