ODC/Dance Company

Getting Back to Neutrality: A Conversation with Augusta Moore | By Maya Kitayama

Augusta Moore teaching class

Augusta Moore teaching class

Maya Kitayama: Tell us a little bit about your training and performance background.

Augusta Moore: I was in the San Francisco Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Chicago City Ballet under Maria Tallchief and Lupe Serrano and all these amazing people and that’s good. But I was also raised in theater school as a kid. I was in Minneapolis in the 70s and the city paid for us to get out of school at noon and go study. I would go from 1:00 to 4:30pm and study theater, including gymnastics, karate, voice and all these different things, and then at 5:00pm I would take ballet and at 7:00pm I would rehearse plays, so it was a very long day. Then I tried to go just into ballet when I was 13, which was great, but the studio burned down so I went back to theater school. I left home when I was 15 to dance professionally, which I don’t suggest. It’s a little young, but it’s all part of what forms you. Also, being so young, I got injured at 18. I quit and retrained with a physical therapist, and she gave me two books when I left her, The Anatomy Coloring Book and The Vaganova Syllabus. It definitely sent me in the direction that I am today, and then from there I went and joined companies, but I always think that the not studying long enough [affected me]. I had a lot of talent and so I was pushed out a little young. My family didn’t have much money, so I didn’t get to go study at a big school. I think that made me more injury prone, because I didn’t have that time. But that of course was what also sent me in this direction of being concerned with recovery and helping people really use themselves as well as possible so that they can survive.

MK: Could you speak about your Feldenkrais education and knowledge?

AM: I’m a Feldenkrais practitioner and I graduated with my certification about 20 years ago. Lately, I’ve been working with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, who is an amazing somatic practitioner and also a dancer. It’s great to have this new amazing teacher to work with at this point in my life, she’s in her seventies and amazingly lives in my neighborhood. She’s done some workshops for our teachers and she’s founded an astounding movement system that I’m bringing into the school. Some people think that working this way is just injury prevention, but it’s not for me at all. I think it really unleashes you as an artist to have everything available to you, so I’m really not just interested in injury prevention. It’s very hard to dance injured all the time, so to have this access to these different parts of your body, that’s an artistic experience as well as a somatic one.

MK: How does your knowledge of Feldenkrais inform your ballet classes?

AM: I almost have to say now my “somatics” because I’m using Feldenkrais with BMC (Body-Mind Centering) and I talk about chakras. I’m not proud, I’ll do anything to make people understand something. I’m not a purist that way. What’s really important is to make clear to the students what it is that I’m trying to teach them that day. The nature of people is that if you come to a class, they will often obliterate themselves to get the step or to get something. I try to give them a somatic experience before we start dancing, so I do anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes of that before the class. I have to make it really clear what it is we’re feeling, and then we start practicing a little bit. I do it first without music so they don’t have to conform to a rhythm, they can do the movement in their own personal rhythm.

MK: Do your students ever have trouble incorporating Feldenkrais in their ballet physicality?

AM: It’s very difficult, I mean some people can’t get to do it, and they’re not good students for me. I know if they’re just not [good students] if they just seem like they’re in class to grind their bodies and that’s how it’s going to be. Usually they have to get to a certain level of injury before they come back and then they’re like “oh, all right.” And I understand, I wouldn’t study this if I didn’t have to. I would rather just grind. I was a child gymnast and I loved throwing my body around, but it just doesn’t work. It works for a while, I often call it “the heartbreak of talent.” If you have a lot of talent you can get away with a lot of abusive behavior, but then it will always catch up to you. I haven’t seen anybody for whom it did not, unless they quit. So I have to make it really clear what we’re doing. I often tell my students when I’m teaching somatic classes, “you’re here to waste money and waste time, because that’s the only way.” I’m also really trying to get people to move from a point of a view of pleasure; rather than a range of movement, it’s a range of pleasure. Usually, the only way we measure if we’ve hit the limit or not is if something hurts or something snaps. I’m trying to use some other criteria, such as pleasure. I read somewhere that the body is made up of 90 or 98 percent space, and I’m trying to work in the space of things. We always feel the matter, we jam in the joints, but what if we moved in the space? Then you could save the joints. That’s something I’ve been thinking about lately in movement. To get people to do it, I have to make them understand something else first, so that they’re willing to let go of what their original idea was. That’s the trick, and I try to do it in a very fast time.

MK: Could you speak a little bit about the ballet program in general?

AM: For the adult program, I’ve come to it with this point of view, although I don’t insist that everybody see it exactly like I do. One of my students of 20 years has gone off, she’s in Russia right now studying the Vaganova technique, that is her passion, and I think it’s valuable. As adults they have their choices and people can go to who they want. However, I have to feel a sense of cohesiveness, I have to feel that they care about the body— this really matters to me. If you go to Russia they select people for being able to do this and I don’t think you should force people to do something they can’t do physically, because it literally ungrounds them. As a ballet teacher, the first thing is to do no harm. It’s good enough for doctors, I think it should be good enough for us.

MK: How is Feldenkrais incorporated into the youth teen curriculum?

AM: For the youth teen program, I bring the skeleton in at a very young age; we teach the pelvic floor to ten-year olds. I put a rubberband on either end of the sitting bones, and then another one in the pubic bone and tailbone and the knot in the middle is the perineum. I bring the skeleton and show them the stretching and then we imitate it with our hands, and then we plié from the pelvic floor. I’m just trying to get it out there, I’m trying to show them the information. If somebody’s injured, I might take them out of the class, I might put them in a lower class. I’m also trying to extract myself from some of the kids classes, I was able to this year. If I’m teaching a class full of people, it’s hard to stop and work at length if you see someone who really needs it. By not teaching, I’ve had teachers send me kids, and it’s just been great. I had a kid whose knee was killing her and she had already been to the doctor who said “oh, you’re growing a lot this year,” and they always answer this way, but I’m finding more and more it’s almost never that. I spend a little time and it usually takes some kind of personal time, a moment with a kid and they tell me something. The student actually broke her ankle when she was 6, and no one ever helped her with it. I finally just worked with it in this way from Bonnie and my Feldenkrais work to loosen it again, and the reason her knee hurt is because she’s been off that injured foot for a long time. Ballet is great because it shows [injuries], like this injury probably wouldn’t show up if she didn’t study dance. I’m interested in getting people back to their neutrality.

MK: Do the other ballet teachers in the program use the same practices?

AM: I’m trying to get the teachers to as much as possible. Last year, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen actually taught a workshop for the ballet teachers; it was a miracle. Sometimes, as teachers, we’ll go off to a workshop together, I’ll hold workshops for them. Any teacher can take anything I teach for free, including Feldenkrais workshops and that kind of thing. I actually just looked at this class taught by Marissa Castillo who has been here for 10 years with me, and she studied with me for more. She has just matured into such a great teacher. I went to watch her class and from having done the Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen workshop, her confidence in touching children was so precise. She comes from a Vaganova background, but she’s completely holistic now.

MK: What are your thoughts on the purist ballet technique and training?

AM: I love Vaganova because it’s got such a good system of vocabulary, you know it really follows a thoughtful progression. It goes bad when Westerners try to turn us into the Kirov School, and that’s when it’s a problem because we’re not the Kirov School. I wish really major ballet schools would just take children, bend them in their underwear, and select that way. I get the kids when they’re 13, they’re devastated, they’ve been trying to do something and then they can’t move. I think that people often think that ballet and somatics don’t go together, but I think they really do because in ballet, there are a lot of movements that aren’t threatening or lifesaving, meaning like, if you learn a somatic idea and then you just go out into the world, it’s hard not to apply it because you need to do that movement in your life to survive. Whereas you don’t really need to do a fouetté in your movement. You might if you’re a professional dancer at some point, but for a general public or for a kid, they’re willing to take the risk of finding [a movement] as a spinal exercise rather than a lifted leg exercise. I think ballet can be really interesting because you can practice these ideas. It’s a practice, not just a performative thing. I find this with lots of things, that people can do anything as a practice or a performance, we make jokes about “competitive Feldenkrais class,” it could be done. I mean, I’ve seen competitive Pilates, and it wasn’t meant to be done that way. It’s meant to help you, but I think anything can be. What’s so great about practicing ballet that way is that you can use it. Sometimes I’m going to make it a performance, sometimes I use it to recover. It’s so great when I can use my artform to recover, I don’t have to go get a massage, take Pilates or something, I can do it in my own class.

MK: What do you try and communicate to your students?

AM: More self-trust. More faith in what they do. I usually do one combination facing the mirror and second time away from the mirror. I let them do it the first time toward the mirror because half of them don’t know the combination. I give them that, I let them futz around and find inside. I actually think that there needs to be a little more of that in with the kids as well, people always do something better the second time. And if you insist on perfection the first time, there’s no room for experimentation. Usually when people are forced to be perfect the first time, they just get less and less involved, less and less of their body is involved in it and then it’s a very unsatisfying thing and it overworks the parts involved. I’m really looking for a full body experience. That’s another reason why I often ask students to consider whatever I’m saying to be a suggestion, not a correction, so that they can think, take a moment and say, “oh that’s very nice Augusta, but how does that apply to me?” Not to try and slam it on before they get a chance to dance and to feel it. I guess what I’m really trying to get my students to do is to feel.

MK: What have you personally learned from teaching?

AM: My students are my best teachers, they are always informing me. Ballet is nothing without the students, it’s just in a vacuum. It’s sort of like when I first went to college. If you really wanted to pass a test, you had to make a test and give it to someone else. You do that, and you’ll be an A student. I have to know a lot in order to advise people. I have to constantly feel and I have to not turn off. I was teaching at a major university, I’m not going to say which, and I was even hired by one of my former students. My student was now this person in charge and said “we know how you are, just do what you do.” Then halfway through the semester she said, “be sure you write down exactly what you do so you can exactly recreate it next year.” And I thought, what if I did that when I was 20-years old? Do you know what I would have? Nothing. People take my beginning ballet class for years because they can’t believe it’s always changing. The vocabulary is not changing so much, but the approach is constantly changing. I’ve had some students for 25 years, if I only had them for one semester I wouldn’t need to think of anything. I could just keep saying the same thing. But I have to change, I care about that student who’s been dancing for 25 years, I have to keep things interesting for her. I have to keep her learning, and I’d be so bored if I just taught the same thing over and over again.

MK: Does your evolving syllabus come from your broadening knowledge of somatics or does it change in congruence with your students?

AM: They’re intertwined completely. I mean, certainly knowledge of somatics. I’m one of those people that the minute I learn something it burns in me and I have to teach it right away, so I’m always immediately passing information on. It’s really such a symbiotic relationship and I feel truly like a conduit. Sometimes people tell me things that I have said in class and I just have no memory of it because I’m highly present; teaching is when I’m most present. I always come in with a very elaborate plan, but it’s often altered. Still, I really need the plan, and I fight to stay on the plan because it’s really important to move forward in the technique. That’s the ballet part, which is why I love ballet, it gives me a plan. I like using syllabi, various syllabi, because then you might forget to give a movement. The syllabus keeps me honest; it gives me a format in which to practice these interesting bodily discoveries.

MK: Do you have a moment or memory that is particularly inspiring or significant for you?

AM: To see somebody get something is just a miracle to me, that’s what makes me a teacher. I don’t know why that means so much to me but it does, and that’s who a teacher is. I’ve seen so many life changing things, people just in shock and awe. If you shift the way you use your body, your mind shifts. Learning is this huge undertaking, so I’ve had people tell me things like, “after I found my pelvis two weeks ago, I decided I have to divorce my husband and get a new job.” Because when you shift your body, you shift your consciousness. My ultimate goal is to help people with that, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a professional performer or doing this as your practice or however you’re using it, because I want performers to have their minds blown the same way as a professional dancer, it’s all I want. When I have injured dancers come to me from San Francisco Ballet or other places, they have made such a weird thing with their tendu, it’s almost looks like a pas de cheval. I think it’s because their brain has folded on itself and it needs to do something with a tendu and nobody’s guiding them with any new stuff because they don’t really have time, but we all really do need to keep growing.

I am so grateful that I started studying with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen in the last couple years because it’s been 20 years since I learned a new system and I feel reborn from doing it. Again it came out of an injury, so I was forced to take this time to learn. That’s been the blessing and she always says, “don’t waste the suffering.” It’s such great advice, I don’t want to waste the suffering, there’s so much learning in that. There was this beautiful quote I heard once that said, “We are not spiritual beings coming here for a human experience, we’re human beings coming for a spiritual experience.” And I think sometimes people do give them an opportunity to have that in dance class, that’s so meaningful. But that’s why, as a ballet teacher, I don’t want to turn it into just some whim of my demanding. I am actually really demanding, but I’m demanding the self-exploration within the technique. I don’t want people just gripping. I teach by contrast a lot, so we practice the difference between yielding to the floor or collapsing, and the difference between gripping and pushing. The contrast is important, because you don’t know black until you know white. That’s a big trick for me as a teacher. If anyone wanted to know what helps teaching, it’s to look for the contrast, and feel when they’re doing something and when they’re not.

MK: What about ODC sets it apart from other dance centers and communities?

AM: I couldn’t do this work any place but ODC. I sat, working on this for 20 years and ODC called me up and said, “Come try to do this here.” My philosophy is so completely right with the philosophy of ODC. Even looking at the place, you walk in and it’s open. Brenda Way created this beautiful lobby because most dancers have crappy apartments that they have to go home to. I come here and I do some of my best work in the lobby connecting people. It’s amazing because she created this space for us to work in and I feel like that it keeps coming back to community; the community with your body, the community with the people, the community with dance. There’s just something about ODC that really facilitates that. I’ve worked here for 10 years, I’m one of the oldest. I always feel like it’s feeding, and I think it’s partly because it has room for that openness of ideas. Also, because it’s a modern dance school, they’re looking for ways to facilitate new movement and facilitate healthy movement. I’m very supported by the artistic directors; there’s just something about it that really lets me go full on into what I’m doing.

MK: Any additional comments about teaching or ODC in general?

AM: There are two things about the directors. It’s founded by three women, they’ve been together over 40 years, and I never feel any competitive stress. Almost every organization has something where the higher ups are not happy, that just doesn’t happen here at all. I feel like something is going right there, [this is] an environment where they support each other, and thus that comes down to us. I also love having the guidance. That’s one of things that I really appreciate; having that kind of guidance and that influence here. Whenever I bring in guest teachers, they just love our students. They always say they’re so open. To me, the greatest compliment is when guest teachers come in and say “I just love your students.” You want students that are open and I think it’s really important for students not to feel threatened or scared, rather that they’re going to be cared for.

Augusta is the director of the ballet program here at ODC. She teaches a Feldenkrais class on Saturdays at 10:30am, followed by a ballet class at 12pm, and a pointe class at 2:30pm. She also will be co-teaching with ballet teacher Marisa Castillo in the fall, as a part of the beginning ballet workshops. 

Forty Years of Heart and Spirit: A Conversation with Bayan Jamay and Elvia Marta | By Maya Kitayama

Elvia Marta and Bayan Jamay Photo by Rebecca Wilkowski

Elvia Marta and Bayan Jamay
Photo by Rebecca Wilkowski

Maya Kitayama: Could you briefly explain your training and performance background?

Bayan Jamay: Oh, well how long do you have?

Elvia Marta: I’ve been dancing since I was 19. I started with Afro and modern, and I danced with local companies here in the Bay Area. I also danced with San Francisco Opera Ballet, Halifu Osumare and have been teaching for about 40 years in the community. I was on the East coast for a year and three months, and I danced with two companies over there and taught a million classes a week. I have a BA and teaching credential from SF State and I am the dance director at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts here in San Francisco. I just completed my 33rd year there, I’m going to do one more year and then I’m going to retire, but I am going to stay connected to the school and continue to teach my adult classes here. I love teaching here. I love the space because, aside from the obvious professionalism of the space, I love the embracing, the welcoming, and the love that exist here. It’s just a really harmonious place to be and that’s really exciting because that’s not always true of everywhere you go. This is an amazing home to be in. I performed for a long time, I don’t anymore so I’m just teaching and taking classes six days a week.

BJ: I’ve been teaching in the Bay Area since ‘77, and before that I was teaching in Boston for 3 or 4 years, slowly building up the level of my class. I teach intermediate modern jazz blues, which is sort of loosely based on my root, which was Alvin Ailey second generation Consuelo Atlas, who was a soloist as well as my mentor, and she gave me the style. She has since passed away and so my mission is to keep the style going. I teach twice a week, I don’t perform. I used to be in a company years ago, but performing is not my thing, teaching is my thing.

MK: Could you explain modern-jazz blues in your own words?

BJ: It’s a mixture, it starts with Ailey’s style, so it has Horton, Graham, Limon, ballet, gospel.

EM: Afro-jazz.

Together: It’s a fusion.

BJ: And we do a lot of contemporary music, and some of it is really old, but we do complete pieces of choreography, so that people don’t have to be a company to get a chance to dance. We both do long combinations that fill up a piece of music, then we move on to the next piece of music.

EM: And it can be anywhere from three minutes to six minutes.

BJ: We train technique, while a lot of jazz classes and contemporary classes just do a warm-up. We work on technique a lot at the beginning of class, because there is a lot of technique involved in the style and so we want to make sure people are developing that.

MK: Is the style something that you two have created and let evolved over time?

BJ: The name came from Consuelo.

EM: Yes, Consuelo who danced with Ailey and Bayan were on the East coast. I was here, and one of my main teachers was Raymond Sawyer who was connected to Ailey. So we were getting the same thing on the two coasts from that root of Alvin Ailey. When we met, it was like “wow,” we were both doing the same thing and we ended up dancing with the same company that she was already in and I auditioned for.

BJ: Also, she came from an Afro root initially. I came from a ballet root initially. We got this style, and we feed each other, so it’s been continuously evolving.

EM: The essence of Ailey is still very strong. It’s very gutsy. Sometimes dance can become intellectual for people, and we’re all about the heart and the spirit. Even though you’re working on technique and that can become a mental exercise for many people, we try to teach it in a way that people are still in their heart, and so they’re feeling what they’re doing, and not just thinking “oh, my hip goes there and my foot goes there.” It’s really important for both of us to have the spirit and the emotion that is part of dance be alive and well. It’s something that sometimes people just take out for whatever reason. I’m not judging by any means, we won’t do that, but I think it’s an important part that needs to be included.

MK: Between the two of you, for your classes at ODC, what do you believe is important to communicate to your students?

EM: Of course the spirit and the emotional component, but also the technique. Because technique is really important, I think that having technique allows you to free yourself and we want our students to be as out there as possible. Now, in order to be out there, you need to have a foundation, so we really teach with that in mind all the time. Personally, and I know Bayan feels this way, I feel that dance is a vehicle, as humans, for us to fly in a different way from flapping our wings and going up. The spirit, it’s able to just take off, spiral out. I always have that in mind when I’m teaching. That I want people to abandon themselves so much…

BJ [Nodding]: I was just gonna say “let go.”

EM: Yeah, let go. So they can actually feel themselves in a different sphere, if you will. Because it is possible to do that.

BJ: I also try to tell my students to ride on the music. To stop dancing from their brain, and become the voice or the instrument, or whatever we’re dancing to, and to try and forget in a way that it’s a dance class and ride on that.

MK: In the opposite respect, what has teaching taught you over the years?

BJ: Everything about life! I’ve learned everything about life is simulated in that room.

EM: Well, dance simulates life, and vice versa. Everything that you’re working on in there, you can step out of the studio and go into life and find that there is a correlation between the two, they are not separate at all. And I know that for me too, I’ve learned so much about myself and my strength and my power. I don’t mean power in the way of greediness, in the way that people sometimes think of power. By power, I mean believing in myself, and believing in the work that I’m doing, and learning to be really authentic because you know, you’re naked when you dance and you cannot be coming from a place of lie, you have to be honest. All of that has been cultivated into this really refined place for both of us. And it’s a really beautiful thing. One of those things that’s beautiful about teaching too is that you learn from your students, and the things that they can do, the things they cannot do, how to help them do it, how to help them through their own insecurities, and stuff like that. By trying to help them connect to their power, you are actually in the process of learning even more for yourself. Dance has given me everything, because I can go way, way back. I started when I was 19, I needed something to save my life and dance pretty much did that for me. It really saved my life from unfortunate situations and really challenging stuff.

BJ: It’s a passion for both of us.

EM: We don’t dance because we want to dance; we dance because we have to.

BJ: And teaching has been my passion, performing I don’t care about, choreographing—I choreograph for class, but my passion is teaching.

MK: Do you find the connection between you and the students is more rewarding for you?

BJ: We come to class a half hour before; we hang out with our students. The only time there is a difference in level, is when we’re in the room starting class, we’re the teachers, and they’re the students. As soon as we leave that room, we’re all together.

EM: Our classes are a community. Many of our students have been with us for 20, 25, 30 years.

BJ: Some 40.

EM: From the very beginning. We socialize outside of the studio, sometimes we decide to have dance parties, or you know if somebody is having a birthday, we go to that, or we go out to dinner. And if somebody is having a hard time, with either illness or something like that, we are all there. I mean, we are a true community; it’s not just a dance class. I tell this to my teenagers, I tell them dance is a vehicle for more, and that is definitely something that has happened. You know, through dance we have been able to create this community of people that we can trust.

BJ: It’s a very regular group of people that come. People drop in, some stay, that varies, but there is a core group that has been traveling together.

EM: And they’re all friends, and they socialize outside separate from us. They get together outside of class. It’s really funny, because if you could indulge me for just a second, when we were in Boston, we had this woman who did our [astrological] charts. And it was right before we were coming back to San Francisco. She said “I know you’re going to San Francisco and you’re going to go teach dance, but really what you’re going to go do over there is create a community.” And we’re like “hm, okay.” And I believe in community. I’m from Panama originally, and the village is a community there. It’s not like single house, nuclear family, it’s like the entire village takes care of all the kids. I very much believe in community, so when she said that, it was very exciting for me because it’s nice to be a part of a group of people who are honest, respectful, talented and caring. It’s just a beautiful thing to have, and I wish everybody could have that because it makes a difference in one’s life.

BJ: To add to that, that’s one of the reasons I love teaching here. Because this studio in particular feels like it embraces everyone. Doesn’t matter what style you’re taking, doesn’t matter if you’re doing exercise or ethnic or ballet.

EM: And it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a professional.

BJ: I Iove walking into this lobby and seeing people talking to each other, some are reading, some are eating; there really is a community here.

EM: And people actually acknowledge each other, which is a big thing. Dance is funny that way, because while it’s global, because people all over the world dance, dance can be weird too, because people can become so self-absorbed and stuff that it can be cold and here it just doesn’t matter when you walk in here, and who you run into, it’s absolutely stunning.

BJ: And the front desk folks are always taking care of us, and are warm. I just feel taken care of here.

EM: You run into Kimi, Brenda, KT, company members or other teachers, there is a connection, it is absolutely beautiful. I can spend the rest of my life here, we both can.

MK: Going back to your classes, do you both utilize a similar structure?

EM: We have our own individual classes, we just happen to teach the same style, and we happen to teach the same students, and we can sub for each other. But she has her own warm-ups and stuff that she does, and I have my own thing.

BJ: And she takes my class and I take her class.

EM: If we’re in the same room and something happens to me, she’ll take over the teaching and vice versa. But it’s our own style. And we’ve had adversity in our lives, you know surgeries and such. So she’s taught my class many times, I’ve taught her class many times, we keep things going because we believe in consistency. We rarely go away to anything, vacations and stuff.

BJ: And we rarely cancel class, unless the studio tells us we have to.

EM: We have our own thing, because I’m my own person. We’re married and we’ve been together for 39 years, and just got married last year in April because it’s legal. But I need to be a pillar by myself as well as she does. And so we’re two pillars standing side by side and we support each other to the end. And if either one of us needs to lean, we’re there to hold the next person up. But it’s important to be an individual too because your own personal journey cannot be sacrificed. And we’re on this journey together, but we also have our own personal journeys. We came from different places, experienced different things.

BJ: It’s nice because we feed each other.

MK: Is there one really special moment or memory that was particularly significant or inspiring that has managed to stick with you?

BJ: I can tell you one thing that changed my life, which is the first time I saw Consuelo Atlas teach a dance class. She had just left Alvin Ailey and somebody brought me to her class. I had been doing ballet for exercise, didn’t care about it that much. And I saw her teach and my heart just fell out of my chest, and I thought, “that’s what I want to do with my life.” And I started taking class with her 8 times a week, and eventually she started me teaching. I would say that’s the biggest moment for me.

EM: Well, if we’re gonna go way back there… There are so many things that have happened in the studio in terms of connection with adult students and for me also at the high school with my teenagers, because I’ve been doing that for 33 years.

BJ: She’s been a mom.

EM: I have a million things that I could speak about; it’s really hard for me to pick one thing.

But in terms of dance, how it changed my life, it would be the person who told me I should dance when I was 19. My school had an international week and my sister and I decided to do salsa dance, because we grew up in Panama and Panama is a dancing culture where everybody does salsa. We brought our brothers and I was in my last semester of high school and the teacher there saw my sister and I dance and she came to us and said, “you need to dance.” And we were like “huh? What do you mean we need to dance?” And she’s like “you need to take dance classes, and start training.” I didn’t even know that you could be a dancer. Panama is a dancing culture but I didn’t know you could go to a studio. I had never taken a class; I had no idea that you could do that. And so she introduced me to the life I live today. And it did change my life. Like I said earlier, it helped me with all kinds of things when I needed help. But this person, Yvonne McClung is her name, is really integral in what’s happening with me today. I was 19, I’m 64 now and I’m still on that path that she opened my eyes to.

BJ: It’s interesting though, we both have the same kind of thing where we got struck by lightning and it took our lives in a different direction, like we both took a right turn.

EM: In terms of students, the connections with the adults, I mean they’re all just amazing, and we all have a communal relationship as well as individually with each person and that has been just absolutely incredible. And with the kids? To be able to be a mother without birthing has been like a gift. And I love those kids so much, they’re amazing. Just absolutely precious, and I like feeding them so that they can grow to be not just beautiful dancers, but incredible human beings.

MK: What sets ODC apart from other dance centers and other dance schools?

BJ: The openness, the willingness to embrace each other. The variety of styles that are offered. The beautiful space, the people who work here. I love being here. It’s home. We both came from Rhythm and Motion. We came on the tail of Rhythm and Motion’s exercise classes, we taught at Rhythm and Motion for 20 years, it was a wonderful experience, but it wasn’t a studio like this.

EM: It wasn’t like a major dance force.

BJ: And it’s really a pleasure to have all these different people come through and we get to teach them.

EM: What sets this apart? I mean that’s a really big question. And it is an important question. I’m going to say one of the main things that set this place apart is people’s behavior towards each other. That’s a big one. because being in the dance community, not just here but other places too, you get to experience so many things, some up, some down. But there is a consistency here of caring, loving, respecting, embracing and cherishing everybody in respect of who they are and what they’re doing that I really, really love. And I think that’s unusual in many ways. You may go to places where the experience can be good, you may have a lot of very beautiful people and stuff like that, but there are inconsistencies as well. And here, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a negative energy from anybody. Teacher, student, office worker, front desk, it’s just the positiveness of this place, it’s infectious, it’s incredible. And I wish that that was carried throughout all the dance communities everywhere because dance is difficult all by itself and I don’t think you need to have any negativity around it, it’s hard enough and I think that supporting each other, it’s really what we need to be doing.

Bayan Jamay teaches Thursday evenings at 6:45pm and Saturday afternoons at 2pm. Elvia Marta teaches on Tuesday evenings at 6:45pm and Saturday afternoons at 3:30pm. 

Tapping into the Next Generation: A Conversation with Sam Weber | By Marie Tollon

Sam Weber teaching a tap class

Sam Weber teaching a tap class

Marie Tollon: Tell us about your training and performance background.

Sam Weber: As far as my tap background, I studied with Stan Kahn at Mason-Kahn Studios, which was in the old Embassy Theater building on Market at 7th, right around the corner from the Odd Fellows building where Lines Ballet is now. They were there for 40-something years, and I started studying with him in 1960 and then they closed the studio in 1990. He was my tap teacher, but I also started studying ballet and jazz there as well. I had started tap when I was three, so I had done a lot more of that, and when I got to Mason-Kahn they wanted people to be well-rounded and to take everything, so I started to take jazz and reluctantly took ballet. Then, as I was growing up, I realized tap dance wasn’t popular at all during that time and you didn’t see it in shows; you didn’t see it anywhere. I started concentrating on jazz and ballet because I thought I would do musicals, and I did do some.

There was a company called LA Civic Light Opera that was in existence from the 50s into the 80s, and they would present shows at the Music Center in LA and at The Curran Theatre here and the show would run for 15 weeks or so between LA and here, and some of their shows even went to Broadway – I think Kismet started at Civic Light Opera. I did a couple of those musicals when I was 18 and 19, but then I got more serious about ballet, so I danced with a company called Pacific Ballet that was directed by Alan Howard. Then I went off to New York and studied and was in Joffrey II and did a little bit with San Francisco Ballet (SFB) in the early 70s. I was a founding member of Peninsula Ballet Theatre, which is still going. Finally, I was a principal dancer and Ballet Master with Sacramento Ballet for a year before getting back into tap when I joined the Jazz Tap Ensemble, which I had been watching with interest. I had been noticing this sort of resurgence of tap that was happening in the late 70s, and there was this company called the Jazz Tap Ensemble, directed by Lynn Dally and Fred Strickler with Camden Richman. There were three dancers and three jazz musicians and they were touring a lot. Michael Smuin, who directed SFB at that time, had directed the PBS special that the Jazz Tap Ensemble had done. I had done some guesting with SFB whenever they needed a tap dancer, and Michael told me that Fred was leaving the Jazz Tap Ensemble and that they were having an audition by invitation, so in 1985 I got back into tap.

MT: Were you keeping up with tap while you took this hiatus to study and pursue ballet?

SW: I was trying to keep practicing and during that time I did some things like the guesting with SFB and some other occasional little shows, and I also performed the Morton Gould Tap Dance Concerto with a few symphony orchestras around the country, like the Peninsula Symphony, the Oakland Symphony, the Trenton Symphony in New Jersey, and the San Jose Symphony. It’s a twenty-minute piece written by Morton Gould for a tap dancer and an orchestra.

MT: How would you explain the resurgence of tap?

SW: In a way it’s kind of hard to believe it ever went away. It was actually kept alive in dance studios because it was still, in America, something that everyone thought that dancers should learn even though it wasn’t being performed anywhere. It actually seems to have been [due to] some modern dancers who got interested in it because of the rhythmical element, the African-American heritage, the jazz roots and all of that, and they got a lot of the tap masters like Charles Honi Coles, Eddie Brown, Buster Brown, Chuck Green, Sandman Sims, and Steve Condos out of retirement and brought them to tap events, and eventually they started having tap festivals. The Colorado Dance Festival had the first tap festival—the Colorado Tap Festival—and their faculty included Honi Coles, Eddie Brown, Steve Condos, Keith Terry, who taught body percussion and Lynn Dally, and that was when I joined the Jazz Tap Ensemble and went there to rehearse. Who else? Gregory Hines, Jimmy Slyde.

MT: Did you stop pursuing ballet after reentering the tap world?

SW: Around the Bay Area I would still guest sometimes, like in Berkeley City Ballet’s Nutcracker or with Peninsula Ballet Theatre, but, basically I was back into tap really intensively.

MT: How did you start teaching?

SW: We didn’t do enough touring work to just make a living from that, so I started doing workshops, and the tap festival movement started to grow. I started getting invited to the tap festivals that were developing, like the Portland Tap Festival which was the next big one after Colorado, and then there was one in Boston and New York, and then I started going to Europe a lot and doing workshops in Germany, France and Holland.

MT: How has your performing practice informed your teaching?

SW: All of the things that I have been exposed to in performing have informed my teaching and the work I have developed for myself because I had a great technical foundation from my teacher. Stan Kahn was probably the best tap teacher in the world at the time. It was sort of like being a Kirov-trained ballet dancer, so I’m actually able to keep up with what’s going on in the development in the tap world because I have that foundation.

MT: What is important for you to communicate to your students?

SW: I try to look at the general field, see what is missing and try to supply that. It’s amazing to see how the level of students has risen over the last 30 years; it’s incredible. The things that I used to give in an advanced class that people would say were impossible, are now intermediate level stuff. I just try to see what elements of musicality, what elements of technique and so forth are missing.

 

MT: What is unique about ODC?

SW: The sense of community. In some other places, you come in, you teach your class and you go away, and there isn’t this feeling of belonging to something. With ODC we have meetings from time to time, we have faculty luncheons where we can get together, talk and meet and that’s really important. We talk about how we want to structure the classes and how we want to grade, divide the levels, what sort of material [we want to offer]. All the teachers who teach tap here are on the same page. It’s not just a whole bunch of different people doing different things without a coherent approach.

MT: What is something particularly memorable from your time teaching?

SW: I get to travel and I have the feeling that I’ve had an influence on tap all over the world and now I hear people referring to me and my work and passing it on and that’s just fabulous. Especially with social media I occasionally see somebody saying “I studied with Sam Weber.” I think social media has been fantastic, Facebook and YouTube, it has really changed everything.

MT: Any additional thoughts?

SW: I think what we’re doing in tap at ODC has the potential to spark interest in tap dancing in the Bay Area; that’s what I’m hoping will happen. It’s funny because San Francisco has such a vibrant dance community, but tap is a little bit behind some of the other major cities like Chicago and New York and even these little hotspots of tap, like San Antonio and Austin, because those places do festivals and they have companies. I’d like to see that happen here. For example, I do level one and two workshops, and they’re usually pretty well-attended, and then I have my advanced class, which is around 5 or 6 people. We have to raise the level, and I’m glad there’s a teen intro to tap to get more young people involved.

Sam Weber currently teaches level one and level two workshops on Mondays at 6:30pm and 7:30pm respectively and an advanced level six class at 8:30pm. He teaches a level two and level three class on Thursdays at 5:30pm and 6:30pm respectively, along with a senior tap class on Wednesdays at 1pm. 

Building a Pilates Oasis: A Conversation with Martt Lawrence | By Maya Kitayama

Martt Lawrence (right) training SF Pilates Center apprentice.

Martt Lawrence (right) training SF Pilates Center apprentice.

Maya Kitayama: Tell us about your training and performing background.

Martt Lawrence: I danced professionally with Houston Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet. I did Pilates as an injured dancer in Houston and that’s how I decided it was something that was valuable. After my injury I came back a much stronger dancer, so then leaving Cincinnati Ballet and deciding where to be and what to do, I ended up in San Francisco, dancing with some small companies doing modern dance. I danced locally with Janice Garrett and with Project Bandaloop here in San Francisco, but I had already started doing Pilates training at that time because I really wanted to bring Pilates to dancers since it had helped me so much.

I did a San Francisco certification in Pilates and eventually realized my goal of working with dancers, and I got a job teaching Pilates to the dancers of San Francisco Ballet, so I was there teaching them for 5 years – both big mat classes for the students they had during the summer and then I would work privately with the company. I had ordered specific equipment because they redid their building and they had a budget to redo their Pilates [facility]. I had continued to be active in the modern dance scene in San Francisco, I had done choreography and some work I had presented here at the ODC Theater. I had done the Pilot and other ODC programs. At some point I had heard that they were planning on building the ODC Dance Commons. I had my sights set on this as a possibility, and then when it came around and they were looking for Pilates instructors, I wrote a proposal.  I had been teaching Pilates privately throughout the city, not only at the San Francisco Ballet, but I had taught at other small Pilates studios in the Marina. I had a client that had continued to tell me he was going to give me a loan any day I wanted to open my studio, and I was really never ready, but sort of the stars aligned when I heard that ODC was opening the Commons. I wrote a proposal to Brenda [Way] and I also recertified with a different program, so in the event that she chose me, I could be really ready to be a business owner. I recertified with my now mentor-teacher in Seattle, Dorothree VandeWalle. That’s how it all happened, I applied, Brenda chose me, I had my financial support in line, and signed up for this space.

MK: Could you give a brief introduction to the SF Pilates Center?

ML: We are a classic Pilates training studio. That means that we are directly linked to the work that Joseph Pilates did. He had a lot of different students and some of them were injured and some of them were healthy dancers. Our direct lineage is this woman named Romana Kryzanowska, who just passed away last year. She had done Pilates as a dancer and mentored many other teachers. My teacher Dorothree VandeWalle studied for years with Romana, I actually studied with Romana for a little bit during my training. She was a little bit older at that point when I studied with her. So our lineage is classical Pilates, which is not as common in San Francisco. We’re a little bit of an East coast oasis of Pilates here on the West coast.

MK: What sort of style does the Pilates community in San Francisco revolve around?

ML: Generally, [San Francisco] does a little bit more rehab-based Pilates. It’s not that we don’t work with people that are injured, but we do it more for conditioning and fitness. Like I said, as I experienced it as a dancer, it’s this incredible training that gets you stronger, so that you can do more contemporary work and have the ability to be stronger in your body and prevent injuries. That’s my passion, preventing injuries and getting people stronger so they can dance healthy. That’s my focus of being here and bringing that through this classical Pilates work. I still have a very strong tie with my teacher in Seattle and I, since 2009, have been mentoring apprentices so that they are certified in the same technique. They’ve gone through the program with me, and then finished with Dorothree in Seattle. I’ve mentored now nine instructors and this year, September 2015, I’ll have my first ODC dancer who is going to certify in Pilates with me, and that’s really exciting. It really connects the whole community for me. I have been teaching several ODC dancers along the way.

MK: What do you try to communicate to your students?

ML: I like to communicate that there is structure to Pilates and it’s discipline and you get stronger through that discipline. It’s like a language, I always tell people, “you won’t get better if you don’t practice it.” Practicing Pilates can feed and help anything that you’re doing, whether you’re a professional dancer, or an athlete, or just an office worker. It helps with posture, it helps with conditioning, it helps prevent injuries for all types of people. I try to bring a lot of fun and enthusiasm into the class, because it’s hard, it’s challenging. It’s not easy work, but if you make it a little fun, then people will come back, and they also get the benefit of it.

MK: What have you learned and taken away from teaching?

ML: I have learned to bring even more ease, joy and enthusiasm into my work. As I’ve gotten more skilled at teaching, then it just becomes easier and easier to bring more joy and enthusiasm, rather than thinking about the skill. I’ve also just built a community here. It’s fun to see community expand and other people get excited about Pilates. My program where I’m mentoring apprentices has grown. This year I’ll not only have an ODC dancer [apprenticing], but I’ll also have two other apprentices. I’ve just gotten this big, strong community, not only here in San Francisco, but also connected with Seattle as well, ushering my apprentices to Seattle, and introducing them to more national contacts of this Pilates world, and it has been a really connecting process for me.

MK: What skills do you hope to pass on to apprentices besides purely Pilates technique?

ML: I train them to be people I want to work with. People that are enthusiastic about the work, inspired as I am to bring health and fitness to people and prevent injuries. It’s almost like dance, where you’re teaching people to move through the exercises and just have some fun, rather than think too much cerebrally about where their shoulders go or anything like that. Even though we do a lot of specific corrections, I’m trying to get my apprentices to move the body and correct them as they’re moving, which is a little bit of a challenge… some of the dancers like to nitpick and be detailed, which is a very good skill to have, but if you are too detailed, then the person in front of you is not moving, they’re afraid. Movement, joy, enthusiasm, fun.

MK: Do you have any memorable stories or moments that have been particularly significant or inspiring?

ML: This client who gave me the loan for my business came into the studio where I was teaching at down near the Marina. A very big, bulky jock. He reported that he had been walking by, because he lived in the neighborhood, and he thought, “what are those people doing?” [Watching us] on different pieces of equipment he had never seen. His doctor had recommended that he do Pilates, so he came in. He was so tight that he couldn’t lay on his back and bring his knees to his chest; I didn’t even know what to do. I was a young dancer and this was a challenge in front of me. He stuck to it though, he was disciplined and he stuck to it. He was really committed, and we worked together for about 8 years. I got him from not being able to pull his knees into his chest to doing some advanced work in Pilates, which was a huge leap. It took 8 years, but he was really appreciative because he understood that it was really the right thing for his back. He stopped having back problems and can prevent injuries by doing some of the mat exercises that he now knows. The most affirming thing was that he offered me the loan. He believed in me and the work so much that he wanted to keep that going in the world.

MK: What about ODC sets it apart from other dance studios and centers?

ML: The building is just incredible. When it first opened and we even had this beautiful furniture, I literally thought to myself, “whose furniture did we borrow?” I mean, I grew up in dance buildings that were old, bombed out warehouses in Massachusetts with really crappy furniture around, and barely even clean rugs or bathrooms, but we didn’t care, we were dancing. The facility here is amazing. The fact that we have all of this space and this light and all of this, it’s just a privilege to be in this building. The other thing is the community and the support in general. I reciprocate by being super supportive of the dance community. Many of my renters are dancers and performers, I go to their shows. Then on the other side of things, many of my dance teachers have come to my classes. The reason I wanted to be in the building was so I could have my life in one building, what an opportunity. I teach class for a couple hours, I go take a dance class, I have lunch, I teach again, then there have been times where I rehearse also, and perform too. Just to have the whole possibility of all that I can express be available to me in a building. I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world, for me, that has that possibility. That’s the huge, unique thing about ODC.

MK: Any other comments or thoughts to add?

ML: It’s just been a privilege to be here and grow with the organization as it’s grown, and see the dancers come, perform, leave, move on, and new dancers come. That exists while other dance companies are here performing, rehearsing. It’s just a privilege to be here.

Martt teaches a Pilates Challenge mat class on Thursday mornings at 9am, alongside working with clients and apprentices within the Pilates Center of San Francisco. Click here for more information regarding the center. 

Sharing the Healing Power of Dance: A Conversation with Jill Parker | By Maya Kitayama

Jill Parker

Jill Parker

Maya Kitayama: Tell us about your training and performance experience.

Jill Parker: I have been studying belly dance in its many different incarnations – some of that is American tribal style, some more folkloric regional style, more specific folklore styles like Saudi Arabia and all those regions from the world, classic cabaret style belly dance that is the style that comes out of Egypt, and then the sort of Americanized version. There are lots of iterations of belly dance including tribal fusion, which is largely what I teach with a really healthy dose of classic folkloric style belly dance mixed in. I still consider myself a student after 27 years. I still feel like I’m reaching further and further into this well of information that is there, and I love teaching. I really love teaching, it’s definitely my calling in all of this. I’m a pretty seasoned performer after these many years, and I love to study as I said, but really where it becomes super juicy and electric for me is when I am able to help others find their really deep connection, not only to their body and feeling good, but also an ethnic dance form that has a lot of gifts to offer; artistry, musicality, all these beautiful, creative, expressive kinds of qualities that can bring a lot of joy and healing. That’s the piece that really juices me the most.

MK: What do you try to communicate to your students?

JP: I think that if you’ve got a body and you can use it, you should. Dance is such a gift, it’s such a joy and we all deserve to feel good. I’m all about encouraging people to dance for lots of different reasons, whether that be health, self-esteem, to take it to a professional-performative level, all kinds of different reasons people might be in the classroom, and mostly to just really enjoy it.

MK: What have you taken away from your experience teaching?

JP: That reciprocal relationship of the teacher and student is a constant reminder for me of the journey I went through as a student, and just how incredibly healing this was for me around finding acceptance about my body, my body type, seeing the beauty in so many different sizes, ages, ethnicities, and just realizing that whatever I had in my head that was fed to me from Hollywood ideals about what beauty means on the billboards and the magazines, it’s a load of crap. Really, what’s beautiful is confidence and ease. For me, that was a lot of really powerful information, and I had to chew on that for a long time. In some ways maybe I’m still chewing on that, and to see that get ignited for some people in my classroom keeps it really fresh. I really want to create an environment where women aren’t measuring themselves against one another but actually are interacting in a camaraderie kind of way, while feeling really good about themselves.

MK: How were you first introduced to belly dance?

JP: It was kind of a fluke. I moved out West to San Francisco from Syracuse, New York when I was 17, so I was really young, really socially-awkward, pretty used to being the different, weird one in Syracuse, and then came here because I wanted my mind to be blown artistically and it really was. I walked into this dance class just hoping to find some other women that I could socialize with. I’d always been sort of a natural mover, I thought I should try to do something with that. I’d been an athlete my whole life, but because of social awkwardness, I’d never really taken dance seriously. I walked in there and lo-and-behold there were women of all different ages, all different ethnicities, classes, and they were all kind of freakish in their own way and beautiful and amazing and I found my tribe. I didn’t have a choice at that point, I knew I needed to unravel some self-esteem stuff, and I really wanted to learn an artform where I could express myself. The form itself was incredibly beautiful and the music was intoxicating, not to mention the costumes. I was just crazy for all the jewelry and textiles, there were so many pieces that came together, it was just this strange fluke how I landed there and it became the rest of my life.

MK: How do you approach students who are entry-level dancers?

JP: It’s difficult in one way because people come in and think, “oh it’s wiggling, that should be easy” or “I want to feel sexy, I want to look sexy” but the fact is there are so many little isolations and they’re so specific, and you have no reason to learn them in any other part of your life, and unlike a lot of forms where you can come in and kind of start doing it, there is a lot of preparation you go through before doing it. My main intention in teaching is to give people some sense of that feeling in the first and second class, even if it’s ever so briefly, so there is something to hold on to, and they keep coming for the hard stuff. I think they’re surprised at the discipline sometimes.

MK: Do you have a specific moment or memory that has inspired or stuck with you?

JP: I’m constantly amazed and touched by my students, it’s hard to isolate one, or even just a couple of stories. They’re really a huge source of inspiration for me, and it gives me a real sense of purpose being a teacher. Overall, it’s just incredibly rewarding.

MK: In your opinion, what sets ODC apart from other dance schools and centers?

JP: Their facilities are really top-notch, state-of-the-art, really dialed in and buttoned up and together, so they are really running their business in a tip-top way and trying to provide an amazing experience for their student base. They really put a lot of intention forth on creating this sense of light and air and keeping it clean, which is not easy to do with so many people moving in and out, and a lot of young people too who maybe are used to having people clean up after them. I really feel that intention here, and it feels good. It feels good to be working here and to be associated with that level of quality and intention.

Jill teaches beginning tribal belly dance classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday at 6pm, 7:45pm, and 11:30am respectively. She also teaches an intermediate/advanced tribal belly dance class on Saturdays at 1pm. 

Balancing Somatics and Classical Ballet: A Conversation with Marisa Castillo | By Maya Kitayama

Marisa Castillo

Marisa Castillo

Maya Kitayama: Tell us about your training and performance experience.

Marisa Castillo: My training might be considered a little unorthodox. I started really trying to train seriously at about age 11 or 12, that’s when I decided I really wanted to be a ballet dancer. Like a lot of people, I just went to a studio around my home. In my opinion now, it wasn’t the best training, but it also didn’t deter me, it made me really excited about ballet. After that, when I got a little bit older, I decided to train with Karen Morell who studied pedagogy at the Vaganova Academy, and I credit her with cleaning up my technique and polishing me up, demanding the precision and the clarity of technique. She was passionate about ballet but didn’t have compassion for her students. It was at this point that I decided it was time to venture to the city and that’s when I met Augusta Moore, started taking her classes and studying Feldenkrais as well. That started my somatic education. I ended up going to Columbia City Ballet and I did a season performing with them, and it was a good experience in terms of being able to perform. I wasn’t really that thrilled with the environment, but it was a good experience. After that I came home, did some other projects here and there, and then decided to go to The Ailey School. I did a year at Ailey. I loved New York, and I thought this was my chance. So I went and danced in New York. After a year of that, I came back here and Augusta asked me if I wanted to start teaching in the ballet program. I also earned my B.A. in Dance from San Francisco State University in 2014.

MK: As a Bay Area native, how would you say the dance scene has evolved?

MC: In terms of the dance scene, I’ve seen it be more experimental. There is a lot of dance theater happening. There’s a lot of innovative uses of media, of film, and of different sets on stage and how that’s used to accentuate the choreography. I see new technology emerging, like the use of video as backdrop or technology interacting with the dancers. The movement is based in contemporary and modern techniques and styles. Others that should be included are contact improv, release, site specific, hip hop and house. I think that’s just because of the culture here in San Francisco. This has allowed artists the freedom to be experimental and have the space to express unique and diverse points of view.

MK: What do you try and communicate to your students as a teacher?

MC: What I try to stress is that, as a dancer, you have to know your instrument and your instrument is your body, so knowing how it works and accessing these different places and being introduced to basic anatomy and moving from different places is really important to be able to attain the technique without being traumatized by it. It’s been kind of an experiment in the school, teaching from that point of view. When Augusta and I have spoken, she believes that a lot of people come to the somatic approach after they’ve been injured, after everything else they’ve tried isn’t working. So to be able to continue [dancing], they have to do something drastic and that takes them to the somatic modalities. But here, we’re giving it to them right off the bat, and they don’t have that experience of injury or bad habits that have haunted them. It’s amazing, the kids can grab on to that information. Especially for the ones that came from other schools and maybe were dismissed because they couldn’t do certain things and maybe thought that ballet wasn’t for them, they come here given that information, and they just blossom, they are able to keep up with the class. In that way I feel very strongly about giving them this education.

MK: How is the somatic information incorporated into your classes?

MC: That’s the balancing act that we have to do. How to keep the class moving, but still try to get this information into them. [I give] just a quick little introduction about it before class starts and then try to remind them throughout class. But it is a balancing act, I don’t want to overload them. I do give them a classical ballet class, but when I see we’re running into problems with body mechanics then I will stop and address that issue. I have also been known to bring a skeleton in class and pass out anatomy coloring pages. One summer I cut-out felt circles to represent the seven chakras for dynamic alignment. Each class we would attach one to the leotard going all the way up to the crown of the head. The kids had fun and it really helped them to get a concrete understanding of a sometimes difficult idea.

MK: What is a memorable or significant moment in your time teaching?

MC: When students express how grateful they are for me being their teacher and the notes and the cards that I get. It just really makes me realize how much it’s affected them and how they’re appreciative of it. One time I asked my class to tell me why they’re taking ballet or why they choose to dance. The responses I got were really interesting, but very true. I remember this one student said that she loved ballet because she felt that the precision and technique allowed her to be free and that she also didn’t mind being royalty at some point during the day. I thought, “yeah, all right!”

MK: What have you learned personally from teaching?

MC: It’s a whole different ball game being on the other side in the studio. There’s a lot that the ballet teacher has to do. One, organize and make a lesson plan. Two, with the younger kids, you have to be on top of them with discipline and etiquette. Three, the music, being ready to have the music right there and if you’re lucky to have a pianist, knowing how to direct the music. [Lastly], being present, giving the class what it needs in that moment and being able to really look at the students, and just really try to see what is it that they need at that moment to complete the task at hand. There’s a lot going on, I’m always amazed at just being in there and being able to conduct all this. Sometimes it feels like a miracle when it all comes together.

MK: What is something that sets ODC apart from other schools and dance centers?

MC: I think the fact that ODC values all genres of dance, it’s not one over the others. Of course it’s a modern dance company and focus, but the school strives to provide the opportunity to study the spectrum of dance and the school’s production of Uncertain Weather is proof of this mission. It is also hands down one of the best school productions around. The kids are well prepared and the choreography is perfect for these young performers. The ballet program shares this mission by adding world dance. In levels two and three it was adjacent to their ballet classes on Mondays. We’re not trying to make them into little bun heads. We really want them to experience all types of movement and to know that not one is better than the other, but that they all are valid and you need them all if you want to dance professionally.

MK: Any additional thoughts?

MC: Working at ODC has been been very rewarding for me. Augusta Moore has a beautiful and innovative vision for the ballet program. She makes every effort to provide us with opportunities and tools to add our own voices to this vision. I feel we get a lot of support, for us teaching and our ideas that we bring to the table. We get listened to and the school office staff and directors are really interested in what we have to say. Everyone here want students to succeed and work to get them on the path to accomplish those goals and dreams.

Marisa teaches within the youth program, as well as various adult ballet workshops. This fall, she will be teaching a Bridge to Advanced Beginner Ballet workshop for adults on Saturdays at 9am, as well as partner teaching with Augusta Moore, running a Monday/Wednesday Beginning Ballet workshop at 1:15 and 6:15, respectively. 

Creating a safe space to learn: A conversation with Raffaella Falchi | By Maya Kitayama

Raffaella Falchi Photo by David Yu

Raffaella Falchi
Photo by David Yu

Maya Kitayama: Can you speak about your training and performing experience?

Raffaella Falchi: I am the artistic director of Sambaxé Dance Company, which was founded in 2008. I am not only a director, but also an educator, architect, dancer, choreographer, and I have a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, and a MArch from California College of the Arts. I started studying Brazilian dance in 1996 and since then I have studied extensively with dancers and choreographers based in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, Brazil, such as Rosangela Silvestre. I’ve been teaching and performing Brazilian-inspired movement and dance in San Francisco for the past decade and I continually strive to share Brazilian culture through live music and dance. I’ve performed in several cultural performances and festivals including the Cuba Caribe Festival and Spirit of Brazil Productions. ODC actually accepted me into the Pilot 64 program in 2014, and I was able to present new works featuring live music. Right now, I’m the director of programs at Youth Art Exchange, which offers free visual and performing arts classes to San Francisco public high school students.

MK: What do you consider important to communicate to your students in class?

RF: There isn’t a right way or wrong way to dance. My dance class is a sacred and safe space for everyone to explore movement without any judgement. I want my students to let all their preconceived notions go once they walk through the dance studio door, whether it be a difficult day, negative emotions, sadness or anything else. I want them to tune into their bodies and the rhythm of the drums for the duration of the class, because I guarantee they will leave class with an elevated spirit and feeling more joyful.

MK: What have you learned personally from teaching?

RF: I have learned that it’s always important to remember what it was like to be a student and remember to teach others from that perspective. I have also learned that it is always important to constantly do a “temperature check” in the classroom to always gauge where the students are at and always be willing to change how and what you are teaching in order to meet them where they’re at and keep them engaged and challenged.

MK: Do you have a specific moment or memory from teaching that has been particularly inspiring or significant for you?

RF: One favorite moment I had was when I walked into my Friday night class at ODC feeling tired from working all day and posted in the middle of the mirror was an anonymous note written to me saying, “Dear Raffaella, Thank you for teaching us to dance. I love who I am in your class each week.” This really touched me and lifted my spirit. I will never forget that note and the countless other cards and letters I have received over the years from students recounting how therapeutic my dance class has been for them, especially for getting through hard times in their lives. I am happy to know that my class has become a source of therapy for many. I also love the moments when you watch a student have their “a-ha” moment where everything clicks for them and they stop just thinking about the dance and actually disconnect from their mind and start feeling the dance and movement. It’s truly inspiring to watch that process.

MK: What sets ODC apart from other dance communities and schools?

RF: It is a very inviting space and has a professional feel to it, as well as having a great offering of both contemporary, traditional, and global dance classes. It has a wonderful community sense and the caliber of artists are top-notch.

Raffaella teaches an intermediate Samba class at 8:30pm on Wednesday evenings, as well as a beginner/open Samba class at 6pm on Fridays. 

Paying Homage with Presence: A Conversation with Tika Morgan | By Maya Kitayama

Tika Morgan Photo by Tanya Constentine

Tika Morgan
Photo by Tanya Constentine

Maya Kitayama: Could you briefly explain your training and performance background?

Tika Morgan: I’ve been working at ODC for 5 years. I discovered ODC in its first formation. I was there when that happened at the old location on Mission between 7th and 8th. Many of the teachers that I studied with at a place called Third Wave, which is now Dance Mission, migrated over to Rhythm and Motion and are now our Global Dance Program here at ODC, of which I am super proud to be a part of. I’ve danced in many different workshops and companies -modern, Brazilian, Latin and Cuban- and travelled since I was young. I started dancing at 4, but I committed to studying the African Diaspora in my late teens, early twenties and it got progressively more intense into my late twenties. I study every year in Brazil because I believe as a teacher, it is imperative that I continue my studies. I’m really passionate about my work. I base all of my work out of a Brazilian modern technique called the Silvestre dance technique and I’m very proud that ODC has chosen to teach that technique, which is a newer form, in its house in the last 3 years. I’m really passionate about dance, I think dance can be something joyful, of course healthy, but more than anything, if you choose to go forward with it, even as a “non-professional” you can really transform your physicality, your body and mind through movement. And of course the more you give to your dance experience, the more you receive from it. In other words, the more regular people are with it, the more it will reward them. And so that’s really why I teach because I get so much from studying and I try to be a person who synthesizes the work that I’ve studied all my life into my own vocabulary that hopefully helps people to find their way.

MK: Can you talk about the classes you teach at ODC?

TM: I teach the Silvestre dance technique twice a week, and then I created a class called Reggaeton Fusion, which is like a Latin hip hop class, but it draws from its cultural roots. It brings in a lot of African-Cuban movements, even some Samba movements, some hip hop movements, and it’s fun, sassy, it’s got a lot of attitude, but it also helps people to get a sense of what informs popular dance today. It’s not just making shapes, you’re actually connecting with culture and rhythm and I try to show people how those rhythms are related and where your body needs to be held in order to express those rhythms, so that’s a really fun class and I do that here once a week.

MK: What do you try and communicate to your students in your classes?

TM: I think that I would classify myself as a demanding teacher. I feel really passionate about trying to get people to stay in the room. I think sometimes people associate dance with catharsis or escape. In my experience with dance, it’s the opposite of that. It’s really a way to be more present in the moment or present in the body. I also try to tie that in with the fact that when you’re dealing with movements that are cultural or diasporic, you owe it to that lineage to be as present as possible. And so I really try to get my students to be in the room. I want them to just forget everything else in life, focus on being in the room, hearing the rhythms, and working on themselves. And there’s something so rewarding and sacred about that, everything falls away, nothing else exists, you’re just your body, the music, and maybe the symbols of the gestures that are inherent to that particular thing you’re working on.

MK: In the reverse respect, what have you personally taken away from teaching?

TM: I feel that every day that I teach I learn something. I was mentored to teach at the age of 21 and I’m in my forties now and I’m still learning to teach. I think that as a teacher, I’m always learning how to push people past their own expectation, show them that they can do more than they think they can, but also hold space for themselves, so that they feel like they’re actually being contained in an environment that shows them where their boundaries are, where their reach is. And of course, I’m always learning about how to be socially engaged. It’s a much more sensitive and difficult job than I think people realize, especially if you’re endeavoring being a teacher that is not just showing people moves and then they’re just doing them, but if you’re really trying to show them how to find the movement in their bodies and actually progress. It’s a deep experience. I’m learning how to do that with love and care all the time. Some days are easier than others.

MK: Do you have a particular moment or memory from teaching that was inspiring or significant?

TM: I think that I’m someone that tends to live a little bit more in the moment. I’m continually astounded by the things that go on. I have to say the most touching thing for me is when someone discovers their own ability and it moves them somehow. I often experience people finding an emotional state or release and feeling relieved or touched or moved in some way. Sometimes in a gentle way, sometimes in a fiery way. But I’m always touched and amazed when people are discovering just the beauty and power that they have in their own body. So that’s something that feeds me as a teacher. You can’t control that outcome, but you can try to aspire to it. I really try to aspire to that. I think that’s what touches me the most, I mean it’s just continuous, it’s just an amazing feeling.

MK: What sets ODC apart from other dance centers and communities?

TM: I do my performance workshops here twice a year; I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to do different things twice a year. I always tell my students that out of every place that I know of in northern California, this is where they’re going to be held the most, they’re going to have the most professional experience of what it actually is to work on something and present it. I feel like ODC really creates a gorgeous, professional and reverent environment for dance of all kinds. Everything from the Rhythm and Motion program all the way up to the advanced ballet work that goes on here and then of course having so much African Diasporic dance, which is so important, especially having people like Tania Santiago and Jose Barroso and Ramon Alayo and all these incredibly talented people. It’s a place that’s known in the Bay Area for giving people what they need. Bollywood, hip hop, you’re going to find it here, and it’s going to be quality, so that’s what I love about it, I’m so proud to be a part of it, I really am. It’s extraordinary.

MK: Any other comments?

TM: I think I am just always inviting people to be open-minded about their capacity to build and evolve their dancing at any level and at any age. I believe – it may be kind of crazy- that the body has the capacity to heal and reorganize, so really the discipline of dance is mental. I just think that everyone should try.

Tika teaches two Silvestre Technique classes during the week: Thursday at 10am and Saturday at 3pm. Her personally developed Reggaeton Fusion class takes places Sundays at 1pm. 

Trusting the Process: A Conversation with Carolina Czechowska | By Maya Kitayama

Carro Czechowska in The Luminous Edge, Garrett + Moulton Productions Photo by RJ Muna

Carro Czechowska in The Luminous Edge, Garrett + Moulton Productions
Photo by RJ Muna

Maya Kitayama: Could you briefly discuss your training and performance background?

Carolina Czechowska: I’m from Stockholm, Sweden, born and raised. I went to the Royal Swedish Ballet School from age 10 to 18 and moved to the United States after graduation to attend the Boston Ballet School as an upper division student. Later on I was accepted into the Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet Program, which I did for a year. After that I moved back to Europe, danced a little bit professionally and then I actually quit dancing completely. That’s along the lines of how I found Pilates. There was a Pilates studio down the street from where I lived and I always had an idea of what Pilates was, that in retrospect was not accurate at all. We never had Pilates at school, which was very bizarre for a professional ballet school. Long story short, I finally walked into the Pilates studio and discovered a whole new world. I was certified the first time in Stockholm, at Pilates Scandinavia, and that brought me to New York—I was still not dancing at the time—to Brooke Siler’s re:AB Pilates certification program. I worked in New York for two years, with two certifications, and then I moved to San Francisco and started teaching at the Pilates Center of San Francisco/ODC and at former Dharmaspace Pilates Center. In the middle of all of this, I was encouraged to start dancing again, after a three year break. In 2011, I was offered a position with Garrett + Moulton Productions and I’ve been dancing with them ever since, amongst other projects like Tino Sehgal installations at the Berkeley Art Museum and RAWdance.

MK: What is one thing you hope to communicate to your students?

CC: Full body awareness, and that is channeled into how my students live their lives. I try to help them become mindful of how they keep themselves and their bodies throughout their day. Since I most likely only see them once a week, the rest of the time when they’re out there in the world, they need to be conscious. I want to condition students to have a functional mindset about exercising, well-being, and health.

MK: How have Pilates and teaching personally affected you?

CC: Pilates in general has dramatically changed my life, and mostly because of the awareness concept I was speaking of earlier. It helped me realign my body, stay injury free, but mentally it also made me trust the process of a method, which in itself taught me patience and overall calmness. I’m discovering more with everyday how sticking to the classical Pilates method and trusting it—because it’s so well-composed—is a formula that is sustainable.

MK: Do you notice a difference in approach between the younger and older students?

CC: It really depends on a few factors; focus, interest and maturity are the more prominent ones, but it’s hard to generalize. If you have a professional group of young dancers, their focus and their mindset can be much better than an older person who has an office job, just to use a harsh example. It really depends on the group, but I think you work with the body you have in front of you and you figure it out as you go along. It is the mind that is very important, because Pilates is very challenging and requires a lot of focus and attention.

MK: Do you have a specific moment or memory that you found particularly inspiring or noteworthy?

CC: Too many to share! I always feel very accomplished when a student tells me “I’ve had pain for many years, and now I’m pain-free.” It’s incredible when the Pilates method has affected someone’s life to the extent of them waking up every day and feeling no pain. That’s my goal, that’s what I want to do, make sure that people are as healthy as they can be, and that in itself will transform the psychological well-being; you’ll have a happier life if your body feels good.

MK: What sets ODC apart from other dance schools and centers?

CC: The atmosphere is very pleasant; it’s warm and supportive. I’ve travelled a lot; as a young ballet student I went to many summer dance programs and have seen dance centers all over the world. ODC is different, there’s a really nice energy in the building, it probably has to do with the broad variety of classes and levels, Rhythm and Motion, the ODC company, other rehearsing companies, and the school. What I like about it is that it’s not judgmental, it has a spirit of creativity and it encourages growth.

MK: Any other thoughts that we haven’t touched on?

CC: I hope that everyone coming here can see what a fantastic array of styles and classes ODC offers. Especially the younger kids. I teach Pilates mat in the school, the Dance Jam, and am very happy to share my knowledge with them. I wish I had Pilates at their age, it would have certainly changed my career and my dancing tremendously. However, it’s never too late to discover the benefits of classical Pilates and embark on this wonderful lifelong journey.

Carolina Czechowska teaches a 9am Pilates Mat Challenge class on Wednesday mornings, and she is available for private sessions and training through the SF Pilates Center. 

Movement based in Emotion: A Conversation with Elizabeth Castaneda | By Maya Kitayama

Elizabeth Castaneda

Elizabeth Castaneda

Maya Kitayama: Could you briefly explain your training and performance background?

Elizabeth Castaneda: I started in ballet when I was three. I went to a school in Austin, Texas, called Austin Dance Academy with an artistic director who was really focused on performance and student choreography. I started choreographing at a very young age, we actually had to present work on stage… I think I was nine when I presented my first work. I was with that director for nine years, and the influence was very strong, even to this day. I still reference her a lot and feel as though that creativity and movement quality are still really in my body. That’s where I received my Royal Academy of Dance training. I then moved on to Ballet Austin for a while, then moved to Spokane, Washington, where I went to a Ballet Arts academy. There I was also encouraged to choreograph a lot and did a lot of choreography with big groups of teenagers and a lot of performances. I went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle for dance for two years, and then I moved to San Francisco to join Lines Ballet School.

It was the first year of their training program, and my twin sister and I did the training program there. We kind of initiated the student choreography aspect of that program, because there wasn’t any student choreography when I arrived and I was kind of bummed, so I talked to the director about it, pulled some strings, and tried to twist people’s legs, and we ended up doing a piece there. Then I started my own company called the Fossettes, which is a Broadway dance group that has been performing in the Bay Area for 8 years or so. I started teaching at ODC about 6 years ago and before that I was running my own dance studio called Twin Space, just right around the corner from here. Actually, ODC was really affiliated and helped a lot, because they were demolishing the old ODC building—the theater building—and they were about to renovate it and I just got this space, so I talked to Kimi and she said I could take whatever I needed, which was basically everything. We pulled all of the hardwood flooring out, and we pulled all the mirrors and we took all the chairs, all the lights, all the hardware and made a dance studio, but unfortunately we lost our lease because of everything happening these days. After I lost my lease, I really started working more here with the school. I was here 5 days a week for a couple years working with the youth program and the adult Rhythm and Motion program.

MK: What is important for you to communicate to your students?

EC: I would say the most important thing is learning, understanding and integrating how human emotion is the basis of movement and that ballet is purely a vehicle for expression. I emphasize that a lot in my classes; creating a storyline for yourself or even referencing things or thinking about things that you’re going through at the time and using the physicality almost as a therapy to move through different feelings or experience them deeper. I emphasis what we call epaulement, which is how you dance with your arms and how you incline your body in order to express. In some ways it’s like physical theater; I’ve had a lot of theater background and I teach in the theater department at SOTA also and I talk a lot with them about how a human being is always looking to the other humans faces and upper body to understand where “they’re at” naturally, without knowing the person. When we do ballet, there’s all these shapes we make, but they resemble these different feelings, so I’m always trying to pull that out of them and get them more focused on the quality versus the quantity. I’m not the kind of teacher who’s trying to get perfect turnout and high legs; I don’t really care too much about that, the shape has to be right, but I think the shape actually comes from a full body integration of the feeling.

MK: Do your choreographic inclinations inform your teaching practices?

EC: This past year I’ve been experimenting with that a little bit more. I’ve been repeating the same adagio combination for two to three weeks, and I’m making those combinations more choreographic. From a dancer’s perspective, it would seem more choreographic because some things aren’t really classical at all or there might be a little contemporary in there or an unusual port de bras and the reason I do that is because I want them to work on it over and over again, kind of similar to a rehearsal in the way we workshop combinations. All the other combinations are like a normal ballet class, but that is kind of the climax of class even though it happens in the middle; it’s the longest duration of time that you spend dancing and in the center floor with no barre and it’s a lot of exertion. I use that as an opportunity for them to really pull out the qualities that I was talking about before and understand more deeply every time they do it and how they execute the movement.

MK: What have you personally gained from teaching?

EC: Teaching is a very interesting thing, it is very hard. It’s hard to be disciplined enough. In a way it’s like a one woman show every time, so there’s an adrenaline that goes along with it. In the past couple years, having the opportunity to teach here so much and having the opportunity to teach at SOTA, I really learned how to balance disciplinary aspects with my generosity. Generally, I think as a human I’m way more accommodating. In some ways that is a hinderance to a teacher; you can’t accommodate too much, because then they’re not really getting anywhere. Not a totally difficult process, but I have learned about when to put my foot down and why. Teaching at a high school has really helped me with that. Just being able to stop things before they get too far. Paying attention is really the hardest part about teaching because you’re thinking about the combination, you’re performing the combination, you’re talking about it and then you’re also having to watch everyone and watch them well enough so that you can see and be able to explain what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s like a lot of things going on, I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at that in the past couple years, here especially.

MK: Do you have a moment or memory that has been particularly inspiring or significant for you?

EC: One of the students that I had an opportunity to work with a couple years ago just won the Grand Prix, she just won the silver medal. She moved on to City Ballet a couple years ago, but before she did she was my student for a year. I got to work with her a lot and she obviously had lots of talent, but she was still growing, she was like Bambi a little bit. There was this one class where she stayed for pointe class afterwards and we were doing pique arabesque at the barre and her legs were just not working the way they should and I just did what I always do to people and gave her a little tactile information, like brushing the leg, showing the energy needs to go this way, that way, and she had a total epiphany and all of a sudden she went from not right to perfect. I think she might have even started crying because she felt it, all of a sudden felt what it was that I was trying to get out of her for several months at that point. And that was really nice because I just saw a little documentary about her on Facebook that just got posted with beautiful arabesque photos and I thought, “I was there when she realized what an arabesque really feels like!” That was a really good moment even for me to just have her reaction be so strong.

MK: What sets ODC apart from other dance centers and communities?

EC: The facility is beautiful. I haven’t been to all the studios in San Francisco, but I’ve been to a lot of them and it’s a really nice, beautiful space. The vibe here is very communal and the way they set up the design of the building itself actually facilitates community. Like Lines Ballet, beautiful building, gorgeous studios, but it’s down hallways and different levels, it’s like you’re on one floor or the other, there’s not like a commerce kind of feeling. It’s called the Commons for a reason, it’s definitely a feeling like that. It’s a really special quality that they have and I think Rhythm and Motion facilitated that as well coming in because I know I had never been to their building before, it had that fire, but I know that they’re really grassrootsy and really family-oriented, so I think the two merging together have come a long way. It feels cosy and professional.
Elizabeth teaches intermediate ballet followed by intermediate pointe on Tuesdays and Thursday, starting at 6:15pm and 7:45pm respectively.