The Artist’s Way

There were so many wonderful master teachers who helped shape and form my professional life, and whose words will always inspire me.  Gifted artists like Jonathan Watts, Alexandra Danilova, Stanley Williams, Robert Joffrey… the list goes on!  So, in this section from time to time I will share a few stories/anecdotes from them.

Richard Gibson was one such figure.  I was privileged that he set a ballet on me in New York and fortunate to attend his classes at the Joffrey.  He originally studied with Olga Ziceva who fled the Russian revolution to dance with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe.  Richard followed her example in emphasising the why’s of ballet technique.  He said she was the most caring teacher you could imagine.  Her attention went to every student on every exercise in every class.  She kept her barre simple so that everything was done correctly and could be perfected.  Mastering the torso was her doctrine.

Richard Gibson also experienced an inspiring musical lesson from Margot Fonteyn.  “Margot was in Stuttgart performing Swan Lake.  She came to me one day and, very shyly, asked if she could attend the men’s class.  I said yes but warned her the tempo was going to be slower, and that so much jumping could be taxing on the day of the performance.  Margot did the class better than any of the men through her musicality.  She phrased her preparations, connecting steps and finished in such a way as to make you forget that she actually didn’t have the same elevation as they did.  I saw what could be done with musicality – she made the steps her own.  And she did a fabulous performance that night.”  Richard remembers Margot Fonteyn very fondly.  “She was like a ten year old in class, with no pretensions and always eager for help, yet still meticulous.  In the films made of her it is a shame we cannot see the movement that goes beyond the body.  I will never forget her in Cranko’s Poeme de l’extase and the closing movement was her wrapping her arm around her head.  That was worth anyone else’s 64 fouettes.”

“There’s a preoccupation with technique nowadays”, he laments.  “We’re not producing really interesting dancers like Fonteyn anymore because technique has advanced so much, but at the cost of the heart.  This makes going to ballets predictable and predictable gets boring.  The quality that goes beyond technique is why I am still excited by dance.  Better to have a little less virtuosity and more of an aura that makes it a living art and not a spectacle.  dance is really a combination of things – so much of it is a feeling.”


What does charisma mean?  Who has it?  Can anyone possess it?  Does the word hold meaning only to the rich, powerful and famous?  I believe within each of us there is a seed of charisma.  This seed when cared for and planted is developed into an individual style and confidence.  It is our personal magnetism, our power source which is strengthened through right living and right thinking.

Way back in 2001, I read an article in Vogue magazine.  They listed seven key points to describe charisma. 

1) Your silent message.  You make a statement about yourself before you even open your mouth.  This is your silent message.  It’s the way you project yourself physically, emotionally and intellectually.

2) Your ability to speak well.  You may have a great idea but you must articulate it.

3) Your listening skills.  Rarely taught and seldom practiced, listening is a key to communicating and making others feel special.

4) Your persuasive abilities.  This is your skill at motivating others to follow your lead.

5) Your use of space and time.  How you honour or violate another person’s personal space and time affect the amount of trust or tension between.

6) Your ability to adapt to others.  Building bridges to other people is impossible without understanding how to treat them as they would like to be treated. 

7) Your vision, your ideas.  What do you feel passionate about?  You’ll never influence anyone to change their ideas if you don’t feel strongly about yourself.

All in all, charisma blossoms from living in an atmosphere of truth.  Following your truth!  Being yourself!  Having your own style!  Remember if you are real, truthful and loving from the inside, imagine how it affects the overall picture of yourself.  Be real, be honest, be true!



My Favourite Quotes (2)

And may the God of Song and Dance bless you, the Father who started the dance, the Son who calls the tune, and the Spirit who plays the pipes (An Irish Prayer)

A great teacher never strives to explain one’s vision – he or she simply invites you to stand alongside and see yourself.  (Reverend R. Inman)

The well-educated teacher is not the one who has mastered the jargon of pedagogy, but the one who is himself so constantly in quest of knowledge and intellectual power.  The learning in him begets learning in his students (A. Beston)

With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate and the wisdom to be humble.  Courage is the foundation of integrity.  (Keshavan Nair)

Life is simply a matter of concentration:  you are what you set out to be.  You are a composite of the things you say, the books you read, the thoughts you think, the company you keep and the things you desire to become.  (B.C. Forbes)

My Favourite Quotes

The body is a sacred garment, it should be treated with honour (Martha Graham)

The great thing about growing older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been (Madeleine L’Engle)

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm (Willa Cather)

Flops are a part of life’s menu and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the main courses (Rosalind Russell)

Dreams are illustrations from the book your soul is writing about you (Marsha Norman)

I have an everyday religion that works for me: Love yourself first and everything else falls into line (Lucille Ball)


The Inner Dancer — the Priceless Present – Part 2

Perhaps the greatest gift you can give to yourself is the ability to live in the present. Especially for an artist, this state of being is paramount. And what does it mean to be present? How can it be a present unto yourself?

Dancing takes a focussed concentration and for many it is described as moving meditation. If you are totally in the present Now of the moment then there is a transformation which is accessible. In this state you will be in harmony with your body and your mind in a state of the here and now.

What happens in the Now of the moment? There is no past or future. There is no what if or I should have. Concentration is easy and fluid and there is no effort needed. When you enter your ballet class there is an opportunity to put the present in action. Perhaps by putting the present in action while you are in class, one day this awareness might be a constant companion.

Walking into class ready to warm up you focus on the ritual and the sacredness of what to do. With complete presence you need to begin the adventure of the present moment of class. You find your position at the barre. Not just thinking about how your body feels, but feeling how your body feels.

Connect with your individuality and link into your inner body. Know that the inner body has space, fluidity, luminosity and freedom. Begin to warm up your body with this in mind. Take you awareness completely up through the spine and imagine a cylinder of light.

By being so aware, something else occurs. Look at it. How can you judge and compare if you are in the present moment, the beauty of the NOW? When we dissolve such thoughts we have freedom to soar and fly. We adjust as we go along, not attached to areas of self sabotage. If we apply these principles we find ourselves actually in a balance with our feeling, our body and most of all we can communicate with that inner feeling. After all, dance is about feeling our energy, shaping ourselves through space and communicating with the present moment of how it all feels.

Try this exercise. Make it your own. Open yourself to greater possibilities.

Continue to reach for the stars!

The Inner Dancer – the Priceless Present – Part 1

Want to give yourself a special present? It won’t cost anything and you can enjoy it forever. Just make a pledge that today, this very moment, you are going to be totally awake. Awake in the moment. Commit yourself to fully participate in the unfolding drama of your life. If you have a shower in the morning stay alert to the sensations, the feel of the water on your skin, the smell of the soap, the splashing sounds. Observe whatever is happening around you with keen interest. Come alive! It’s good entertainment value available and it’s also very instructive.

Well, that doesn’t sound too hard, I can hear you saying. Okay, maybe you don’t have a mind that races ahead of itself or dwells on what has been. But most of us mortals get trapped on a time-line. We are so occupied with the past or the future that we miss the ‘ever-present now’. You might be aware of the saying, ‘life is what happens while we are busy making plans’. Isn’t that the truth! ‘What is it that makes God laugh? Watching people make plans.’

There is a story about a Zen student who goes in search of a great master. After much searching, the student finds the wise man and asks the eternal question, ‘Please sir, what is the meaning of life’? The master contemplates the question for a long time and finally answers, ‘It’s working when you work, playing when you play, eating when you eat…’ The young student impatiently interrupts, ‘Sir, that is too simple’. The master replies, ‘Yes, it is, but few people do it’.

So, when you are dancing, dance with all your body, mind and spirit. Assert yourself to be completely present. The art of dance demands a focus which is very liberating. Perhaps the feeling of this experience is behind our drive to dance. We all have moments when we feel totally centred in the rhythm of our technique. Time slows down and we have a kind of clarity. There is no effort. We float through our movements with ease and fluidity. We are in a state of ‘moving meditation’.

The little monkey we call a brain quickly jumps back into action and begins to chatter, what if…, I should have…, how come…, this doesn’t work…, I’m not good…, let’s eat. We return to what we assume is reality with a resounding thud. Nevertheless, every time you enter class you have an opportunity to reintroduce yourself to your inner dancer, quiet your thoughts and stretch for your bliss.

The Artist’s Way – Hands

In developing your dancing technique, how often do you think about your hands? Probably not a lot. The hands are such a beautiful expression of line. They are the artistic exclamation point of the arms.

It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. The eyes reveal your feelings. You can smile with your face, but your eyes tell us if something else is going on inside. However, it is the hands which either expose your inner tension or reveal your level of freedom and relaxation. They are an important indication of body language and make a strong statement about yourself as a complete dancer.

Unfortunately, the hands are often neglected in the effort to perfect overall technique. While the legs are meant to be like steel, the arms must look like silk. If the focus is predominantly on the legs, it is very easy for the arms and hands to take on too much tension.

How to cultivate harmony of the wrist, the palm, the fingers, even the nails? Study your hands, your fingers. Enjoy their feel, appreciate their sensitivity. Have you ever seen “The Dying Swan” performed? The first time I saw Maya Plisetskya dance this ballet I was moved beyond words. It was the defining moment in my young career. My passion for ballet was unleashed. I knew my destiny was intertwined with dance. My desire to look like that, to feel like that, to be like that, was ignited. Plisetskya appeared to transform her arms and her hands into real wings. From the centre of the ‘wings’ to the tips of her ‘feathers’ there was pure magic. The aliveness of that moment will always remain in my mind.

At the time, I had the privilege of watching Plisetskya dance I was only fourteen years old. I had been selected to perform with the Bolshoi Ballet Company. Did I fully comprehend the magnitude and honour of the whole experience? Like most teenagers, I pretty much took it all in stride. The year was 1968. The place, the grand old Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The company performed “the Ballet School” under the direction of Asaf Messerer. The ballet traces the level of the Russian ballet system through each grade. My role was one of the ‘young and promising’ students in the Russian tradition. The huge bonus was the opportunity to view, up close, a legendary ballerina. My eyes were opened to the possibilities which I enjoy sharing with you.

The arms, the hands, the fingers, are all extensions of the heart. Dancing is about opening your heart and sharing your deepest self. You do it for yourself and for your audience. It is both a selfish and selfless art. If you are striving to capture your audience you must be willing to share your essence, to give every fibre of your being. You may channel your energy through a character (in a story ballet) or through a neo classical piece where the music and movement create their own reality. However, you cannot present a total package without including your hands. They are not static lumps of clay. The hands are part of a living and breathing sculpture which release your power into the infinite universe.

How to begin? First recognise the life and beauty of your hands. They are part of the equipment as a dancer. By simply giving them attention something new will start to happen. Next, feel the electricity flowing through your hands which connect a circuit between your centre, your body and your space.

Here are some exercises to help you get in touch with your hands:

  1. Place a silk scarf on the floor and experiment picking it up with the utmost grace and sensitivity.
  2. Sit in a bathtub or a swimming pool and feel your hands moving through the water – study their fluidity, ease and relaxation.
  3. While using your arms in class work, imagine that each finger has an aura of colour radiating out beyond the physical movement.
  4. Examine a sculpture of a hand. Some of the great artists, like the Degas drawings, have captured the sensitivity of the hands.

The Artist’s Way – Imagery

You use imagery everyday of your life. Mental images are like the blueprints of your hopes and dreams and fears. Have you ever wondered what might be lurking below your feet while swimming in deep water? When you stand at the edge of a high cliff do you wish you could fly like a bird? Images trigger your imagination, and imagination is a very powerful force for driving either constructive or destructive actions.

What you image is what you become. It is easy to fall into the trap of being controlled by images that undermine your talent. If you constantly entertain negative attitude thoughts (NATS) you sabotage your abilities and, gradually, develop a poor self-image. Low self-esteem, a lack of confidence and repetitive failure are all a part of the negative imaging cycle. The trick is to consciously and deliberately turn your NATS into PATS (positive attitude thoughts).

An artist is someone who has trained their ‘imaging faculty’ to refine their craft. It is an art in itself. The creative and disciplined application of imagery is what distinguishes an artist from a ‘wannabe’. Imagination is allowed to soar, but it is always channelled by an active exercise of imagery. Any image begins as a mind picture that flickers in and out of your field of awareness. You have the front seat at an ever changing picture show in which you are the producer, the director and the actor. The key to mastering the full potential of imagery is to transfer the picture into a feeling. It then becomes an integral part of you and is an automatic response. You no longer have to think the image. You are the image. Technique and creative expression go hand in hand. Technique is the structure of imagery. Creative expression is the flower of imagination.

Great ballet teachers guide their students with clear word pictures that build the foundation and life of movement. These pictures, drawn from sense and emotional memories, are miraculous tools for the aspiring artist. Young students can feel the dynamics of dance and, thereby, progress in transcending the mechanics of technique. Although I studied hard and long on technique, it was the application of imagery that gave me permission to find my own reality and create my individual style. When your movements are real and authentic it helps the audience believe and embrace your performance.

I will continue to provide you with specific imagery for improving technique and artistic expression. In this overview of the subject, however, I am including a sample of general ‘thought prints’ to help stimulate your imagination. If you resonate with any of the following images, I recommend you put them on and wear them for awhile until they are embedded in your consciousness and can be expressed through your physicality. I have personally found this collection to be wonderful helper images:

  • Think of yourself as a river with the shape of a human body.
  • Imagine yourself standing amongst silky, soft curtains. Feel the curtains brush against your body.
  • The ground is alive.
  • Keep the movement flow going, like a thread going through a needle
  • Have a ghost leg, imagine you are still standing equally on your two legs.
  • Allow facial muscles to respond and become alive as a reaction to the music.
  • Imagine yourself in newness. Imagine you have never seen objects or people around you.
  • Visualisation is a way to power – If your arms are short, imagine them long. If your feet don’t point, imagine perfect feet. Think of yourself as having the power contained in Aladdin’s lamp!
  • Take a walk down the beach, imagine you can see 360 degrees behind you and dance as though you have eyes in the back of your head.
  • Sing with your feet.
  • Imagine the floor as a bed of hot coals.
  • Attack a pique before it attacks you.
  • Imagine a crown on your head,describe what it looks like, what colour gems. Think of wearing a beautiful Elizabeth Taylor style diamond necklace. How would you stand? Display your pride and honour.
  • Feel a helium balloon lifting you from the top of your head.
  • Get those blow dryers under each elbow when your arms are placed in seconde position.
  • Arms should come out of the back like wings.
  • Think up to go down and down to go up.
  • Push yourself tall.
  • Fill your body with a rainbow of colours. See them with your mind’s eye. Feel their vibrancy and allow the glow of colours to flow outward from your centre. With every movement feel them radiating outward.
  • Music flows through your body like electric currents.
  • Shape the space, sculpt it, form it.
  • Take your space and own it.
  • Build all rhythm into your muscles. Work the muscles in unity with the music.
  • In port de bras prepare from diaphragm and the back. Think of a bird’s wings.
  • The end of one step is motivation for the next.