An article was recently published in the New York Times, titled, “A Ballet Teacher Changes the Rules”. The piece, by Gia Kourlas, describes the teaching methodology of Ashley Tuttle, former principal ballet dancer with American Ballet Theater and Broadway star. Ms. Tuttle teaches a range of levels and ages at various studios and schools in New York. The article focuses on her beginner-intermediate class at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn.
I have not taken her class. I have heard from a friend who dances for the Mark Morris Dance company that her class is both great and hard, just as other dancers describe in the piece. I’m sure it is wonderful and I do hope to try it out. I’m glad that the Times is bringing attention to a popular teacher and has introduced me to the fact of her teaching. In truth, there were a lot of things I loved about this article. There were however, a few things that, like an unpointed foot, perhaps need some attention.
- The article makes the point that teachers encouraging actual dancing is less common than you’d expect.
In what world is this true? I have not in my twenty-five plus years of being a student and my ten years of teaching ever come across a teacher that said, “We will do these exercises until they are perfect and you will not smile or put anything of your heart or soul into the sacred steps!‘ I have had hard teachers, tuely mean teachers, teachers that had clear personal disdain for me and teachers that liked to insult or threaten. But they still wanted me and everyone in the class to DANCE, to move with spirit perhaps in spite of their nastiness. In the face of reverence for ballet, what is so wrong with wanting it done well? Some teachers emphasize musicality or suspension or weight shift in a way that offers a wonderful sense of movement incorporated in the design or compelling demonstration of an exercise. These are the teachers that offer training for dancers as performers, not just technicians. But in my experience, the teachers that describe proper epualment and don’t describe it with love and gusto are few and far between. I have never in my life come across a teacher who told me to ‘tone it down’.
As for her special mix of sacredness and light-heartedness, one of my favorite memories of a teacher comes from Jim Martin, professor at NYU, whose class I enjoyed in 2006 at the White Mountain Summer Dance Festival, off-site project of Juilliard’s Laura Glen. (Sited student of Tuttle, contemporary choreography Silas Riener, was also in attendance- small world! ) Martin’s class required quick footwork, musicality, proper alignment as he encouraged use of space and traveling. I remember two things especially about Martin’s class; one, the way he would smile and say ‘it’s a festival!‘ when we looked tired or discouraged, and two, how much my pirouettes improved. Is it really that rare to find teachers who are both fun and challenging? I can name two dozen. Maybe I owe them all a special thank you.
2. An interviewed student of Ms. Tuttle’s praises her ability to set a tone of encouragement in class, especially towards total beginners. This student does so with a comparison stating, ‘No one would applaud for a beginner at Steps’.
First of all, this ‘credited source’ is an SAB trained-dancer who quit because she was told she was too tall for ballet. Excuse me, but have you seen how tall some of the dancers with Alonzo King Lines happen to be? Miami City Ballet has some really tall dancers. PNB? Kansas City Ballet? I can’t imagine that there is NO place in the ballet world for a tall SAB trained dancer. Someone sounds like a bitter quitter to me.
Steps on Broadway is a beloved community center for artists in New York. Ms. Tuttle also teaches at Steps, as is cited in the first paragraph of the piece. Does this mean that while at Steps, Ms Tuttle’s class is not encouraging? Perhaps the building is to blame? Ms Tuttle herself mentions two of her own teaching resources, Nancy Bielski and Wilhelm Burmann, and both teach at Steps. I have tried out many classes at Steps, some for which I was terribly suited or out-of-shape and I have never felt looked-down-upon by classmates or especially, teachers. Oddly enough, the only discouraging experience I’ve ever had from a teacher at Steps was from Burmann himself, who managed to shriek at me and I wasn’t even in the classroom. I find it unfair to discredit all of the wonderful teachers who work so hard to deliver quality lessons in a nurturing environment at Steps.
3. The article describes the encouraging tone of class for beginners, while trained dancers say how hard her class is even declaring, “I end up feeling bad”
I’m personally suspicious of a class that makes trained professionals who know what they are doing feel challenged to the point of self-criticism and yet gives untrained beginners the ‘fantasy of floating through the air’.
I get it. When people see dance and are inspired to try for themselves they want the end picture- those flawless pirouettes, dazzling developpes, glorious saute chat- that most dancers have worked a long time to achieve. Ms Tuttle describes not wanting to spend time in first, wanting instead to teach more than positions and get to jumping. In other words, the fun stuff. However, take a way the ‘rules of ballet’ a stretched knee, a pointed foot and try landing one of those glorious saute chat that floats through the air. If the foot isn’t pointed and that heel lands first, you are in for a world of hurt. Forget breaking the rules of ballet, breaking a femur bone is more like it. The rules of ballet are there for physical protection but also physical power, to give a better elevation, to allow for freedom. I feel like my heart can soar much better when my legs are strong enough to push away from the floor, all energy radiating out from even the most distal proportion of pointed toes slicing through the air. A pointed foot and stretched knee make for a longer line, make the biggest and most expansive shape possible, meant to feel anything but small.
4. The photo included of her class…I see four leaping dancers, joyous with movement. I also see straight knees, pointed feet, turned-out legs.
You really want to say you can take away the rules of ballet? Show me a picture of four happy dancers with sloppy biscuits and hunched shoulders and see how many people are ‘moved’ by the article. I don’t think she’d get nearly as much praise for being a teacher.
In general, this article might have shined a light on a teacher who encourages an important aspect of dancing more so than some teachers, who is generous of spirit and patience. But this isn’t breaking any rules. It’s just reinforcing the stereotype that ballet is usually a mean, cold, perfection-driven world, the teachers like drill sergeants, the dancers machines. And this is the real fantasy.