5 Questions With Ethan Kirschbaum About the Art of Teaching
Each moment they teach is a pivot in time, where what has been experienced becomes a guiding light for experiences not yet encountered.
Teaching is everything, it’s the future and the past. Every teacher is at the nexus of two worlds, the passing world of what has already been learned, and the awakening world of what may yet be learned. Each moment they teach is a pivot in time, where what has been experienced becomes a guiding light for experiences not yet encountered.
Teaching is more than just an important part of Dance, it’s part of every process in Dance, and it’s an art that Ethan Kirschbaum has studied carefully. Besides being a teacher of dance, he is also a dancer, and his own career as a dancer is impressive and continues to flourish. Originally from Oakland, California, he was recruited to Hubbard Street 2 while still attending the Ailey School/Fordham University B.F.A. program, from which he graduated summa cum laude. His performance career has included Hubbard Street 2, The Santa Fe Opera, The Holland Dance Festival, the Donlon Dance Company in Saarbrücken, Germany, River North Dance Chicago, Lucky Plush Productions, and along the way, performances in Canada, Mexico, Holland, Germany, Israel, Switzerland, Luxembourg, France, and Russia (and the U.S. of course). But it’s when you ask him about teaching that an even wider world of insight opens up.
That’s why we asked Ethan about why he loves teaching, how he understands the art of teaching, what he hopes for in teaching, and what he’s learned about teaching dance. Here’s what he told us:
It is this huge sense of gain in something so minute that keeps dancers coming back to class.
Johnny Nevin: With your strength and experience as a dancer, and with the extent of your involvement in high profile choreographic projects, it’s especially interesting that you are so focused on dance education. It’s even more compelling when someone hears you speak on the subject, because in so many ways you approach dance education with as much of an aesthetic and artistic awareness as most people approach choreography and performance. Can you tell us a little more about the way that you see dance education as an art form?
Ethan Kirschbaum: I think anyone can agree that dance is an art form, so why should its passing from one generation to the next not also be an art form? I feel any form of education is an art form in that the teacher must be a master in communication — communicating what they know in the way that they know it, but also communicating that same information to the thousand other students who don’t assimilate information the same way the teacher does. Even though dance is considered a “universal language”, I’m constantly honing my skill to say the same thing in a thousand different ways. To me, that is where the art comes in. A dancer will do an innumerable amount of tendus over his or her career, but what keeps them coming back to that routine, mundane motion? The act of awareness and the presence of mind that this tendu feels only slightly different than yesterday’s, or last year’s. It is this huge sense of gain in something so minute that keeps dancers coming back to class. I get the same huge sense of gain when I see one of my students figure out how to do a tendu with a straight working leg as well as nail seven pirouettes.
I learned the most as a student when I was treated as a professional.
Johnny: You’ve said that when you choreograph, you think of it in terms of teaching, and when you teach, you rely very much on sharing choreography — its process and its insights — with your students. Even more remarkably, you don’t limit this to professional dancers at all, it’s an approach that you bring to all of your students. What is it about the process of choreography that you find so valuable in education?
Ethan: I was very fortunate to have fantastic teachers leading me to college as well as during my time at the Ailey/Fordham BFA in Dance program. However, I learned the most as a student when I was treated as a professional. I had the privilege to be hired by Whitney Moncrief to dance for Hubbard Street 2 halfway through my junior year of college. Taryn Kaschock Russell took over for the remainder of my career there and there was something about her non-ego driven, respectful way of dealing with all of us (the main company included) that nourished me to dance bigger than my comfort zone and beyond what I conceived of myself. I remember it was my first day meeting her and she just came up, no awkward greeting or weird handshake, just a hug, and then introduced me to her then toddler son Donovan. This woman hadn’t really seen me dance and barely knew my name, but treated me as an adult and an equal, and if I wanted to meet her expectation of being an equal, I knew I needed to work on my technique and artistry in a whole new way. It is that same mutual respect I try to bring to every class I teach; be it for pre-professional dancers or adult recreational movers.
When choreographing on pre-professional dancers, my goal is not to make the next groundbreaking piece. My goal is to challenge how quickly they can pick up movement, assimilate and maintain corrections, respect the energy of the room, be a problem solver versus a problem maker, and get comfortable “performing” in the studio, not just saving it for the stage. They can be incredible dancers but if they’re a negative part of the studio community their chances of getting hired to a concert dance company are the same as mine getting hired to an all-women’s football team.
When teaching adult recreational dancers, I literally bring tasks or choreographic tools I worked with another choreographer on that day or at some point in my career to the classroom. Especially when teaching contemporary, what is more “right now” than what I did today in a rehearsal? Whether these adults want to be dancers some day or are looking to enjoy themselves, I believe they all deserve the same amount of respect.
It is that same mutual respect I try to bring to every class I teach; be it for pre-professional dancers or adult recreational movers.
Johnny: You became a professional dancer while you were still a student, and since then you’ve been a lot of very impressive places in the dance world. With so much practical professional experience, what do you think is the importance of academics for the career of a professional dancer, and how much have you found that you use the academic side of your dance education in your work?
Ethan: With the amount of times my academic education has come back to serve my professional dance career, you’d think I wouldn’t be surprised anymore, but I still pleasantly am. I didn’t start dancing until I was ten so I had a lot of time to develop an unadulterated relationship with academics. When I did start dancing, I enjoyed the intellectual rigor required of a dancer almost more so than the physical.
I first saw the benefits of succeeding at school when I was awarded a partial financial scholarship to Fordham; a small weight I could lift from my parents’ burden of paying for my dance training. My sophomore year of college I was personally invited by Nacho Duato to attend his open audition for the then Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid, Spain. Because of my 7+ years of Spanish in high school into college, I comfortably got myself around in what was my first time in a foreign country. Junior year of college, because I took so many Advanced Placement courses in high school, I was able to test out of a lot of Pre-Requisites. It’s only because I finished all my Pre-Reqs in two and a half years that I was allowed to join Hubbard Street 2 when I did and still finish my degree on time.
More recently, the three years of choir I took in high school (or rather what I retained from it) helped me be a part of the ensemble of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of My Fair Lady. Although I wasn’t mic’d, I had to sing next people who were mic’d. Also, I was able to join the ensemble of Lucky Plush Productions for their premier of Rink Life at the Harris Theater during their Tab Show where we all had to sing and dance simultaneously without any musical accompaniment (think Pentatonix but way before they got on TV or won Grammys).
Lastly, I was able to assist Stephanie Martinez with her creation on Charlotte Ballet, a reimagining of Shakespeare, because I read and studied his plays in high school and college.
Academics matter not only in creating a well-rounded artist with a plethora of textures and knowledge to bring to a performance, but they also mattered in getting me to my career sooner and elongating it well beyond what I thought it would be.
How do I get these adults to listen to someone sometimes half their age? Treat them like adults.
Johnny: One of the most intriguing things I’ve heard you say about teaching was this about what you try to share with your students: “I look for what is specific to me that I can offer to them.” Needless to say, we would just love to hear more about that very unique insight into the art of teaching. Can you give us a little deeper look into that?
Ethan: Looking for “what is specific to me that I can offer them” started when I started teaching at my local competition studio at the age of fifteen. At that time, I could teach them all the tricks and things I had learned there (which were important but redundant) or I could start to teach them the things I was learning from my mentor Reginald Ray-Savage who let me apprentice with his jazz-based modern concert dance company. I taught what I knew; a hybrid of those two worlds.
When the late Claire Bataille took a chance on my then 24-year-old-fresh-from-Germany-self, I yet again had to think what was special about me to offer my students. I was admittedly intimidated at the thought of being on faculty at the same place as Claire, Laura Wade, or Birute; dance educators I continue to and will always respect. There was no way I could be as good as them! I didn’t have the performance career they had nor the teaching experience. Instead of trying to be the best copy of them I could be, I looked to the strengths I already possessed. I just got back from dancing in Europe, I was working with exciting and different choreographers everyday, and I had the personal experience of integrating what these Chicago teaching legends (in my book) had to say into a functioning career. My greatest asset was my inexperience and youth, so instead of trying to cover it up, I leaned into it. How do I get these adults to listen to someone sometimes half their age? Treat them like adults. I had no set structure for those early classes; I was finding my flow of exercises and pacing like I was trying to find my standing leg on a raked stage. I feel sorry for my students at the time but they taught me so much! My students continue to teach me how to be a better teacher.
The dancers at Charlotte Ballet are light hearted, hard workers — my favorite type of dancers to work with. They are a world class company …
Johnny: You’re currently in Charlotte, North Carolina, assisting Stephanie Martinez with her new work Unsex Me Here. What is that process like, especially your role in it, and what can you tell us about working with Stephanie and with the dancers of the Charlotte ballet. What about all of this is a teaching experience, and what is a learning experience?
Ethan: Being a choreographer’s assistant is a 100% learning experience for me. Being a Leo, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted to the role of choreographer’s assistant because they appeared to have a certain amount of power and authority; that they’re “in the know”. Well, having the gift of assisting Brock Clawson once and Stephanie Martinez twice (our first job together being at Nashville Ballet), I can safely say I KNOW NOTHING. Stephanie has allowed me a peak behind the curtain so to speak, and it’s incredible how different it is from what I thought it was.
First of all, a choreographer’s day doesn’t end when the dancers’ rehearsal ends; we are meeting with production, talking to wardrobe about fabrics, emailing rehearsal staff about the next days’ schedule, not to mention choreographing what comes next in the ballet. Secondly, we as people at the front of the room SEE EVERYTHING. I remember as a dancer thinking I was hiding the fact from a choreographer that I was briefly checking my phone or making a stupid comment to a coworker. Whether or not a choreographer acts on that information is up to him or her, but know that WE SEE EVERYTHING. The best yet hardest thing about being an assistant is getting to empathize with both the dancers and the choreographer, but also having to empathize with both the dancers and the choreographer. Being the bridge between two different sides of the studio is no easy task and one I hope I continue to get to practice. But I will say my experience as a teacher helps tremendously in my assisting. Logistically it makes teaching the phrases to dancers easier, but my communication skills with different types of learners, from dancers to tech crew to artistic directors (hopefully) make me a more efficient assistant.
The dancers at Charlotte Ballet are light-hearted, hard workers — my favorite type of dancers to work with. They are a world class company and if you happen to be in the Charlotte area before February 16, make sure to catch their Innovative Works program featuring the premiere of Unsex Me Here.
We also asked Ethan how people could keep up with what he’s doing and how they could contact him, and he told us —
“I can be found on Facebook under Ethan Kirschbaum, followed on Instagram @ethangaybaum, or in the flesh at Lou Conte Dance Studio every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Feel free to email me with any inquiries regarding my classes or private lessons at ERKirschbaum@gmail.com.”