This week, I was lucky enough to be able to take a class taught by Susan Jaffe, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, since I’ve taken class with famous dancers before, and been very disappointed by how little of their own sense of artistry they communicated to the students. Sometimes, although they are or were great dancers themselves, they were at a loss about how to really teach a student to do something that came so naturally, and beautifully, to them.
However, Susan’s class was very different from this kind of experience. The combinations were fast and quite tricky, but she didn’t focus so much on specific technical aspects of the movements, rather, she continuously asked us to work on the quality of our movements. My favorite correction she gave (and which really worked), was to project energy and movement in opposite directions through the working arm and leg in arabesque penchee, as a way in which to stretch the position fully. She demonstrated this idea, as she did all the combinations in class, modestly and precisely, without calling too much attention to her (still formidable) technique. This is perhaps what I liked most about her as a teacher—she seemed to have left her prima ballerina self behind and wholly embraced her new identity as an educator. She was encouraging, kind, and paid attention to each one of us.
I had forgotten how valuable an opportunity it is to have the chance to learn from someone who has danced and thought about it all, especially someone whose career was so long as Susan Jaffe’s. It was clear to me that she wasn’t just passing on rote knowledge she had gotten from some other teacher, but was telling us about what she had learned by listening to her own body through the years. This was especially clear when we were doing some attitude turns in the center, and she said “I find it’s easier if you lift your leg higher and shorten your attitude a little—attitude turns are hard!”. It was definitely nice to know that even someone like her has had difficulty with them, and that she wasn’t afraid to admit to having made the same mistakes that we had. It made being in her class much more comfortable, and I came away from this class with a renewed faith in master classes and famous dancers-turned-teachers.