Face to Face: Finis Jhung

Photo by Andrew Terzes

Jhung, a critically hailed former soloist for the San Francisco and Joffrey Ballets and principal at Harkness Ballet, has taught a devoted following of professional and student dancers since 1972, presented at numerous teacher's workshops and produced a series of instructional DVDs. Tapped to train the original Billys by Nora Brennan, the show's children's casting director (and former Jhung student), Jhung was invited to remain on the job after choreographer Peter Darling and director Stephen Daldry witnessed his impressive methods.

Dance Teacher: What do you emphasize in the boys' training?

Finis Jhung: We have an hour class, three times a week, so every moment counts. Instead of warming up at the barre, I start them in the center—it's the fastest way to warm up, using their entire bodies. I'm also working with them on correct alignment, training them not to force anything and to use their weight and energy properly. And I'm concentrating on their feet to help them gain a better sense of balance, since they dance on a raked stage and must do 16 turns in second position during the show's finale. I tell them to think of their feet as hands and their toes as fingers, and to grab and hold onto the floor when they plié. I am also training them to understand that there's nothing we can't improve.

DT: Our readers are forever curious about training male dancers. Do you have any advice?

FJ: The challenging part is getting boys to understand it's more than the positions—it's about preparation. The male technique demands virtuoso turns and jumps—they need to have strength in the legs and feet to push up in the air and land without injury. I have students do what I call the isometric plié, which uses resistance and opposition to engage the muscles. For the Billy Elliot boys, this is a totally new concept; it's not usually taught this way. They are used to thinking plié means you go down and up, and that's it. But they're grasping my concepts and especially respond to the video clips—actual proof—of great male dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Schaufuss

and Joseph Michael Gatti. That's the key. They have an image and can see themselves doing that. It's about keeping their energy and enthusiasm up, while correcting and making sure they do things properly.

DT: These boys will remember you as a major influence in their dance training. Who influenced your career the most?

FJ: “Mr. C," Willam F. Christensen at the University of Utah, made me realize you're always dancing for the audience. Rosella Hightower emphasized balance, simplicity and internalization. Madame Valentina Pereyaslavec instilled in me a love for movement. David Howard, who as ballet master at Harkness, gave me private lessons for almost half a year and would give me performance notes after every show telling me what I did and didn't need to do.

DT: What do you love most about your career and the path it's taken?

FJ: I see myself all over again in these boys. In the show's dream ballet they dance to the same Swan Lake music I did when I was their age, without a clue that I would ever go to New York. It's been that journey from there to here, plus all the terrific things in between.

Music
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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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