Face to Face: Jock Soto

Sooner or later, all dancers face the inevitable: the end of their performing careers and the gnawing, terrifying question of, “What’s next?” Rarely has the anguish and soul-searching occasioned by this seminal transition in a dancer’s life been captured, and so poignantly, as in the new documentary Water Flowing Together. Created by Gwendolen Cates, the film is an intimate account of the months leading up to New York City Ballet principal Jock Soto’s 2005 retirement performance, a time fraught with both joy and anxiety as he reflects on a storied 24-year career and confronts the uncertainty of the future.

 

Born in 1965 on an Indian reservation in New Mexico to a Navajo mother and Puerto Rican father, Soto began taking ballet lessons at a local dance studio before receiving a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet. A few years later, at age 16, he was among the last to be handpicked by George Balanchine to join NYCB, where he became celebrated for his regal, unabashedly masculine stage presence and, above all, his impeccable partnering. By the end, he was, by choreographer Richard Tanner’s count, the most choreographed-on dancer in the company—an audience favorite and an idol to a new generation of dancers.

 

But the film, which draws its title from the name of Soto’s Navajo clan, does more than gloss the high points of his career. It also reveals the struggles he faced over the years, whether as a preteen straining to make ends meet in NYC (his parents sent him there alone, as they couldn’t afford to join him) or as an older man embarking on a belated quest to understand his biracial identity. Water Flowing Together, which has already garnered numerous festival awards including the Jury Prize at NYC’s Dance on Camera Festival this past January, is set to debut April 8 nationwide as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens.” Soto says he hopes the film will inspire young, aspiring dancers everywhere.

 

Happily, these days the danseur has found a new calling: cooking. Even as he keeps up a full schedule at SAB, where he has been on faculty since 1996 and now teaches boys’, men’s and partnering classes six days a week, Soto finds time to run a catering business with his boyfriend, Luis Fuentes (called Lucky Basset Events, after the couple’s dog). It’s a reassuring reminder that the end of a dancer’s Act I need not mean curtain call; for those brave enough, Act II is right around the corner.

 

DanceTeacher: I found Water Flowing Together very moving.

Jock  Soto: Thank you so much. We’ve been getting such great responses, and we’re so proud of the project. Of course, now we have to fundraise again for the outreach programs—there are so many dance programs in colleges and so many dance schools in America, and eventually, Gwendolen and I want to raise money to make DVDs so we can distribute them. I just think it would be an inspiration for younger kids who want to become dancers to see how my parents really sacrificed so much for me to come to New York. 


DT:What’s the distribution plan?

JS:We’re working on it. It’s coming out nationally April 8; after that, we have to work on maybe going to colleges and talking to students, showing the film, answering questions—that’s what we’d really like to do.

 

DT:Is that one of the reasons you approached Gwendolen about making the film in the first place?

JS:Yes, definitely. I never had a problem with my sexuality either, and I just wanted to tell everyone that they should go where their hearts send them, and not be embarrassed about who they are.


DT:Since retiring in 2005, you’ve kept busy with a full teaching load at SAB as well as starting your own catering company with your boyfriend. What is it that appeals to you about cooking?

JS:I love the passion that it takes, and I love the finished product—it’s like a performance. And I love food! Any kind of food. I wish I could snap my fingers and be in Paris right now, eating. I’ll probably teach forever, but I also want to have a restaurant—in New York, of course.


DT:You’ve said before that you almost considered quitting teaching after you retired. What made you decide to continue?

JS:Once I retired, I went to culinary school and I really, really loved my teacher. He was such a great teacher and so amusing, and during that time I was still teaching myself, so I realized that I actually liked teaching a lot, and I liked seeing the dancers get into the company and continuing. I had this dream of leaving New York and living in New Mexico in a beautiful house and cooking, but then I discovered that what I knew and what I was teaching was doing good for the students, and it’s exciting because I also started to go out and scout. I got to go to San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas, and find kids and bring them to [SAB]. I started to really appreciate it and like it much more, and it became such a nice responsibility to have.


DT:What would you say your teaching approach is in the classroom? What do you try to impart to students?

JS:Back when Balanchine came to America, he wanted to bring a technique that was better, quicker and more exciting to watch. What I try to do is bring that technique, and Peter Martins’ technique, into the future. The future is always getting better and better, so we as teachers have to take everything into the future, meaning the dancers have to get better and better. And they do, which is really wonderful to watch. I mean, the technique that these dancers have now compared to 20 years ago is phenomenal. They can do anything and they can dance as fast as possible; it’s just wonderful. So my duty is to just keep improving my technique and passing it to them.


DT:Any tips on encouraging boys in particular to dance?

JS:We have a very high caliber of boys here at SAB, and they’re such hard workers and know that they’re here for that reason, so I just try to encourage them to not lose faith. For boys in general, give it a try, and start young and start early. If you really have a passion for it, then go for it.


DT:It certainly wasn’t always easy for you, starting out as the only boy at a small local studio in Phoenix, Arizona.

JS:Yeah, but I had people who believed that I had talent, so I listened to those people.

 

DT:You are famous for your partnering ability. Although it might come naturally to you, how do you approach passing on that skill?

JS:It takes a lot to teach partnering, and I had to teach myself how to teach that kind of a class. I found that if I just demonstrated it very slowly and showed students how and where to put their hands and how to approach a ballerina, they would get it. It’s hard to explain. You’d have to watch me teach class, because I try to bring a lot of humor into it also.


DT:Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for other dancers making the challenging transition from dancing to teaching full-time?

JS:You have to decide a few years before you retire what you’re going to do, and give yourself plenty of time, because if you get to that point where you’re retiring and you have nothing left, or nothing to look forward to, you’re going to be at a terrible, terrible loss. What I would say is, plan your future well in advance. And don’t think it’s going to be horrible not to dance, but think of how great it’s going to be to do something else.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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