I started dance lessons when I was 5 years old, way back in the 80’s, when white jazz shoes were in style, and dance teachers wearing long skirts walked around with a cane. My first ballet teacher, Julia Mildred Harper, used her cane to guide my arms to the correct position, tapped it on the floor to help us keep rhythm, and yes… gently poked my tush with it when I was sinking into my hips. I will never forget her silver hair tied up in a bun, and her pink lipstick glistening from the sunlight spreading into the studio through the wood paned windows. The ballet studio was attached to her home, where she would enter the room through a private door while we all tried to peek into her living room and catch a glimpse of the mystery beyond. She’d close the door behind her, and gracefully walk to the ballet barre. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s begin”.
As a young child, every inch of that room, and each nuance of Ms.Harper resonated with me, shaping my first dance experience, laying a foundation for what would become 40 years of dance and counting. I studied her subtle body language, posture, and voice intonations. She commanded our attention and respect with a simple turn of the head. She demonstrated the movement with poise and precision, describing each new element poetically. “Shine through the position, hold as if you are forming a sculpture, alive in your stillness.” And when one of us tested her limits by talking out of turn, or rolling our eyes, we were quickly sent to the corner. “Enough of that, young lady.” I recall staring down at that corner wishing I could take it back, feeling the regret as the eyes of my classmates pierced my back. I’d be sure not to do that again.
After my first few years of dance, I grew to understand the format of a typical class. Barre warm ups, Center practice, Across the floor exercises, and Reverence. I took comfort in the traditions and etiquette that were expected of me. My confidence grew as I strengthened my technique, and my personality shone through in the artistic choices that ballet offered. As years went on, Ms. Harper grew fond of me. I knew she was pleased with my ability, through her constructive critique and praise. But it was her approval of my work ethic that mattered most. She would compliment my dedication and eventually ask me to be a dance assistant, allowing me the opportunity to come into younger classes and demonstrate movement. Perhaps the time I spent in her corner was meeting its redemption.
Ms Harper gave me the foundation that led to many experiences. I went on to study with major ballet schools around the world, and graced the stage for many years as a professional ballerina. Now, as my hair is slowly changing to silver, I teach dance, laying the foundation for the next generation of dancers. I don’t teach with a cane, but have been known to fashion a skirt or two. I expect my students to uphold the standards that were set for me, and so many before me. Respect for each other, for yourself, for your teachers. Traditions and standards in dance that reach beyond the studio… manners, etiquette, and personal accountability.
Reverence is the final segment of a class, providing the instructor and students with an opportunity to express gratitude for one other. It is a simple movement of the arms, with a curtsy or bow, followed by applause. “Thank you for class”.
To this day, I still feel a little sad during reverence, a tradition I have continued in my own dance studio. As a young dancer, I knew we’d see Ms Harper disappear through her door afterwards, until the next week, and I didn’t want it to end. The music swells with melodic undertones, we perform the timeless graceful gestures, and bid farewell.
Thank you for class Ms Harper, you gave me so much. I miss you,