A Sense of Awe: Ballet basics with Margot Parsons

by Dance

Margot Parsons has taught ballet for the Harvard Dance Program for more than a decade. In the past couple of years, her focus at Harvard has been beginner ballet courses. Parsons recently spoke with OFA Dance Associate Marin Orlosky Randow '07-'08 about her background and teaching philosophy as the Dance Program prepares for Spring 2011 Dance Registration. The following is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

You have spent many years dancing, choreographing, and teaching. How would you describe your background?

My background in ballet is extremely eclectic. Teachers who influenced me were from varied backgrounds and companies: Sadler’s Wells (now the Royal Ballet), American Ballet Theater, the Martha Graham Company, Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis, and Maggie Black.

When I was a young girl, my parents took me to the opera house in Chicago to see visiting ballet companies. I loved what I saw, and read everything that I could on ballet, particularly The Classic Ballet by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, and The Life of Anna Pavlova. At 14, I was invited to join American Ballet Theater, where I was also influenced by the many companies and choreographers with whom I worked.

I went to a high school that was strongly invested in the arts. I showed my first piece of choreography there as a freshman. It was a spoof on Little Red Riding Hood, with my male partner as the wolf. My friends and I would spend weekends improvising to music from classical composers in a studio surrounded by candles. Choreography was a way for all of us to express ourselves. Since that time, I have choreographed more than 100 works that have been performed in Chicago, New York and Boston. Today my company, DanceVisions, Inc., performs regularly and uses a wide range of music, including many original compositions.

How would you describe your teaching style?

My teaching style combines elements from my work in ballet and modern companies, with an emphasis on alignment and placement. Through all my years as a performer, I incurred many injuries. During college and graduate school, I studied anatomy, kinesiology and physiology to understand how the body can be made to work without risk. It is through those injuries and my studying that I gained insight on how to teach and work carefully and respectfully with the body.

I have found that an anatomical awareness of the body helps the student become more in charge of his or her own work. It is that logic that brings the artistic ingredients of coordination, music, breath, focus, and presence into the dance experience. I find the classical form has endless uses of imagery to help trigger neurological responses in the body. For me, one's entire mind and body is registered in fifth position.

What have you enjoyed most about teaching at Harvard?

I have taught at Harvard for 11 years. I love the high level of energy and focus each person brings to the class. It is a time when a curious mind--which is typical of Harvard students--can be challenged to experience a mind-body connection and to touch on a classical form whose 400-year history reflects the political, social and economic thought and history of each era. Ballet is truly an ageless art form.

What is the best part about teaching beginners?

The best part about teaching beginners is watching them get hooked on dance! Once someone gets a kinetic feeling for the connections within the body it is hard not to become a lifetime student of ballet. It is more than just the movement that grabs the individual; it is the quality of the movement that engages the entire being. No two people approach learning the same way, and no two people execute movement the same way. The individual within the form is what makes ballet a powerful tool for bringing together structure, discipline, and a sense of awe. The feeling of community in the class is another highlight.

Is there anything else you would like prospective ballet students to know about you?

I love to teach, and continually learn from the students who attend my class. I work slowly with the beginning level class with a strong emphasis on placement. Students are guided individually and collectively to make connections within the ballet form. The work is not based on how many, how fast, or how high. It is based on quality, on expressing the soul, and on achieving satisfaction.

I have taught football players, singers, poets, historians, politicians, mathematicians, modern dancers, belly dancers, fitness lovers -- and each has found a connection to ballet that has contributed positively to his or her life. And what is more exhilarating than hearing beautiful music as you move across a large and inviting studio, experiencing the freedom and joy of the beautiful art of ballet?