Friday, February 6, 2015

The Movie "The Turning Point", & the Joy of Being a Mentor

  One of my favorite movies is "The Turning Point" from the '70s. Not only because of the magnificent dance scenes with Mikhail Baryshnikov, but the timeless theme of the sacrifices dancers make. For so long I related to the Shirley MacClain character - becoming a wife & mother to the detriment of devoting a life to dance & the possible successes that could have been achieved, but at times I suppose I more resembled the Anne Bancroft character - the professional performer who milked every drop out of a fading career. But recently watching the movie, I realized I had crossed a new threshold when I related to the older, respected ballet coach, Madame Dakharova. Young, up & coming dance stars sought out Madame for one to one coaching - & one scene showed exactly why: a seemingly simple step was being shown with a nuanced tilt of the shoulders, & the budding pro ballerina was struggling with getting it right. Madame looked natural, mature & refined doing this movement - yet when we see the student, resplendent onstage, performing with American Ballet Theater (played by real life ABT ballerina Leslie Browne) she still doesn't get the shoulder movement correctly, giving her a coltish, immature look, as technically glorious as she was. And this was not intentional, but a real life example of the difficulty of nuanced, mature dance.


  Here in my second half of life, I have the good fortune to have attained a position of Dance Mentor & Coach to many of LA's most promising professional young dancers, as well as to dedicated students with a passion for our dance form. It is an honor I don't take lightly, & with my always shaky feelings of self worth, an honor I am not sure I'm worthy of. I often tell myself, if you stick around long enough, you'll gain respect. Perhaps it's my overabundance of maternal instinct or possibly some overactive nurturing hormone or gene that draws me to this position, or possibly draws dancers seeking me out for council. Whatever it is, I am more than thankful for the opportunities it has rendered.

  I am so impressed with this new generation of dancers. Let's face it - it's now a whole lot more complicated than it was when I was in full professional mode:
1. There's the videos opening up the whole world, where we can see every style of dancer from every country with a click of a button. To be an original in this day & age is near impossible, when it's all been done before.
2. The jobs are few & far between & usually require a dancer to form or join a troupe, & almost always clever choreographies are required.
3. A dancer now needs a lot of training. Cross training, refining, perfecting technique. These dancers are better than their predecessors.
4. Competitions are often the doorway to a successful career. The stress, the preparation, the thrill of victory & more often the agony of defeat have made dance a sport, requiring not only the artistic values, but the values required of the athlete.

 The young dancers that seek me out have their eyes wide open. Their good training is firmly in place, & even more importantly, I feel blessed to work with dancers with unique styles & a true passion. I often wonder what I can offer, not wanting to disturb the balance these talented dancers have developed. Most often my advice is something to the effect of "Be yourself. Stay yourself. Continue to grow, but don't change because you think another style you've seen might be better, or that you feel you should dance like 'so & so'. Cut your own path."

 I have choreographed for troupes, although I warn them I am not a commercial choreographer & my style is probably too quirky & theatrical for mainstream parties, etc. I remember an interview I heard with Elvis Costello, how he would be embarrassed to bring new songs to the band, wondering if they would snicker, or if they were too personal to be shared. I get that, I relate. Showing choreographies to talented pros can scare me to death. Will they look at me blankly, thinking "this is total crap"?

 And the one thing I've realized I can't offer is the choreographed solo. To me Raqs Sharki, or the Belly  Dance solo is a personal journey, optimally improvised. 99% of the time a solo choreographed by someone else doesn't look right. Isn't entertaining. I could make more money if I could offer this skill, but it's almost an ethical issue, showing my age I suppose.

 Yet still they seek me out, & I adore them. And like Madame Dakharova in "The Turning Point", I believe I do have something to offer - those subtle things only fully seasoned dancers have achieved &  the (hopefully) sage advice of someone who has been there & done that. Perhaps a mentor is a motherly figure, someone to help navigate the journey through this daunting profession.

 But how fortunate for the older dancer to have respect of the younger ones. I think my generation regarded elders as the enemy (a holdover from the 'don't trust anyone over 30' era). How lovely that these new generations have somehow been instilled with such a high regard for experience & for artistic styles of the past. Like the Millennial musicians who still revere the Beatles, or the blues, I have been so impressed with the new generations. And what keeps an elder dancer more on her toes & more engaged than a talented young dancer seeking out some knowledge? They are my muse, my reason for not giving up.

  This has been a gift and a blessing, & possibly the most rewarding part of my career. To be the best I can possibly be for these trusting proteges, I will continue to learn and grow, to try to stay one step ahead. To understand the new world of dance & not be stuck in the past. The rest is all there inside me, from the decades of blood, sweat & tears, & I am most happy to share this. In this way, perhaps a little piece of the past, & selfishly, a little piece of me will live on. What more could a dancer hope for?



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