Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Body in Motion

Stephanie Saland in her NYCB years
You’re never too old to dance.

That’s what former New York City Ballet soloist Stephanie Saland says.
Actually, she never used that phrase in conversation with me; that's the attitude, and the reality, I saw when I sat in on a class she leads most Wednesdays at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center.

Saland shies away from calling this a ballet class, but the ten women who were there were quick to tell me that, of course, it IS ballet. They focus on ballet technique, and execute it to the best of their abilities.

All of these women are over the age of 30; a couple are over 50. Most have been part of Saland's Wednesday group for several years at the very least.
 
Stephanie Saland leads a workshop at Velocity Dance Center
I think of Stephanie Saland as a ‘dance whisperer.’ I was assigned to profile her for Dance Teacher magazine, and as soon as we met I felt a spark of recognition. Although we have led vastly different career paths, Saland is, like me, une femme d’un certain age.
(That translates into ‘middle aged woman” for those of you who don’t speak French. Actually, we have both ascended into early senior status, but that’s another story.)

Saland danced with NYCB for more than two decades. After she retired in 1993, she swore she was done with ballet. But after she moved to Seattle with a romantic partner, Saland was tapped to teach classes at the Pacific Northwest Ballet school. Although you’d think that would be a perfect fit for a Balanchine-trained ballerina, you’d be wrong.
 
George Balanchine with Stephanie Saland
Saland discovered she was less interested in traditional ballet teaching methods, and more interested in developing the skills she needed to help her students discover their inner artists. Not to say that she doesn’t understand and teach great technique, just that she’d rather help her students unleash their love of movement and self expression.

Which leads me back to the Wednesday class.

Saland started things off with a slow warm up done to music that you might hear in a yoga studio. Yes, it’s true, older bodies need more time to stretch stiff muscles. 

This class doesn’t work at the barre; Saland wants the women in the center of the room because she feels its the best way for them to work on core strength and balance.

That said, one woman spent most of the 90 minute class dancing while seated on a wooden stool. Her arms and upper body glided to the music, which Saland had switched to more traditional ballet accompaniment. Another woman steadied herself by placing her hands against the studio’s brick wall. Like their classmates, they focused intently on the combinations Saland set for her students. Everyone smiled, everyone was thrilled to be there.
 
Stephanie with student
I sat and watched from the floor in the corner of the studio. And wished I was up dancing with the rest of the women. Unlike most people who write a lot about dance, I was never a dancer. I just love the art form, so I spend a lot of time watching dancers.The last time I took ballet I wound up herniating a disk and aggravating the arthritis in my knees and hips. I was never very flexible, but grand plies after 50…in my experience not the best idea.

 Stephanie Saland’s class was the first one that made me think, oh, maybe I CAN dance, despite my age and my physical limitations.

That glimmer of possibility is something to hold onto in these short dark days at the end of this challenging year.



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