Interview with Medhi Bahiri and Judith Fugate of BalletNY
All the research about the difficulties that boys have in schools agrees on this basic point: Boys are physical and learn through active engagement. It would then make sense to look at dance training for tips on how children learn through direct physical engagement and how discipline and concentration play into it.
Dance is a supremely demanding art form and training for it begins at an early age.Teachers in regular classrooms dream of having kids with the kind of discipline and concentration that is taken for granted in the average ballet class! I continue to marvel at how disciplined children in dance are. I also continue to wonder how we can learn from dancers how to inspire discipline and perseverance in children in general.
I will be exploring these points through interviews with a number of dancers. But first, the complexities of the decision to become a dancer, training, performing, and sharing your knowledge through dance education… -- CM
Judith Fugate and Medhi Bahiri, co-artistic directors of Fugate/Bahiri BalletNY.
Medhi Bahiri grew up in Marseilles, France, and won the First Prize of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne dance competition. He was a member of Maurice Bejart's Twentieth Century Ballet and Principal Dancer with Ballet West and Boston Ballet. As Principal Guest Artist he performed internationally, partnering ballerinas such as Cynthia Gregory, Ann Marie DeAngelo, Valentina Kozlova, Cheryl Yeager, Chrisina Fagundes, and Evelyn Cisneros.
Judith Fugate trained at the School of American Ballet in New York and was Principal Ballerina with the New York City Ballet. She danced roles in virtually every ballet in the NYCB repertoire, counting among her partners Peter Martins, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Helgi Tomasson. Ms. Fugate appeared on "Live from Lincoln Center" with Ray Charles and in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "La Traviata," conducted by Placido Domingo, partnered by Fernando Bujones and Peter Boal. She works as repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust and the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust, staging these renowned choreographers’ works worldwide.
Clara Middleton: Let’s start with talking about the experience of being a male dancer with Medhi Bahiri. When did you start dance?
Medhi Bahiri: I was about 12-13 at what we called a pension school for boys in the south of France. Besides all sport activities, once a week a dance class was given by one of the teachers.
What got you interested?
MB: GIRLS! One day a dance teacher from Paris visited the school, thought I had talent, and suggested that I try a real dance school. So I was sent to Cannes at Rosella Hightower Centre de Danse. At first, for about a year or so, I would go every weekend. Then before long, I was offered a scholarship to stay full time, where I would wash dishes, clean showers, help with morning breakfast and I’m sure did other things that I’ve forgotten. But it was worth it; it was a great school with great teachers. And most important in those days, not too many boys, so the few of us who were there were surrounded and outnumbered by all those pretty girls.
How did your family and friends react to your decision to pursue dance?
MB: My family was great regarding my choice. At first they had no idea what ballet was, until Rudolph Nureyev was on TV and I said to them “that’s ballet.” They thought it was pretty and nothing more. So I said that was what I wanted to do and they said if I could make a living doing it, it was OK with them.
When I started, most of my friends had no idea because I never mentioned it. Not because I was afraid of their reaction, it just never came up. Every time we saw each other it was playing soccer as usual. Frankly, by the time I started dancing full time at the school, any friends I had were dancers.
In the US there is almost a stigma against boys training in classical dance, did you experience that? What are your thoughts on it?
MB: I never experienced any kind stigma, perhaps because I was comfortable with my masculinity and showed it in my comportment. I’m not sure why there seems to be a stigma.
Let’s talk about studying and teaching dance. Have you worked with children?
MB: A few times – not my favorite! But if it means educating them on dance, I’m willing to give it a go.
Judith Fugate: Only a few times. I have taught ballet classes to “tweens” and have staged a Jerome Robbins ballet (”Circus Polka”) twice for very young girls (ages 8-12). I think it is a special art to work with that young an age group. You really need to know how to get and maintain their attention, which can be very short spans. You have to be disciplined, but make it enjoyable at the same time – that’s tough! Patience is a virtue…
What is your experience teaching or working with girls versus boys?
MB: I think the one major difference is that girls have a little more discipline and patience, where boys have none. They want to start jumping and pirouetting before they have even learned how to do it.
JF: I’ve never really worked with young boys (except when I was a young girl!), but if they’re anything like grown men, they are usually more trouble than the females. I think that is because they are more in demand than ladies and feel they can get away with being lazy, troublesome, etc. and not risk their position in a company.
Dance is obviously a very disciplined activity, did you like that as a kid or did you hate it?
MB: Again, as a boy at first, NO, I didn’t like it. But when you are given a scholarship, you wake up fast because it could be taken away from you just as fast as it came. So at the end, yes, I did like it because it made my teachers proud that I was serious about this art form.
JF: I guess I liked it – I was always a very good student (in regular school), getting good grades, and I think that carried over into ballet studies. Of course, there were many times that I wished I could be playing or having fun rather than taking ballet class, but I think that’s normal. After I began studying at School of American Ballet in New York City (commuting in from New Jersey), I remember that my mother would ask me each year “Do you want to continue with ballet or be on the swim team?” or “Ballet or Girl Scouts?” I would always choose ballet. Guess I didn’t mind the discipline too much!
Did you ever have to force yourself to study or to perform?
MB: NO, I love it.
JF: As I matured, I really didn’t like to take class, but I knew it was necessary to improve. But I always loved to perform – that was what all those classes were for and it was such a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
If you were to explain to a bunch of kids that discipline is good for them what would you say?
MB: I would ask them what they would want to be or do when they grow up, and then tell them that no matter what the choice is, it can’t be done without some discipline and only with discipline can you achieve your goals.
JF: I guess I would tell them discipline will help them in all walks of life – business, parenting, health. I sincerely believe that the discipline I learned in ballet has been a tremendous help in everything I do. When asked by parents if they should put their son/daughter in dance class, I immediately say “yes.” Even if they never become professional dancers, they will carry so many important lessons with them. Besides discipline, they acquire co-ordination and grace, physical conditioning and an awareness of their bodies, the ability to work in a group situation, and respect for the arts in general.
How would you compare the question of discipline in training for different dance forms?
MB: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no difference; all forms of dance are difficult and command lots of discipline if you want to be good at what you’ve chosen to do.
JF: Well, I don’t have very much experience with other dance forms, but I think that if you are studying any serious dance style, whether it is modern (like Graham), classical ballet or flamenco, there is a very strong discipline structure involved. I don’t think I am alone in believing that classical ballet training is the basis for all true dance training. Just like classical music training can then move on to jazz, blues, etc. “Contemporary dance” on the other hand is to me, a free-for-all. No real training, structure or style.
Many thanks for your insights, Judith and Medhi. I am convinced that dancers – and dance itself – have a lot to teach all of us who are involved in raising and educating children in general and boys in particular. We will continue to explore this...
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