When One Size Does Not Fit All
Tina LeBlanc shares her path of self-exploration.
There’s a calmness about Tina LeBlanc as she stands in the middle of the studio surrounded by students moving through a combination. With her feet planted apart and arms akimbo, she glances from side to side at the young dancers as they carefully release the barre in a relevé combination. She shakes her head and a grin crawls across her face. As they finish, she declares, “Aw, you guys are chicken,” and then rolls up a pant leg to mimic a tentative, creeping release of the barre. Laughing, she says, “No. You have to just go for it!”
At the San Francisco Ballet School, LeBlanc teaches a range of levels, from Level 3 students, just at the beginning of their training, to Level 8 pre-professionals, the most advanced group in the school. On this particular day, she is teaching the young women of Level 8, each of whom walks into class looking carefully groomed and extremely serious. As she works her way around the room, LeBlanc offers quiet encouragement peppered with brief, matter-of-fact corrections: “No sickling… Arms a little higher… Yes, you fixed that!” One thing that’s striking is how much laughter there is. A correction elicits a smile from one student—clearly she’s heard it before—and that seems to be the norm. Positivity is the guiding premise.
When LeBlanc retired from the stage in 2009 after 17 years with San Francisco Ballet, she was one of the company’s most beloved principals. Known for her intelligence and commanding presence, LeBlanc was always reliable when it came to the exacting technical challenges of ballets like Don Quixote and Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, while revealing a delicate and finely tuned artistry in works like Romeo & Juliet and Lar Lubovitch’s My Funny Valentine. Perhaps surprisingly, however, she admits that under the rock solid technique were “hows” and “whys” that she had to make a conscious effort to discover. Now, the same drive and energy she brought to the stage is what she brings into the studio to teach a new generation.
“It’s so important to have a teacher whom you trust, whom you feel is trying to do the best for you and is working to broaden you,” she says. “I always found that the best teachers were the ones who could make things fit your body. Not everybody has the same body, and not everything works in the same way for every body. So you have to ask, ‘How can we make that look like what it’s supposed to look like with your facility?’ It’s like a giant puzzle for each person. To be able to help each dancer figure out their own puzzle is fascinating for me.”
LeBlanc’s own early training came from Marcia Dale Weary at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB), where she studied from the age of 8 until she joined the Joffrey Ballet at 15. “As a little girl she was phenomenal,” recalls Weary. “She had the kind of focus that adults have, and I just felt that she would reach great heights as a dancer.”
In New York, Joffrey ballet master Scott Bernard taught LeBlanc valuable lessons about dynamics and partnering. But still, as a young dancer, she found the transition from a student mindset to a professional schedule difficult. Without someone pushing her, she relied on talent and energy but could tell that she was becoming lazy about her approach to her work.
“Over time I grew—I won’t say bored—but complacent in what I was doing,” she says frankly of her early career with the Joffrey. “In fact, once I got into the company I lost so much momentum that I almost quit. I wasn’t having fun in class, I wasn’t having fun in the shows—I just wasn’t having fun. Then I found Maggie Black, and she took me to that next level.”
Like scores of other professional dancers in New York, LeBlanc made the trek uptown to take daily class with Black, one of the city’s most respected and popular teachers. “She made it so that I was getting up every morning excited for class,” says LeBlanc. “She put a whole new spin on dance for me.”
Black gave her the kind of confidence that comes with understanding the mechanics of dance, and it opened a whole new world for her. “A lot of what I did was not really well-thought-out,” she says. “I didn’t have a system for balancing or hitting that pirouette—a lot of it was just pure energy. It wasn’t that it hadn’t been taught to me; it was that I wasn’t ready to understand it yet. I didn’t know how to break things down and make them work, make them reliable, and she gave me that.”
Of her time at Black’s studio, two aspects stayed with LeBlanc, and you can see them in her own teaching. “The combinations were very, very simple,” she says, “and there was a lot of laughter in her class. I liked that.”
When she arrived in 1992 at San Francisco Ballet, LeBlanc was already a principal dancer, and well-known from years of touring with the Joffrey. At her new company she found an influential inspiration in Irina Jacobson, a former Kirov dancer who is one of the last protégées of the great Agrippina Vaganova. “It took me two years to figure out how to do her adagios,” says LeBlanc. “So much of it was just a quiet feeling of focus for the upper core. It wasn’t about the struggle to get the legs up. She would say, ‘Bring it all to the center, make it all simpler.’ And talk about patience. She was always so patient and so ladylike.”
Patience is a big challenge for LeBlanc, she admits. But she says that she enjoys being part of the team of teachers at SFB, because it means constantly sharing strategies of approach and talking about how to deal with individual issues each student might be facing. “It’s finding the way to reach them so that they can understand, they can implement what I tell them,” she says. “I constantly have to work on my patience. But I also try to make it fun. Even though you’re working really hard, if it’s not fun, why do it?”
As a child, LeBlanc’s time at CPYB gave her a strong basic technique, but she remarks offhandedly that she feels as if she got through all her years there without thinking—relying on drilled-in muscle memory instead. As a teacher, she decided that she needed to understand that training at a different level, and so she took time last summer to return to CPYB to take the summer teachers workshop. “There’s no way I could peel back the layers and see what I learned at that level,” LeBlanc explains. “There’s been too much time and too much has happened since then. What I got back then went in, it was digested, but it wasn’t filed.”
“Tina was so bright and picked things up so easily,” Weary says, “but for talented dancers, sometimes it’s hard to break things down and remember exactly how things were taught to them.”
Led by Weary, participants in the weeklong workshop observe morning classes and then spend afternoons in hands-on sessions in the studio with CPYB faculty and their students. “I wrote down tons of notes about combinations, philosophies and whys,” says LeBlanc, “but a couple of things really stuck with me. First is to develop the demi-plié. It’s the most important thing and it transfers to everything. The second thing was keep your combinations very simple.”
You could say that simplicity and finding balance have been the hallmarks of LeBlanc’s career. Both of her sons—Marinko, 14, and Sasha, 8—were born while she was still performing with SFB. “My first child was such a shock to the system, the constant stress of trying to figure things out—like why is he crying?” she says.
As a dancer, class time was when she could focus inward and get a handle on the day. By contrast, as a teacher she feels the pull outward and now home is the quiet place. “When I go home, that’s where I know everything. It’s much more predictable and comfortable—I can be quieter there,” she notes. “But when I get to work, it’s all about extending myself to the students in class, pulling them to the energy level that I want, pulling more out of them. Even though it’s not as physically stressful, mentally it’s more energetic.”
Time to herself becomes all the more essential, and LeBlanc says that she grounds herself and stays in shape by taking floor barre classes occasionally in the morning and going out on bike rides, especially with her son.
Though LeBlanc was much admired during her career for her technical virtuosity, many observers noticed a decided artistic growth that commenced after the birth of her children. “When I was pregnant with my second child, I didn’t really know if I was going to make it back to performing again,” she says.
In fact, her stage career continued for six more years, and it was then that she began talking with SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson about teaching in the school. “Tina was such a great dancer, and I knew it would be wonderful for her to pass that on to another generation,” says Tomasson. “She had a flawless technique and a real discipline. I hoped she would instill that in students.”
Weary goes even further: “Tina is so warm and kind and always worked so intelligently. And as a teacher I can see that she keeps on refining what she does, which is just how she was when she danced. She never got stale. She was always trying to keep things moving forward.”
“I always knew I wanted to work with kids,” says LeBlanc. “I learned so much throughout my career and I wanted to pass on all this information. That’s my goal—to open those avenues for them, start them on the path of self-exploration. Because that’s really what it is: finding dance within their own bodies.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt is a former dancer, now a dance teacher, who writes about the arts in San Francisco.
Photo by Drew Kelly