What My Teacher Taught Me: Ariana Dickerson on Christian Claessens
March 8, 2024

I met Christian Claessens as a student at Indiana University. I spent my COVID-19 years learning from him, and I think it established our unique teacher–student relationship. During that time, his classes were on Zoom and very small. Despite the challenge, he could really zero in on those tiny squares, and give us even more attention than we might have had otherwise.

When it comes to his teaching style, Christian is very philosophical. He cares deeply about the essence of the steps. He taught us that the way you think about little tendus can transform the way you act in life, generally. Sometimes I would come to his class ready for ballet, and would leave with a completely different outlook on an unrelated part of my life. I always loved what a treat that was.

During my junior year, I was able to go back into the studio with Christian in person. One day, I remember doing adagio with an intimate class in a very tiny space. It was a tense time generally as we prepared to audition for postgraduation work, and we could all sense one another’s energy in that space. Christian stopped the music and said, “This is boring, I don’t feel anything.” Then, he talked with us about bringing the audience to us and diving deeper into what the movement should mean. After that, he restarted the music and our energy shifted. He’d moved us into the right headspace and reminded us what it really means to be a dancer. He wanted us to breathe life into the steps. “Don’t do the steps as an exercise all the time,” he would say. “Don’t just take what I gave you—turn it into something.” 

As an individual, Christian is very sweet and brings pure light to every experience. During those Zoom classes, he would always put his dog on the screen to make us happy. He’s silly and warm but knows when to cut that off to be productive. 

One of the most important things he ever taught me was to get out of my head. He had an eye for when I would shrink into my mind. He would ask, “Are you thinking too much?” One of the ways he helped me through that is by teaching me to talk to myself in my mind when I danced. It seems contradictory, but in giving myself a story, I was able to focus on the right things, just the right amount. For example, if I was going across the floor in piqué, he would encourage me to say, “Okay, I’m piqué-ing into this land of magical sweets!” It gives me the texture of the movement so I can float with the internal sound. He also encouraged me to assign sound to my steps. So, if I were doing turns, I might make the sound “Wheeee!” in my head as I did them. 

That advice has really stuck with me, and I still use it in my work with Dance Theatre of Harlem to this day. My first performance with DTH was Robert Garland’s Nyman String Quartet No. 2, at BAAND Together Festival [at Lincoln Center in 2023]. In the ballet, I needed to communicate what it’s like to be a strong, Black, confident woman. So, I talked to myself as I went onto the stage and said, “I am Ariana Dickerson, and I’m about to perform Nyman.” Just that alone set the intention for what I was about to do and kept me grounded. Later, in the second movement, when the tone shifted, I once again reset my intention for what was to come. It might not work for everyone, but it keeps me present and grounded. I’m really thankful for that trick that Christian gave me. 

I’m grateful for all the teachers who have shaped my career and my training—especially my Indiana University family. Christian, thank you so much for giving me the tools that I needed to step into being a professional dancer. 

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