Dance Teacher Tips

Though dance is intensely pleasurable and exciting, it's also hard work. Dancing at a high level requires daily renewal of commitment. Most teachers, however, know the dilemma of the dancer who, caught up in the difficulties of technique, can't, or won't, allow herself to really dance. We've all seen it: the student with the "perfect" body who is so focused on being "right" that she can't experience the flow from one movement into another. A pirouette, for instance, isn't just a shape; it's an action requiring momentum and a feeling of revolving. Stephanie Spassoff, co-director of The Rock School, remembers just such a student, a ravishing girl who "picked herself to pieces," until finally she dropped out of dance altogether. Her compulsive drive for perfection led only to frustration.

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Peter Pucci: Stepping into the ring with Big Apple Circus

Peter Pucci (far left) directing rehearsal

Peter Pucci has worn many hats throughout his dance career, but none more colorful than the one he wears as choreographer of this year’s Big Apple Circus show, “Dance On!” The former Pilobolus dancer and rehearsal director has led his company, Peter Pucci Plus, for 20 years, and he guest teaches across the nation. But even he is surprised with this challenging new role.

An act Pucci choreographed

 

“I’m used to walking into a dance studio, giving directions and expecting certain results,” he says. “But when I enter our cavernous rehearsal space in upstate New York, I’m met by Mongolian contortionists, Kenyan pole climbers, Chinese lasso twirlers and 12 miniature white horses—to name just a few. Most of the performers speak little or no English. And they’re very young.” The show, which opened at Lincoln Center October 21, runs until January 9.

 

Dance Teacher: What appealed to you about choreographing for the circus?

Peter Pucci: The chance to try something new. And that dance is the theme. I like the intimacy of the one-ring format of the show. The audience interacts at close range with the performers. Also, Big Apple Circus is part of my family’s holiday tradition; my 10-year-old daughter has seen it eight times.

 

DT: How do you approach such a new choreographic experience?

PP: My goal is to create movement that excites and is comfortable for these 30 performers, who come from every part of the world, and to weave each act together to make a continuous, magical experience. My Pilobolus training has been useful here, not only in the acrobatic elements but also in the collaborative process. Everyone has something to offer, and everyone dances—even Grandma, the beloved clown.

 

DT: What styles of movement can audiences expect to see?

PP: Free-form dancing with basketballs spinning on the dancers’ heads; stacking of bodies (à la Pilobolus); clowning; tumbling and more.

 

DT: Any advice for teachers/choreo-graphers on working outside of their normal capacity?

PP: Go for it! Both you and your dancers will be stimulated and enriched. I like to cross-pollinate, to put things together that don’t usually go together. I’m always encouraging students to be more versatile. The more I diversify, the more I remain employed. That’s no small thing!

 

DT: What lies ahead for you, after the Big Apple Circus?

PP: I’m making a piece for Harvard Ballet Company, I’ll be teaching for the Juilliard Drama Division and I’m now a guest artist at Manhattanville College, so I will produce their winter and spring concerts. But every day brings new surprises. I never imagined I’d be choreographing for the circus. Who knows where dance will take me next? DT

 

Linda Tarnay taught for 35 years at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, including four years as chair of the dance department.

Photos from top: by Maike Schulz; by Bertrand Guay; both courtesy of Big Apple Circus

"I’m lucky indeed to have worked with Sharon, Carolyn and Ruthie over a span of 21 years, from 1962 when Sharon joined my company, through 1983 when Ruthie retired. They’ve had an impact on our field far beyond the many roles they created and the exemplary influence they had on fellow company members. In an artform that—more than any other—relies on one generation to pass its knowledge on to the next in the most personal way, they have a knack for preparing young dancers to become the best artists they can be."
—Paul Taylor

Over the years, hundreds of American Dance Festival students, guided by Adams, Andrien and Kinney, have transcended themselves to meet the demands of such Taylor classics as Aureole and Esplanade. In tribute to their collective “zunch” and lifelong dedication to their chosen path, this summer ADF awarded these three artists the 2009 Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching. “Their collective contributions and shared dedications have helped shape a generation of modern dancers,” says ADF Dean Donna Faye Burchfield.

“How interesting that these three marvelous teachers came out of Taylor’s company,” says ADF Director Charles Reinhart. Taylor didn’t particularly like to teach and avoided it when possible, according to Reinhart, who managed the Taylor company, 1962–72. About the women, Reinhart says, “All three have that inner light which comes across in both their teaching and performing.” He notes that today’s dancers, in cultivating an independent career, often look for a teacher with whom they have a special affinity, or a teacher who has specialized information, rather than devoting themselves to a particular style or technique. “In teaching,” he says, “that inner light is more essential than ever.”


Carolyn Adams performed with the Taylor Company for 17 years (1965–1982), becoming one of the dancers most strongly identified with the Taylor repertory. Some of the memorable roles that Taylor created on her: the fleet-footed, running solo in Esplanade; the Little Girl in the terrifying Big Bertha; and the mysterious solo in Runes. Sharon Kinney remembers: “Carolyn had a unique combination of qualities. She was petite and appealing, and at the same time elegant, a princess. When she entered, it was like royalty coming onstage.”

Reinhart remembers Adams’ audition: “Her delightful spirit infected the room,” he says. “When the audition was over, Paul immediately invited her to join the company. ‘I can’t,’ she said, ‘I have to finish college.’ So Paul waited for her to graduate from Sarah Lawrence, and a year later she joined the company.”

Soon after she joined Taylor, Adams and her sister Julie opened a dance school in Harlem. They produced musicals that became popular neighborhood events. Children, parents, Broadway dancers, friends and Taylor dancers all took part, reaffirming Adams’ belief in the arts as a community activity. On the faculty at Juilliard since 1983, Adams likens teaching to parenting. “You never really know your impact,” she says. To her students she says, “My job is to teach you everything I know, in the hope that you will go on to do something I never saw or dreamed of.”

Concerned that dance is the only art that doesn’t provide ongoing access to its masterpieces in the public domain, she co-founded the American Dance Legacy Institute. Now sponsored by Brown University and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute documents and preserves works by important modern choreographers. Dance “études” based on material from such repertory classics as Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder or Anna Sokolow’s Rooms are available, with a teacher/director, for study or performance.

In 2002, Adams and her husband Robert Kahn (also a Taylor alum) adopted two half-sibling children, then 9 and 13, from Azerbaijan. The children spoke no English, and the new parents were unprepared for the gaping cultural abyss between them and the children. Three years ago Adams earned a masters in social work from Fordham University. “I undertook this degree because I wanted to better understand the dynamics of the complicated family we had suddenly become.” (As this article was being written, Adams was organizing a wedding for her now 21-year-old daughter.)



Ruth Andrien, who danced with the Taylor Company, 1974–83, is one of the premier restagers of Mr. Taylor’s work for universities and dance companies around the world, among them the Paris Opéra Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and in Tunisia for the State Department’s international exchange program. She currently directs The Paul Taylor Project at ADF. In 2007 she completed her MFA in Dance from Hollins University/ADF. “Working for Paul opened visions of other worlds, through the mystery of his phenomenal dances. When I began to teach, I found that these visions were transferable. Paul also challenged and cared for me as an artist and as a person, so it was natural to pass this encouragement on to others.”

Leaving her husband at home in Pennsylvania, Andrien remembers being desperately homesick while on tour, and at the dress rehearsal for the premiere of Polaris, she kept bumping into the set. Finally, Taylor asked, “What is wrong with you?” At that point, she remembers, she buried her face in his shirt and blew her nose on his necktie. “I don’t think he minded that so much,” Andrien says, “because he knew that dance sometimes asks for more than anyone can give. We Taylor dancers were lucky enough to work for a choreographer who appreciated striving more than perfection.”

“I saw that dance could come from a love for enchantment,” she says. “I try to help students find that enchantment by connecting their inner lives to movement. I’m enjoying new opportunities for learning and growing as a teacher. I just finished a semester at Southern Methodist University, teaching technique and setting Cloven Kingdom on the students and, as usual, working with the kind of dreamers who find their way into this artform. My recent master’s degree from the Hollins/ADF program opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about dance and its contexts.”

Andrien says that the Taylor technique is hard to pin down. “The notes I usually give have to do with increasing volume, using a kind of body undertow, finding the stillness in focus, unleashing the need to move violently or wickedly or moving in partnership with space. But yeah, point your feet, too.”


Sharon Kinney began working with Taylor in 1962. She remembers the thrill of those early days in the studio when Taylor was investigating and developing his choreographic voice. During her four years with the company Taylor created major pieces of his repertory: Aureole, Scudorama, Piece Period, Party Mix and others. She values the teaching experience she gained, thanks to Taylor’s personal aversion to teaching. “Paul always said to us, ‘You teach your own class. Teach whatever interests you.’ He let us teach some of the repertory, and watched us to make sure we were on track,” she says. “I still have permission to teach some of his rep in my classes.”

Kinney says that the freedom Taylor gave them in teaching was liberating. “I didn’t want to be just one thing. I’ve lived like a gypsy, traveled the world, danced with other choreographers—Twyla Tharp, Dan Wagoner, Yuriko—collecting different experiences,” she says. “I want my students to experience that freedom, too. Finding modern dance when I was 14 years old allowed me to express my desire to be many things. I’m still hoping to dance in a movie musical!”

Kinney has taught at Juilliard, New York University, Ohio State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, California State University–Long Beach and the Paul Taylor Studio, among others. “I want to pass on the wisdom and inspiration given to me by my early teachers, Josephine Schwarz in Dayton, and Helen P. Alkire at Ohio State,” she says.

Reflecting on the 11 summers she taught at the American Dance Festival, she says, “As much as Paul Taylor influenced my life, so did ADF, by giving me the opportunity to test myself as a teacher and choreographer, to try out new ideas and teaching methods. I made my debut with the Taylor Company there, in Aureole.

In 1997 she moved to Los Angeles to be close to her two sons and their families, and to earn her MFA in choreography for dance and the camera from UCLA. She has choreographed more than 30 dances and three films (including Robert Altman’s Popeye). Currently, Kinney teaches composition at Cal State–Long Beach. This summer she directed the Paul Taylor Summer Intensive in New York City. “Being a former member of the company is a special honor,” says Kinney. “When I go back to see performances or visit the studio, the current dancers are always generous and loving to me. And admiring. They make me realize that I have a lot to offer younger dancers.”

Dancer/choreographer Linda Tarnay is a longtime faculty member at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Photo by Rachel Papo

*Click here to watch a modern class with Carolyn Adams at Juilliard, and clips from the 2009 ADF award ceremony.  

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