Monday, November 14, 2011

The Music & The Mirror

Originally published by austinwoman magazine, online edition
September 2009
by Laura Bond Williams

2011 Update: Learn more about these teachers and their current class schedule on Facebook.

The infectious bass line of George Benson’s “On Broadway” pulses through Ballet Austin’s Armstrong-Connelly Studio, a spacious, two-story glass and steel box on the ground floor of Ballet Austin’s home in downtown Austin. Natural light floods the space, its ten-foot tall mirrors reflecting midday light entering through expansive windows facing W. Third Street. Above the mirrors, another wall of glass creates a viewing gallery in the building’s second story hallway, where parents and students watch the class happening below.

It’s noon, and the studio is full for a class called “Broadway Fit.” As Benson croons about the neon lights on Broadway, instructor Rocker Verastique cheerfully walks the floor, his balletic frame weaving among the dancers as he greets them. He assists students with an extra stretch here and an adjustment there, while instructor Danny Herman calls out positions and reminders.

“Ribcage in, don’t arch, back to the floor,” he booms. Wearing track pants, running shoes and a black t-shirt on his athletic, gymnast’s frame, Herman might be mistaken for a gym rat if it weren’t for five words scrolled across his chest: Bob Fosse – A Dancin’ Man.

Drawing on their 30-year careers dancing on the Great White Way, Herman and Verastique have created a smash hit class for all ages. Adults, aspiring teens, college students, and retired professional dancers flock to their classes where they learn original Broadway choreography from musicals including The Pajama Game, A Chorus Line, West Side Story, Fosse, Chicago, Contact, and more.

Students set their schedules around class times. They commit for unique and personal reasons, but all are buoyed by the gift of respect that Herman and Verastique show every student in the room.

“When they teach, everyone’s needs are met, nobody feels inadequate,” says Nancy Crandall, who has studied with Herman and Verastique since 2006.

“Some people make a living treating dancing as exclusive,” Herman says. “I think it’s inclusive. Everybody can dance.”

A retired reading specialist and government administrator, Gay Goforth, 57, took a Herman/Verastique class during Ballet Austin’s open house (see sidebar) two years ago, and she was hooked. She says she’ll never be Broadway star but that does not stop her from performing from the heart in every class, whether she’s channeling a speakeasy-era chorus girl from Chicago or reviving Elvis in “Heartbreak Hotel.” She credits her teachers for helping her improve a style of dancing that doesn’t come naturally or easily to her.

“It’s been a revelation to me that I could stick with something that I wasn’t good at for two years, simply with the idea of getting better,” Goforth says. “It is possible to learn and get better at something you weren’t good at to start with. That’s a lesson in life.”

In these classes, adult beginners like Goforth share the floor with dancers who have made a living performing and teaching their art. Retired professional dancer and choreographer Natasha Davison says taking class with Herman and Verastique is “like coming home.” Davison, who toured with the musical CATS for six years and has shared the stage with dance legends like Gene Kelly and Liza Minelli, loves learning challenging choreography such as “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line.

Crandall, who made a living as a dance studio owner for nearly 25 years, was drawn to Broadway Fit because of her love of musical theatre. Though still teaching, she closed her own studio last year, a decision that rattled her because it was a big part of her life for so long. Becoming a student again had its own lesson, though.

“I thought that I would die without my studio,” Crandall says, “but now I know that it’s dancing that I would die without.”

For other students, Herman and Verastique allow them to fulfill their needs for recovery and renewal. As a child, Joyce Henderson* blossomed as dancer, performing in musical theatre productions and dreaming of becoming a professional. Though she majored in dance in college, she was frustrated at auditions and became convinced she’d never make it.

When she gave up her dream, it took a little piece of her with it, she says, and created a hole that she tried to fill “with all sorts of things.” In 2007, after battling depression for several years, she sought treatment for alcoholism. Sober for nearly two years, she began taking Herman’s and Verastique’s class last spring and found another way to heal her battered self-esteem. Henderson, 43, admires the gift they have for helping adults reconnect with their dancers’ souls.

“This dance thing runs deep, it's not something to be messed with,” she says. “If it's a part of you, it will always be a part of you, and when you find it again, your heart will smile and your soul will soar.”

Erika Embley, 44, rediscovered her own love affair with dance after she and her husband Michael moved to Austin in 2007.

“I love Danny and Rocker,” she says. “Their endless enthusiasm, energy and kindness -- and great humor -- make the class.”

Not long after their move to Austin, her husband’s cancer reoccurred. As his health deteriorated, she struggled to take class and balance her caregiving responsibilities. After her husband died on April 16, Embley returned to class within weeks, though bereft and heartbroken.

She admits that grieving and dancing seem incompatible, but she is hopeful that she will feel the joy of dancing again. She is considering a move back to California to be closer to family and friends, though she says, “I know for sure that because of Danny and Rocker, I stayed here as long as I have.”

Herman knows his students bring a range of experiences and emotions into the studio. After preparing their bodies with a rigorous, technical warmup, he teaches them to draw on their souls when they dance.

“I don’t care about mistakes,” he says. “We work on the intent. Because that is your foundation as a dancer. Being successful isn’t about how well you dance. It’s about putting in the effort.”

After an hour-long class, his dancers leave feeling that a little bit of Broadway is shining on them.

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