About once a month, while my young students are stretching, I tell them the storyline of a ballet or about a famous dancer. I think it is so important that my students know more than just technique, but the history of what they have chosen to study. I remember as a student just loving when a teacher would tell us a story. However, some stories were all about themselves, had little to do with what we were doing and took so long that our muscles would grow cold listening. I try to keep my stories short with lessons that are on topic, but I have found that my students not only love them, but learn important lessons in the process. Here are a few of their favorites:
The time Miss Erin pulled the barre off the wall. I was about ten and weighed all of 60 lbs. One of my teachers asked me to take the advanced class, so I stood at a little barre by itself at the back of the classroom and was trying so hard not to embarrass myself in front of all the older students whom I admired. I was doing rond de jambe en l’air when the small barre actually came off the wall in my hand. My face turned beet red and I started to think, ‘Oh my goodness, maybe no one will notice, but what will happen when I come to center? I’ll just have to put it on the floor and everyone will know!’ Right about then, one of the older boys started laughing hysterically and told everyone, ‘Look, little Erin pulled the barre off the wall!’ Everyone laughed and I was so mortified. Tears came up and I was trying so hard not to cry. I made it through the whole class without shedding a tear until I got to my mother’s car and then cried my eyes out. I still like to think those older kids loosened that barre over the years, but I never sat in my heels again!
The time a dancer was a cheeseburger. This was a story that was told to me by one of the best partnering coaches that I ever had the privilege of which to work and I tell it to my students today. I’m pretty sure he told it to every young couple he worked with, but I like to think it was true. My partner that I grew up with and I were only 13 and 14 when we got cast as the Snow King and Queen and had our first major pas de deux. Our artistic director hired one of our male teachers to coach us and this is when he told us this story. He had been working with another young couple years ago at another studio. He was trying to get the young man to look at the young girl like he at least liked her. He kept telling him, ‘Pretend she’s a princess and you’re her prince.’ Then he tried, ‘Pretend she’s a girl you like at school.’ Finally, the boy’s mother stuck her head in and said, ‘For goodness sake, pretend she’s a cheeseburger!’ Well, that’s what he loved most at the time and it worked! After that, the teacher said he always told young dancers to picture the thing they love most in the world, whatever it may be, and that’s who or what your partner is to you. Even though it worked, I’m pretty sure the young girl was none too pleased to be a cheeseburger.
The time a lift didn’t work, but did. I was in college and was doing an eight minute pas de deux that was created especially for my partner and me by one of my favorite teachers. I knew a professional artistic director was in the audience so I really wanted to dance well to impress him. In the middle of the work, there was a torch lift and I knew as soon as my partner placed his hands that is was wrong and that it was coming down. I thought, ‘Just hold your body tight, he’ll catch you. Now, what are you going to do with those 16 slow counts that you are supposed to be in the air?’ Sure enough, it came down, he caught me, I took a breath looked at him and started to run in a circle around the stage and he took a breath and followed me. My teacher came up to me after the performance and told me the artistic director was sitting next to him and was so impressed with my ‘fast thinking and nerves of steel.’ See I did impress after all, just not in the way I thought.
The story that proves that you don’t mess with a ballet dancer. This is one I reserve for my older dancers and college students. Fanny Elssler was a famous Austrian ballerina of the Romantic era who was Marie Taglioni’s biggest rival. She was the first ballet super star to tour the United States and, though her original plans were to tour the US for 6 months, her tour lasted two years from 1840 to 1842 and included performances for the president and congress. The story goes that on the boat on her way over from Europe to the US, the captain of the ship realized he had a major celebrity on board and decided to throw a big dinner in her honor. She wore her best jewels for the occasion and one of the crewman decided the little ballerina would make an easy target. He broke into her cabin that night to steal her jewelry. She woke up in the middle of the robbery, turned around and kicked the burglar in the chest so hard, she broke his rib that punctured his lung. He died a day later of his injuries. The moral of the story: Don’t mess with a ballet dancer!
The time Miss Erin got stuck en pointe on stage. I always tell my dancers to talk to their partner and this is the story I use to explain its importance. I was in college dancing the wedding pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. I was dancing with a partner I didn’t know very well. The pas de deux ends with a promenade in attitude and then goes into an arabesque balance before the final bourrées forward, pirouette into the final lift. Well, I went into the arabesque balance and hit it and held. At first it was glorious, then, to my horror, I realized I couldn’t get down. The music was ending, but I couldn’t move. I give this panicked look to my partner and realize, he doesn’t know my looks and he’s just staring at me in amazement. I finally found my vocal cords and told him with a smile on my face, ‘Pull me off, I can’t get down!’ He laughed, did what I asked and, let me tell you, that was fastest pirouette and lift in the history of ballet, but we made it by the last note. Everyone was so impressed and complimentary, that I never did admit to anyone at the time that I actually was just stuck. I kind of wished I had been able to enjoy the moment more.
The story that best describes real pain. This is another story I reserve only for my older dancers and college students. Sometimes I find older students complaining about something ‘hurting’ and I need to ask them, ‘Is it just uncomfortable, or is it a sharp pain?’ This is the story I use to teach them the difference. Firstly, let me say that the teacher I am about to describe is very well loved by all his students and is an excellent teacher. I was guest teaching one summer at his school when I walked past his classroom where he was working with ten year olds and overheard this conversation. He was fixing a ten year old girl’s arabesque when she said, ‘Boy that’s hard to do right; that kind of hurts my back.’ To which he replied to the class, ‘Have we talked about pain in here?’ The kids all shook their heads no. The teacher then asked, ‘Do you like watching figure skating, because I do.’ All the kids shook their heads yes, they loved it. He then said, ‘Well, you know when the skater misses their jump, falls and slams themselves on the ice?! Well, that’s pain.’ All the kids’ eyes got bigger than saucers. He then asked the student he was correcting, ‘How does your back feel now, dear?’ She replied, ‘It’s fine!’
The story that proves it literally pays to have a sense of humor. This story is attributed to King Louis XIII of France. Apparently one evening he was very unhappy with the musicians that played during dinner. He responded by cutting their pay in half. The next night the players showed up in only half their clothing. The King was furious and demanded to know why his musicians had shown up inappropriately dressed for their court duties. The musicians calmly explained that they could only afford to wear half their expensive clothing at half salary. The King laughed and laughed and actually ended up doubling their original salary because he was so entertained by their gumption.
The time one of Miss Erin’s student got the contract even though she fell. One of my students was doing the professional audition rounds. She told me that she had a wonderful barre and the center went so well at the audition of the company she really was interested in, until they got to pirouettes across the floor. She told me she went into a perfect triple en pointe and then something weird happened and before she knew what was happening, she was falling to the ground. Not only did she fall, she actually fell and then rolled. She was so embarrassed, but she got up, brushed herself off and thought, ‘either I laugh or cry.’ Chose the former, laughed it off, went in the back and practiced some pirouettes thinking she blew her audition. At the end of the audition, she didn’t even listen to the numbers being called. She was leaving the room when the artistic director said, ‘Didn’t you hear me call your number?’ In her interview afterwards, the artistic director explained, “You had a wonderful class. You fell, got up, laughed and tried again. As soon as I saw that, I thought, ‘that kid has a great attitude and that’s the type of dancer I want to work with!’ ” Because of her great personality, resilience and work ethic, she got the job anyway.
Feel free to share these fun ones and, as any good story teller will tell you, go ahead and tell them in the first person for resonance. I would love to hear from my colleagues about the stories you tell your students that you feel are the most fun, but imbue an important lesson in the process. Mostly, I just need some new material!