Over Eighty and Still Teaching

Over Eighty and Still Teaching

May 18, 2006

This is a continuation of the article I wrote 60 and Still Counting, which appeared in Dance and the Arts magazine twenty years ago. Who knew I would still be teaching at 80?

My eclectic life started with being a car hop while still in high school, working my way up to waiter and fry cook. I was later a meter reader for the Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company. At the beginning of World War II I helped build C-47s at Douglas Aircraft Plant. I was then given the chance to attend The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University, where I was an Art Major with the intention of becoming an illustrator.

I enlisted in the army and took my basic training (boot camp) in Little Rock, Arkansas. After basic training I was sent to the Far East to serve in General Mac Arthur's Headquarters Company (GHQ). Because of my art background my MOS (job description) was Entertainment Specialist. I was assigned to Club Iciban, a four-story complex-the largest enlisted men's club in the Pacific Theater. In a few months I became director of this club that provided entertainment for 700 to 1000 soldiers and wacs every night.

While I was the director at Club Iciban I met a USO dancer who gave me lessons in ballet, which is something I always wanted to do. This took place in the afternoon when the club was closed. Because I had a very flexible body and I had the ability to learn movement easily, she encouraged me to study ballet after my discharge.

Returning to the United States, I moved to San Francisco to study ballet. Two major dance events that happened at the time were to dance on a program in Los Angeles with the legendary Ruth St. Dennis, and later to become a member of the San Francisco Ballet Company.

After a few years I moved to New York City to study with the American Theater Wing using the GI bIll. This allowed me to study with the greatest ballet teachers of the time and to study other disciplines of dance. Devoting most of my time to ballet, I had a chance to study Primitive with the Katherine Dunham School, Tap with Ernest Carlos and Amelia Gilmore, Modern with Yeichi Nimura and Hanya Holm, Hindu with Hadassa, and Spanish with Guillermo Del Oro and Aida Alvarez giving me a knowledge of dance that very few others had.

Working as a dancer in New York City was very different than my time in San Francisco. I danced any place where they would pay me. I started teaching Ballet, Jazz and Tap in schools all over the tri-state area. I can't imagine life without dance, so at 80 I am still teaching people to plier.

What has changed is the lack of respect the students have for their teachers. I heard recently a story from a teacher telling me that when she corrected a scholarship student, the student called her a "bitch." The studio didn't remove the student permanently from the studio. The studios seldom back up their teachers. Even twenty years ago this would never happen. I blame the teachers and studio owners, but money is the bottom line. The space required for a dance studio is so expensive that the owners can't afford to lose one paying student.

Let me give a little advice to teachers who may be forced to move from one studio to another. After teaching at the New York School of Ballet and Harkness Dance Center for a number of years, both studios closed at the same time. The teachers were given their mailing lists for their dedication and years of faithful service. After being engaged by Steps, I was stupid enough to give this list away, thinking Steps would make sure those students would be placed in my class -- not so. They used that list to build classes for other teachers. I was left to start all over again. If teachers are smart they will make a mailing list of their students, so if for some reason they are replaced, they should know their list has monetary value.

Scholarships are hard to come by. Even working scholarships often keep the students from studying with the teacher of their choice. If the teacher is popular and the classes are full of paying students, the scholarship students are not allowed to take their classes.

Richard Thomas, director of the New York School of Ballet, was aware of this condition and had a class for these talented students. It was the only school I knew of that made sure these special students could study with the best teachers, even at a lost of revenue.

There is an unfortunate situation in getting a college degree in ballet. After graduation many are too old for a major ballet company, but If they love dancing they might find work out of the main stream. Many become teachers without much professional experience. Ballet is a performing art and should be taught by those who have an extensive background.

When I came to New York City there were many concert companies that toured universities and small towns. (Palova was the first to do this with great success) today because the arts get little financial help from the government, it is almost impossible for new young choreographers and dancers to be seen. Even to revive the classics, money is lacking.

I'm not saying that the "old way" was right, but in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s dancers would rehearse for free and be paid on a one-time performance basis. Rehearsal space is now so costly that small companies can't afford to set new ballets or get dancers ready to perform. It is amazing that anyone would want to dance.

Yet, the need to dance is stronger than the negatives that confront dancers every day. I think what I am trying to say in this article and 60 and Still Counting, is that nothing has changed in the last 20 years.