Maggie Black's transformative approach to ballet training
Maggie Black coaching former ABT principal Robert Hill, circa 1989
At the height of her popularity from the late 1960s to the 1990s, Maggie Black could be found teaching a sea of professional dancers, six days a week in her New York City studio. The petite and always charismatic Black was known to demonstrate in pink fuzzy slippers with her hair in pigtails. Yet that eccentric presentation belied an authoritative presence—her high-pitched New England accent and curt corrections galvanized students.
Dancers flocked to Black and her anatomically focused approach. On any given day, performers with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Joffrey Ballet were in attendance. She emphasized natural ability and simplicity in movement, and she threw out the old-school notion that every dancer—regardless of facility—must have the same physicality and look. She possessed an uncanny gift for improving dancers' abilities. It was so remarkable that Balanchine referred to her influence as "Black magic."
Born in Rhode Island in 1930, Black moved to New York City at 16 to pursue a professional dance career. Her debut at the Roxy Theatre, a forerunner of the Radio City Music Hall, was followed by a move to Ohio to perform with the Cleveland Civic Ballet. A year later, Black traveled to London. While there, she studied with progressive ballet teacher Audrey de Vos, who taught a barre in which each exercise was repeated twice, and asymmetries of the body, like scoliosis, were addressed. The introduction to de Vos' method proved beneficial—Black landed jobs with Ballet Rambert and London Theatre Ballet. De Vos' pedagogy became the backbone of Black's approach.
Black returned to the United States in 1953 to perform with Ballet Theatre, and a year later with Ballet Alicia Alonso in Cuba. But it was with Antony Tudor that she developed her longest working relationship. For seven years, she danced under him at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and became his teaching assistant at The Juilliard School. Tudor's belief that ballet was innately expressive became crucial to Black's unadorned aesthetic.
Despite her success, Black was dissatisfied with her artistry. She felt her inefficiencies as a dancer stemmed from years of poor alignment and placement. So she moved back to London to work alone for three years, going back to square one to painstakingly develop her technique.
Working from the naturally occurring rotation of her hip joints and distributing her weight evenly through her feet (instead of over her toes), she redeveloped her leg muscles. And moving her pelvis and back through space in one unit, she found further simplicity that gave her greater coordination and grace.
Once back in the U.S., Black opened a studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. About a dozen people attended her first few classes, remembers Lawrence Rhodes, director of The Juilliard School's dance division. Word of Black's talent soon spread, and a few years later (in a different space near Lincoln Center), her classes held close to 65 dancers. "Black was consistent; she was always there," says former American Ballet Theatre principal Martine van Hamel. "There was no real ego that you had to deal with—you just went there to work. But you had to adhere to the integrity of her approach."
Like de Vos, Black taught an unconventional barre that lasted nearly an hour. Exercises were repeated twice, and she skipped the stylistic port de bras and embellished épaulement of major ballet schools. Her studio had few mirrors; she asked dancers to experience their movement physically instead of visually. She preached simplicity and efficiency of movement, and she concluded that many dancers' idiosyncratic mannerisms hindered their ability to be versatile artists. Former Joffrey Ballet principal Gary Chryst recalls Black often saying, "I like to work on movement, but I can't work on movement until we are standing up correctly."
Black stressed that dancers' maintain "square" hips, so as not to skew alignment in favor of extensions, and her words "Up, up, up!" were code for vertically aligning the pelvis. "Maggie offered students a reality check by speaking plainly about the mechanics of the body," says Zvi Gotheiner, a NYC-based ballet teacher whose daily class closely resembles Black's—including the melting-pot of attendees.
Outside of the classroom, Black attended her students' performances, exchanging her folksy classroom attire for a red fox coat. She gave them advice backstage and coached several of them for roles. Rhodes, van Hamel and Chryst describe these coaching sessions as transformative to their performance careers. Coaching van Hamel for lead roles like Giselle and Raymonda, Black worked beyond the steps and asked van Hamel to define the character. "Maggie could find the key element, the through line in the work," she says.
Since Black closed her studio in 1995 and retired to Long Island, her presence in the dance community has been sorely missed. But her influence continues through the work of students worldwide, including Rhodes, Tina LeBlanc, Gelsey Kirkland, Ohad Naharin and Gotheiner, who says, "Maggie took ballet out of the 19th century. She told us, 'Clean is sexy.' She saw simplicity as classicism." DT
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo: Maggie Black coaching former ABT principal Robert Hill, circa 1989, by Monroe Warshaw, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives