Early in his career, tap dancer Gregory Hines used to watch tap master Teddy Hale perform three shows at the Cotton Club. He did one act for the first show, then a completely different act for the second show, and then a third show that was completely different from the first two shows. Mr. Hines marveled and thought, “That’s what I want to do. This is it! I don’t want to repeat the same routine night after night.” Of course, Mr. Hines did learn from masters. He once did a new and very hot step in his act, and the audience loved it and he felt great. About four years later, he saw an old Gene Kelly movie and Mr. Kelly did the exact same step, and Mr. Hines realized that he had seen that movie when he was in his late teens. Of course, although Mr. Hines has developed his own dance style, his dancing shows that he has been influenced by many other dance masters, He says, “I realized it only after watching a video of myself dancing, but I recognized flashes of all my teachers and dance influences.”
One of dancer Nick Florez’ biggest boosters was Sandra, his big sister. At age six, he loved to dance, and so Sandra, who was 14 and had no driver’s license, drove him to town from their chicken farm in Texas (the distance was too great to walk) and signed him up for dance lessons. Later, when Nick was 13, Sandra learned that the Chuck E. Cheese restaurants in Dallas were looking for children to dance in videos that the restaurants would show. She let Nick know about the opportunity, and he became one of the children to pass the audition. Nick said, “We filmed about eight videos. By the last ones, I was helping choreograph them. I’d make up some parts on my own and show them to the producers. They loved it.” Nick has danced on tour and in music videos for such stars as Janet Jackson, Jordan Knight, Selena, Smashmouth, Will Smith, Britney Spears, and others.
When Ruthanna Boris was a young dancer, she was second to Marie-Jeanne, who danced solos. One day, after complaining to her mother, she (and especially her mother) decided that she should ask choreographer George Balanchine for solos. She did, and she started crying. Mr. Balanchine told her, “Don’t cry, and don’t tell me what your mother wants. And don’t ask me for solos.” Then Mr. Balanchine, who Ms. Boris says spoke in parables, asked her, “Do you know how to make a Caesar salad?” For 30 minutes, he explained how to make a Caesar salad, starting with obtaining fresh ingredients. When he had finished instructing her, he said, “You see how long it takes and how much you have to know and how you have to work to make a Caesar salad?” He then said, “Now go away,” and let her contemplate what the parable had to say about learning to dance.
Russian bass Feodor Chaliapine studied under Professor Usatov, who was sometimes very severe and even hit him with his baton. In self-defence, Mr. Chaliapine sometimes stood behind the piano, which was close to the wall. Because Professor Usatov was stout, he was unable to get close enough to Mr. Chaliapine to hit him. One day, however, Professor Usatov was so angry that he shouted, “Come out of that, you young devil! Come out! I know your game!” Mr. Chaliapine came out, Professor Usatov beat him with his baton, then they continued the lesson. (Professor Usatov was actually very kind, giving Mr. Chaliapine voice lessons for free and even teaching him table manners.)
Merrill Ashley and other young students at the School for American Ballet were excited and nervous when George Balanchine gave them a class. Of course, they wondered if they would be able to do what he wanted. Very quickly, they found out that they had a lot to learn. He looked at them when he entered the room and announced, “Nobody knows how to stand.” Merrill thought, “We hadn’t done anything, and we were wrong already!” Mr. Balanchine taught them how to stand before he began to teach them how to dance: “Chest out, shoulders back, head high. Look awake and alive.”
When Maxim Beloserkovsky was a youth studying ballet in Ukraine before perestroika, he sometimes was able to watch bootlegged videos of such stars as Mikhail Baryshnikov who had defected from the Soviet Union. Because of the dancers’ defections, students weren’t supposed to watch these videos, but dance coaches sometimes showed a dance video of poor quality—because it had been copied so many times—to students and say, “Look how they do this movement.” Young Maxim would go home and marvel, “My God, I just watched Baryshnikov!”
Master choreographer George Balanchine worked much with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. Another ballerina, Maria Tallchief, understood why when she gave a dance class that Ms. Farrell attended. Ms. Farrell was a little unsteady while holding her leg out to the side, so Ms. Tallchief corrected her, saying that she could steady herself by raising her leg higher. Ms. Farrell immediately raised her leg—almost above her head. Ms. Tallchief was astonished: “Oh, my goodness, I thought at the time. Now I see. This is the material George wants to work with.”
Garth Fagan, the choreographer of the theatrical version of The Lion King, learned an important lesson from Martha Graham: “Do it till you get it right!” She requested that he simply walk across the floor. He did it 12 times before he realized that she wanted a walk that did not say, “LOOK AT ME! AREN’T I GORGEOUS!” When he did the walk correctly, Ms. Graham told him, “I think you’re going to go places.” As the head of his own dance troupe and as a Broadway choreographer, he did.
Dance is sometimes liturgical. At a Catholic Church, a young female dancer rhythmically moved down the aisle, then laid a lily at the bishop’s feet. The bishop joked to the pastor, “If she asks for your head on a platter, she can have it.”
© 2016, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved
David Bruce has written lots of collections of anecdotes, plus other books. Take a look at the list here:
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