This article is the third in a three-part series on the transformative experiences of Bay Area dancers, choreographers and dance teachers. “Crossroads: Part I: Dancers” ran in September 2010 and “Crossroads: Part II: Choreographers” ran in October 2010 in In Dance.
THERE IS NOTHING BETTER than good teaching, as far as I’m concerned. I remember every fine act of teaching I’ve ever encountered, whether it was embedded in the cute humor of my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Andrews, the palpable gravity of my college English professor Barry Ulanov, the encouraging coaching of ballet teachers Shannon Bresnahan and Sandra Chinn, the inspiring, almost epic force of Alonzo King, the passionate musicality of Lynn Simonson and the graceful elegance rooted in deep power inspired by Milton Meyers. I remember nearly every correction, every note, every disappointed glance, every approving grin. My teachers continue to have an unending impact on me.
I started teaching as a member of a company enlisted to teach modern dance to elementary and high school kids. It intimidated the hell out of me, partly because middle schoolers and teens are a tough crowd, but mostly because I had no experience teaching. My teaching partner and I found ways to keep classes lively with our music choices, our use of the space, even how we spoke and dressed—anything to gain their attention and respect. Despite my intimidation, I quickly recognized the great thrill of watching my students learn.
Eventually I left that company, but my passion for teaching stayed. At first it seemed a logical way to get paid as a dancer, but when I decided to get pedagogical training from my teacher Lynn Simonson, that’s when I really couldn’t get enough. Lynn taught me how to put together a class, how to accompany myself rhythmically, how to work with injured dancers, how to give a correction and how to break down and reassemble choreography. To this day I remember vividly banging horribly on a coffee can as my “drum” while trying to cue and demonstrate a warm-up exercise. Ever since my esteem for good teaching has remained very high.
The work of teachers infiltrates all aspects of the field from what we see on stage to how our children take their first codified steps, to how many of us simply chose dance to make us feel fit and alive. So when I set out to write this “Crossroads” series I knew I would be talking with teachers about how they have navigated their own professional paths, a path many refer to as a calling.
Summer Lee Rhatigan started teaching the way many dancers do, as a means for generating some income and increasing her professional options while dancing, but it’s clear that from the beginning she felt the calling. “I just wanted to do a lot all the time,” she recalls. “I liked how teaching made me think of my own dancing in both an expansive and minute way.” She sought out teaching opportunities of all kinds, from company class to teaching 7–9 year olds and adult beginners. “I didn’t want to compartmentalize any kind of expertise that was growing inside.”
From the beginning Summer has always had great reverence for her teachers. As a professional, she says, “I was always close to the ballet mistresses/masters. These were relationships from which I could always glean information. With choreographers, I had a different kind of feeling and would grapple for the information a little differently. I always identified the teachers as the ones who knew it all.”
Trained in both the Cecchetti and Royal Academy of Dance methods, Summer has chosen to forge her own path rather than follow a strict syllabus. “As a teacher of a syllabus you are a servant of what is being taught,” she opines. “The way that is more interesting to me and keeps me more vibrant is listening to my own process and evolution. I’m not done. I’d like to try to always be noticing what’s going on as a teacher and taking in the specific student body that appears before me.”
In 2005, Summer launched the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. What gave her the confidence to open her own school? “I knew there was a lot that was untapped from my own personal background. I thought, why should I leave that dormant? There was enough of a stirring to recognize that I wasn’t using all of myself.”
When I asked Augusta Moore what has influenced her the most as a teacher, she recounts her experience of being injured at age 18 and retraining with gifted physical therapist, Annette Atwood, who taught ballet upstairs and anatomy in the basement. The experience sparked Augusta’s deep interest in somatic thinking while also saving her career. “I had to stop and re-train from the bottom,” she says. “It’s things like that that trained me.” She went on to dance with Pennsylvania Ballet and later San Francisco Ballet.
As a younger teacher, she says, “Because I was so used to processing everything through my own body, I would sometimes acquire other people’s injuries in order to figure them out and retrain the student.” Over the years, she has enriched her teaching with her studies in the Feldenkrais method and other practices, her studies of psychology and sociology, and her own life experiences. “I’ve applied almost everything I’ve learned in the studio.”
Perhaps the biggest crossroads for Augusta came when she became ill with cancer in 1999. Being sick and getting chemotherapy took a remarkable toll on her body, and yet, while she eventually had to stop dancing, she kept teaching during her treatment. “My philosophy has always been come to class as you are. You just come to class—even if you’re not perfect.”
While she got better over time, she still struggles with severe nerve damage left over from the cancer, though it’s not at all evident in watching her teach. Now the director of the ballet program at ODC School, Augusta revels in taking risks in class, introducing somatic practices and urging her students to try new things. “I love to see people get something. It means a lot to me to see people gain a deeper understanding of themselves,” she says. “When people get something they make something. It becomes a huge community act.”
Chimene Pollard speaks with a contagious enthusiasm for the moment when her students “get it.” “My biggest joy is watching people connect,” she says. “When it happens the energy explodes out the door.”
As the daughter of a dancer/teacher, Chimene was always in the studio and as young adult, she studied dance at UC San Diego where she encountered Jean Isaacs, whom she admired for her capacity to move any student. Chimene pursued her own dancing in the Bay Area with Anne Bluenthenthal & Dancers, but it was while training with Bluethenthal that Chimene experienced a revelation that forever changed her. She recalls, “Anne told me to close my eyes and shift my weight back into her hands. I felt I would fall backwards if she were to move away. She told me to turn sideways and do the same thing while looking into the mirror. I saw that I was standing perfectly straight. I realized I had been dancing so far forward that I couldn’t even feel my weight.” After years of attempting to please her teachers, Chimene says, “There was all this lusciousness I found.”
The experience stayed with her, informing her own teaching of mostly adult beginners and students coming back to dance. “When you are at a certain level of dance and you discover you can’t put your life together with it, it’s so painful to feel like you’re not a part of the club and not even welcome to look in the door,” she explains. “It’s so not true. Why not? Why not break down the barrier? I feel like I could be that student. I’m trying to bridge that gap for myself and the people that come to my class.”
Charles McNeal takes command of a class with a combination of authority and playfulness. His presence is both huge and gentle; he makes people want to dance with him. Charles recalls knowing at an early age that he was well suited to be a teacher. After high school he initiated mentorships with his dance teachers, watching their classes and meeting with them to discuss pedagogy. He aimed high, selecting masters like Malonga Casquelourd, Judith Justice, Mary Ruud-Wood, Lini Siegel Gonzalez, and Ed Mock. “I knew I wanted to be a great teacher,” he says. “Adequate wasn’t good enough.”
Later while attending NYU, he realized “I had been told a false story, that I could leave school and be a star.” He says, “I wasn’t built for that life. I couldn’t be a commercial dancer and have a full conscious life.” So he came back to the Bay Area to dance with Halifu Osumare and Linda Goodrich and his tutelage continued.
Fast-forward more than 30 years, Charles has been teaching, developing, and implementing community outreach and education programs for San Francisco Ballet since 1980. He has himself become a teacher of teachers, offering such sound counsel as “Fail out loud. It gives your students permission to not be perfect.” And he cautions, “You can steer someone to success or break their spirit and I take that very seriously.”
When asked how teaching has impacted him for three decades, he pauses and states simply, “Every moment is holy, magical.”
I can honestly say I love everything about teaching. Even on my worst days, it’s what I want to be doing. It puts me firmly at the center of all that I love about dance and through my students affords me the privilege of guiding others in their own process of exploring dance. It’s no small thing to have found what I love, and for that I thank my teachers.
This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of In Dance.