John Meehan: An Extraordinary Gentleman

Walk into John Meehan’s office at American Ballet Theatre and you get the sense that he is constantly multitasking. There are two desks, two phones and two TV carts with two sets of stereo equipment. This setup actually makes a lot of sense for this Australian-born former dancer who balances so many different responsibilities.

As artistic director of education and training, Meehan, 54, oversees the entire summer program at ABT’s five satellite locations. He is also the artistic director of the ABT Studio Company and a company teacher, giving class for both companies at ABT at least once a week.

Last January his role expanded to include heading up the new Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT, a program of 20 high school-aged pre-professionals, designed to act as a feeder into the main company.

Not bad for a man who never thought he would teach. “I started teaching and it turned out to be one of the most fun parts of my day,” Meehan says. “It’s still a huge responsibility. You have to have a lot of energy to get up there in front of people, but it’s tremendously satisfying. There’s nothing quite like going into a room of talented people and working with them.”

Meehan took his first dance class—tap—at age 10 but often watched ballet class at his Brisbane studio, thinking it looked more interesting. “It seemed to use much more of the body and be more expressive,” he says. “Somehow it appeared more serious to me at that point. And I responded to the music.”

So at age 11, he began ballet training with Patricia MacDonald, a former student of The Royal Ballet School. He moved to The Australian Ballet School at 17 and joined the company just two years later.

“[Becoming a professional dancer] was hard because you have to have a lot of courage in your conviction,” Meehan says. “All of the pressure from society was to say, ‘Forget it. It’s not what men do.’ On the other hand, there weren’t that many men, so the competition wasn’t that great.”

Meehan quickly rose through the ranks at The Australian Ballet, becoming a principal dancer in 1974. At 6 feet tall, he made an able partner to most of the ballerinas and excelled in dramatic ballets such as Swan Lake, John Cranko’s Onegin and Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow.

It was on a U.S. tour of The Merry Widow in the ’70s (when Meehan partnered guest star Margot Fonteyn) that Lucia Chase, founding director of Ballet Theatre (now ABT), offered him a contract with her company. “I had thought about going overseas,” Meehan says. “Being Australian, I was brought up feeling part of the colonies, so I wondered what it would be like to be part of The Royal Ballet. But this from ABT—I thought it would be a little bit daring and adventurous.”

He appeared as a guest star for ABT’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House and then joined as a principal dancer. He stayed for four years, dancing a large portion of the repertory alongside the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, Fernando Bujones and Cynthia Gregory.

During a strike at the company, Meehan decided to become a freelance dancer. He landed roles on Broadway, notably in the Andrew Lloyd Webber show Song and Dance, and took gigs when they came his way. One, with Merrill Ashley, led to a year as a guest artist with New York City Ballet as her partner.

When The National Ballet of Canada mounted The Merry Widow, Meehan took the opportunity to help the choreographer (by this time, he had been choreographing a lot himself) and then danced the ballet with Karen Kain.

“A lot of wonderful things happened in my career right at the end,” Meehan says. “I enjoyed my freelance life, and I was getting older. I thought it was time to quit.” He retired from the stage at age 39.

Right before his last show with NBC, Meehan told a Toronto newspaper that he would like to try directing a company. The next day, a package arrived from Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet asking him to apply for the artistic director opening there.

“I always felt throughout my career that I was like a balletomane,” Meehan says. “I was there enjoying what I was seeing almost as much, if not more, than dancing. I took notice of what made a good dancer—a lot of things that dancers don’t necessarily think about.”

He took the job, but after four years, he says he “deflated” his career by returning to New York for the sake of his private life. The next couple of years, by his own admission, weren’t as busy professionally. He freelanced, taught and choreographed.

So when ABT added The Merry Widow to its repertory in 1997, Meehan came to help. That led to the job running the studio company, ABT’s 12-member junior group. Meehan recalls, “When Kevin [McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director] and I talked originally, I said, ‘I think I’d prefer to work with mature dancers, not the young ones.’ But I started, and I loved it!”

He has since built it into a prestigious company in its own right. Competitors at the Prix de Lausanne and Youth America Grand Prix vie for a position in the company each year, and many new talents are discovered on the annual summer intensive audition circuit. Now, about 35 dancers on ABT’s current roster are former studio company members, including Misty Copeland, Erica Cornejo,

David Hallberg, Danny Tidwell and Michele Wiles. In fact, at a recent ABT performance, an ex-dancer paid Meehan the ultimate compliment, saying, “The studio company used to be the place to go when you couldn’t get into ABT. Now it’s the place to go if you want to get into ABT.”

Because of the success of many studio company dancers, Meehan began to think about forming another group of even younger dancers who could join the studio company when its members moved on. That idea planted a seed that quickly grew.

In October 2003, Meehan mentioned creating a program for young dancers to a donor, who agreed to fund something more like a school: new classes for advanced dancers ages 14 to 18. The only catch was that it had to be ready in three months. Auditions in November 2003 located 10 dancers for the first class at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT. (The school was named for Onassis, who served on the company’s board of trustees for more than 25 years and was honorary chair until she died in 1994.)

This past September, the program expanded to accommodate 20 dancers and the administration created a five-year plan, which includes adding a second track of open classes alongside the pre-professional program in the near future. Other long-range goals are to start more classes in studios around the country.

“We [at ABT] look at ourselves as America’s company because we’ve always toured,” Meehan says. “So the grand idea is to actually have an ABT presence in certain big cities through the school. The company will visit them often through performance, and the community will feel involved.”

With a firm base already established with the ABT summer program (in Austin, TX; Tuscaloosa, AL; Orange County, CA; Detroit, MI; and New York City), developing a vision for the new school hasn’t been difficult so far.

“I think the philosophy is to offer the public the kind of training that ABT dancers need to have,” says Meehan, “that is, a very simple, unaffected classical ballet base and also a knowledge of modern techniques so that when choreographers come along and fuse the two, dancers are prepared.

“We keep finding dancers who are good at one thing but maybe not so good at another—some that move really well but their ballet technique is a little funky or that are very schooled but can’t do free-moving jazz. We want to try to address that at the educational level.

“I do feel a lot of responsibility for the school—just to make sure that people are getting good training and they’re building toward a professional career, even if it’s not at ABT,” Meehan says.

Meehan has developed a reputation for being honest—about the good and the bad. He will tell a girl she is probably too tall for ABT or a boy that he needs to do pushups every day to be able to do a shoulder sit. “People in the dance world often will not do that,” he says. “They won’t go there, and I think that’s irresponsible of directors and teachers. I think dancers deserve that.”

At the same time, Meehan says, “It’s harder with young dancers because they can change so remarkably. You have to be careful that you don’t close a door that actually will open because something will click in the dancer’s head or bodies change.”

Come January and February, Meehan’s schedule gets busier when he and his faculty take to the road on ABT’s summer intensive audition circuit, seeing dancers in 17 states and Washington, DC.

Still, no matter how busy his many titles have made him, Meehan is the picture of cool at work. His charm is readily apparent as he walks the halls of ABT, peeking into studios where the dancers wave to him and kissing the cheeks of good friends along the way.

Meehan says he now has a hard time looking at old photos and remembering that he actually accomplished what he did. Remarkably, he says that he can recall only one instance in the last 15 years when he missed his old performing life. “I saw The Merry Widow with Karen Kain and another guy,” he says. “That was my old partner and my old role. But that’s it.”

Rather than say, “once a dancer always a dancer,” Meehan now considers himself a teacher through and through. For two months in the summer, in company class every week and now in the new school, it is his responsibility to share what he has learned with the next generation.

He recognizes that some things have changed since he was taking class. “Nowadays, to be a good teacher, you need to explain quickly and move on,” Meehan says. “My class tends to move fast and be packed with a lot of information. Also, my exercises are not simple; sometimes they can be too complicated. But if people stay with me in a class, they get a good brain workout as well as a body workout.”

Meehan plans these classes and does other administrative work during his 100-mile commute each day from his home in Rhinecliff, NY, where he enjoys more of the wide open than city dwelling has allowed him. “Australians are used to a lot of space,” he says jokingly, but really he has just discovered what makes him happiest.

“I don’t think I ever set out to be a ballet teacher,” Meehan says. “What I love, though, is knowing that things could be better if you just give dancers some information. That’s what excites me.”

Photo by Eduardo Patino

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.

Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.