When Danica Paulos left Southern California at 17 to train in New York City at The Ailey School while she finished high school, she had no idea that she'd be dancing with the professional company within four years. She completed the school's professional program (on scholarship), then landed a spot with Ailey II. After a year, she was invited to replace an injured dancer in the main company, and when her Ailey II season ended, Robert Battle invited her to continue full-time.
Martha Myers, second from the left, was dean of American Dance Festival for more than 25 years. Photo by Peter Cunningham, courtesy of ADG
The event, Celebrating Diversity, September 7–10, features work by 30–35 choreographers from around the world. Modern choreographer Garth Fagan, beloved educator Martha Myers and Thunderbird American Indian Dancers will also be honored at the event, held at Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater in New York City.
Former Ailey principal Nasha Thomas-Schmitt with Newark AileyCampers
Though Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater enjoys super-star status as a company, its leaders know great dance often grows from humble beginnings. As part of the organization’s Arts in Education department, AileyCamp is designed to serve inner-city middle-school students nationwide. This summer, the oldest AileyCamp location, Kansas City, Missouri, celebrates 25 years of vital dance outreach. Other locations—from Miami to Newark—adhere to the same principles that have guided Kansas City for the past quarter-century.
Children must apply for the tuition-free summer camp, though dance experience is not a prerequisite. The most important attribute for students is the desire to learn and grow. Former Ailey dancer and director of the Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp David W. McCauley says, “[Alvin Ailey] gently reminded us of our responsibility to give our very best. Remember who you are, imagine who you wish to be, and give it your all!” He adds, “Mr. Ailey always said to his dancers, ‘You are all gods and goddesses!’” AileyCamp presents similarly supportive “daily affirmations,” or resolutions of love and encouragement, ceremoniously recited by a different camper each day.
The day camp offers classes in ballet, jazz, Horton technique, and West African dance, as well as workshops that foster self-expression and personal development. The program also provides counseling in nutrition, conflict resolution, sexual responsibility, and substance abuse prevention. Dancers participate in a culminating public performance at the end of the six-week session.
Having to learn a large chunk of new material in a short amount of time isn't a new conundrum for dancers, but that doesn't make it any less stressful. Elisa Clark, who has previously danced for Lar Lubovitch and Mark Morris, recently joined Ailey—just in time for the company's performances this weekend at Lincoln Center. Luckily, she's learned from Lubovitch that the best way to solidify choreography is to make the movement her own.
"Two years ago I was learning a piece that Lar had created on someone else, and there was a lot of intricate partnering. Every time we'd try something and it wouldn't work, I would say, 'Sorry, sorry' to my partner. Lar came over to me and said, 'Elisa, I don't want you to apologize anymore, because every time you do, your whole body says it, too.' That's when I realized how much of a connection there is between the physical and the mental in dance. Lar invited me to take the time to decide how I wanted to execute every step."
Clark will perform with AAADT July 15-16, at New York City's David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. www.alvinailey.org
Finis Jhung teaches dancers to move using the whole body.
A renowned NYC ballet teacher, Finis Jhung was the founding artistic director of Chamber Ballet USA. His students have included dancers from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre as well as several of the boys who danced the role of Billy Elliot on Broadway. He is currently on the faculty of The Ailey Extension.
Dance Teacher:When you approach a class of ballet teachers for the first time, where do you begin?
Finis Jhung: I always keep it to the most basic ideas. People come from such varied dance backgrounds and teach in so many different environments, I’ve learned I can never assume anyone knows what I’m talking about. I make sure the teachers understand the fundamentals of body placement, basic turns and basic jumps, as well as traveling across the floor, because that will be the most fun for their kids in ballet class—getting to fly across the floor. I always emphasize the need to make ballet appetizing and doable, because it remains one of the best training systems for all styles of dance. It should be something their students can look forward to.
DT: When you teach at Ailey, you take a unique approach to the barre portion of class, with dancers facing and holding the barre at a diagonal. Why do you recommend this?
FJ: Ballet too often focuses on the position leg. Teachers look at where you’re pointing that leg, but don’t check to see if you’re standing up. Dancers look straight ahead, they pull on the barre and there’s no energy coming out of the supporting side. Then they have trouble in the center, because they’re not on balance. I started having dancers face diagonally into the barre, so they’re reaching for it and pressing into it instead of pulling. That way, they’re engaging the supporting side in every movement they make.
DT: If teachers were to take away one message from your class, what do you hope it would be?
FJ: I want them to know they can help every single student to improve. As teachers, they can learn to solve dancers’ technical problems and make each dancer better than he is right now, but they need to develop X-ray vision. Anyone can see that something is wrong, but you have to be able to look inside the body and figure out why it’s wrong. The truth is, there are certain things dancers do that make them look clumsy or graceful, or make them stay up or fall over during turns. It’s like learning how to cook—if you get a good recipe and you do exactly what the recipe says, you’re going to be a great cook. It’s the same way in dance. You just have to be taught the right things. —Andrea Marks
Photos from top: by Hugh Brownstone, courtesy of Finis Jhung; by Andrew Terzes, courtesy of Finis Jhung