How Fast Do We Make Improvement

Western New York Ballet, circa 2005.

IRONDEQUOIT, N.Y. — From across the room I can hear Emma breathing, as she stretches her leg behind her and twirls backward to the ground. Her body hits the forgiving marley floor in a gentle collapse, and for a split second, she is still.

Then she is up, and she bends once more. Watching little Emma is like watching a cat or a mermaid, a glorious and delicate creature, she is all long, lean limbs, and wide, expressive eyes. Her ballet shoes squeak as she pulls off several pirouettes — no less than triples in these parts — and the sound of her panting breath from this close a distance is the only evidence that a performance this together, this controlled, takes immense physical effort.

“Better,” says Andrea Astuto, choreographer of this dance. The contemporary piece is called “At Extinction” and 12-year-old Emma Fernandes will perform it at the Youth American Grand Prix finals in New York City this spring. “Really accent that.”

Seated beside Andrea is Jessica Odasz, founder of Odasz Dance Theatre. She is one of the most promising young ballet teachers in the nation, and one of my oldest, dearest friends. Fifteen years ago, with the hopes of becoming a professional performer, I walked into her ballet class on recommendation of a friend.

Jessica was a college freshman at the time, with a dream to teach ballet the way it was meant to be: with discipline, with focus, and with passion.

My dreams faded. But Jess’s never did. Odasz Dance Theatre won Outstanding School Award at the YAGP regional competition in Chicago this year, tying with the Joffrey Academy of Dance. Andrea won Outstanding Choreographer for the second year running. The students will perform multiple numbers at this year’s April finals in New York City, some not for the first time.

I am humbled by this generation of Odasz dancers, who are studying and performing a decade after I left my hometown and my pointe shoes behind me. The newest studio space is a gem, with mirrored walls and built-in bars, high ceilings, and natural light.

When Jessica first founded the school, we practiced out of a church basement. No mirrors, no marley floors, no sound system other than a boom box.

We didn’t have much. But we had what we needed.

At the end of today’s group class, the students in their white leotards and pink tights curtsey in front of Jessica and Andrea. This is the customary respect you are supposed to show your teachers. “Thank you,” they say.

“You’re welcome,” Jess replies. She nods as they scurry out the door.

~~~

Odasz Dance Theatre was founded on the wings of a pretty ragtag flock. While Jess could find employment teaching for other studio owners, relying her own knowledge learned from local ballet legends, she had a bigger vision: to own her own school. She pursued this dream despite the naysayers in the community — and even her own friend circle — who thought ballet wasn’t a real job, or owning your own business was too risky.

Each time she parted ways with studio owners, a few disciples followed. I was one of them.

We came from different parts of the greater Rochester area, some richer, some poorer. If ever there was an island of misfit ballerinas, this was it. None of us were particularly privileged, but all of us were dogged in our determination. Some of us talked back, some of us struggled with self-abuse. Some of us had more natural talent than the others, and all of us had our own reasons for choosing the church of Odasz Dance Theatre as our home away from home.

Jessica had rented this space a few blocks away from the shore of Lake Ontario as the first home of her eponymous dance school, the feeder to Western New York Ballet. We would train in classical ballet, perform full-length pieces, and bring life to an art form too often categorized as a cultural afterthought. To think she was still an undergrad.

The school grew in fits and starts. Students came and went. But the core of us stayed close, taking part in all the firsts that Odasz would experience. The first top ensemble awards at local competitions. The first Nutcracker. The first fundraising spaghetti dinner. The first full-length original ballet, “Vivaldi: Four Seasons.”

I was there because I wanted to dance more than anything in the world. I wrote about my desire constantly, in poems and songs and essays. The first time I ever signed up for class, as a rising eighth grader, I had a countdown calendar on my wall, crossing off the days until I was going to go train with a real ballet teacher.

Arriving home after the first day, I cried. I was so behind. My rubber-like feet wouldn’t stop sickling, I couldn’t jump to save my life. But Jess could see how badly I wanted this, and so she kept working with me, day after day, week after week, telling me where the improvement was needed.

I never really caught up. But I still loved the attempt. When it came time to choreograph, she played up my decent extension and acting abilities, designing routines that avoided my flaws and capitalized on my strengths.

~~~

Like many teenagers, I struggled to find my place and purpose in the world. But also like many others, I had a packed schedule. My days began with catching the bus at 6:45 a.m to head to school. After that, I’d have musical or play practice until 6:30 p.m. or so. My mom would pick me up, and shuttle me to the church for ballet class until 9. There was little time for ruminating.

I started working at a family friend’s restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights bussing tables. I used my tips to pay Jess, buy the $60 pointe shoes I required every few weeks, and cover exorbitant competition fees to save my parents the expense of my chosen passion. Jess picked me up for class on the weekends, drove me home when I needed rides, and I helped her teach the younger students in return.

Somewhere in the back of my mind it must have become clear to me I wasn’t going to be in the American Ballet Theater or get to Broadway or have any career in performing. But it didn’t stop me from yearning. And it didn’t stop me from showing up. This was where I belonged, at least for the present.

The busy days kept me from being home, where I ran the risk of spending too much time with myself and my troubled teenage thoughts. At the church, my anxiety channeled into something more formative, more productive. Practicing at the barre, getting lost in the exercises, I could feel the concentration like a current, traveling from my mind to my spine to my shoulders to my toes, and I was electrified.

And it was here, in the church basement, where I could no longer hide the red scratches beneath my mesh pink tights, where the hair ties on my wrists failed to hide the self-inflicted wounds on my skin. Were it not for baring my body in the required uniform, I could hide my scars, the way so many teenagers can and often do. Here, my fellow dancers could see these wounds, and from the first time, to the last time, someone was there to hold me, hug me and tell me it would be O.K. — and they ensured that I could get the help I needed.

Later, years of therapy made me realize dance class was a kind of distraction, one that drained me of the energy I would otherwise funnel into self-abuse. Ballet requires have the physical stamina and endurance of a major league athlete, the aesthetic awareness of a supermodel, and the expression instincts of an artist, all at once. Ballet is among the most difficult artistic or physical pursuits one can attempt, and its demands gave me an outlet for my masochism that did not destroy, but create.

I remember lining up in the corner for grand allegro, consisting of leaps and jumps and high-flying things, my least favorite. A heavy feeling of dread filled my stomach. I felt like I had concrete around my ankles — and according to Jess, that’s pretty much what I looked like, too. But each time I survived, gasping for breathe at the end. “Good,” I might hear from Jess at the end of my run, and that was all I needed to feel like that day, I’d done something right, or at least tried to.

~ ~ ~

Our society has an image of dance teachers as these harsh taskmasters, who yell and correct and dictate. This is not altogether wrong. I remember one particular Nutcracker rehearsal when, for the fifth of fiftieth time that day, I turned the wrong way during the Dew Drop Fairy solo midway through the (in)famous “Waltz of the Flowers.” I couldn’t get my feet moving in the right direction underneath me, and if I wanted to keep myself from getting screamed at, if I wanted to please my teacher, I had better get it together.

And God forbid you got caught talking too loud — or talking at all, especially when someone else was rehearsing! If she got really mad, you’d have to write an essay on your behavior. So as students, we learned the art of nonverbal communication, the giggles and eyerolls and shoulder shrugs that make up the language seemingly exclusive to young ballerinas.

Jess would develop these catch-phrases that cycled through every few months. “Fix your wagon,” was one for bad behavior or missed corrections, “dead fish” for poorly pointed feet was another. While we laughed, it was serious businesses — get it right or pay the price. That was another. One of my favorites was a question and answer exchange: “How fast do we make improvement?” she’d ask. We’re respond in union: “As soon as we get the correction.”

Last year at YAGP Jess won most Outstanding Teacher. I congratulated her from afar, and though I was sad I couldn’t be there with her to celebrate, I wasn’t shocked in the slightest.

“They’re like flowers,” Jess once said to me of her dancers. Like flowers, you have to water them to make them grow. You have to drench them in the sun.

Our classes were full of pep talks. Sitting in a circle around Jess, our legs crossed, and me picking at my torn-up tights, she’d hammer into our brains the importance of trying your best, of not giving up, or of keeping your mouth shut instead of talking back.

Somehow, these pep talks had a way of showing themselves in what we did on stage. My favorite piece was a contemporary group dance to “Pretty Good Year” by Tori Amos. There were six of us, I think, and we started scattered around a table, a cheap but sturdy folding table left in the church basement. We arched and reached, swayed and stretched, independently, dressed in water color chiffon. We turned together and leapt to the floor in synchronicity, and smacked the table with our palms, every inch of our bodies stretched to their limits. Getting it right felt like magic.

We won top prizes in the local competitions that year, appearing as these shadowy girls in our dark brown lipstick and 90s girl music. I felt on top of the world. This was what I was after — expression, and validation.

~~

When I went away to college, I wasn’t able to keep up with dancing. School and writing and my personal life took precedence, and I couldn’t stomach the thought of making a new dance family when I had just left my own. So I tried to come back, as often as I could but not as often as I should have, to say hi and see the new students, and the young ones growing up. I attended Jess’s first YAGP competition, where none of the dancers placed but the students were well-received by the judges. But she went back next year, and again and again and again, and here they are on the edge of yet another international finals competition.

I am full of pride, like when I see the brilliant and ferocious Laura Rich, a professional dancer in New York who came to Jess when she was just five years old, the first little baby ballerina of the bunch with exquisite turns, powerful jumps and passion for days.

I love watching these students learn, and grow, and achieve. For what else are young people supposed to do? Ballet has a mysterious reputation, and it ought to be treated with the same respect as any athletic endeavor. These students are dedicated from their toes to their hearts to their minds, the way dancers have to be, in order to achieve that blissful connection of mind, body and spirit.

At the end of this rehearsal, after Emma Fernandes has run through “At Extinction” three times, I ask Emma why she comes to dance.

“Because it inspires me,” she says. “So many things inspire me.” At night, after class, she watches ballet videos on her iPhone 6s, and thumbs through Instagram liking photos of the pros and other promising young students.

She is smiling as she speaks with me, happy to talk about her favorite subject. For a split second, I am jealous of Emma, as I remember what it feels like to love the pursuit of something greater than yourself. Then she scurries back toward Jessica, places her foot behind her, and pulls the corners of her white chiffon dance skirt to curtsy in front of Jess.

“Thank you.”

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