A friend I’ll call Margaret teaches dance. One day I visited the school to watch a class. A narrow entrance in an old brick building led to steep stairs up to the second floor. There, a balustrade guided us down an old-fashioned hallway interrupted frequently by tall doors leading in all directions. Beyond lay a series of large and small rooms in which ballet students learned plié, jeté, arabesque, and eventually how to dance en pointe like the professionals.
Margaret’s class took place in the largest hall, a ballroom with moldings, double doors, and a raised ceiling lifting the space a dozen feet in all. Now a little worse for wear, it had been painted a plain ivory from head to toe as a neutral background for instructional purposes. It was still easy to envision how, once upon a time, it must have been dressed up for festive social occasions or perhaps somber association meetings, the sort of thing that represented culture in late Victorian times and took place in small and medium-sized towns across the country.
But on that day, it housed an elegant flock of fifteen or eighteen adolescent swans in formal ballet attire (a sign on the door warned them to be properly dressed or sit out the class). Mild flapping and a few wobbles aside, the mostly attentive high schoolers were on the whole impressive. They had the conditioning and stamina to stay in motion for the better part of two hours—arms up and out, spinning and leaning, sometimes one leg raised heavenward with a flexibility that seemed unearthly, at least from the seated viewpoint of a woman in her 50’s.
Margaret is German and well trained in the rigors of classical dance; patient and gentle by nature, she is also disciplined and persistent by culture and education. As she made her rounds among the students lined up at the bars—a long index finger silently adjusting the angle of a foot here and the level of an elbow there, or giving a brief verbal correction—I could not help but see the Old World Fräulein coming through.
As a former European myself, and a student (and later teacher) of classical music, I recognized the attention to detail: I still recall the sonorous voice of our choir conductor cutting off our hundred voices with incontestable and precise instructions such as “a little flat in the tenors there on the De-o in bar nine” or “altos, in bar sixteen, don’t all take a breath at once at the comma.”
After days of exhausting rehearsals, her quibbling sometimes seemed petty then. But was she ever actually wrong? Hardly. So I smiled appreciatively as my lanky friend glided up and down among the pliés and the arabesques, her sharp eye catching things the students missed.
Good for her, I thought. And, undoubtedly, good for them. However they felt about their teacher’s precise approach at that moment, someday soon they would thank her for it. As I had learned under the tutelage of a teacher who would not compromise on quality and artistic merit, they would come to know that anything worth doing should be done well, and that does not happen without utmost attention to detail.
Excellence lies in the little things, not in talent applied with a broad brush. Precision makes the difference between a pro and a decent amateur and is only achieved through exact aim and diligent practice. Keenly aware of that difference, Margaret will continue to keep her students on their toes.
© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.