During my professional ballet career I was introduced to a new teacher by one of my fellow dancers. Her name – Maggie Black. She recently passed away and this brought an outpouring of reflections from her loyal, loving and ‘forever changed’ students. Her method of teaching ballet was anatomically focused and her commitment to this was the rigor that we all saw as our ticket to freedom of movement. Sometimes her way of delivering this focus was gentle, at times forceful at other times with humor. Her classes became both a social network and an intensive workshop.
Being a member of American Ballet Theater should have confirmed that I had a solid technique already, but there were times when I felt abandoned by my body. My talent clearly served as my only ‘rudder’, making me dependent upon something that I couldn’t practically call upon when things didn’t work. Maggie changed that.
Maggie helped us to look at all the habits that were not working for us. She had an acute awareness of what her dancers were doing in class and it enabled her to spot many a dancer’s inefficient habits and then provide tools to replace them with something efficient.
It went something like this at the barre: “Bette, Deborah, and Gary, (yes, she saw all of us seemingly at once) stand on your left foot, tendú back, get your pelvis UP over your leg, raise your right leg to arabesque, keep moving your pelvis UP over your leg, let go of the barre, Aha!, don’t brace to get your balance!, if you are tightening somewhere you don’t have your pelvis UP over your leg and you are bracing instead of being balanced……and so on.
Maggie’s classes were primers in awareness in action. You were learning to notice when your ‘butt was in the Hudson River’, and the less you let that happen the freer you were – you felt better, stronger, more coordinated and confident. Soon her method was called ‘Black Magic’. Lore has it that Balanchine, in his inimitable way coined the approach as many NYC ballet dancers flocked to her class instead of his.
Her magic was an attention to the means whereby, based on an awareness of “what I am doing in the moment”. Most dancers learn their craft by imitation at a young age, much like non-dancers often adopt their parent’s postural habits. Habits for good or bad are non-thinking automatic behaviors.
What Maggie understood, through her own study, was that habits can be turned around by using your brain, or just pausing and taking some time to notice. She helped all of us to achieve and maintain a stronger and more fluid technique, extending our careers and in many cases, saving them.
The wonderful thing about knowing what you are doing while you are doing it is that it doesn’t matter what you are doing! Ballroom dancing, ballet or unloading the dishwasher – it helps to be curious about your plan of action.
The gifts that Maggie passed on to me are now the gifts that I am thrilled to offer to my students.
Happy Dancing! If you know other dancers who may benefit from these tips, please forward. To sign up for my weekly blog, click here.