A Savior in Ballet
Like so many little girls Shelley Ismail dreamed of being a ballerina; much of her childhood was spent dancing and training in NYC. Unlike so many little girls, Shelley did in fact become a professional ballerina; dancing professionally in Europe , Montreal and New York. But Vermonters got lucky, Shelley retired here in Franklin County Vermont. And more than thirty years ago, I too got lucky; discovering Shelley’s ballet class. When I walked in the studio, I was a not so happy recent transplant, and had also taken a sabbatical from dancing. However, with no job, no friends, and a husband who started traveling the weekend we moved, a dance class was something familiar, and someplace to go.
Shelley’s class was a new experience. Varying age groups, varying abilities, and a variety of dance personalities. I was a classical modern dancer, with a childhood background in tap, and jazz. I took so many ballet classes in college, and it was a major catch up game. I also never felt like I had the right line or shape for ballet and I really hated the barre . Shelley’s class was different. There were ballerina wannabe’s, creative improv dancers, musical theater people and everything in between. She did not encourage forcing anything, she loved movement that was energized from the top of a dancers head to the tips of their toes. Shelley talked about clarity, intention and personal line. In addition, every barre made sense. The barre foreshadowed almost everything we would do in center, and the reason for the repetition was crystal clear. Shelley changed my view of ballet, it stopped being an only for one type of body type discipline and became the foundation it should have always been. And all this before we become friends; and well before Shelley became a mentor and inspiration to me. Going to Shelley’s class those long ago days, helped me learn to love dance again. I had given it up; I was tired of how bad I had felt about my body. Those classes helped me find my dance groove again, and I immersed myself in a local company and started teaching soon after. I took Shelleys class when I could, and some of my dearest friends are from those classes from so many years ago.
Jump ahead two decades, my back injured, and my husband who had spurred the move to Vermont had passed away. My dance life was pared down to teaching at SMC. Shelley perhaps seeing I was ready for a change, suggested I audition a piece( which was really a work in progress of some fall and recovery exercises), for A Chance to Dance. (Sherry Underwood, a local dancer, funded a Flynn stage performance for VT Choreographers.) Shelley was persuasive, and the next thing I knew, I was auditioning dancers, and I was frantically choreographing. I finished the piece, La Folia, an almost seven minute long tribute to Doris Humphrey’s technique of fall ,and recovery.
We were accepted into the show and the real work began. Shelley became our rehearsal coach. There was not one second of that piece that was not fine tuned. The rehearsals were exacting, sometimes grueling and exhilarating. Shelley has a way of bringing out the best in me, and the dancers.The result was spectacular, and the performance was beautiful in every way.
Shelley then encouraged me to teach a Modern Class at Spotlight. She sensed it was time for new things. And as always she was right, as my husband Don joined my life at this time, and he too encouraged more dance. Two of those La Folia dancers are in MDC today, and took that first modern class from me. And now, I have a few modern classes at Spotlight, as well as lyrical and jazz. Full circle dance life. And really all because I stepped into Shelley’s class decades ago. I still have Shelley help me with my pieces and her eye for line and spacing is incomparable. But it is so much greater than that. Shelley lives her life the way she teaches dance; with intention, generosity and energy. It is this life force she brings to the studio. She helps young dancers move as big as they can, while still keeping the intention of the movement. She has taught me that you can dance beautifully whatever your body type, and whatever the injury. Shelley has shown me that it doesn’t matter how high you can jump or put your leg in the air, it is the purity of line and attack that makes dance beautiful. It is doing a beautiful barre, with little or no tension, so you can move your body through space that same way that makes a dancer great. My favorite compliment from Shelley is "good feelings people." It reminds me that dancing should feel good, not just look good.
In two weeks, Shelley will be teaching a three hour master class on the art of teaching ballet. Using all she has learned through years of performing, teaching, yoga practice and certification (in India!), the influence of the great Maggie Black, (next weeks blog), Shelley will share her vision of ballet. I hope this will be the first of many classes teaching new generations a tension free, injury free approach to the beautiful art of ballet. I encourage all who dance seriously, teach, or choreograph to join Shelley at Spotlight Vermont on November 17th from 1pm to 4pm. For Shelley, dance is life, and her way of life is beautiful to behold.