Backstage with William Waldinger of The Joffrey Ballet School & Broadway Dance Center
Friends, we've got a first over here this week on the Backstage Blog! I make an effort to interview a wide variety of dancers and educators in the dance community who all have different passions and perspectives, and most often, these amazing individuals are women... but today that changes! William Waldinger is a Master Teacher who can be found passing on his knowledge to dancers at The Joffrey Ballet School and Broadway Dance Center. I'm thrilled to have gotten to know him better during this interview and am super jazzed (haha, see what I did there?) to share this interview with you!
KC: What's your earliest memory of dance?
WW: My earliest memory of dance is that of seeing The Nutcracker for the first time on television. I remember where we were living, and we moved from that apartment in early December when I was six years old, so was was probably five at the time. I remember watching it on a tiny black and white portable set with rabbit ears. I was completely transfixed and I knew at that moment that THIS was what I wanted to do. When I got into the first grade, I remember being brought to the school library. There was a book there called The a Royal Book of Ballet. I checked that book out of the library and spent the week pouring over its gorgeous illustrations. I couldn't yet read well enough to actually read the book, but it was my only link to this mysterious world to which I was aching to belong.
KC: What's your background with dance? Was it love at first plie?
WW: I wasn't actually able to start my training until I was an adult and had the ability to arrange for and pay for my own classes. I had danced a little in school plays, but there was no actual training. My very first class was at Luigi's Jazz Centre when I was just shy of 26 years old. It was so much MORE than "love at first plié"; I was finally HOME.
KC: How did you get into teaching? What's your favorite thing about it?
WW: My first experience teaching was at a small studio in Brooklyn, NY. I was just starting my serious performing career and I heard through a dear friend that this little studio was looking for a ballet teacher. I figured it would be a good way to earn some extra money. As it turned out, I really enjoyed it. I taught there for one year, but then my performing schedule became too busy for me to continue. Many years later (probably about 15), a teacher at Steps on Broadway asked me to sub for him. It had never occurred to me to start teaching again. As it happened, that subbing opportunity didn't pan out. But it put the bug in my head to start teaching again...so all these years later I contacted the owner of that little school in Brooklyn and asked for a job. Within three months I was back teaching there. Although I didn't get the chance to sub that class at Steps, I did go and take that class. The teacher who was subbing ultimately recommended me to teach at CAP21 Musical Theater Conservatory in Manhattan. One thing lead to another and I landed at CORA Dance, The Manhattan Ballet School, NY Film Academy, Broadway Dance Center and the Joffrey Ballet School.
My favorite thing about teaching is being part of a chain of educators. What we do as dancers is so intimate and personal; our bodies are our instruments, our muscles contain our memories and we keep our art in a very deep place-on the inside. There is only one way to teach dance...and to really TEACH dance it must be personally passed down, in the studio, from teacher to student. Maestro Cecchetti taught Madame Nijinska who taught Luigi who taught me. Madame Vaganova taught Madame Darvash who taught me. Now my students get to be part of this chain as I take these teachings, filter them through my experience, and pass them down to my students...to the next generation of dancers.
KC: Who are your dance heroes, and why?
WW: There are so many dancers and choreographers whose work I greatly admire: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Gwen Verdon, Edward Villella, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Cynthia Gregory, Margot Fonteyn, Suzanne Farrell, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Martha Graham...and there are many more. But you specifically asked about HEROS. I have one; and that would be Luigi.
Luigi was paralyzed in a car accident in his early twenties. His doctors told him that he would never walk again and that there was nothing that could be done. He rehabilitated his broken body using exercises that he, himself created and then went on to a brilliant dancing career. Upon retiring from performing he turned these rehabilitative exercises into "The Luigi Jazz Technique", a training method that forever changed the way dancers were trained. It was this man; my teacher, my mentor and my HERO who was singularly responsible for my career and my life in dance.
KC: You write wonderful articles over on your blog, Classical Ballet and All That Jazz. One of my favorites is your blog, Dancing With Different Bodies. Do you think the dance community is getting better at accepting bodies in different shapes, ages and stages?
WW: I think that things are changing in some corners of the dance world, and not in others. I am happy to be part of the Joffrey Ballet School in NYC, where body type is not a consideration when students are auditioning for the preprofessional trainee program. There are still many programs that select their students based on body proportion, flexibility, hip rotation, etc.. The ballet world has an esthetic, an expectation of what a Ballet Dancer looks like. Some extraordinary dancers are breaking that mold...but not many. In other genres of dance (especially in modern, hip-hop and commercial dance) there is a much wider range of what is considered an "acceptable" body. Choreographers like Bill T. Jones have celebrated diverse bodies in assembling their companies and I applaud them. The "uniformity" across the company comes not from a similar body type but from a similar training, movement style and quality.
KC: That's such an important distinction to make about 'uniformity'. What's one piece of advice you'd give your younger dancer self?
WW: "DON'T EVER STOP" . And "BE CAREFUL HOW YOU DEFINE SUCCESS". If I may, I would to link an article here on the definition of success.
KC: What's one of your favorite funny or heart warming stories about teaching dance?
WW: This story does not directly involve me, but is more about one of my employers, mentors, role models and dear friends. I am very proud to have taught at this beautiful teacher's school and I must keep the name of this school anonymous (for reasons which you will soon see). This truly remarkable woman owns a beautiful, small, recreational studio. On the rare occasion that she identifies a truly talented student, she always has a conference with the parents. She explains that if this child wants a career in dance, that they must move the child to a serious pre-professional program; that a neighborhood recreational studio (even though the teaching may be excellent) does not have the resources to make a professional dancer. On one such occasion she met with a parent and suggested that the child audition for the summer intensive at one of the big famous ballet schools in NYC. A few weeks later, this studio owner received a phone call from the parent. The child was accepted into the summer intensive! Unfortunately, there was no way for this family to pay for the tuition, so the child will be returning to this lovely recreational studio for the summer. This studio owner, who could barely make her rent and payroll, wrote the tuition check for this student to attend that intensive. Not only did she send a student away (the most talented student she ever had), she PAID THE TUITION HERSELF. The following school year, this big famous school in NYC put this talented student on full scholarship and this student is now in a very famous internationally respected company. This is what it means to be a teacher. This is what it means to make a dancer.
KC: Are there any cliches or preconceptions about dance you try to correct in your teaching?
WW: Yes. I always try to make it clear that in MY OPINION, high extensions, heart stopping jumps and dizzying pirouettes do not add up to "dancing". And that carefully sculpted epaulment, head positions, eye positions and finger positions do not add up to artistry and expression. Dancing, artistry and expression come from a very deep place, on the inside. And it is up to us as teachers to find that in our students and cultivate it from the very first tendu and the very first plié.
KC: What about the dance community is currently exciting you the most?
WW: I can't believe I'm about to say this, because I'm a huge technophobe, but I'm excited about the Internet. I definitely think that Internet sensations are a problem. I definitely think that hiring dancers based on how many Instagram and YouTube followers is an even bigger problem. But the Internet has allowed me to connect with teachers and schools all over the world and has opened doors for me that I never knew existed. Without the internet my guest teaching opportunities would be severely limited. Without the internet this interview would have never happened. I just hope that I can, at my age, keep up with the technology because in many ways I feel like my career is just getting started.
KC: And now... just for funsies...
Burritos or tacos?
WW: BURRITOS...for sure
KC: Disco balls or rainbows?
WW: DISCO BALLS, I was very happy in the '70's
KC: Center Stage or Flashdance?
WW: FLASHDANCE "What a feeling"
KC: One word to describe yourself?
Thank you SO MUCH, William, for sharing your insights and experiences with me! I'll just be over here, on the other side of my computer, doing my best Jennifer Beals dance to 'What a Feeling' :)