Zena Rommett's Quiet Lessons
Much of who I am as a teacher is a combination of many people with whom I have come in contact. Much of what I do as a teacher is done because of the lessons I have been taught by others in my life. There are lessons I have learned from my parents, siblings, scholastic teachers, ballet teachers, theatre teachers, students, friends and even people who consider me a nemesis. All of these lessons have been put into the teacher, parent and friend I have become today.
When people ask me about my ballet training, I half teasingly tell them that I was "trained by crazy Russian ballet teachers." Notice that I say that I am only half teasing. My ballet training was quite strictly Vaganova. For those who are confused when I say this, let me explain just a bit. This is a method of teaching classical ballet that was created by Agrippina Vaganova. Ms. Vaganova was a student of Marius Petipa. Mr. Petipa is perhaps one of the most influential ballet masters and choreographers. The Vaganova method is quite exacting and great emphasis is placed on mastery before moving on to more complex forms. It is understood in this method that it takes time and repetition to build strength and mastery. It is also believed that not everyone will develop this mastery. To that end, many are directed to become choreographers or teachers instead of dancers.
This is how and by whom I was trained. This is also how I thought all teachers were and should be. When my teachers said that my body was "wrong" or my hair was "wrong" or my skin as "wrong" I took it as gospel. By virtue of being a different type of dancers (read brown) I was told often how much I needed to change. The smartest and kindest thing one of these teachers ever did to "fix my strange body" (nothing could be done about my hair or skin) was to send me to New York to take Zena Rommett's Floor-Barre® classes. I had no idea how much that one simple thing would change my entire life.
For those who do not know about this wonderful method, it is a wonderfully simple and gentle way of strengthening, realigning and changing your body and muscles. ( https://www.floor-barre.org/ ) By sending me there, not only was my body reshaped but I also learned an important lesson about myself and what it means to be a wonderful teacher.
After talking with her for a few moments, I realized that I was not only in great hands but also in the kindest hands who had ever taught me. After taking several classes, I not only learned much about my body and how it should work, but I also realized that it is beautiful. This kind genius of a woman was the first teacher who said that my hair, body and skin were NOT wrong. There were things I could improve about my alignment and how my muscles worked, but I as a person and dancer was beautiful. What a wonderful gift.
As life went on, I decided that I wanted to teach and I never forgot Ms. Zena or those she had trained to teach her method. I remembered the method, but most importantly, I remembered the kindness and complete trust she instilled in all she did. My teaching style morphed from a strict Vaganova teacher to a mash of teaching styles that were more true to who I am as a person.
Please understand that how I teach technique is quite exact. I push all I teach to do things they may have never thought they could do before. The technique of Ballet I teach is quite Vaganova, but the style is something completely different. Students know that they can come to me to learn how to dance to the best of their ability. They will not become (nor should they strive to become) the next Misty Copeland or Sergi Polunin. However I will make sure that they become the best dancer they can and love every moment they are doing it. They will have the skills needed in life to become a dancer or dance teacher should they choose but most importantly, they will have been given a mindset that will push them through every obstacle they happen to face. Teaching with this confidence and beauty comes from what I learned from Ms. Zena and her Floor-Barre® method.
It took many years to gain the self assurance to go to New York and take a Floor-Barre® Certification class. When I did go, I was shocked and yet not surprised at all. Those who were my mentors, taught in their own beautiful personality, but one thing was always the same throughout. There was a peace, calmness, care and love that they all showed to each and every student. This was the same way Ms. Zena taught. There was a lovely assuredness in each student and the method that calmed me and pushed me even harder. How had one lady influenced so many other teachers to teach not only her words but her attitude and spirit as well? The answer was there in front of me and in my soul as well. They all loved this method, this one woman and what she did for each one of them. They were simply and beautifully humble and knew that even if the method was not theirs, the technique was not theirs, even if the words were not theirs and they had no idea how or why in the world it worked it still worked. They saw it work with their students. They felt it work within their own bodies. In staying true to Ms. Zena's method and trusting in its simplicity and purity, they watched it do miracles.
These remarkable and beautiful mentors took time out of their busy lives and schedules to travel the world (literally the world) just to spread Ms. Zena's message and method...and to teach others how to teach it. There is something simple beautiful about this. I can not thank each and every one of these beautiful people enough for everything they have given me. For everything they have given the world. There is more than one way to teach and live. One way is to teach and live with anger, to teach and live knowing you are right, to teach and live with hubris and into a cookie cutter mold. The other way is to teach and with love, humility, quiet dignity, kindness and seeing the beauty in everything and everyone. Each one of these remarkable teachers has chosen to teach in this way. They have taken Ms. Zena's method and decided to teach and live in a way that gives honor to this way of teaching.
Each year, I return to relearn, reflect and renew. I reconnect with the mentors and returning students. I meet new students and learn more about Floor-Barre®. I deepen my understanding of the method as well as myself as a human and teacher. I honestly feel that Ms. Zena was a genius. I also feel that her daughter Camille is a complete genius as well. She not only has made sure her mother's legacy is still spreading, but she also is taking the time and energy to make sure that she gets to know each and every one of those who wish to teach her mother's method in an individual way. She honestly knows and cares for each student as well as those they are teaching.
Through Floor-Barre®, I have learned to become a better person and teacher. Students in all of my classes are taught the technique they need as well as the history behind what they are doing in order to answer the question of why we are doing this. It gives a gravitas to this beautiful art called dance and helps maintain the importance of putting themselves into the narrative of this art form in a proper way. My students trust that what I say will help them get where they need to be in life as well as dance. They know that to sit down in dance class is not only disrespectful to the instructor, but also to the art form, themselves and everyone else in the class as well. They understand that we are learning dance technique in order to free themselves to do choreography and perform. It may be tough to learn technique and practice it every day. Their muscles may hurt a great deal and at times they may wish to give up, but this perseverance and dedication will serve them well in the future. My students know that if they fall in class that they are not a failure. Falling and making mistakes is how we learn. They all know this and encourage one another in this belief. They see the beauty in what each dancer is doing and celebrate every success no matter how small in one another as well as within themselves.
What Ms. Zena, the mentors, the other Floor-Barre® teachers and everyone else around this method has taught me can best be seen at the end of every one of my classes. At the end of every class, we perform a reverence. This at first looks a great deal like every other ballet class until the last bow. After the last bow, students line up to receive a "squish" from me. A "squish" for me is more than just a hug. It is a full hug where we say thank you and laugh. I did not start this tradition. This happened spontaneously after I had been teaching for many years. Students started lining up to bow and stay thank you, which is a normal end of a ballet class, and suddenly the boy followed by a huge "squish" started. Now it has become a treasured and beautiful part of each class.
The teachers and mentors of Floor-Barre® are more than colleagues to me. In my heart, they are walking, moving, dancing embodiments of a brilliant woman's legacy and life of kindness, humility, honesty, brilliance and beauty. They are my Floor-Barre® family and they have all become a huge part of who I am as a person and a teacher. To each and everyone of them, thank you for helping me to grow and become. I shall see you again next summer.
Many of my ballet instructors I do not remember. The ones I do remember are the ones who left me feeling deflated and hating my own skin and body. My wish is that I can leave my students feeling the same way Ms. Zena, Camille and the entire Floor-Barre® mentorship leaves me feeling. I only hope that one day, someone can look back on me and what I have taught and say "I had this kind, tender, loving teacher with the strangest hair who taught me...."