Curious Mind, Active Body

Lupe Serrano's secret to longevity

Who would ever guess that the impossibly agile and limber Lupe Serrano turned 80 in December? During her classes—she teaches advanced students of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, ABT company members and Metropolitan Opera House dancers—the petite, elegant Serrano demonstrates every combination, her eloquent limbs and pliant back painting a masterful portrait of classical technique. “She is astonishing,” says ABT principal Marcelo Gomes, who takes Serrano’s company class religiously. “Every time she does a perfect développé, I’ll think, ‘Can I even get my leg that high on a good day?’”

Serrano honed that still-impressive physique during her long and celebrated career as a dancer. Born in Chile, she joined the Mexico City Ballet at just 13. She went on to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and, from 1953 to 1971, with ABT, where she earned a reputation for out-jumping and out-turning the company’s men. “Lupe is so well-known as a teacher that people forget she was one of our biggest stars,” says Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director. “She was the public face of ABT for two decades. She set the notion that expression comes out of technique.”

Serrano began teaching about 40 years ago, soon after she retired from the stage. “When I first stopped performing and started teaching, I thought it was so fantastic to have all of these bodies to work with instead of just my own,” she says. “Trying to put myself into another body, and to understand how it functions as opposed to how mine functions—it is so enlightening.”

McKenzie likens Serrano to an engineer. “She is always constructing exercises that will confront the big problems—the placement and turnout and port de bras issues—in a new way,” he says. “She knows you can get to the moon; you just have to figure out the way there.”

Thanks to her curious mind, Serrano’s teaching style is continually evolving. One of her favorite things to do is “talk shop,” as she calls it, with teachers of all ages. “I think it’s dangerous to go for too long without outside input,” she says. “To have the different opinions from the different teachers, and hear how they arrive at a correction of turnout or get a student to pull up, is very interesting to me.”

She also regularly attends dance performances and is an enthusiastic consumer of pop dance culture. “Everything that dances, I watch!” Serrano says, adding that she especially loves “So You Think You Can Dance.” “There is incredible versatility in those dancers,” she says. “I admire the tumbling—what an addition. If you can maintain a clean ballet vocabulary and do the gymnastics, it’s just fantastic.” Her interest in the current dance scene ultimately benefits her students. “I have to be aware of what they will be faced with,” she says. “The choreographers evolve with the trends of the times.”

Not that Serrano’s class incorporates any tumbling. “I teach classical ballet,” she says firmly. Instead, she emphasizes versatility within the ballet vocabulary, with combinations that take dancers out of their comfort zones. “Normally they do a step one way, but I say, ‘Would you feel good doing it with another head, another épaulement, a different rhythm, a different preparation?’ And if they can do that, then they can pick up other styles more quickly.”

Until she was 64, when she had hip-replacement surgery, Serrano was demonstrating every class exercise full-out. (McKenzie remembers mentioning to Serrano, on her 60th birthday, that he always wanted to be able to do an entrechat six when he was 60; she promptly stood up and did one.) Now she can no longer perform the fantastic jumps she was once famous for, but she’s figured out ways to compensate with her upper body. “It takes more thought now—you have to do the mental work if you can’t do the physical—but I want my students not to realize that I can’t do the step,” she says. “They will tell me, ‘Oh, you do so much in class!’ And I’ll say, ‘Really? I’m glad you think so.’” She laughs mischievously.

McKenzie admires that ability of Serrano’s to find the fun in everything. “She has a devilishly good time figuring out how to get around the obstacles of teaching well,” he says. “And she’s like that in life, too. There’s always a twinkle in her eye.”

Is that the secret to her eternal youthfulness? “I haven’t seen that anything so far is keeping me young!” Serrano says, laughing again. “But I like to be active, and I like to be useful. So long as I have something to pass on, I hope I have the energy to keep doing it.”

 

Photo by Rachel Papo

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