Margie Gillis' Dancing (and Teaching) Are Driven by Pure Emotion

Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Gillis' unique vision has led to a nearly 50-year career as a solo performer of iconic works like Bloom, her 1989 rendition of Molly Bloom's soliloquy from James Joyce's Ulysses, and the 1999 Loon, a reflection on the childhood trauma that would define the direction of her life. She has garnered the highest accolades of her native Canada, including the Ordre national du Québec and the Order of Canada. Now 65, she performs less rigorously than she used to, but through teaching she continues to influence countless people—dancers and nondancers alike—around the world.

Largely self-trained, Gillis is neither a master of formal technique nor the product of a seminal company. Yet Taylor himself regarded her as "one of the greatest artists I've ever seen," says John Tomlinson, executive director of the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation. Taylor became a lifelong friend, and before his death in August 2018 he commissioned a work from Gillis that will premiere this month, alongside four of his own classics and a commission from Pam Tanowitz, in the Orchestra of St. Luke's Bach Festival in New York City. "We did our first session prior to Paul dying, and I was just awestruck by how generous the dancers were with me," she says. "The way I work is really different, and they've been beautiful."

Photo by Kyle Froman

Gillis' movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater.

Photo by Kyle Froman

Gillis rehearses with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The work, commissioned by Taylor before he died, will premiere in June at the Orchestra of St. Luke's Bach Festival.

What makes Gillis different is an alchemy of emotional rawness and mesmerizing movement that many people describe as transformative. "She was the dance," Tomlinson says of seeing Slipstream in the mid-1980s. "You didn't see a person; you just saw this incredible experience of movement and joy and power. It brought you to tears."

When Alexandra Wells, director of artist training at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, saw Gillis for the first time in 1999, "I couldn't stop weeping. It's like Margie has a zipper down her heart, and she opens it and shares it with people." Afterward, Wells went into the dressing room to meet Gillis. "Margie was stark naked, and I hugged her," she says. "We've been best friends ever since."

Through Springboard Danse Montréal, which Wells founded in 2001, Wells and Gillis initiated the Legacy Project in 2015 to keep Gillis' oeuvre alive for new generations of dancers and audiences. Run by the Margie Gillis Dance Foundation, the Legacy Project provides financial and logistical support for Gillis to teach her work to a curated group of professional dancers, who perform it in Canada and abroad.

While her career may sound meteoric, it was born out of profound trauma. At just 8 years old, when most dancers are taking creative movement classes and performing in recitals, Gillis had a nervous breakdown that lasted nearly a decade. After her father left the family and her mother became critically ill, "I fell apart," she says. The family relocated and Gillis gave up dance, and "I never went more than a third of a year to school. I was frightened of people." (Her hair also fell out, and when it eventually grew back, she vowed never to cut it—her waist-length tresses became a trademark.)

"Being frightened, you spend a lot of time looking very carefully at everybody—what was it to be normal? What wasn't it?" she says of that time. Naturally curious, and constantly analyzing herself and the people around her, she developed keen senses of introspection and observation. "I watched my personality disintegrate and then reintegrate," and when she recovered in her mid-teens, "I had an understanding of elements of personality that was really experiential."

She also reemerged with an inexplicable yet unshakable faith that dance would be the vehicle for her to share her perspective on the human experience. But rather than take up formal training, "I did my own explorations and cobbled together movement vocabularies from here and there," she says. At 19 she followed her older brother Christopher to New York City, where he was training on scholarship with José Limón and May O'Donnell. "May brought me along even though I was rough and raw," she says of the dance legend, who saw promise in Gillis' quirky individuality. "She was technical and demanding, but I would cry in class, I would laugh in class, and she would indulge that." Gillis also studied with Linda Rabin and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens répétiteur Daniel Jackson, still a treasured advisor.

Christopher, Paul Taylor and Margie GillisPhoto courtesy of Gillis

When Christopher joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1976, Gillis caught the legendary choreographer's eye—he even asked her to join. "I said, 'Paul, I would give my eyeteeth to dance Esplanade, but I cannot count,'" she says, referring good-naturedly to her dyslexia, which she cites as another influence on her independent path. "He would say, 'Everybody go to your left,' and I would be standing in the middle of the room looking at my hands while everybody brushed past me. We laughed, and that was that." Nevertheless, Gillis' affiliation with Taylor was formative. "I would sit on the floor and watch Paul choreograph," she says. "I loved his understanding of humanity. He had great insight about it by being an outsider, and I felt like an outsider, too." (Christopher danced with PTDC for 18 years and died in 1993.)

Gillis speaks reverently of the teachers who shaped her quirky artistry. "The greater love is being seen," she says, "and they really saw me, and they pulled out of me the best of myself." She brings that same caring attention into her own teaching practice, which she took up only after many years as a performing artist.

"For a long time I would never dare to call myself a teacher. I called myself an instigator," she says, and today she is sought-after for her uncanny ability to help dancers bring honest emotion into their movement. Whether privately coaching a National Ballet of Canada prima ballerina or leading a weekend workshop for nonprofessionals with Hawaii-based New Age musician Rhiannon, "you're going for this transformative process. What can you do? Is there one part of your body that feels joy? Let's move that part," she says. At every level, Gillis creates a safe space where her students can take creative risks without fear of failure. "The sense of honesty, the willingness to be engaged in that way, I find incredibly fulfilling and healing."

She also uses movement to access and release emotions in her conflict-resolution practice. Introduced to the field in 2009, when she consulted on a study led by professors Michelle LeBaron and Carrie MacLeod of the University of British Columbia, she has since worked with a wide range of people, from diplomats to teenagers.

"I was teaching working-class high-school boys and girls in Quebec, and the boys were disenfranchised and really at exploding points," she says. "I started by having one of the boys push my shoulder. As a dancer, you can take the aggression that's coming toward you, and you roll it off your body." She guided the teens to playfully push each other, and then to dance with each other. "It was extremely exciting that when I left that class, those boys would no longer be frightened of the volatile energy within them, but would see it as something that had quality, that had art, that you could use in a playful way."

Gillis' methods are intuitive and take practice, but they work, says Vancouver dancer Caitlin Griffin, 33. The former member of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal took her first workshop with Gillis in 2015. "My world shifted," she says. "I was so used to rooms where you prove yourself, where there's this hierarchy and expectations." In contrast, "from the second that you are in the studio with Margie, there is this sense that by being in the room, you are adding value." A Legacy Project member since 2016, Griffin, who dances Loon, credits Gillis with helping her become more grounded, resilient and clear in her artistic intentions.

"Working with Margie has given me a lot of confidence in my own instincts. Her affirmation of that has been huge," says Brooklyn-based Troy Ogilvie, 34, a former member of Gallim Dance. For the Legacy Project, Gillis coached her in Bloom. "Instead of 'What would Margie do?'" says Ogilvie, "she is a facilitator. 'What would you do in this piece, in this house that you've created?' That's the work: to be faithful to the choreography, but also very present in the moment."

What Gillis does, with herself as well as with others, is integrate authenticity into art. At Springboard last year, Gillis incorporated the chronic pain in her knee into her workshops. "She would say, 'I'm having a hard time today, but let me see what I can do,'" Wells says. "She wasn't doing big jumps, but she was still able to capture us. You think, 'I can do that, too. I can be present in that way.'"

A partial knee replacement has restored Gillis' mobility, but nowadays she limits performances to two minutes max. Life as a teaching artist, she says, brings her a "phenomenal joy." "Watching people transform and have their aha moment—it's exciting to me to move people on that level."

Health & Body
Getty Images

The term "body shaming" might bring up memories of that instructor from your own training who made critical remarks about—or even poked and prodded—dancers' bodies.

Thankfully, we're (mostly) past the days when authority figures felt free to openly mock a dancer's appearance. But body shaming remains a toxic presence in the studio, says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet: "It's just more hidden and more subtle." Here's how to make sure your teaching isn't part of the problem.

Watch What You Say...

The cardinal rule of a body-positive teaching style: Correct your students' dancing, not their bodies. Say you're about to ask a dancer to take up more space, possibly because that dancer's legs are on the shorter side. "Just tell them, 'I see you're holding yourself back and I think you could travel more,' or 'I love how fast you can move, but you need to work on making that movement expansive,'" suggests Kathryn Morgan, former soloist with New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. "The only time I'll bring somebody's body into it is in a positive way, like, 'Your arms are so long and beautiful. Let's use them more.'" In Morgan's experience, there's always a way to reframe a correction so dancers don't conclude that any given body part is a problem that needs fixing.

Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and current dean of dance at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, is careful not to set damagingly narrow expectations when using imagery. To get a young dancer to engage their core, she asks not for a "flat tummy," but for them to bring "belly button to spine." Morgan adds that there's a world of difference between "Why is your butt out?" and "Lift the front of your hips."

Ringer also regularly encourages students to feel and express gratitude for their chance to dance. "I remind them just how miraculous their bodies are," she says. "I want them to marvel at what they're asking their bodies to do." (This is far from just a feel-good ritual, by the way: Gratitude has been scientifically proven to improve poor body image.)

Ringer, smiling in a blue shirt and black pants, sits in a chair at the front of the studio, smiling at the teen ballet students in front of her

Jenifer Ringer. Photo by Paige Ray, courtesy Colburn School

...And What You Don't Say

If paired with a misplaced frown or a terse tone of voice, even a neutral comment from you can trigger a shame spiral in a self-conscious teenage dancer. Of course, teachers can't always leave their own problems outside the studio. Still, be mindful that negative nonverbal cues might be misread as disgust with a dancer's physicality. For students who are mature enough, a little self-awareness and transparency from you can go a long way. Dr. Christina Donaldson, a licensed clinical psychologist who co-founded the Soul Meets Body self-esteem workshop for dancers, says, "When I work with teens, if I have a bad day I'll tell them, 'I've just had a tender day. So if I come across in any way that seems odd, please don't take it personally.'"

Speaking of self-awareness, even the best-intentioned dance educators have internal biases against certain body types. Be honest: Do you devote more time and energy to students whose physical characteristics remind you of your own? Do you agree that "every body is a ballet body," yet tend to give harsher (or fewer) corrections to dancers who don't fit the traditional mold? "Treating dancers who look a certain way differently is a subtle cue that only certain bodies have potential," says Kaslow. Distribute your gifts as a teacher fairly.

Approach With Caution

All that said, there are times when a dance teacher feels the obligation to talk to a student about what's going on with their body. The most obvious instance is sudden weight gain or loss, which usually (but not always) means there's a new emotional or physical issue in the student's life. Because "most children don't have control over what is bought and put in front of them to eat," Donaldson suggests talking to the caregiver if you're concerned about a student aged 18 or younger.

If the student is older, Morgan suggests leaving out the question of weight unless the dancer brings it up on their own. "I would ask, 'Are you okay? I've noticed you seem a bit tense/unhappy/unfocused/anxious.' Start by making sure, in a way that has nothing to do with their body, that they're okay mentally." This strategy becomes especially key if a dancer is intentionally limiting food intake, because giving attention to the visible changes in their body could actually motivate them to double down on restricting. If the student brings up any body concerns of their own accord, you can then "address it from a health and life standpoint," Morgan advises. "Make sure they know you care about them as a human being, not just as a dancer."

Morgan corrects a teenage girl in a pink leotard's tendu at the barre. Two other teen girls at the barre observe

Kathryn Morgan. Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Morgan

Body-Positive Studio Policies

A major cause and result of body shame is the drive to compare one's appearance to others'. A thoughtful dress code is one way to reduce this urge to compare and despair. Morgan remembers what a relief it was to put on black tights for partnering class at the School of American Ballet—"which we especially appreciated during the run-up to our periods"—and to wear a skirt during after-lunch classes. When Ringer was formulating Colburn's dress code, she decided that tweens and up would wear dark shades, not pastels. "They're also allowed to wear any leotard they feel comfortable in, as long as it's in the color scheme," she says. Building some flexibility into your dress code can help students feel their best in the studio.

Keep in mind that members of your studio population who already feel different or marginalized—dancers of color, male dancers and trans or nonbinary dancers, to name a few—are at increased risk of body dysmorphia. Body image isn't just a female problem, says Donaldson: "Dancers who are born or identify as male experience eating disorders too. It's just that they fixate on calves and pecs, not waists and thighs." Consider whether your changing rooms, guidelines on hairstyles and tights colors, and other studio rules are as accommodating and affirming as they can be for each and every dancer.

Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.

His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.

"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.

1. Respecting the Basics

Like many ballet instructors, Kate Crews Linsley, academy principal at the School of Nashville Ballet, designed her remote classes to home in on foundational elements like stance, alignment and connection of the eyes to the port de bras. Now that her dancers have returned to the studio, they're reaping the benefits of spending so much time focused on these details.

Linsley says there's also been a mindset shift: an increased willingness to pause and figure something out before moving forward. "On Zoom, because we couldn't do all of center, we could take our time at barre," she says. "The kids saw that it's great to ask questions—to make sure that they really understand the principles of each movement. Everything in ballet builds into something else. Going back to basics is not going backwards."

2. Fostering Creativity

"Since the start of the pandemic, my class content has been driven toward imagination," says Dana Wilson, who teaches jazz for New York City Dance Alliance, among other organizations. For example, she might ask students to picture themselves dancing on a beach. "We're all tired of our living rooms," she jokes—but the exercise is about more than an escape from reality. "Taking ownership of the element of imagination helps you develop a creative identity and makes you intrinsically more interesting to watch," Wilson says. "I want imagination to be a baseline, no matter the style." When dancing at home instead of in a room full of peers, students can feel safer experimenting. Then, the next time they're asked to call on their creativity in person, they'll be ready to shine.

3. No Hiding in the Back

For choreographer Al Blackstone, who teaches theater dance at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway in addition to working with young students at Downtown Dance Factory in Tribeca, one benefit of Zoom is that it puts every dancer on equal display. "Kids that tended to hide in the back of the room suddenly weren't able to do that," he says. From the start of virtual classes, Blackstone made it a point to frequently call out names and give specific feedback, so everyone felt seen. As the months passed, "I saw progress in leaps and bounds," he says. His DDF students have returned to the studio, and while he admits they aren't all rushing to the front row, "they are making bolder choices," he says. "They're more willing to stand out. Dancers who were meeker are more confident, and that's a blessing."

4. Committing to Conditioning

As Linsley and her staff were tweaking their curriculum for Zoom last spring, they built in extra cross-training: yoga, Pilates, floor barre, even high-intensity interval training for stamina. "We wanted to make sure that their fitness was still there when we came back to the studio," Linsley says, "but we didn't want kids to do it on their own." Thanks to this strategy, teachers were able to smoothly guide students back into the rigors of in-person classes, despite the new roadblock of dancing in a mask. Stretch and conditioning offerings will be a permanent part of the School of Nashville Ballet academy's syllabus going forward.

5. Dancing On Camera

Dance films have become a mainstay during the shutdown months, but even in normal times, dancers can benefit from camera training. That's why Wilson has been using her Zoom sessions to teach film terminology and to get dancers comfortable with performing for a camera rather than an audience. "I'll say 'camera right' instead of 'stage left,'" she explains. "I'll ask them to have only their head and shoulders in the frame by this eight-count. You have to think from the device's perspective instead of your own, which takes some rewiring." The Zoom grid allows dancers to see whether they're hitting their marks correctly in real time. For students who hope to go pro, especially in the commercial realm, this aspect of virtual class is a major bright side—and proves there's a market for dedicated dance-for-camera classes in the future.

6. Increasing Access and Opportunity

When anyone can log on from anywhere, training with big-name teachers is much more accessible. But that's just the tip of the digital iceberg. At Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, Utah, students came back in person before many of their coaches were able to travel. So, the school has hosted virtual master classes as well as virtual private coaching on site. "We have a big movie screen," says Kim DelGrosso, Center Stage's artistic director. "It's almost like the teacher is in the room."

At the School of Nashville Ballet, students have been able to Zoom-chat with luminaries like Kathryn Morgan and Marianela Nuñez, and Linsley hopes to schedule more virtual conversations with pros. "To have someone at a top level sit down and share their story—that's a connection we shouldn't let go of," Linsley says. "It's one thing to watch someone dance, but to get to ask them questions and hear their struggles is precious."

7. Encouraging Discipline and Drive

Without hands-on instruction, "dancers have to take ownership of their own training," says DelGrosso. "They have to self-correct. It's their responsibility not to cheat the movement." That sense of discipline will serve them well—if they can hold on to it. Luckily, Linsley points out, the dancers who stuck with remote learning despite it being less than ideal tended to be extremely driven. "So many of our students said, 'I don't care where it is or what's happening, I'll show up. I want to perfect this tendu because it's important to me,'" she says.

Blackstone feels that pushing through Zoom's technical difficulties may have also helped dancers come to appreciate their art form even more. "Anyone who's still taking class at home by themselves has to ask 'Do I really want to do this?'" he says. "The people who've kept at it have found a renewed sense of purpose. They do it because they truly love it."

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