Thursday, August 09, 2007

a body in motion

Lately I've been thinking about how important dance has been in my life. The best experiences I had were at Shawl-Anderson, where I had a jazz teacher, Reginald Ray-Savage, who I compare to Debbie Allen in "Fame"-- a you-will-pay-in-sweat! kind of teacher who bangs his big wooden stick on the floor. Old school and proud of it. He was all about strong ballet technique, then creating athletic, gorgeous combinations to jazz greats like Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and local legend Marcus Shelby. (We're talking true jazz here, not street dance or hip hop, which are fine but not jazz. Also- no jazz hands! Sorry, Fosse lovers!)

And did he get results. He could whip you into shape- if you let him. The studio received plenty of letters from people complaining that his teaching style was too harsh, too physical, too loud, too brash. These people found out too late that Mr. Savage does not teach a feel-good kind of class.

I was fortunate enough to be warned before entering his class that I should let his yelling flow over me "like water off a duck's ass." (This was from one of his veteran students.) He yelled, true, but he was always right about whatever was the subject, whether it was a stretch, a plie, or a pirouette.

Especially if it was a pirouette. He often said that no one west of the Mississippi could teach a pirouette better than he could, and I believe him. When I was at my peak dancing with him, I could regularly do triples and stop on a dime, still turned out and on full releve. That was as much his success as a teacher as it was mine as a student. Maybe more- it wasn't like I was the only student who could do that.

I think about the confidence in my body that dancing with him gave me. Lots of people talk about the way ballet and other disciplines warp a child's body image, and I can see how that's true. But I was lucky to have an amazing teacher who focused less on what a body looked like in place and more on what it could do in motion. What lines it could make, how long an extension was, how strong a back was.

I suppose most athletics can provide that to participants. But for me, the great thing about dance is the art of it. I could express something, tell a story, make something beautiful for beauty's sake, all with my body, all without words or two-dimensional representation.

I'd love Paloma to have that experience-- both of the athletics and of the art. Finding a teacher like Mr.Savage isn't easy, though. And she probably needs something a little different as a youngster anyway. But whoever it is, I'd want that person to respect the art of dance and the importance of proper technique. (I'm trying to avoid letting this post spiral down into a polemic about the utter crapola that is children's dance. I swear, "Little Miss Sunshine" says it all. There's way too much butt shaking, shoulder shimmying, sequin-and-tassle wearing TACKINESS. People, if a 20 year old doing a move could be called "sexy," a three year old SHOULD NOT BE DOING IT! Oh wait, I'm spiraling... you get my point, my dear tasteful, non-tacky readers.)