• Liz Moore

Black Magic, Shelley Magic

It never ceases to surprise me how often life come full circle. And today, I write about a life that has dances around that circle so beautifully. Last week, I wrote about Shelley Ismail and how much she has meant to me in my life. Today I will give a little of the back story of Shelley’s holistic and healthy approach to teaching, coaching and mentoring dancers of all ages.

Back in the day, Shelly was a little girl dreaming of being a dancer. Of course, those dreams came true through hard work and tenacity. Part of that hard work was getting to the studio early and watching Antony Tudor rehearse and teach older students and company members of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. One of those dancers was Maggie Black*, who was not

Shelley Ismail with Maggie Black.

only a company member but teaching teaching assistant to Mr. Tudor at Juilliard. Shelley drank in those rehearsals and was noticed by both Mr. Tudor and Ms. Black. I can so clearly this image in my imagination. A young, curly haired dancer raptly watching these professionals; seeing herself in their place. I see it so clearly because this scene is lived  out every day at our home studio, Spotlight VT. Little girls and boys, peeking their heads in the door watching the big kids dance. I try to keep an open door policy during my classes. I want my students to know that often times we are role models without even knowing it; who knows what the future might bring; the little dancer with the tiny ballet slippers or tap shoes might be in back in our lives some day. This is exactly what happened with the story of young Shelley and Maggie Black.

Their dance stories share a similar trajectory. Dancing at Lincoln center, then professionally in Europe and finding their ways back to New York. Both also found themselves frustrated with limitations and sought new ways of approaching dance. Before returning to New York , Ms. Black studies with Audrey de Vos in London. It was a different approach to ballet and became the backbone of the Black Method of teaching dance. The de Vos method worked with individual bodies, helping with alignment, injuries and complications of scoliosis in dancers. Ms. Black built on this method and realized that until a dancer could stand correctly, with weight evenly distributed and alignment in place, movement would be less aesthetically pleasing and potentially dangerous.

Once back in New York, Ms. Black ran a studio that started off small and rapidly grew into a melting pot of professional of  ballet and modern dancers such as Twyla Tharp, Kevin McKenzie( now Artistic Director of ABT) Martine Von Hamel, Gelsey Kirkland and many more. Her influence was so great that George Balanchine upon seeing the incredible  improvement in one of his own members of the Corp, (achieved outside of company class), called it Black Magic.

Shelley found herself back in New York needing a little magic of her own. She was recovering from an injury and the birth of her first child. Shelley knew she wasn’t working well, and in her own words her muscles seemed inflated and overworked.

Shelley began working with Maggie, and broke down her own technique and started again. Shelley found her own magic. She became a protege of Maggie and soon was not only taking class, but dancing for Maggie in Ms. Black’s Company. Ms. Black soon had more students than she could manage; and her trust in Shelley’s abilities was so great that soon Shelley was substituting for Maggie, and taking over extra classes. Shelley absorbed the lesson of dancing within the scope of each individual body. She moved away from the distortion of forced turnout and hips out of whack to get the leg higher. Shelley learned the beauty of a pure unforced line, and the powerful energy of a body moving in one strong piece.

This is what Shelley brings to the studio now for every class she teaches. It is a lesson for class, but also holds so many lessons for living a good life. How many times in life are we all guilty of forcing things, trying to make something work that is not quite the right fit. How many times do we want something to just look good, no matter the cost. We live in a world where we are always comparing ourselves to others, literally looking to be liked. Sometimes that striving becomes so negative that we hurt ourselves physically or emotionally.

Shelley’s approach to ballet is a wonderful approach to life: Come, and be present in the studio. Do your absolute best each time you practice, but don’t go beyond what your body can do. Don’t mistake dance tricks and showiness with a strong foundation that will serve you for years. Send your energy out to the universe. Pull up, simply lengthen; don’t tense up and tighten. Relax and breathe. Stand on two legs, and move strongly, in one piece, with attack and conviction. And when nothing is working, let go of pride and start again. Go back to beginning and open yourself up to a new way of being. Maggie Black revolutionized teaching ballet, and Shelley Ismail has nurtured Ms. Black’s teachings and added a spiritual side to the technique. She has taken the Black magic and created Shelley magic. She has created an atmosphere where every body type is welcomed and encouraged to dance. Shelley’s world is an honest world; a compliment means everything and a correction a gift. We are all so lucky to have Shelley as a teacher and mentor. She has so much to offer us in the studio and out.

I cannot emphasize enough the opportunity for a Shelley Ismail Master Class that is given to us on Sunday, November 17 at Spotlight Vermont, from 1pm - 4pm.  It is not just a ballet master class, it is a master class for life.

Come join us and experience Shelley Magic.


Shelley Ismail teaching a group of girls en pointe in a recent class at Spotlight Vermont.

© 2019 Moore Dance Company