New York Diary; (Entry the Fourth, in which Deb learns about butt kabobs and accidentally has lunch with a famous guy, but not at the same time)
Before I left for New York, lots of people asked me where I was planning to eat and shop, what shows I was going to see, which museums—that sort of thing. My answer was simply, I don’t know. This was mainly because I had no idea how much free time I would have, if any, or whether I would be swept up with others in the training who were all headed to one of those shows or museums at the end of the day.
I learned two things in short order: first, after eight consecutive hours of training, I wanted desperately to go home and pass out (but had to prop my eyelids open and study instead), and second, while I made some new friends and met many very nice people at American Ballet Theatre, the demeanor there is just not like it is here in the South. I am a friendly and effusive kind of girl. I think non-Southerners sometimes just don’t know what to do with that. It’s not that they are unfriendly, they just express friendliness differently—it’s cultural. There was no being swept up to go out with classmates after long days of training, but chiefly because we were all dog-tired.
My mouth hung open, I think, for the first few days I was at ABT. I made a futile effort not to appear like a fish out of water, but that is precisely what I was. (As one of my NYC colleagues so bluntly and correctly observed: You are working in complete isolation at Knoxville Ballet School.) Some environments exude an awe-inspiring sense of place. I felt reverence for the corridors I walked, for the studios where I took ballet classes and observed ballet classes, and for the people who were teaching me. To think of all the ballet legends—past and present—who had occupied the same space! Most of my classmates seemed not to notice. But my mantra for training at ABT was this: You are in the presence of greatness. Shut up and listen.
The “shut up” part was harder than I thought it might be, owing to Mr. Raymond Lukens, our primary instructor and a very funny man (that’s me in the picture with him, up there). So while we were learning valuable lessons in commuting the art of classical ballet to a new generation of children, we were kept in stitches. No LOL here, but eye-watering, wet-your-pants, thigh-slapping guffawing. At least I think that’s how you would describe it in the South.
Which brings me to butt kabobs. Early in our training Raymond underscored the need, time and again, to engage particular muscle groups to develop the outward rotation of the leg at the hip joint—in ballet parlance, to work the turnout. So we learned all kinds of exercises to develop this in young children. At one point Raymond asked us, Do you know what kabobs are? Skewered vegetables and meat? (What the hell?) He asked us to suck in our cheeks and imagine a skewer being passed through each of them. Then he asked where else we have cheeks. (Tittering and giggling.) Ergo, butt kabobs. So if you want your young students to engage those muscles, ask them to make butt kabobs. Can’t wait to see how that bit of imagery goes over at Knoxville Ballet School. My kids won’t likely forget it, and that is after all the point. (In the picture, a classroom full of butt kabobs, taught by the amazing and wonderful Johanna Butow.)
While Raymond inspired plenty of tittering and giggling from the front of the room, there was also a fair amount instigated by someone in the back. Time and again this particular man would stand up and contribute valuable morsels to the discussion; he was smart and also very funny. Raymond enjoyed quizzing us every day, “What is the single most important movement in classical ballet?” As a chorus, we answered, every day, “Demi-plie!” And every day, the cheeky mystery man would utter, sotto voce, Mr. Balanchine would say battement tendu. Giggle, giggle.
After a couple of days I decided to plop down next to this wise acre and eat my sack lunch, because I am a friendly and effusive Southerner. Also, this man reminded me just a tad of my irreverent sixteen-year-old, so I naturally found that appealing about him. I gathered that he once danced for American Ballet Theatre, and later New York City Ballet. Yes, he said, supplying the time line. He went on to explain that he is currently on faculty at Barnard College. Did he ever teach young children, I wondered? No, he explained, because he would just spoil them and let them get away with murder. We went on to talk about Mazurka step, which had come up earlier in the day’s lectures. I told him I liked his “Step, Kick-The-Ball” method of teaching it, and we continued about whether Mazurka can be broken down (yes, he said), or whether you should just go for it in a Zen kind of way (my thought). He never wore his name tag, like the rest of us, and it somehow never dawned on me to ask his name. We spoke about the upcoming exams and general anxiety, which he confessed to feeling himself. Hard to believe, I said.
On the final day of training, I asked the mystery man for his business card, as he explained that he would consider guesting in Tennessee some day. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he was Robert LaFosse.
Yep. I have just officially fallen off the back of a turnip truck.
Next up: how Deb brings Bad Karma on her classmates at American Ballet Theatre.
‘Til then, I remain yours truly,
Princess Hayseed Deb