How I teach Graham
Jacqulyn Buglisi has a flair for drama. To encourage the students in her intermediate and advanced Graham classes at The Ailey School to open their sternums in a high release, she tells them to stretch “like a flower came out of your heart.” When attempting to convey the weight of a hand gesture, she explains that they must “pull the hem of heaven from the sky.” During the extensive warm-up sequence, she reminds them that this is no time for complacency: “We don’t do positions. We dance the series.” Despite her penchant for the Graham dramatics, Buglisi is equally quick to curb any excess of melodrama in her students. “No Swan Lake with the arms,” she admonishes one whose wrists are limply crossed.
Buglisi’s authority on the Graham technique is formidable—she was a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company for 12 years. Soon after the birth of her son in 1988, as her association with MGDC was winding down, Denise Jefferson approached her and offered a teaching position at Ailey. Buglisi fondly remembers Alvin Ailey himself taking time to stop in and watch her classes. Within two years, she became the chair for The Ailey School’s Graham-based modern department.
Though most of these students have been studying Graham technique with her for three or four years—as professionals, international, certificate or Ailey/Fordham BFA students—there is conscientiousness on every face: Buglisi has carefully imparted that there are always deeper understandings of the familiar pulses, flexed wrists and energized spirals to explore. Her own attentiveness and investment mirrors that of her students—she calls one who is perpetually in the back row to the front, apparently per an earlier agreement to encourage confidence.
For students who are new to Graham technique, the biggest hurdle can be to find the connection to their centers. “Understanding contraction and release requires such awareness,” says Buglisi. “Once they recognize their centers, that’s really the beginning.” She devotes moments in her class to stillness and introspection, encouraging her students to appreciate their own beauty and potential without getting caught up solely in the mechanics of the movement. “It’s OK to smile!” Buglisi occasionally reminds her class. “Be happy with the image in the mirror.”
Jacqulyn Buglisi is a born-and-bred New Yorker who trained at the High School of Performing Arts, where she studied Graham technique. After performing and teaching in Europe for several years, she returned to New York to dance for Pearl Lang and Joyce Trisler. She was a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company for 12 years. In 1993, she co-founded Buglisi Dance Theatre with fellow Graham dancers Donlin Foreman and associate founders Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin. She is the chair of the Graham-based modern department at The Ailey School, where she has been teaching for more than 25 years.
Courtney Celeste Spears, 20, is a sophomore Ailey/Fordham BFA student.
Photography by Matthew Murphy