Now that the hectic first weeks of a new year and our February giveaways are through, I’d like to formally introduce you to Carla Escoda, the blogger and ballet instructor behind Ballet To The People, voted the Top Dance Blog of 2011.
Carla’s site is a feast for ballet-lovers everywhere. Learn more about her training and 20-year hiatus from dance, her teaching, her writing, and how she successfully battled her most severe arthritis symptoms with an active, rigorous ballet program.
DA: Tell us about your early training as a dancer. Did you train with sights on a professional career or was your focus more recreational?
Carla Escoda: My sister and I started ballet at an RAD school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Then we trained in Manila at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP) Dance School, founded by the visionary Alice Reyes, who brought modern dance to the Philippines in the 1970’s and who worked with ballet teacher Eddie Elejar to build Asia’s first world-class dance company, now known as Ballet Philippines. Alice’s brilliant choreography melded Graham technique with indigenous traditions, music and narratives, a kind of fusion has since been replicated in a few dance companies around Asia. Many dancers trained at the CCP filtered into ballet and modern dance companies around the world.
I loved ballet but was never destined for a career in the big leagues, unlike my younger sister Tina, who was truly gifted and who went to the Royal Ballet School in London and later danced with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and ABT.
I remember our first week of pointe class at CCP, when Eddie scolded us for wrapping our aching toes in lambswool; he said that true professionals would never pad their pointe shoes because then you couldn’t feel the floor properly. I think there were 10 of us girls in the class who went on pointe at the same time, and 9 of us ignored him. My sister was the 10th. I don’t think she was being stoic about the pain – she just took to pointe like she was born to it. Teachers dream about students like this.
I ended up at a government high school for the sciences — what you would call a ‘magnet’ school in the U.S. except this was a national rather than a local school — and then came to the United States where I studied Engineering and French literature at Yale. I had to choose between piano and ballet – I did not have time for both – and I chose to join the dance company, which at the time was under the artistic supervision of the Connecticut Ballet. I ended up dancing with the Yaledancers for six years. The company changes character, of course, with every new wave of Yale students, but in my time it was composed of ex-professionals from companies like Chicago Ballet, as well as students who went on to performing careers in dance companies and on Broadway.
The most illustrious member of the Yaledancers of my generation was probably Eliza Gaynor who went on to found Gaynor Minden, the innovative pointe shoe maker. I admire what she’s done tremendously, making life easier for countless dancers, opening up new possibilities for many girls who thought they were never going to be able to get on pointe.
Our company advisor and principal teacher from Connecticut Ballet, Noble Barker, was an inspiration. It was under him that I really advanced my pointework, and he spent hours with me after class one-on-one, pushing me and encouraging me, and teaching me a number of classical variations. He was the most reassuring partner, and we were a good match height-wise (he was on the short side). He would say “you may not be perfect, but you must always have STYLE, especially when falling out of a pirouette.” He had a dry sense of humour, never took himself too seriously, though he was gifted in many ways, not just as a dancer but as a teacher, mentor, director and organizer.
Sadly, he died a little over a year ago, from cancer. At the time he was Artistic Director of the New Haven Ballet, a company he had founded.
DA: After Yale, you took a 20-year ballet hiatus. What did you do during that time?
CE: While getting my graduate degree in Engineering, I was seconded to Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, where I conducted experiments in a laser lab. The main attraction that Engineering held for me was the excitement: we got to play with very powerful and expensive toys – including lasers that could vaporize stone walls. That was a time when a great deal of money was being thrown into defense-related research, during the period under Reagan known as ‘Star Wars,’ so there was a lot of opportunity for research scientists. At Livermore I got my first taste of what working in the real world of engineering would be like: there was no dance company, very little art, music and culture, and I went on dates with guys who wanted to spend the whole time talking about their lab experiments and who wouldn’t know a grand jeté en tournant if they fell out of one. I knew at that point that my days as a scientist were numbered.
When I graduated, my husband and I moved to New York, and I ended up working for an investment bank. Peter was a dancer, too, and after work he and I would take class with legendary teachers like Finis Jhung, David Howard, Igal Perry. After seven years in New York, Peter and I both took banking jobs in Asia and that is where we spent most of our professional careers.
That is also where our three daughters were born and raised. (They are now 21, 19 and 15.) I stopped dancing altogether as I had my hands full managing a full-time job with lots of international travel, and a household with three kids.
It was an exciting time to be working in Asia: multinational banks were still establishing themselves in the region, and I lived through several cycles of mergers and acquisitions, expansion and downsizing. It was also very stressful at times. There were very few women in the industry in those days – it was very much of an ‘old boys club’. Not much has changed since then, but it is marginally better now for women.
But I got to work on a number of very interesting, pioneering projects, like the financing for the first chemical waste treatment plant in the region, which addressed a huge environmental pollution problem, and the building of the new Hong Kong airport. Before I left banking, I was J.P.Morgan’s Chief Operating Officer for Investment Banking in Asia, ex-Japan.
I spent a few years after that working for a non-profit in Asia, then my husband and I moved to San Francisco.
One of our daughters had already flown the coop – she chose to go to boarding school on the East Coast, then later to university in the U.K. And just this year our second daughter left for college in New York. I am only two years away from being an empty-nester!
DA: Oh is that all? Geez, no wonder ballet took a back seat!
Did I read correctly that you’ve battled symptoms of a severe case of arthritis with ballet?
CE: At age 42, I developed osteoarthritis. It is in my family, but I was surprised to get it so young. I thought it was one of those illnesses that gradually crept up on you, as I had noticed with my mother, but it hit me very fast and hard. Pain and stiffness in all my joints, particularly my hands, feet, ankles and hips were so severe that I had to stop driving for a while; it was difficult to sit still for any stretch of time, and I could no longer stand completely straight because of the stiffness in my hips. I was told I would soon be a candidate for a double hip replacement.
Having been a dancer probably made me more conscious of, and distressed by, my rapidly growing physical limitations. Maybe non-dancers tend to more easily accept their body’s deterioration.
My doctor advised me to adopt a vigorous daily exercise program to improve my circulation and nurture the cartilage around my joints. I learned then that exercise can strengthen and replenish cartilage; previously I had thought that exercise just creates wear and tear and permanently erodes cartilage.
I embarked on a series of exercise programs that all ended tragicomically:
- My running coach fired me, told me I had the worst coordination he’d ever seen. (I didn’t know you needed to be coordinated to run.)
- I hurt my back swimming.
- I tore my rotator cuff in yoga (Downward dog to plank to upward-facing dog).
- I fell off my bike repeatedly. (Embarrassing for someone who used to toss off double – and even the occasional triple – pirouettes en pointe.)
- I enjoyed hiking but found that it aggravated the swelling in my joints.
- I liked Pilates and Gyrotonics, found them a challenge, but got bored without music and having to stare at the ceiling for so long. (They really should put TV screens up on the ceilings of Pilates and Gyro studios.)
- I took a boxing lesson. Bad idea. And I don’t look good in those shorts.
- I heard about something called Tae-Bo and rented a video. The movements were very repetitive and I got bored, though truthfully it was that terrible throbbing electronic remix music that drove me away.
- I worked out at the gym. More throbbing electronic music. Machines epically boring. Too many beefy sweaty guys, none of whom were the least bit interested in promenades, and I couldn’t convince any of them that shoulder sits are a more fun way to strengthen a man’s triceps than push-ups. Very lonely experience.
- I took pretty well to cross-country skiing but I hate the cold, and I’m certainly not going to jet around the world finding snow year round.
- I tried paragliding – and loved it! But it is not easy to make this your everyday exercise routine. And the risk of death or serious injury kind of put me off.
So you see, I was running out of options… ballet was practically the ONLY THING LEFT!
DA: At what point did you realize ballet was helping you?
CE: When I started back in ballet, I could not even manage a beginner class. I had almost no mobility in my feet and ankles, very little range of motion in my hips, and my hamstrings and back were very tight. I did my own floor barre, which I could only sustain for about 10 minutes. Then I graduated to tendus and ronds de jambe holding on to the kitchen counter.
Within 18 months I was back in Intermediate level classes, and off all my arthritis meds — I had been on continuous painkillers and anti-inflammatories up to that point. I was told hip replacement could be put off indefinitely.
My doctor was very surprised at my progress. I think I was the first patient she had seen with such dramatic improvement through exercise alone. Then again, maybe she had never had a ballet dancer for a patient.
Along with exercise, I had been told to go on an anti-inflammatory diet. I tried this off and on but I really have no willpower when it comes to diet – I love good food too much, and that includes lots of fat and sugar! But I do avoid processed food as much as possible, and I buy organic when I can. So all the benefit has come from ballet five or six days a week, and supplements including glucosamine and omega-3’s which I continue to take, but which I understand have not been scientifically proven to work.
I should make it clear that I am NOT symptom-free. At age 52, ten years after being diagnosed with arthritis, I wake up every morning with joint pain and stiffness, but it has been completely manageable for the past six years.
I have to be very careful about injury prevention, and it seems like I always have something going on (don’t all dancers?) – bursitis in my shoulder, meniscal tear in my knee, Achilles tendonitis… you name it. I keep our local sports medicine clinic in business. I try to do my P.T. regularly, I take an occasional Aleve, and have had occasional cortisone shots. I use heat and ice everyday on whichever joints are stiff.
I do Pilates (reformer only) once a week. And on days when I teach, I do not take class myself, to ease the wear and tear on my body. I try not to jump very much, though allegro has always been my favorite part of class. I almost never attempt beats anymore except on the Pilates jump board. The few times I’ve put pointe shoes on, I’ve been very conservative with my movement.
DA: You are currently teaching ballet but this isn’t your first gig as an instructor.
CE: Noble Barker encouraged me to start teaching. I would watch his classes at Connecticut Ballet, after which he would explain his thinking behind some of the exercises, and I eventually covered a few classes for him. It was a good way for a college student on a tight budget to earn a little. Noble had no formal curriculum to pass on to me, but I learned a lot from his patient, minimalist approach to teaching – he held back a lot, deliberately chose not to give a lot of corrections but the ones he did give were always vital to the mechanics of execution, rather than just aesthetic. His combinations were always very fluid, very musical without being overly ornamental.
From him, as well as from my teachers in the Philippines, from master classes with teachers like Richard Glasstone, and from my teacher training at ABT, I developed a strong distaste for the excessive, quirky ornamentation that many teachers like to throw into their combinations – they may think of it as a signature style, but I think it obscures technique.
DA: How do you approach teaching differently this time around after all you’ve been through?
CE: Today I think I bring greater empathy for the older students, and for those battling injury. This is not surprising given my experience. I try to find a way for people with limitations to participate in the movement at some level. I think I’m also tougher with the younger girls who are begging to go on pointe – I don’t want to see them set themselves up for injury later in life by starting too early.
With many students taking class only once or twice a week, I want to help them get the most out of their time in class – many of them will never actually be on stage for more than a few minutes of their lives, so I want them to feel some of the glory of performing while they’re in the studio with only their classmates and the mirror for an audience. This influences my choice of music for class as well — when I don’t have an accompanist, which I usually don’t today.
I am much more adventurous with music in class now than I was as a young college student. I go for drama as much as possible – whether it’s a Beethoven symphony, Freddie Mercury’s theatrics, Herb Alpert’s virtuoso trumpet, Dave Brubeck’s high jinks with time signatures, the soundtrack from the Twilight series, or tribal drumming.
I know many ballet teachers look on this as heresy. I do use ballet classics in every class – Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppelia, Don Q, etc. – but usually the full orchestral versions, not just piano arrangements, and I especially make sure the kids get more of this, since I think they don’t have enough exposure to classical music in general and to great ballet music in particular.
I would also like to see ballet being used more as cross-training not just for dancers in other genres, but for athletes as well. The clean, stripped-down technique that I learned to teach at ABT is well-suited for non-dancer athletes who want to increase their body awareness, core and back strength, flexibility and coordination. And because ballet focuses so much on alignment, placement, jump mechanics, correct takeoffs and landings, it can also be an excellent injury prevention regimen.
I am astonished at how many young people in America are injuring themselves in sports today; training and competition have become so much more intense and narrowly specialized at younger and younger ages, and there seems to be less cross-training and less downtime for recovery. It seems quite mad to me. As if we are training hundreds of thousands of kids for future Olympic teams, when the reality is that sports are recreational for all except a very select few. I would like to convince athletic directors at middle schools, high schools and colleges that ballet should be part of their overall athletic program for health and skill development reasons.
I have also been approached by dancers seeking counsel on how to plan for their lives after dancing.
Having been a businessperson for so many years, and having watched dancers struggle with their finances and career decisions, I am happy to offer my perspective and advice.
DA: Skills with which too few dancers enter the professional dance world, for sure!
Describe your current students and teaching environment.
CE: They’re a mix of beginners and intermediate students, mostly adults, but I have a handful of younger students as well. And I coach a few advanced students, particularly around audition time. I haven’t been teaching here very long – we only moved to the U.S. a few years ago, and as you can see from my background I’ve been distracted for the past 20 years!
My first teaching gig here in San Francisco was at a wonderful studio called Shoebox, owned and run by an inimitably talented dancer-choreographer named Cera Byer. I am still not sure what to call her style of dance – she brings several different techniques and traditions into her choreography – but I suppose a good description might be “contemporary fusion bellydance.” She attracted a passionate and eclectic tribe of dance teachers, and believed strongly in the value of ballet and modern training for bellydancers. So many of my students there were – and still are – either bellydancers or dancers from other genres.
Unfortunately Shoebox was forced to close due to conflicts with neighboring businesses (a perennial problem for urban dance studios – we hate being asked to turn our music down!)
I’m now teaching at City Dance Studios in the Mission, and at the Metronome Dance Collective in Potrero Hill.
I would love to be part of a pre-professional program that teaches the ABT National Training Curriculum, but that doesn’t exist yet in San Francisco. I hope it will one day.
DA: Ok, I want to talk more about your eclectic music choices. Which CD would you not want to teach a ballet class without?
CE: I couldn’t possibly teach ballet from ONE album alone! Though I was once challenged to teach an all-Frank Sinatra class, which I did; it was actually pretty easy to come up with a playlist as Frank covered an amazing range of musical styles in his long career, unmatched by any other vocalist that I know of.
But if you twisted my arm I would have to say Snakes & Ladders by Bay Area-based Australian Bebop Ragas, featuring didgeridu maestro Stephen Kent, touchstyle fretboard pioneer Teed Rockwell and jazz/world fusion drummer and tabla player Sameer Gupta.
It brings a wonderful energy into class, cool and stripped down but richly evocative nonetheless, a nice contrast to the flowery and dramatic orchestral ballet music we also use.
DA: A friend of Dance Advantage, Deb Young, has appeared here as a guest, writing about ABT’s National Training Curriculum program.
As a certified teacher yourself, can you tell us your thoughts on the program – what it was like to go through the program and its value to you as a teacher?
CE: I just read Deb’s piece and it hit all the high points, and the challenges, of the teacher training program.
I was most impressed by the wealth of historic knowledge and modern scientific principles that have been filtered into this curriculum.
There is nothing that seems arbitrary or artificial in the architecture of the technique, no attitude of “we do it this way because that’s how it’s been done for 300 years,” “if it worked for Vestris, it should work for you,” etc. There was always a sound anatomical or aesthetic principle behind every “rule,” and I left the program with a stronger understanding of what makes technique essentially organic.
Teachers expecting iconoclasm from this program will be disappointed. Franco De Vita and Raymond Lukens, who designed the curriculum with input from ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and dance medicine specialists, have a reverence for many of the traditions from the Italian, French and Russian schools, which are incorporated in their teachings. I am still poring through copies of two fascinating documents we were given to study: a manual of Exercices de Danse Théâtrale handwritten by Enrico Cecchetti in 1894, and an 1861 volume of Etudes Chorégraphiques by Auguste Bournonville.
The way the program is delivered is very constructive, designed to support our learning experience rather than simply challenge us. Class demonstrations reinforced what we learned during the lectures, and being obliged to get up and present enchaînements and have them critiqued by everyone else, even though nerve-wracking, was exceedingly useful. By the time we had to face the adjudicators in our oral exams at the end of each phase, we were well-prepped for the grilling that we got on how to break down and teach a particular step, and how to correct a specific fault.
Every class that I teach now, no matter at what level, and though I am still far from being an expert, I feel that I am supported by a strong scaffolding. When constructing exercises I go through the discipline taught us in the program, using the framework of progressions that we learned.
DA: I love your Manifesto, which appears on Ballet To The People’s front page.
CE: The manifesto was partly inspired by that film “Black Swan,” which I detested – I thought it was an exploitative, misinformed package of cheap thrills. And how sad that they made this B horror flick against the backdrop of one of the grandest pieces of music and choreography. However, I digress.
DA: The film certainly did get the ballet world talking… and writing! If you had to pick ONE, which statement in your Manifesto means the most to you and why?
CE:The line in the manifesto that most resonates with me is probably “no descent into madness as you struggle to wring out one more fouetté turn.”
Dance should be uplifting and liberating, and it should make you a better person – clichéd as that sounds – a more generous person. This won’t happen if you are constantly beating yourself up for not nailing that double pirouette, for yanking the girl off her balance in promenade, for looking fat in the mirror.
Teachers and ballet masters set the tone in the studio by the feedback they give, but it is up to the dancer to receive every class, every rehearsal, every performance as a gift, which they can embellish and give to their audience.
As I write this, I think of dancers like Tiler Peck, who radiate generosity in their dancing.
DA: I’m almost ashamed to say that I knew very little (if anything) about your blog before the Top Dance Blog contest. My loss, especially since your thorough essays on the inner workings and historical fascinations of ballet are just my cup of tea. But clearly, you have an active following!
When did you begin blogging? And why?
CE: I am not surprised you hadn’t heard of my blog. I only started writing last July and my audience at the time consisted of my students (about 20 of them). At first it was meant to be instructive (though not overly serious) and to showcase my students’ photos, writing and artwork. I also thought I would use it to alert dance-lovers to upcoming performances and events that might be fun and worthwhile. But as my blog posts started to be forwarded, I gained a larger and larger readership worldwide.
Many of my readers are not dancers; one of my aims is to entertain the larger community of potential theatre-goers, on whom we rely to keep the art alive.
DA: Which has so far been your favorite post to write?
CE: That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child. I don’t have one, is the right answer.
I did enjoy preparing for the tutu post – both the photo shoot and interviewing costumer Jared Aswegan – that was more complicated to orchestrate than anything I’d written before, and I was privileged to work with an extraordinarily gifted photographer, Charlie Homo.
I also enjoy my summer stints in the Thousand Islands in upstate New York, working with a community of amateur dancers with whom I improvise in this beautiful natural setting. (I admit one of the attractions is the food – our ballet-master happens to be a gourmet chef – so my posts and tweets sometimes incorporate his menus and recipes.)
DA: Where do new ideas for your posts come from?
CE: Sometimes I end up writing because I see or read something that annoys me. Like the scare-mongering New York Times article on yoga.
Inspiration also comes from the photos that my students, friends, and sometimes complete strangers send me from their travels around the world. I think it’s wonderful that people, whether professionals or students, will take ballet into the streets – Sarah in her cycling gear, or Vicki who literally stops traffic whenever she gets inspired.
And, remembering Noble’s words, I think these photos are worth posting when they show style or attitude, not just technique.
Or I find myself struggling with a step when I take class, and I find a way to weave that into a blog post.
Or a student will ask a question in class that I don’t feel I adequately addressed at the time. (In class, you know, we try to keep things moving and not deliver an entire state-of-the-union speech on the evils of pressing the gesturing foot against the knee in retiré.)
DA: I can relate to that — Dance Advantage was born from many undelivered speeches. Well, mostly undelivered — I still talk too much when teaching sometimes.
But I’m getting off the subject — I enjoy the detailed but varied way you cover ballet.
CE: Usually I start writing about one thing and I end up zigzagging around, touching on several other seemingly unrelated topics. I don’t start with a clear destination or framework in my mind. If I were in a college freshman writing class, most of my blog posts would get an “F” for forgoing traditional elements like a topic sentence, and for excessive meandering.
DA: Ah, but you get an A for drawing your numerous readers in with passionate, intelligent, and interesting storytelling. That’s why they chose you as the Top Dance Blog of 2011!
All of the images above have or will be featured at Ballet To The People. Credit for images of Carla, created for her post The Never-Ending Scandal of the Tutu go to Jared Aswegan (Head Costumer and former owner of Barbara Matera, Ltd.), Charlie Homo (photographer), Hilarie Jenkins and Caryn Wells (Wardrobe Mistresses, American Ballet Theatre), Maria Lee (hair and makeup), Veronica Sooley (stylist), Paloma Brooks and Sarah Small (dressers), Mary Sano (studio).
Illustrator, Joie Brown grew up in Atlanta, GA and has been drawing since an early age. Her undergraduate degree is a BFA in Drawing and Painting from Kennesaw State University. A few years after graduating, she moved to San Francisco to pursue an MFA in Illustration from the Academy of Art University. She has been dancing ballet for six years, and did not start until the age of 21. “I decided to start ballet as an adult because it’s something I never got the chance to do as a child, and I absolutely love it,” she exclaims. “Dance inspires my art, and my art inspires my dance. It’s a wonderful cycle.”