One of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, Sir Frederick Ashton (1904–1988) was the driving force behind what became known as the English style of classical ballet. He worked extensively with The Royal Ballet, from its very beginnings as the Vic-Wells Ballet, and created an aesthetic that was distinctly British in its refined, expressive quality and vast amplitude of movement, yet appealed to audiences around the globe.

Born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on September 17, 1904, Frederick William Mallandaine Ashton was the fifth of six children (one being a half-brother) to George, a British Embassy vice-consul, and Georgiana Ashton. He remembered his father as distant, cold and serious, but his mother as vivacious, humorous and witty—and his inspiration. Ashton, however, spent little time with either parent growing up. Instead, he was cared for by servants.

The family moved to Lima, Peru, when he was 3 years old, where they socialized with other British exiles, serving tea and trading English reading materials to preserve their national pride. Ashton began taking dance classes as a leisure activity, but he learned more about folk dancing and skipping than ballet technique.

At age 13, Ashton saw Anna Pavlova perform at the Municipal Theater in Lima, and his life was forever changed by her grace and charisma. Dance became Ashton’s secret passion, as he knew his father would not approve of a theatrical career.

In 1919, Ashton was sent to Dover College in England, the equivalent of a secondary school in the US, where he endured an unpleasant experience. He found joy only in the Saturday social dance lessons and school holidays spent in London exploring museums and watching performances by Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Ballets Suédois. Three years later, Ashton quit school and found work as a translator for an import-export company.

Tragedy struck the Ashton family in 1924 when Ashton’s father committed suicide. Afterward, his mother came to live with him in London. During this time, he answered former Diaghilev dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine’s advertisement for a trial series of ballet classes. Ashton hid his dance studies from his mother and, to her knowledge, only began taking regular lessons after he experienced a minor mental breakdown. (A doctor informed her that Ashton must study ballet or risk going insane.) He later studied with Margaret Craske and Marie Rambert, each of whom left an indelible mark on him: Craske through her adherence to Cecchetti teaching that emphasized épaulement and expressive gestures, and Rambert through her encouragement and support of his choreography.

In 1925, Ashton made his professional dancing debut in a concert at the Palace Pier in Brighton, England, as a member of the Duenna Dancers. The following year, Rambert coaxed him to create his first ballet, A Tragedy of Fashion, for her fledgling company Ballet Rambert (originally known as the Ballet Club). However, performing remained his first love. He joined The Ida Rubinstein Ballet Company in 1928 and toured across Europe for a year, while working intensively with choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the great Vaslav Nijinsky.

Ashton soon realized that he would never be a great classical dancer, so he moved back to London and devoted his attention to choreography. In 1935, he became the resident choreographer for the Vic-Wells Ballet, one of several companies he worked for after his return. The works he produced exhibited a sophisticated style of English elegance and lyricism later epitomized by prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, the foremost female interpreter of his work.

Four years later, Britain entered World War II and Ashton enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1941, serving as an intelligence officer, among other positions. When the war ended, he returned to the Vic-Wells Ballet as it moved to Covent Garden and soon blossomed into The Royal Ballet. Ashton became the company’s lifeblood, infusing it with numerous works that defined its aesthetic through his own.        

Highlights of his choreographic career at The Royal Ballet include Les Patineurs (1937), a lightweight, wintry ode to ice skating or ice dancing; Symphonic Variations (1946), a neoclassical ballet that leads audiences on an emotional journey; Cinderella (1948), a full-length ballet known for its “Englishness,” especially the tradition of casting men as lead female roles; and La Fille mal gardée (1960), a lighthearted love story based on the 1789 original by Jean Dauberval.

Ashton’s choreography was witty and at times poignant, yet delightful overall. In particular, he had a comedian’s sense of timing for setting up sequences in which one character does not see what the other is doing. For instance, when Lise, the title character of La Fille mal gardée, is trying to get keys out of her sleeping mother’s pocket, she drums up an excuse, such as swatting flies, for hovering over her mother every time she awakens. To add to the fun, the mother, Widow Simone, is always danced by a man.

Ashton was somewhat superstitious and included in most of his ballets a move that became known as “the Fred step”—a short pas de chat sequence borrowed from Pavlova, which varied according to the context he chose. The step became his talisman.

After serving as The Royal Ballet’s associate director for 11 years, he was named director in 1963, just one year after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He retired in 1970, but continued to coach his ballets and choreograph sporadically, including the acclaimed A Month in the Country (1976), based on the Ivan Turgenev play, and a solo for then American Ballet Theatre soloist Leslie Browne, for her role as Emilia Rodgers in the film The Turning Point (1977). Ashton spent the remainder of his time gardening and socializing with friends. He died in his sleep at his country home in Eye, Suffolk, on August 19, 1988, at age 83.

His ballets, well-loved by dancers and audiences alike, have entered the repertories of established companies such as the Paris Opéra Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, The Australian Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada and ABT, in addition to The Royal Ballet. Ashton believed that ballet is “an expression of emotions and ideas through dancing,” and he strived to create works with themes or stories told through movement, with a minimum of mime sequences. His rare ability to distill human experience into dance touched people on a powerful emotional level and enabled performers to discover a deeper sense of artistry.

After Ashton’s passing, Fonteyn wrote: “He was, above all, a very human human being, and for that, as much as for his extraordinary talents, he was beloved by all.”

Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is an assistant professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox