Practicing *Other* Things

by Jenna Pollack, 4th-year dancer

Do you remember being told, “Oh dear, if you keep crossing your eyes like that they are going to stay that way”?  Though I must defend funny face-making and the great GIFs they become, I do try to keep my own to a minimum.  Why?  Because the underlying, hard truth behind your Grandmother’s scare tactic is that habits stick.  I believe that the same rule applies in the studio: if you glue your eyes to the ballet mirror- or the script, or the score- they will stay that way.  Well, not your eyes per se, but the intention behind them.   And, contrary to popular belief, in order to reach your artistic potential you must stop practicing once in a while . . . and practice other things.

I have found teaching to be one of many excellent outlets for this. While everyone at Juilliard works hard to get better, The Office of Educational Outreach provides opportunities for students to work hard at bettering the lives of others.  I’ve found this to be one of the school’s secrets to making some of the world’s most talented performing artists. And not only does the teaching fellowship give me crucial skills to better market myself upon graduation, but the stipend lets me take out much smaller student loans.

On Saturday mornings I join one of my dancer classmates to The Children’s Storefront in East Harlem.  We arrive to a handful of the most adorable fourth and fifth graders, and for two hours we lead them through ‘dance class’.  But they aren’t like Juilliard classes. While certainly used, we keep codified French terms to minimum.  We explore new physical coordinations, play games, improvise, and create movement together.  We go across the floor improvising what it feels like to be different animals and different seasons.  We speak complete conversations to each other with our own created movement vocabulary, like the South African gumboot dancers.  We talk about the idea of ‘theme and variations’ and, after watching George Balanchine’s version, ask them to create their own contemporary remix. We watch Beyoncé’s ‘Countdown’ music video and learn the real Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker choreography. We ask the students to work together to generate movement phrases that are put together for a performance for their friends and family.  And week after week, I learn what it means to be a successful dancer from these students.

At the end of last semester one of our students asked about the upcoming winter break:

“So when do we come back to dance class?”

“After the holidays, in January!” I replied.

“What about when school ends in the spring?” her voice a near shrill.

“Well, dance class will go on a summer vacation with school.”

“Ugh, NO!  I want dance class to go on forever!”

I share this not to toot our horn, but to illustrate just how much a weekend activity- whether it be dance or basketball or a music lesson- is a vital outlet for young minds, and especially those targeted by Juilliard’s outreach programs.  They are so important in developing one’s identity, and with different standards from the regular classroom. Extracurriculars refresh what it means to learn and, more importantly, to be successful.

Dance class, as with most extracurricular activities, is a way for our students to express themselves, to push their own boundaries in a safe space, to try out new skins and voices.  Our students make important discoveries about themselves as their confidence grows with exercises big and small.

One of my favorite moments these past two years as a Children’s Storefront teacher was at a student performance last semester.  The father of a girl named Chyna had just returned from prison. He had been locked up for almost the entirety of his daughter’s life.  Chyna was still on cloud nine from his arrival the week before, and performed the best I’ve ever seen her dance knowing he was in the audience.  She has always had a phenomenal work ethic and attitude, and I am so happy that her father could be there to witness her success.  I am deeply moved to think how important of a moment that was for their relationship, and I love seeing him pick Chyna up from class every week now.

For me, teaching these students also solidifies what I (think I) know about dance.  I am re-inspired when they make their “different music can change the same dance!” epiphanies.  I am reminded of the importance of patience when a girl builds coordination to turn in the matter of a few weeks.  I am grateful for our diverse individuality when I give the boys their own steps.  And so I’ve begun to build better habits, habits of character, that I can bring back to the practice room.

Before coming to Juilliard I already knew that the arts were wildly underestimated as a crucial part of a child’s development.  But what I’ve learned since is that teaching them is also wildly underestimated as a crucial part of an artist’s development.

Take alumnus Adam Driver from HBO’s hit series Girls who, in addition to being a total rock star, co-founded Arts in the Armed Forces while at Juilliard.  In an interview last month with the Juilliard Journal Adam talked about the compatibility of his school work with his nonprofit organization: “In a way, it’s [entrepreneurship] the most gratifying thing to work on because not only is it beneficial to have a project where the focus isn’t about you, but it’s also about using the craft as a service. As an actor, there’s nothing that sucks more than feeling that what you’re doing is irrelevant, and I feel like I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a lot of projects that seem very relevant and active and have a point of view and that reminded me that it’s a service.”

So though you don’t have to believe me, you should definitely believe Adam Driver.  I mean, just look at his goofy face.