In 1993 Mitch Albom wrote a terrific bestseller about “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”. In it, a man passes from this world and enters heaven where he encounters five key people whose lives he touched, and by doing so, is shown his life’s meaning.
This kind of experience happened to me last week and I was right here on earth in Phoenix, Arizona! I had been invited by Debra Rogo of Mid-Columbia Ballet, to join the faculty of the Regional Dance America Pacific Dance Festival 2016, serving not only as a master teacher of musicality, but as a co-adjudicator of the Monticello award given to emerging women choreographers.
Over and over, I had the pleasure of meeting many of my former students, who introduced themselves to me and helped me recall the connection we had made and inspiration they had felt from studying with me or dancing in one of my pieces.
I met a popular guest teacher who told me that she had had an awakening to music and contemporary dance while she was in my class, that propelled her to study and become a choreographer and teacher. I met a mother I had taught who brought her daughter to my musicality class, telling her to learn everything she could in the time she had with me. And there was a young man who came up, who towered over me and said: “I was the little boy you taught in the summer workshop classes in Vacaville, California.” I smiled, remembering his keen, eager eyes.
Company directors appeared and recalled the festivals at which I’d taught, ones they had hosted. And lastly, I spoke and reflected with Gretchen Vogelzang, the president of Regional Dance America, who, many years ago was my student at Marin Ballet, the place I first introduced my course: Musicality and Performance Skills for Dancers. So many connections coming full circle.
Now, at this festival, there were 12 new companies for me to teach, each full of talented, well trained and motivated young dancers. In these sessions, the history of my musicality class, the arc of growth that had taken place from its planning at Lincoln Center, NY, to its tenure at San Francisco Ballet, Sacramento Ballet and Richmond Ballet, Virginia, and finally to this festival, became clear. There was so much instruction I had gotten rid of along the way. The ideas and exercises in my current work had become simple, clear and impactful. Musical history, imagination, melodic phrasing, time signature, tonality, texture, theme and variation, musical markings and instrumental voices were now woven together in a joyous journey of discovery.
The teaching load was dense and challenging, but I loved all of it. And each night, as I fell asleep in utter exhaustion, a wonderful kind of happiness crept over me as the smiles of the students I had taught each day swirled in my mind. The joy on their faces and the gratitude in their eyes glowed brightly. And each day, as word spread about my class, more and more people came to watch the energy and expression bursting from the students as they danced. Their enthusiasm was contagious; allowing me to conclude that dance in America will be alive and well for a very long time. I still look forward to opening many more young hearts and minds to the rich world of music, dance and performing. And that, for me, is a heavenly thought.