On a chilly Friday morning in a New York City studio, a group of students are making themselves fall, over and over again. This isn't an exercise in futility—it's Roxane D'Orléans Juste's class in Limón technique, and the dancers are venturing off center in a classic fall-and-recovery combination. As they swing their legs out and up and let gravity do its work, only to rebound against the floor and launch themselves back to an upright position, they attempt a moment of suspension. This signature principle of fall-and-recovery proves to be one of the more challenging concepts for students to grasp. "The idea of suspension is not necessarily natural," Juste says, with a lilting accent that reveals her Montreal origins. "How do you teach suspension?"
After 33 years of performing with the Limón Dance Company, dancing iconic roles like the tragic Desdemona in The Moor's Pavane and the anguished "Crucifixus" solo in Missa Brevis, Juste understands the sophisticated interplay between weight and emotional affect in Limón's work. She challenges her students to investigate how their relationship with gravity influences the quality of their movement, having them repeat tricky exercises again and again. Her mix of high demand and constant encouragement is one of the many reasons her students adore her.
"I honestly have to force myself to slow down," Juste says with a chuckle. "I have to make myself take a breath and let the students stretch." It's clear from the way she demonstrates that the 56-year-old is still a formidable dancer—plunging headfirst into action, eating up space effortlessly with daredevil falls off balance and fluid rebounds. Considering her long-standing association with the Limón company, it's hard to believe she grew up studying only ballet and didn't encounter modern dance until she was nearly 20. Enrolled then in the National Ballet School of Canada teacher training program, she began taking modern classes in the evening—first in Martha Graham technique and later Limón. She immediately gravitated toward the fluidity and dynamism of Limón technique, joining the company three years later. Hailed by critics as a performer who can bring gravity and truth to even the most basic steps, Juste knows what it takes to embody the range of qualities in Limón movement.
Photo by Kyle Froman
Dressed in a formfitting black top and pants, with a sleek braid down her back, Juste exudes warmth. Although her class starts gently, center combinations soon build in pace and intensity. "On y va!" ("Let's go!"), she calls out in French, amping up the dancers with the energy in her voice. "I create challenging movement that asks for a physical investment," she says. "You can't just conceptualize or imagine it, you have to affect space."
When practicing fall-and-recovery, she instructs students to pair up and take turns nudging their partners' hips to guide where their weight should be when falling. They then try the combination again with this tactile feedback in mind. "I think it's an important part of my class that the dancers interact with one another," Juste explains. "That's what dance is about. You have a responsibility to connect."
Photo by Kyle Froman
Whether she's offering a verbal correction ("This is the point of suspension," with pressure on a dancer's upper back) or simply laying a hand gently on the spine, Juste's keen ability to address each student as an individual is clear—a skill she's honed over 39 years of teaching. "You first have to know who you're working with," she says. "You have to do your homework." As the dancers plié, curve, stretch and reach, she's simultaneously snapping the rhythm, providing tactile cues where needed and issuing counts and corrections, all the while emanating positivity—a master multitasker if there ever was one.
Near the end of class, when the dancers zip across the floor in a traveling drag step in tricky counts of five and seven, Juste urges them to test the limits of their equilibrium, to propel themselves forward with urgency. "Once you love falling," she says, "then you can start loving recovering, and then you can play with both. You have to be willing to let yourself fall first."
Photo by Kyle Froman
Roxane D'Orléans Juste is the associate artistic director of the Limón Dance Company and has been dancing with the company since 1983. Born in Montreal, she studied ballet as a child and later received her teaching diploma from Canada's National Ballet School. She went on to study Limón technique under Linda Rabin and Risa Steinberg and danced with the Eleo Pomare Dance Company for a year and half, before joining the Limón Dance Company. As an in-demand expert on Limón's technique and choreography, she teaches master classes and reconstructs repertory for companies and universities around the world. Additionally, she directs the Limón4Kids program, which brings free Limón technique classes to New York City public schools.